Operation Torch convoys

The KMF/KMS Convoys

The first wave of troops and materiel were carried from Britain on 2 convoys; KMS-01 (the slow convoy) departed on 26th October 1942, while KMF-01 (the fast convoy) departed 4 days later, both arriving in time for the 8th November landings.

Subsequent landings followed the same slow/fast convoy pattern.

Operation Torch convoy KMF-02: The Duchess of Richmond
The Duchess of Richmond unloading troops in Algiers (12th Nov 1942) was part of KMF-02

The Duchess of Richmond was from a class of ships know as the “Drunken Duchesses” because they apparently gave you a lively ride on a rough sea.

Sgt. Len Scott reported that the sea was kind to them. Here are some extracts from his account;

It was necessary to empty my bladder fully before sleep. To attempt reaching the 'heads' during the night might involve stepping upon someone's face in the dim, blueish light. The only way out was via narrow and uncompanionable 'companion-ladders.'

{“heads” = ships latrines, in this case a long communal bench with a number of holes above a trough of slow running sea water}

Every ten or fifteen minutes the escorting corvette signalled a 'toot-toot' and the whole convoy changed course – zig-zagging. Each evening we sailed straight into the sunset and some hoped for a Canadian landfall. I knew better and one evening the sun was behind us. 'All ranks' were assembled to be told over the Tannoy of our destination - Algeria, in North Africa.

...the voyage had been long and boring. We had queued for everything - queues which stretched around the entire deck-space: for cigarettes, tea, 'entertainment' and, with desperation, for the latrines. We had all been issued with 'sea-soap' because ordinary soap would not lather in sea-water - and sea-water was what issued from the ablution taps.

{upon arrival} We march into the city, sweating, full kit, rifles, greatcoats, blankets and kitbags. Trucks roar past us carrying American soldiers in relaxed postures, some smoking cigars. They jeer at we foot-sloggers - the 'goddam (Oedipal) Limeys'. We respond with two-fingered salutes.

On the 12th December 1942, the SS Strathallan left the Clyde at 4:30am to join a huge convoy, KMF-05. This convoy also carried the bulk of the 59th Regiment, although for some reason, this did not include my dad's Battery (164).

According to the Arnold Hague Convoy Database, there were 22 ships in this convoy. There were 9 ships carrying 30,775 troops, 2155 of these were on the Empire Pride.

Although the convoy sailed from Scotland (the Clyde) the troops boarded at Bootle/Liverpool docks, and then sailed north to join the convoy, just as Len Scott had a few weeks earlier. The ships headed far out into the Atlantic before turning south, in order to minimise the risk of enemy attack, and give any clues as to their destination.  They really needed to slip through the Straits of Gibraltar unnoticed, as there were German spies operating in Spain.

Unlike KMF-02, the troops on KMF-05 had to endure rough seas, and many were sick for the whole Atlantic section of the journey. There would have been some relief once the convoy turned east and entered the calmer waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Here is an account by H.R.Glover;

No cheering crowds, no bands played for us as the ship slowly left the dockside, only a lone policeman and a few screaming seagulls to see us off. Passing sunken wrecks as we headed out to the Irish Sea did nothing to improve our confidence. The first meal on board, black looking pork with veg; was deliberate I am sure, to upset our stomachs even before we hit the Atlantic storm which stayed with us almost until the lights of the Moroccan coast hove into site.

For days we had headed due west along with other ships in the huge convoy until after one particular bad night we came on deck to find we were entirely alone on a purple coloured sea, with the wind so strong it whipped the tops from the waves. This was a Sunday as I remember, the few of us that were still on our feet, made our way to the Officers Mess for a service conducted by the Regimental Padre.

As we hung on to anything solid for support, we sang the hymn “For Those In Peril On The Sea”. and never was it more fervently sung. Later that day, after a brief sighting of a German Condor aircraft, we saw a signal lamp flashing to the east, and to our great relief eventually an escorting destroyer hove in sight. We were soon back in position in the convoy heading for Gibraltar.

We will all remember the night we stood to on deck at our boat stations, whilst just astern of us the convoy was being attacked by Italian torpedo carrying planes. A hit was scored on the SS Strathallan, a trooper carrying 4,000 personnel, which included 250 Q.A.I.N.S. {nickname for a nursing sister, a member of the Queen Alexandra Institute of Military Nursing Sisters in WW II} among whom was Miss K.Summers, Aide to General Eisenhower (ref. the TV series “The Generals”).

Troops on the ship were asked to hand in any spares of yellow identity squares for use by the nurses as underwear, as most had lost everything.

An article in a Southampton newspaper about the great liners tells the story of that night; Shortly after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, in bright moon-light and fine weather, she was struck by a torpedo from the German submarine U.562.

Although there seems to be a contradiction here, the Strathallan was famously sunk by a hit from a German U boat, but some say it also suffered a torpedo strike from either an Italian or German plane.

After the war, the German U boat captain said he thought the ship was only carrying equipment, so only hit the ship with 1 torpedo, and that if he had realised it was carrying troops, he would have hit it twice. The crew of Strathallan said they were hit twice, so both the U boat and the plane probably hit the ship.

Although reported casualties were very small, eye witnesses say they saw many troops jumping into the sea, some just in their underwear, and a lifeboat full of QAINS accidentally fell into the sea. So official published data may be unreliable, possibly due to the need for secrecy at the time.

According to A.S.Cross;

...what a momentous cruise that turned out to be, what with ploughing through mountainous seas and being subjected to U-boat attack, we began to wish we were still back in Essex. Life did get smoother as we approached Gibraltar through the Mediterranean, and we counted ourselves lucky that the convoy only lost the SS Strathallan (although she was taken in tow and made landfall) with heavy loss of lives, mainly nursing staff.

Once again there seem to be several accounts on the final fate of the SS Strathallan. Ultimately she certainly sank, but this may have happened after all had left the ship, with the final blow being deliberately delivered by the Royal Navy.

A second ship (the Cameronia) was also hit by torpedo from an Italian airplane, as described by Jim Buchan;

When we got there it was a scene of utter confusion, there was a gaping hole in the side of the ship through which in the early morning light we could see waves sloshing about. The mess deck itself was a complete shambles; kit, equipment, tables, hammocks were all piled up in a ghastly mess and lying on top or buried underneath all this rubble were the bodies of many of our comrades, some groaning and crying out, others suspiciously still. There were already parties of other troops clawing at the debris trying to get them out and the other soldier and I joined in dragging away tables and bits of metal to get at those trapped.

We managed to get one lad free. He didn’t look too good, he was very grey and ashen and his legs looked broken but he was still conscious. In such a state as he was, it would have been madness to pick him up and carry him, so we did the next best thing and lifted him gently into a hammock, which we could then use like a stretcher with the great advantage that we could manoeuvre it around corners and over obstacles. From the damaged area we had to make our way to the sick bay which was now a casualty clearing station and we tried talking to the victim but got no response.

We didn’t have any official number of the casualties we had sustained but it was believed to be 17 killed and about 30 wounded.

Battery 164 were transported to Africa via convoy KMF-06, arriving on the 3rd January 1943. According to Henry Moore, the seas were OK for their trip, and he was part of a group who were given gun duties during the voyage.

Henry and my Dad made this trip on the Boissevain (KMF-06) and from dad’s notes, he mentioned 2 ships. The first contained all equipment and an advance party of troops…

Loss of all our equipment; sunk by enemy action between Bougie {now Bejaia} and Bone {now Annaba} in Algeria. We had one survivor (S.C.Beamont?) out of all the advance party.

On landing at Algiers, we assembled and marched in full battle equipment 7 miles (or was it more?) in torrential rain, arriving like drowned rats. Our overnight transit being two-man bivouac tents. Were we glad to crawl in, out of the rain and rest! Next morning we marched back to Algiers and boarded a naval gun boat for our trip to Bone. None of us could forget that luxury travel; standing below deck, back to back in full battle dress, our valise {soldier’s kit bag} supporting each other. Was it 2 hours duration?

The navy turned us off the ship in double quick time, as an enemy raid was imminent. They were out of the dock before we were!

Off we went into transit at a tobacco warehouse. All the tobacco leaves were laid out as haystacks. The place was packed with troops, some back from the front line. However, the 59th soon found a way to avoid the mass; twenty or so would form their own camps up on top of the stacks, away from the bustle at floor level.

We were resident for a few days, then moved just outside Bone to an olive grove on a hillside. A French AA battery were stationed in barracks at the top, and often in action. We set up camp and had a few weeks there waiting for our new guns and transport to arrive. Our duties off camp were to send guards on trains to hump supplies up to the front line.

Unable to remember date of receipt of our new equipment, but boy! were we glad to get to it and so get back to our active role.

Dad says they lost their guns and had only one survivor from a lost ship, while A.S.Cross says the guns were on a slower ship, which I think was the British SS Benalbanach. She was part of the slow convoy KMS-06, on a voyage from Greenock for North Africa with 800 tons of ammunition, 300 tons of military stores, 136 vehicles, and 68 tons of petrol.

The Benalbanach was between Algiers and Bone when it was attacked by aircraft on 7th January 1943.

From the Royal Artillery DRAMA Report:-

On 7 Jan word arrived that ship J43 carrying the equipment and transport of 164 Bty had been sunk at sea. With the vehicles was Lt BM Ring and 10 ORs of which only Gnr Beaumont was saved.

Here is a report by George Codling, one of the very few survivors;

At 6.10pm as the light was failing, I was heating water amidships when every ship opened out with their guns at 5 Savoia Torpedo planes {Italian} as they flew through the convoy, a few yards only from above the water. I dived down the first hatch for cover from the flak as our ships were practically firing on to each other. I was just taking stock of my surroundings when there was a crash, the ship heeled over and as the lights went out the roof fell in, missing me by about a yard. Although shaken, I managed to keep cool, took my lighter from my pocket and endeavoured to strike a light but dropping the lighter in the process. Next, I groped before me and climbed up the wreckage with the horrible thought that I was to drown helplessly, but I managed to find a way onto what was once the deck.

Debris was thrown everywhere and the water was almost up to the bridge. The aft had been blown off by the explosion which was terrific owing to the nature of our cargo, ammo, bombs, high octance spirit, etc. I climbed onto the bridge where an attempt to lower the lifeboat was being made. It looked to me as if the boat would capsize so I did not climb in, which was fortunate as it did capsize, flinging the men into the water, where they clung to the bottom of the boat.

I jumped overboard, my life jacket being secure, and swam ahead of the bows of the ship. The sea was covered with oil and debris and men were all around shouting and screaming, this was the most terrible thing of all, to hear them and no-one could help.

I swam as hard as possible but did not seem to make progress. The ship stood on her tail as it were and towered above me and then slid quietly, taking the capsized boat down along with the men. There was no suction whatsoever. From being torpedoed to sinking must have been seconds and yet to me felt like hours, even now.

My brain still being cool, I made my way to a merchant seaman as he had a red light on his jacket. Recognising him I said "Hello Mac, how are you doing?" we laughed about this afterwards. We also saw my officer about 20 yards away and I shouted at him asking if he was alright, he replied in the affirmative, then we drifted further apart. The Merchant seaman and I then grabbed a piece of wood about 6 feet by 2 feet and pushed it before us. About half an hour of being in the water 3 more merchant seaman joined us and we made progress to where we believed the destroyer to be.

The sea became rough and I swallowed gallons of it mixed with fuel oil. I was violently sick. We only saw the horizon about every sixth wave, the rest of time being in a trough, visibility nil. We were frozen by this time and I had cramp in both legs. I just barely remember being hauled on board the destroyer covered in fuel oil. I was washed down and had my clothes cut off. I trembled and shook for a solid hour after being dumped on an improvised bed.

We had been picked up at 8.45 after having been in the water for 2 1/2 hours. I only said one prayer while swimming, to be rescued and brought ashore safely. I thought too, of death but never gave up hope. Those poor lads who went, I'll never forget. The sailors were grand, the only word for them.

We landed in Bone on the 8th January, which was my birthday, my life as a present. My lungs were oiled up and breathing was difficult for three days. My officer and his batman were saved. Survivors were 28 and some of those were off another ship. We lost 410 of a compliment of 430.

So, remember my mum’s story about the letter, the dog, and the bone? 
I thought she’d made a mistake about the location being in France in the re-telling of the story. However, Bone was in French North Africa, which was then considered to be part of France, so it could have been on the French map that she used to track down dad’s location.