Below decks on a troopship under torpedo attack

A convoy moves eastward across Atlantic bound for Casablanca, Africa, ca. November 1942.

A convoy moves eastward across the Atlantic bound for Casablanca, Africa, ca. November 1942.

Stanley Scislowski was a 20 year old infantryman with the Perth Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, 5th Canadian Armoured Division. He was on the troopship John Ericcson in a convoy from Liverpool to the Mediterranean.

They had just been issued booklets providing information on the geography of North Africa and useful Arabic phrases when they were told they were to disembark in Naples,Italy:

At 6:10 p.m. on the evening of November 6, convoy KMF-25 arrived at a point about twenty miles off the African coast at Philippeville when it came under attack by a squadron of German torpedo bombers.

We’d just finished our sitting of the evening meal and were lounging around on our bunks when the air-raid buzzer sounded. It took the third round of the “four-buzz” warning before it hit home what was going on outside – the convoy was under air attack. There was a momentary hush in the compartment, and not a soul moved. No one seemed to know what to make of it or what to do.

And then every man in that compartment reacted and made a frenzied dash for the stairs. We were all of the same mind: “Get the hell up on deck and get there as quick as possible. Just don’t get trampled in the rush.” No one cared to be trapped down in the ship’s belly should a torpedo slam into us. It didn’t take the wisdom of Newton to know that we wouldn’t have one chance in bloody hell of surviving if that happened.

Three hundred frantic Perths rushed for the stairs, but were stopped in their tracks at the top. No one got past the officers stationed there to keep all troops off the open decks. How they got there that quickly after the alarm sounded was something I never could quite figure out.

The officers, Captain Ridge and Lieutenant Hider, had one hell of a time trying to calm down and convince the milling and fearstruck throng to go back to their bunks. They told us we’d be a lot safer in our compartment than out on the open decks. What a crock of crap! And they expected us to believe this bullshit! But what could we do?

The fact that they managed to convince three hundred highly nervous and agitated men verging on mutiny was nothing short of astounding. We all went back to our bunks reluctantly, muttering oaths and damning the officers for their stupidity in making us go back. As far as we were concerned, they condemned us to a watery grave.

Sitting on or standing by our bunks listening to the hammering of guns outside didn’t make things any easier for us. If there was anybody in that compartment that hadn’t prayed in earnest before, like myself, for one, they prayed now. It was the most helpless feeling I’d ever experienced, and as it turned out, the only time I felt this way throughout the campaign. I might have been a hell of a lot more scared in battle, but I never did experience the kind of helplessness as I did on the Ericcson waiting for a torpedo to hit, sending the ship, crew and passengers to the bottom of the Mediterranean.

At the time, the order to remain in our compartment appeared to be a classic case of officers imposing their iron will on the ranks, no matter how brainless their actions might seem, just to show us who was boss. But, as we learned the next morning, they’d done the right thing.

It wasn’t, however, their brilliant idea; the ship’s skipper saw the danger to troops swarming about on the open decks, with ack-ack guns on every ship in the convoy firing every which way, and most of it almost horizontal at the enemy planes sweeping in at torpedo-launching height. Overshoots by the ships’ guns on both side of the Ericcson splattered and ricocheted off the ship’s upperworks and spanged off ventilators, hatches and other deck paraphernalia. There was no doubt about it, but that a fair number of the curious passengers hungering to witness the spectacle of a torpedo-bomber attack on the convoy would more than likely have been seriously hurt or killed had they been allowed on deck.

Scislowski’s memoirs of the Italian campaign, Not All of Us Were Brave is a detailed account of life in the front line during successive offensives in 1944. He was later to learn, only when he met survivors in Italy, that other ships had been sunk during this attack.

Canadian troops embarking on a troopship for overseas service.

Canadian troops embarking on a troopship for overseas service.

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Jesper November 6, 2018 at 10:28 am

The two ship lost from the convoy, SANTA ELENA and MARNIX VAN ST ALDEGONDE, both carrying troops, was not sunk by the aircrafts of Kampfgeschwader 26, only torpedoed and disabled. They later went down due to colliding during their towing. Four people was lost on Santa Elena in the attack and all hands was saved from Marnix van st aldegone.

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