Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Short Story re North Africa, S. S. Clan MacTaggart

Operation TORCH, November 8, 1942

Map reveals locations where many Canadians were involved

With regard to the 55th LCM Flotilla at North Africa my memory is quite hazy, so what follows is my recollection only, after fifty years. Others may differ or may be able to add more.

I recall that at the time we passed Gibraltar, the sea was crowded with ships as far as the eye could see. We landed just west of Mers-el-Kebir, at Oran's "Y" beach, Les Andalouses, on the "S.S. Clan McTaggart" which was our Mother Ship. The troops that we landed were members of the United States 1st Infantry Division complete with their mechanized vehicles and other necessary supplies.

American troops on board a landing craft heading for the beaches
at Oran in Algeria during Operation 'Torch', November 1942.
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum

American troops exiting their landing craft assault on the beach at Are,
near Oran. Some of the ships of that convoy can be seen in the distance.
Photo credit - Imperial War Museum

We were shelled from the hills above the beach for a couple of days until a Royal Navy destroyer put a stop to it by several well-placed shells. On the third or fourth day after the landings and when all the ships had been emptied, the Officers and crews had an opportunity to travel into Mers-el-Kebir to see the results of the Royal Navy bombardment of the French Fleet in 1940.

Some days later the "Clan McTaggart" sailed in a small convoy to Gibraltar with orders to join other convoys all northbound under escort to the United Kingdom. Unfortunately we developed engine problems that necessitated repairs to be made in Gibraltar. These repairs did not take too long - maybe four hours or so - and we were then given permission to sail alone and catch up to the convoy.

At about 1600-1800 we sailed and I remember standing on a bridge watch from midnight to 0400 when I was relieved. I went below and had just jumped into my bunk (top) when there was a terrible explosion. I ran up on deck and was advised we had been torpedoed. I then went back to my cabin to check on my cabin mate, S/L Harold Walkely, who was still sound asleep. To wake him I had to literally pull him out of bed. As we got up on deck, we went to our boat station only to find that the Lascar crew had cut the rope falls and the lifeboat was hanging by one set of falls. These were ordered to be cut in hope that the lifeboat would land right side up - it did. Apparently others did not. I remember vaguely moving around the ship in search of people needing help. The ship had settled by this time but was considerably lower in the water. The Captain ordered 'abandon ship and a number of people jumped in the water or shinnied down the boat falls into the water.

I remember being picked up by a Carley float and then transferring onto a half empty lifeboat. We pulled around the "Clan" looking for people and it was there we could see three follows standing on the stern. I believe one of them was Leading Seaman Grimmon. All three went down with the ship. Sometime the next morning, we were sighted by an R.A.F. Catalina flying boat out of Gibraltar, who radioed our position to the "H.M.S. Landguard", as ex U.S.N, sloop. Around 0900 we were picked up by this ship and then proceeded to join the original convoy.

That convoy had been attacked by U-boats on the previous evening and had lost some ships including the "S.S. Ettrick" that had on board another landing craft Flotilla. We carried on to the U.K. and eventually to "H.M.C.S. Niobe" in Greenock, Scotland. Our Flotilla Officer, at that time, was Lt. Judd Whittall, R.C.N.V.R. from Vancouver.

An interesting coincidence was that the American Officer in command of the troops aboard the "Clan McTaggart", fought his way through North Africa, Sicily and parts of Italy and was being returned to the U.K. to prepare for the Normandy invasion. We landed him in Normandy from LCI(L)-310 on either our third or fourth trip.

The story above was written by Lloyd (Luke) Williams and found on pages 70 - 71 in Combined Operations by Clayton Marks.

S.S. Clan MacTaggart. Photo Credit - Clyde built database



T'was a peaceful land so far each deep in a dream of his own,
And things we'd do, in so bright a hue, we'd never tell on the phone:
Where events stand out so vivid with little or nothing in rhyme,
T'is the land that we call slumber, where no watch is kept on time;

T'was into the night, fresh from the fight, we sailed on the sea alone
When disaster overtook us and the ship gave a lurch and a moan;
Most men were away in that land so gay, dreaming perhaps of home,
But in the moment's disaster, most men stood alone;

Then came the pipe "Take to the boats," we're torpedoed there by the bow,
While the howl and rush of the Darkies, was a jibbering, panicky row;
Most of our men took to the boats, few remaining on board,
But they went soon in the water, a word on their lips to the Lord;

Some of the men, just out of their teens, could swim nary a stroke,
But they paddled away into the night, a smile on their lips and a joke;
It takes a stout heart to make the start and courage to keep up the fight,
But these men were born to be, and they struggled for life that night;

The gallant old ship, was on her last trip, sinking fast by the bow,
How she took the strain, that gave us all pain, no one I'm sure knows how;
Then came the second torpedo, struck just there at the keel,
As she blew up there in our faces, going down in a drunken reel;

She'd heaved a great sigh in silent goodbye, to the men she had served so well,
While we in the boats and the water, a grand story of her we would tell;
T'was a glorious sight at the Navies might, we were saved at the break of day
By a very grand crew, who fed us stew, a word for them we would pray;

All hands were saved excepting one*, where he went no one could tell,
But vows were made in silence, our foes to see in hell;
This story's not new just to us few, we are few of the fortunate many;
We again live to fight, in freedom's right and our King may his years be many.

by - W. Smith, C.P.O., O.N. 2333 (As found in Combined Operations, Page 70)

*Lost: L/S C.D. Grimmon - R.C.N. - 4026

Link to Short Story re Combined Ops - North Africa

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