Captain JH Allison: Captain D, Arctic Convoys, Dunkirk and the Soroy Evacuation

Capt JH Allison on bridge

The story of the naval career of Captain John Hamilton Allison RN, DSO and Bar, is a compelling one.

For a start, he comes from a fascinating line of Dunlops, initially from Greenock. He was the son of William Dunlop Hamilton Allison 1873-1943, who was born in Glasgow but spent his life as a pilot in the Bengal Pilot Service.

And William was the eldest son of John Dunlop Allison 1842-1928, whose autobiographical story, first published in For Argyll yesterday (14 November 2010) tells of an age and a life we can barely now imagine.

John Hamilton Allison 1902-1968, went to Naval College aged nine – that fact itself itself a reminder of different days – and had a very distinguished career in the Royal Navy,  particularly during the second World War.

He is pictured above, centre, John (Teak) Allison on the bridge – probably of HMS Kelvin, which he commanded after HMS Worcester, which figures large in his own story below.

Among many notable challenges and achievements, some described below, in 1940,  he brought the last daylight shipload of the retreating British Expeditionary Force out of Dunkirk, as the young Commander of HMS Worcester – under concerted and profoundly damaging attack for much of the way. This event is also reported below.

Later, as Captain D, in charge of a destroyer flotilla on Arctic Convoy duty, he did more escort duty on HMS Zambesi on a number of the vital Arctic Convoys into Murmansk.

During this time, towards the end of World War II, he led the fast four-destroyer raid to evacuate the Norwegians besieged on the German-held island of Soroy.

This was followed by his leading the  escort of Convoy RA-64, among whose merchant ships the evacuees from Soroy had been distributed. Some were on board he SS Henry Bacon, which was sunk, They and some crewmen were rescued by Allison in Zambesi and  brought back safely to Scapa Flow.

Both of these events are reported below in summary.

We have earlier published two articles on the Soroy evacuation – one as part of the story of the naval career of Roy Elwood, who, on Zambesi, was on the flotilla that evacuated Soroy – and through whose good offices we have permission to publish the manuscript by John Dunlop Allison.

The second is specifically about the Soroy raid, by Midshipman, Derek Hirst, who served on Zambesi, was on the Soroy evacuation and who, in 2007, became the first of the crew of the rescue flotilla ever to return to Soroy.

Captain JH Allison won a DSO with Bar for gallantry. King Haakon of Norway awarded him the Order of St Olaf for his leading role in the evacuation of the islanders on Soroy. He was appointed a Younger Brother of Trinity House.

After leaving the navy, he went on to become Manager at the Guided Weapons Division of English Electric Ltd in Salisbury.

Like all ‘Johns’ in the Navy, JH Allison was known as ‘Jack’ and in his case also as ‘Teak’.

Commander JH Allison, HMS Worcester and the last daylight ship evacuation from Dunkirk

Capt JH AllisonIn command of HMS Worcester,  Commander JH Allison was on Arctic Convy duty when, on 26th May 1940,  he got the signal to head for Dunkirk as part of the evacuation exercise.

Worcester made several channel crossings on this painful and life saving duty.

On this last such run, an order for him to return to Dover was not deciphered until he was near Dunkirk. The only man he could spare for ciphering was the ship’s doctor who had more urgent duties to attend to and who was, although capable with cipher, not the quickest.

The order to return was therefore not given to Allison until he was off Dunkirk – so he went in anyway, bringing off 900 men.

As he was pulling away frm the jerry a cry alerted him to a single wounded man left behind. Allison took Worcester back in to pick him up.

With other ships having, as instructed, returned to England and only small craft operating in daylight form then on, Worcester , the only ship evacuating, was the biggest target around.

She became a magnet for the Junkers bombers who were attacking every six minutes or so. The loss of life and the damage she sustained were both frightful. IN an interview he later gave to the Adelaide broadsheet, The Advertiser, Captain Allison described the bridge as a shambles, told of a bomb bursting under the propeller and bending the shafts, seeing his Sub-Lieutenant shot doen beside him and his Chief Engineer killed as he looked through the engine room hatch.

With her magnetic compass going crazy, Worcesters engines then stopped in the marine equivalent of water on the carburretor from the punishment she was taking. BY this time, the air attack had stopped but, not knowing whether or not it would return – it did not – the twenty minutes it took to get the engines going must have seemed like hours,

Coming into Dover at dusk, the story was not yet over. An evacuation ship on a night mission came out fast. Allison shouted for engine full astern – and nothing happened. The siren to signal his call had been shot off. Worcester T-boned the other ship without doing it much damage but buckling her own bow. One account says that when she hit the other ship she was rolled far enough for the lee rail to go under the water and Allison was thrown into the sea.

Speaking of the collision, Allison told The Advertiser: ‘I didn’t give a damn. We’d got back.’

Indeed he had.  Worcester had taken so much of a pounding on the run that of the total of 1,100 men on board, 30% were killed, and another 40% were wounded, ‘more or less severely’

And the wounded man he went back for? He survived, against all the odds. He had been lying on one of the 4.7 gun platforms, under the blast of the hundreds of rounds it fired during the trip. He turned out to be a Major in the Brigade of Guards, asked to see Allison before he left the ship  – and thanked him for a most enjoyable trip’.

The photograph above shows JH Allison as ‘Captain D’, responsible for a flotilla of destroyers.

Captain RH Allison and the evacuation of Soroy

Soroy is the fourth largest of the Norwegian islands, located in Western Finmark and in the approaches to the then former German naval anchorage at Altafjord. The island was under German attack and its doughty inhabitants besieged for three months, hiding in the snow covered mountains..

On 15 February 1945, in Operation Open Door, 525 Norwegian civilians were evacuated from Sørøy by three Royal Navy destroyers, led by Captain JH Allison in HMS Zambesi, with HMS Zealous, HMS Zest and the Canadian destroyer, Sioux.

The flotilla made a fast sprint down the Fjord – so fast that the Germans knew nothing of it in time. The islanders had been alerted by the Norwegians that they were to be rescued and were waiting in hiding, close by the point. At a prearranged signal, they came skiiing down the hills to the shore. It took three hours to get them aboard.

With over 500 of them dispersed among four destroyers,  Captain Allison decided that it would not be safe to make a run for home with so many on board and possibly facing engagements en route so the flotilla steamed fast through the night and went to Murmansk to tranship their guests.

Captain JH Alison, HMS Zambesi, the Soroy evacuees and the sinking of the SS Henry Bacon

The evacuees were distributed amongst some of the 38 merchant ships of Arctic Convoy RA-64, which left the Kola Inlet, at Murmansk in northern Russia on 17th February 1945, bound for Loch Ewe in northwest Scotland and, among the naval escorts,  was Allisonin Zambesi.

Nineteen of the evacuees were on board the Liberty Ship, the SS Henry Bacon which was about to become the last allied ship sunk by the Luftwaffe in World War II.

The convoy was hit by a series of bad storms, among them – and finally, for the SS Henry Bacon, the worst recorded in the Barents Sea – Force 12, winds to 130 mph, temperatures  at -40 degrees. A main spring on the ship’s steering gear was broekn, she fell back to 50 miles astern of the convoy to make repairs.

While a vulnerable straggler, she was picked off by a flight of 23 Junkers Ju 88 and Ju 188’s torpedo bombers of Luftwaffe Group KG26m, on their way to attack the main convoy. Her Naval Armed Guard gunners fought for over an hour. They brought down five Luftwaffe planes, damaged at least four more, defending against several torpedoes by managing to detonate them before they reached the ship.

But a torpedo which got through, detonated the aft ammunition magazine, which badly holed the hull and destroyed her rudder, propeller and steering engine.

She was abandoned, lifeboats were launched, two of the four successfully, filled to the gunwales with the 19 Norwegian evacuees and crewmen. Survivors, including these, were picked up by three British destroyers among the convoy escorts, the by now familiar HMS Zambesi, with HMS Opportune and HMS Zelast.

The second destroyer flotilla, with Allison in Zambesi with her Soroyans on board, arrived in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Isles on 27th February 1945.

At one point in his career JH Allison had been with Lord Louis Mountbatten in the Kelly. The family has a later letter  from Mountbatten to him on his retirement, regretting that the Admiralty let him go rather than promoting him to flag rank. He was clearly, by action and repute a highly capable and respected naval officer.

JH Allison had a daughter, Julia and a son, John Skyrme Allison, both of whom Roy Elwood has been in contact with and through whom he was given a copy of the transcribed manuscript below, of the life of his great-grandfather, John Dunlop Allison.

John Skyrme Allison, who says that the reporter on The Advertiser got more information from his father than his family ever did. This is the way of such things. It’s partly protective and partly becaese only those who were there really understand.

JS Allison says: ‘I ……. was keen to go into Dartmouth in my youth but they saw me coming and kept raising the entry age at that time …. until I was waylaid by the charms of Australia’.  He was 16 when he went to Australia and Roy Elwood says that if the link with the sea was broken, the spirit of adventure was clearly alive and well.

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