Extract from the book Peace, War and Love by John Smale

The account of the sinking of the Windsor Castle by Jack Smale, REME

The troop was boarded onto trains and taken to Greenock in Scotland. They had no idea where they were going. The young men climbed the gang-planks onto a huge ship carrying their grey kitbags on their backs. Two funnels smoked in the early morning light. This was the S.S. Windsor Castle, an ex-mail ship/cruise liner that had been converted to carry troops. Slowly the ship sailed down the Clyde and met the cold sea. This was Tuesday the 16 th March in 1943. By then Jack had been married to Sophie for five and a half months. The ship the men were on was the SS Windsor Castle.

After the cold weather in Britain, the warmth on the ship was a comfort, in the beginning. The weather outside became warmer as the ship sailed southwards, the cramped conditions in the cabins full of soldiers, became slightly claustrophobic. The men, amateur navigators, must have been plotting progress but the destination was only known to the crew and the escorts.

The sun shone brightly at first and lightened the apprehensive mood of the passengers. Days were spent wandering around and practicing boat drill and the nights were spent in large cabins that had been sealed and blacked out to avoid showing lights to enemy planes or submarines. The boat drills, the conduct of the men in case of emergency, were carried out to ensure that everybody would know what to do if there was an attack. Only the crew was aware of passing Gibraltar .

Dressed only in pants and a vest, Jack was in his bunk, asleep in the warm cabin. This had been a good experience so far. Sailing on this great converted cruise ship was better than route marching. Then there was an explosion. The mood changed. The men jumped from their bunks in startled uncertainty about what had happened. Sirens screamed. The ship shuddered and slowed.

That Sunday, the 21 st of March 1943 at 3.00 a.m. , the ship had been torpedoed by an Italian plane. As part of measures to avoid panic, the troops were locked into their cabins that were crammed with 20 or 30 men. After the lights went out, the cabins were pitch black. The windows had been sealed and blacked out to avoid showing the ship's location at night. In the darkness, the men were given the last rites by a Roman Catholic priest who was also locked in with them. In that finality of gloom and fear Jack had the sudden thought that he had left his wife pregnant. He was right.

Eventually, they were released as their turn to evacuate came. The cabin was unlocked and the men made their way to the deck. Jack only had his vest, pants and socks on, plus a pair of trousers that he had pulled on. Boots might have weighed them down into the water if they were being worn. All other belongings had to be left behind, including photographs and letters. They had to jump from the high deck of the liner onto the low decks of the destroyer that sailed alongside. Jack, at that point, could not swim. As he said later, "It made no difference. I couldn't have swum 90 miles to Algiers, anyway!"

The drop was a long one and had to be timed so that as the ship tilted to one side and the destroyer rose in the water, the drop was less far. Jack saw one WREN (Women's Royal Naval Service) who mistimed the jump and fell between the Windsor Castle and the destroyer. As the boats came back together she was crushed. It was like watching a horror occur in slow motion.

His jump was made and he crashed down onto the deck of the naval ship alongside. Once on the destroyer, the men had to help find and bring in troops who had fallen into the sea from life rafts. Jack helped to pull one man on board using grappling nets. He was extremely cold when he was brought on board. He died a little later from hypothermia. His body was buried at sea.

The destroyer delivered the men, (others had been rescued by other destroyers) in Algiers. This was the first that the troops knew of their destination. None knew what the state of the War was in that place. As a result of the ship being torpedoed and the subsequent emergency evacuation, in Algiers the troops had no kit. So they had to walk around without shoes or boots. They were in just their socks waiting for new equipment to come.

Their accommodation was under canvass, so tents were erected that would sleep eight or nine men. These tents were pitched on the seashore of the Mediterranean. This would have been a superb holiday location, but in War, and with the added hazard of strafing from German and Italian planes, canvas was the worst form of protection.

One day Jack was walking along the beach and found a sheet of paper laying just above the water's edge. It was from the log-book of the Windsor Castle dated and 1 st April 1934 after she had sailed from Mossel Bay in South Africa. This was a strange coincidence as the records of the ship were said to have sunk with her and this was a beach where the troops she had carried on her last voyage, had landed. It was if part of the ship was fulfilling its duty to see the safe disembarkation of its load. Come what may it was an omen of good luck. It is odd that the page was there. The Mediterranean is not very tidal, so there was always a sense of mystery about its discovery.

Reprinted with the permission of the Author
© 2008 John Smale all rights reserved


Page published Dec. 6, 2008