Uncle Alister – A Love Story

What a nice man Gary Lineker is!  I’d thought so before but it was reinforced while I was watching the recent BBC programme Gary Lineker: My Grandad’s War about his grandfather’s war service in Italy.  However I was also thinking about Uncle Alister who’d served with the Seaforth Highlanders in North Africa, in Italy and finally in the Netherlands and how little any of us knew about these long years of his life.

I knew he’d been at El Alamein, that at one point his tank had gone over a mine which had exploded but he was unharmed, that it was hot enough for them to fry eggs on the bonnet of their vehicles but that was all.  He didn’t speak about it and I didn’t ask; these details probably came from my mother rather than directly from him.

He was in the M T (Motor Transport?) Section of the 5th Battalion of the Seaforths who recruited from Caithness and Sutherland.  My mother kept some of his wartime letters, or maybe they were the only three letters she got.  In June 1943, he was with the British North Africa Forces; in June 1944 he was in an Emergency Medical Services hospital at Black Notley in Essex – and managed not to refer to what was wrong with him or how he was; in August 1944 he was with the BLA (don’t know what that was).  She also had a letter he wrote to their mother in August 1945 when he was with the British Army Of The Rhine, saying he wouldn’t be home till the following January.  He was not allowed to communicate where exactly he was or what was happening around him; instead, his letters are full of questions and comments about other members of the family or local friends and neighbours.  There’s a at least one family photo of him back at home still wearing his battledress and I’ve seen another of the large family who’d befriended him in Holland.

He lived out the rest of his days quietly in Bonar Bridge, unmarried.  It was after his death in 1989 that his youngest sister, Aunt Jessie, who had taken him into her home to care for him, found a small studio photograph of a beautiful dark haired woman among the few papers he’d left.  Uncle Ken, Jessie’s husband, knew her surname was Urquhart and she’d been killed during the war.  It didn’t take me long to find her at New Register House in Edinburgh: Mary Annie Ross Urquhart, a sister in Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.  She died in 1944 when the ship she was on was torpedoed.  Knowing that she was from Rhelonie, I found her name several years ago on the Ardgay war memorial.

Her father was Alexander Urquhart, a butcher in Lairg, and her mother was Annie Margaret Fenton.  I found out more about Mary’s early life on the website http://www.rossandcromartyheritage.org/WW2 which contains information from the RJ (Ross Shire Journal?) about war deaths.  She went to school first in Culrain, then in Bonar (she was a year older than Alister but presumably that’s where they met).  She did her nurse training in Aberdeen and then a midwifery course in Perth; she worked first in the Conon Nursing Home and then at the Ross Memorial Hospital.  In July 1943, she went to East Africa and was stationed at Nyeri and later at Nairobi, in Kenya.  These details were published on 7 April 1944 when she was reported as “lost at sea”, having previously been reported missing.

It was just the other night though that I started researching the details of her death. It was on the 12th February in 1944 and she was on board the SS Khedive Ismail, which had left Mombasa and was heading east for Colombo where the nurses on board were going to staff a British military hospital.  There were also 271 Royal Navy personnel on the ship, plus 996 officers and men from the 301st Field Regiment of East African Artillery who were going on to fight in what was then Burma.

The ship was built by Scotts shipyard in Greenock for a Chilean company and at its launch in 1922 was called Aconcagua; later it was sold on to an Egyptian company and renamed Khedive Ismail.  In February 1944, now owned by British Military War Transport, it was part of a convoy of troopships accompanied by British destroyers .  On the afternoon of 12 February, they were south west of The Maldives, when two torpedoes from a Japanese submarine hit the engine room; the ship quickly listed to starboard, broke into two sections and sank within 3 minutes.  There was no time to launch any lifeboats.  1,297 people died and 54 of the 76 women who died were nurses.

Not all of the deaths however were the result of the enemy action.  The other troopships in the convoy quickly left the scene to try to avoid the same fate but the destroyers started dropping depth charges to force the submarine to come up.  This was done although there were survivors in the water as destroying the submarine took priority over rescue.  The submarine had to come to the surface and was blown up.  Altogether, this battle lasted for two and a half hours.

The novelist Nicholas Monserrat used the incident in his book The Cruel Sea and it’s a key moment in the subsequent film when Jack Hawkins, playing the commander of a ship, has to give the order to use depth charges, knowing he’ll kill merchant seamen floating in the water. When I watched this film many, many years ago I had no idea of any connection.

Only 208 men and 6 women from the Khedive Ismail survived the sinking and the battle.  One of them was Buster Crabb who got out through a porthole and in 1998 his son wrote a book about the incident called Passage to Destiny.  (Buster Crabb was the frogman who in 1956 disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Portsmouth Harbour in an incident with a Soviet ship.)   Crabb senior recalled that just before the torpedoes struck, many of those on board were at a concert in the ship’s music room or were sunbathing on deck, though not the African soldiers who were sweltering in their quarters below decks.

Of the East African troops, 144 survived.  They were from Kenya, Uganda and what is now Tanzania.  The names of the African dead are not listed on the websites I found about the sinking but they are not altogether forgotten.  On the anniversary in 2017, Kamau Kaniaru wrote an article for the digital version of The Standard in Kenya called “Reliving the last days of Kenyan troops killed by Japanese submarine”.  It’s well worth a read. This was the 3rd largest loss of life among Allied shipping during the war and the largest loss of women in a single incident but it’s little known.  Can this be because so many of the dead were African?  And because there was some guilt or shame about not picking up the survivors of the initial attack?

How Mary Urquhart spent her last afternoon and whether she died in the ship or in the subsequent naval battle and when or how Uncle Alister learned what had happened to her will never be known.  All I know is that he kept her photo close to him until the end of his days.



4 thoughts on “Uncle Alister – A Love Story

  1. Rona M McIntosh

    I so wish I had asked him about the long years he was at war.
    I wanted to a few times but never plucked up the courage. He may well have talked about it.


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