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5. Before I grasped the significance of the affair, the Strathmore's guns split the dusk with a startling crack

From the Derby Telegraph, Friday 29 May 2009 www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk
THE CONVOY steamed on until, on a clear, bright morning we sighted Sicily and Etna, towering white in the distance. Somewhere beyond this calm beauty was battle, with its filth and misery.

A line of ships broke from the convoy and, with signal flags fluttering a farewell, steamed off with their supplies of men and munitions for the Italian front.

Battered Malta, with her sores still open to the Mediterranean Sea, was on the horizon as we passed and headed for Suez.

The sun was warm enough now for us to laze on the open deck – that is if we were lucky enough to find an open space.

The Mediterranean was calm and we had settled more or less comfortably – even discomfort becomes bearable when you are used to it – into the routine of the troop ship.

Part of that routine was the daily allocation of seats for the cinema. Accommodation was so limited in the tiny room in which the miniature projector operated that seats were appointed by roster – two to a mess per day.

My turn, I remember, came on November 6. To obtain a seat, one had to take an early place in the queue.

Though I took up my position three quarters of an hour before the show was due to begin, there were fully 50 ahead of me.

I chain-smoked to extract the maximum enjoyment from the remaining minutes before blackout.

On my third cigarette the lights-out warning was given and the line ahead of me began to file into the cinema. I had just reached the door when there was a startling crash from one of our sister ships in the convoy.

Startled, I looked seaward and it seemed that, a day late, the convoy was putting on a Guy Fawkes Night display.

Coloured flares and tracer shells were streaking the sky, and before I grasped the significance of the affair the Strathmore's guns split the dusk with a startling crack.

So suddenly had the German airplanes swooped in the fading daylight that they had been able to release several bouts before the convoy was aware of attack.

The surprise did not last many seconds.

Reacting with amazing quickness, the ship's gunners were soon pumping shells at the attackers with speed.

The air raid precautions organisations did not snap into action as speedily and it seemed several minutes before the alarm bell rang for us to go below to our mess decks.

I found the companionways rammed with a slowly moving crowd of men. Officers, in my experience always the most panicky in an emergency, aggravated the position by urging "Hurry along there. Hurry along!"

Seeing no possibility of getting below for some minutes, I leaned over the rails to watch the action. The planes flitted among the ships like great bats in the dusk, chased by tracer shells.

A destroyer whipped past us, throwing from its bow a phosphorescent plume and spitting with all its guns like an angry mother cat. Our own guns barked like a dog enjoying a free-for-all scrap.

It was all so exhilarating that I never for a moment considered the danger of the situation. But you cannot enjoy yourself for long in a troop ship.

I was roughly shaken and looked round into the face of an officer almost incoherent with annoyance.

"What the hell are you doing up here, you fool? Get below, damn you, get below," he stormed.

At the mess table, there was relief when I put in an appearance, for a roll-call had been taken – and when I had not answered, and had been found absent, there was alarm.

I joined the others to sit the proceedings out. This was far more nerve-racking than watching the action from the open deck.

Up there, one knew there was a chance of survival if the ship was hit in some part other than where you were standing.

Down here, below the waterline, there was nothing to distract one's attention from the unpleasant possibilities. How a cigarette would have helped to relieve the strain.

The action was a series of dull thuds punctuated by sharp cracks when our guns fired.

After a few more shots had been fired there was quiet and soon the all-clear was sounded.

Next day the captain, excited and I think a little delighted, for it was the first action the ship had been in from years of convoy work, announced over the speaker system that two planes had been shot down.

The logbook of one of them had landed plump on our own bridge.

What he did not mention, but was quickly made known to us via the mysterious grapevine, was that two ships in the convoy had been badly damaged and forced to head for the African coast.

One was successfully beached and the other sank just off its objective, and in neither case was there any loss of service personnel.

Tomorrow: Stepping off the SS Strathmore and stretching our legs in Suez.

Source article: http://www.thisisderbyshire.co.uk/news/grasped-significance-affair-Strathmore-s-guns-split-dusk-startling-crack/article-1031656-detail/article.html

Next: 6. Dry land at last for RAF man as he disembarks in Suez in the last part of remarkable war diaries

jules mann,
18 Jul 2009, 06:52