Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (10 & 11 May 2017)

Date of Auction: 10th & 11th May 2017

Sold for £180,000

Estimate: £120,000 - £140,000

“In the full knowledge that the ship was likely to blow up at any moment Chief Officer Stronach stayed on this burning vessel searching for survivors for an hour and twenty minutes - His action equals any in the annals of the Merchant Navy for great and unselfish heroism and determination in the face of overwhelming odds”
(Extract from the citation to Chief Officer Stronach’s George Cross)
The exceptional Second War ‘North Africa’ G.C. group of eight awarded to Chief Officer (later Captain) G. P. Stronach, Merchant Navy, who took charge of the rescue operations after the Captain of his ship, the S.S. Ocean Voyager had been killed during a German aerial rocket attack by JU88 torpedo bombers at Tripoli Harbour on 19 March 1943 - ‘So low did some of the aircraft fly in that the blast from one of several bombs which struck Ocean Voyager caused one of the planes to hit the ship's foremast and crash alongside in flames’ - Having initially been knocked unconscious in the explosion which had set the ship ablaze and in full knowledge of the fact that she was loaded with a large consignment of aviation fuel and ammunition he displayed ‘almost superhuman efforts’ repeatedly re-entering the burning vessel bringing out wounded men - Stronach’s award of the George Cross is one of just three such awards made during the Second World War to the Merchant Navy

George Cross (George Preston Stronach, 23 November 1943); 1939-45 Star; Atlantic Star; Africa Star, with North Africa 1942-43 clasp; War Medal 1939-45; Coronation 1953; Jubilee 1977; Lloyd’s War Medal for Bravery at Sea, silver (Chief Officer G. P. Stronach, S.S. “Ocean Voyager” 19th March 1943); together with the original fitted cases of issue for the G.C. and Lloyd’s Bravery Medal; and named card box of issue for Second War campaign medals, generally nearly very fine and better (8) £120000-140000

Footnote

Stronach’s George Cross is one of just three such awards made to members of the Merchant Navy during the Second World War, the other two of which are both known to reside in museums (Donald Owen Clarke, G.C., Chester le Street Council collection and Dudley William Mason, G.C., H.Q.S. Wellington collection).

G.C. London Gazette 23 November 1943.

The original published citation states:

‘When the ship was lying in harbour, a severe aircraft attack developed and she was hit and at once caught fire. The vessel had a large consignment of petrol and ammunition on board, which was exploding heavily all the time and in spite of strenuous efforts which were made to fight the fire she had to be abandoned. The Master was killed by the explosion and the responsibility for further operations devolved on the Chief Officer.

He had been rendered temporarily unconscious but recovered almost immediately and went forward to look for survivors. He found a number of the crew sheltering in the alleyway and, braving the exploding ammunition, led them to a boat alongside which took them to safety. In order to provide for the transport of any other survivors who might be found, he then lowered another boat and brought it alongside the ship. Although the vessel was now burning furiously Mr. Stronach made his way to the officers' accommodation amidships. Finding a hose with a trickle of water coming through, he held this over his head and so kept himself sufficiently wet to protect him from the worst of the heat and flames. With great difficulty he climbed into the collapsed accommodation and found one of the deck officers, unconscious and badly burned. Mr. Stronach pulled him clear and dragged him along the deck to the lowered boat. Returning to the accommodation, he began to remove the debris from another officer who was trapped. By almost superhuman efforts he dragged the man through the porthole and along the deck. He then tied a rope around his waist and lowered him over the side to the boat.

As the situation was becoming desperate Mr. Stronach ordered a man to take the boat to safety and once again he returned amidships where he discovered an officer who had been severely injured. Dragging him along the deck to the side of the ship, he tied a rope around him and lowered him over the side on to a raft which had returned to the ship in response to his calls. Again Mr Stronach continued his search for survivors and, taking a final look round aft, he saw a greaser lying unconscious in the scuppers. He dragged this man to the side of the ship, but finding there was no raft or boat alongside, put a lifebelt around him and threw him overboard. When he was satisfied that there were no further survivors the Chief Officer jumped overboard and swam to a raft which, under his direction, returned to pick up the injured greaser. In the full knowledge that she was likely to blow up at any moment Chief Officer Stronach stayed on this burning vessel searching for survivors for an hour and twenty minutes. His inspiring leadership induced a number of the crew to get away and so saved their lives and by his gallant efforts, undertaken with utter disregard of his personal safety, he saved the lives of three officers and a greaser, all of whom were badly hurt. His action equals any in the annals of the Merchant Navy for great and unselfish heroism and determination in the face of overwhelming odds.’

Fortunately for the sake of historical accuracy Stronach gave a detailed interview shortly after his G.C. winning exploits to the editor of the popular wartime newspaper, Parade, which was published in their 26 June 1943 issue (original copy included with the lot). This contemporary account written shortly after the event makes compelling reading, the only notable difference between this and the official citation for his G.C. being that the Greaser whose life he is credited as saving in the citation for his G.C. in fact later died of his wounds. The following is a transcription of this interview:

S.S. Ocean Voyager - Inferno Afloat

‘When I met the Chief Officer [Stronach] of the bombed ship, he was still suffering from the shock of his experience. He hadn't been able to get much in the way of restful sleep for the past few days; the Second Engineer who shared his temporary quarters told me that he often heard him shouting in his sleep during those first nights ashore. And the shouts were of orders - his brain was reviewing events which led to the sinking of his ship, almost as though he were seated in a crazy cinema palace, with an endless film showing on the screen. A quiet young fellow, with a wife in Glasgow, he was given to reticence. When, finally, he decided to unburden himself, it was with the anticipated condition : “no names - the others wouldn't care for names to appear."

"I was sitting on the settee waiting for the seven o'clock news" he told me, as he began his story. "I heard the shore barrage open up ... I think they must have fired about a couple of shots when I rushed out from my cabin and up the Captain’s inside stairway with the intention of going on the top Bridge to ring the alarm bells. For some reason - I don’t quite know why - I went out of the lower Bridge door, to reach the top by the outside route. Just as I closed the door behind me, the first bomb hit number two hatch, and it must have been just about a second later when there were two direct hits through the Bridge. I don't quite know what happened then. I was thrown about 30 feet right out into the starboard scuppers. It was a few seconds before I realised that I was still alive. My left trouser leg had been torn off. My left eye, and the whole of my left side, seemed affected by the shock.

When I got to my feet, number two hold and the Bridge accommodation were infernos. My idea was still to get up on the Bridge and ring those alarm bells. I tried to climb the ladder, but found the steps had been blown in. I then went down on to the main deck, and met the bosun. I sent him to get full force on the fire hoses, and ran to number two hatch, dragged the nozzle of the fire hose to the mouth of the hatch, turned on the water. It was then I discovered there was no water coming, on account of a fractured pipe: the deck service supply had been broken by the explosion. All this time, the bulk of the crew were aft. I discovered later that number five hatch and the crew's accommodation were also on fire. Maybe they were dazed, and unable to decide what was happening amidships. I don’t know; everything was happening so quickly, there was little time to check up.

The net result, though, was that the bosun and I seemed to be isolated amidships, and then there was nothing for it but to try and do what best we could by ourselves. I went to a hose coupled further aft, which was nearer the water supply - l knew I’d get water there. I dragged that hose into the accommodation, and played it around for a few minutes. Then the ammunition in number two hold started to explode. I fixed the hose as best I could and ran aft to the crew to tell them to abandon ship. Only then, I discovered that the deck service supply also was broken at number five hatch, which was well ablaze. I ordered the crew to take to the boats. They went into the starboard lifeboat, which was lying alongside number four hold - luckily it was the motor launch which had previously been used to run the Captain ashore.

All this time, the bosun was below, trying to get more water on the hoses. I went up to the boat deck to start lowering the port lifeboat. There was nobody available to help, so I started winding out the boat one end at a time. We were fitted with patent “Welin Quadrant" davits [apparatus for lowering boats], otherwise it would have been impossible. I started lowering the boat in the falls, when one Able Seaman and a fireman came up and helped lower. As soon as the boat reached the water, I told these two men to get in and stand by alongside. In the meantime, a young D.E.M.S. gunner started shooting away with the port Oerlikon gun on a platform amidships by the port lifeboat.

While the lifeboat was waiting, I went amidships to look for survivors. It was useless to try saving the ship - I used the hoses to play on the sides of the alleyways as I searched. Just as I had dragged a hose into the officers' port alleyway, the bosun came back. I sent him to take charge of the starboard lifeboat. I found the Second Officer just inside by the bathroom door - naked, badly burned, stupid with the shock. I pulled him out - his face was covered with blood - and ordered him to make for the starboard lifeboat.

I then worked in through the port alleyway, spraying my hose on the burning accommodation. There was no one in the Third Officer's cabin. I got as far as the Second Officer’s door when I discovered all the amidships bulkheads had concertinaed and had blocked the alleyways. Unable to get farther, I had to come out a couple of times for breath - burning paint and cordite. I heard someone groaning in the Second Officer's cabin. All lights were out, but by the glare of the fire I could see two legs sticking through the porthole. I dropped the hose there and ran outside, and found the Chief Engineer hanging head down outside.

Trapped, Wounded

When the deckhead had collapsed it had brought the dead-light down and trapped his legs just when be was trying to get out. He was conscious - head badly cut - and he told me to go careful as he thought his legs were broken. I couldn't drag him through the port, so I levered him through, pushing the deadlight up as best I could. Once I had got him clear, I couldn't hold him; he was too heavy. So had to let him drop as best I could on to the deck. Then I caught hold of his two hands and dragged him along the deck. He was screaming with the agony, but there was no other way.

The D.E.M.S. gunner saw me dragging the Chief, and came down to help me. I doubt whether I could have done the job alone. Then the Second Engineer, who had been down in the engine room all this time, came up. He gave us a hand to lower the Chief over the side. We made a rope fast under the Chief’s armpits, and lowered him into the lifeboat, sending the seaman-gunner down too. It takes a long time to tell, but it didn’t take long to happen. As far as we knew then, the Second Engineer and myself were the only two men left alive aboard the ship. We went back to the Bridge accommodation to see if we could rescue anyone else from the wreckage. I didn’t tell you at the time, but, just after I had sent the Second Officer away to the lifeboat, I half slipped - and found the Captain lying on the deck, half his head smashed and minus both legs. He was far beyond help.

German Plane Down

We tried the port alleyway twice, but it was hopeless - we couldn’t get in. Then we tried to get in through the pantry, but again it was hopeless. I asked the Second Engineer if he could get down below again, and get more force on the hose. While he was below I heard groaning from the starboard side, and found the Third Radio Officer lying there with his legs smashed up and severe head injuries. I had a look first to see if the port lifeboat was still alongside; but the burning wreckage of a German plane which had crashed near the ship had forced them to pull off. I dragged Sparks along the starboard alleyway, and got a rope under his armpits. Then the Second Engineer reappeared, and we both lowered Sparks over the side. No boats were left but there was a raft about 100 feet from the ship, with two firemen aboard. We hailed them. They came alongside and we lowered Sparks on to the raft.

We decided to have one last look round the ship. It was then we found an old Irish greaser lying in the scuppers, unconscious. By then the raft had drifted away from the ship, so we secured a lifebelt on the old man, took off his boots and trousers (why the trousers, I don’t quite know, but we had it in our heads at the time that this might help) and threw him overboard. It was his only chance of getting away. Then the Second Engineer went down the ladder, and waited while l swam out to the raft, to tow it alongside. I found we’d lost the paddle, so I boarded a lighter into which we’d been loading bombs and picked up a couple of pieces of wood which we used as makeshift paddles.
 
Having got the Second Engineer aboard, we just drifted round until we were picked up by a naval motor-launch. The old Irishman was dead by the time we got him to hospital. He was a man of 56, and the shock probably did it. I was asked, later, why we had thrown him overboard, instead of lowering him. But, remember, by this time the ammunition in number one and two holds was exploding; there were bombs in number three; the flames were now at a terrific height. We expected her to go up at any minute. The ship was an inferno - fire. fore and aft. There was no time for formalities.”


George Preston Stronach was born in the seaside village of Portgordon near Lossiemouth on the Moray Coast on 4 December 1914. He grew up at Stynie, Mosstodloch, near Fochabers, where his father was a blacksmith on the local farm of Alexander Duncan, and was educated at Balnacoul Primary School in Mosstodloch and Milne’s Institution (now Milne’s High School) in Fochabers. As a young boy, he attended the Red Kirk Church of Scotland in Mosstodloch where one of his early responsibilities was pumping the air bellows for the church organ. In May 1928, he was awarded first class 93% for his Scripture Examination from Speymouth Sunday School and received his first bible. As a youngster, he won many prizes at the local festivals for his singing and he was also a keen fiddler. On leaving school one of his first jobs was in a local butcher’s shop, followed by serving an apprenticeship as a chemist with Mr A. Robertson in Elgin. From there, with the help of the local Minister Rev George Birnie, he secured a place at Gravesend Sea School in 1932, subsequently becoming a Deck Boy on the Albion Star in North Shields.

After two voyages he left this ship and enrolled at sea school to obtain his Efficient Deck Hand Certificate, following which he made nine voyages on the Pacific Exporter in the rate of Able Seaman. After passing the examination for 2nd Mate in 1937 he joined the Clan Line and was appointed 4th Officer on the Clan Mactavish, subsequently being promoted 3rd Officer on the Clan Macbean, taking his Mate’s exam in 1940, which he passed, becoming 2nd Officer aboard the Baron Stranraer (H. Hogarth & Sons). In March 1941 Stronach was promoted to Chief Officer, sitting his Master’s Certificate the following year and transferring to the Ocean Voyager in August 1942.

The Ocean Voyager had been built by a yard in Richmond, California for Britain's Ministry of War Transport, and was only three months old. She was managed by Hogarths and commanded by Captain D Mackellar. Loaded with military cargo, she sailed for the Middle East, proceeding via Takoradi, Cape Town, Suez and Port Said to the Palestinian port of Haifa. The British Eighth Army was then fighting its way westward in North Africa, and Tripoli was one of its major supply ports. Ocean Voyager became one of the ships servicing the route to that port from Alexandria, and her cargo on the voyage which began during the second week of March 1943 included a highly dangerous mix of 3000 tons of aviation spirit in drums and almost the same tonnage of ammunition. Ocean Voyager arrived at Tripoli on the 16th and anchored in the Roads close to the breakwater. Discharging into barges and other miscellaneous craft began almost immediately; for the Eighth Army were preparing to attack the Afrika Korp's Mareth Line less than 200 miles to the west, and the cargo was required urgently. On the 19th, with about half the cargo unloaded, three flights of German bombers and torpedo aircraft attacked the port. So low did some of the aircraft fly in that the blast from one of several bombs which struck Ocean Voyager caused one of the planes to hit the ship's foremast and crash alongside in flames. Other aircraft came in with cannon fire and very soon most parts of the ship were enveloped in flames. The bridge superstructure collapsed into No.2 hold, and it was probably then that Captain Mackellar lost his life, following which came Stronach’s G.C. winning exploits.

Following the action in Tripoli, and after a lengthy period of hospitalisation recovering from a back injury sustained during the action, Stronach relieved the First Mate of the Baron Inchcape at Hull. On 9 August 1944 he was appointed to the Clyde Pilotage Authority to become a licensed pilot and he continued in this capacity until 1 July 1968 when he became the Pilot Master. On taking up this position, with a thought to better equip himself, he studied Marine Law. In 1973 he was elected a member of the Honourable Company of Master Mariners. Captain Stronach retired from The Clyde Pilotage on 4 December 1979. During his working life he was involved with the deep sea port in Rotterdam, Peterhead Harbour Trust and the Faslane Submarine Base. He also played an integral part in developing the new pilot cutters on the Clyde.

In 1952, being one of the few holders of the Gilwell Certificate for Scouting, he became part of his local scout group, the ‘6th Renfrewshire’, in Gourock as Scoutmaster. Having a great love of the outdoors, he was also a keen gardener, bee-keeper, fisherman and hill-walker. On his retirement Captain Stronach lived in Acharacle, Argyllshire with his wife Marion. Marion herself through her work in Coatbridge Technical College was involved in training disabled servicemen to re-enter civilian life. He died on 12 December 1999 and is buried next to his wife Marion in Acharacle Parish Church Cemetery.

In spite of all he achieved during his life, George Stronach remained a quiet, reserved, family man who was always ready to help others regardless of the circumstances or cost to himself.

Sold with the following archive of original documentation and artefacts:

i. Sea School, Gravesend, Kent, Certificate of Proficiency named to recipient and dated, 23 August 1932.

ii. St Andrew’s Ambulance Association First Aid Certificate, named to recipient and dated, 23 April 1937.

iii. Shore Leave Pass, issued by Alexandria Port Police, including photograph of recipient, dated 25 January 1943.

iv. Letter from Chief Engineer J. W. Anderson, written from No 27 General Hospital, M.E.F., dated 27 July 1943 and stamped ‘Passed by Censor’. Anderson was one of the ship’s crew whose life was saved by Chief Officer Stronach, as referred to in his G.C. citation - when by ‘almost superhuman efforts’ he dragged the wounded Anderson through the porthole.

‘Perhaps you will be thinking out of sight out of mind but that is not the case I can assure you. I often think of you and have been wondering if you have suffered any after affects from that terrifying time that you had on that eventful night.

I read the account of your experiences in the Parade of June 26th. I could hardly realise how you managed to endure such a time. I sincerely hope that by now you have arrived safely home, and able to enjoy with your beloved wife a well earned peaceful holiday together…

You will be wondering what progress I am making since I left you. I may state that this is the fourth hospital I have been to and reckoned to be the central orthopaedic for the M.E.F. I am now under good care and have been for the past three months. I have had a few setbacks, but my general health now is fairly good.

The damage done to my ankles was caused by the blast from the bomb and not from the port. I remember perfectly well crawling round the room and getting on to the bed and then being successful in opening the port sufficient to enable me to get my head out.

I cannot thank you too much for your thoughtfulness in coming along that very dangerous area to find if there was still anyone in difficulties, and in seeing my plight immediately removed me to a place of safety and later into the lifeboat.

I don’t exactly know how I will get on in future, but I will be content if I am only able to walk a little. I would feel very much to go home and be a burden to anyone…’ Together with a further airgraph letter from Anderson’s sister conveying her thanks for saving her brother’s life.

v. Letter from Maurice Frankland, written from Alder Hey Hospital, Liverpool, dated 25 November 1943. Frankland was another member of the ship’s crew that owed his life to the actions of Chief Officer Stronach.

‘I would very much like to congratulate you on being awarded the George Cross, an award which you most certainly deserve and in my opinion should have been the V.C.. I would very much like to give you my deepest appreciation for the gallant deeds you did on the night the ship was bombed, because if it had not been for you both the Chief Engineer and I would not have been alive today...’ Together with a further letter from Frankland’s wife, dated 9 September 1943, giving news of her husband’s recovery from his wounds and conveying her grateful thanks to him for saving his life: ‘Words fail to convey our heartfelt thanks and gratitude for your unselfishness and wonderful devotion to duty so magnificently given to the greatest cause in the world, the saving of your helpless comrades, without a thought of your own danger...’

vi. Two letters from the mother of First Radio Officer Samuel Smyth who was killed in action aboard the S.S. Ocean Voyager on 19 March 1943.

‘I have been so grateful to you for so much information which I have longed for. But oh dear to think of such a dreadful death as those dear boys had to suffer, and how many like them. Well Mr Stronach you could never know the pain that I have suffered. He certainly was a good boy and being so young, he was just 20 years of age...’

vii. A large quantity of congratulatory letters and telegrams to the recipient on the award of his G.C. (53) most contained in their original envelopes.

viii. Named certificate and covering letter confirming recipient’s membership of the Royal Society of St George.

ix. Enclosure letter for Lloyd’s Bravery Medal and copy of the relevant page from the Lloyd’s List & Shipping Gazette, dated 27 April 1944.

x. Various newspaper cuttings including interviews and pictures of the recipient.

xi. Named certificates for the Coronation 1953 and Jubilee 1977 medals.

xii. Several original photographs of recipient in uniform, including, pre-war, wartime, at Buckingham Palace for his award ceremony and post-war images.

xiii. A rare presentation issue 78 R.P.M. record issued by The Gramophone Company ‘Empire Broadcast Message by H.M. King George VI, September 23rd 1940, Announcing the institution of the George Cross’, contained in its specially made gilt-tooled leatherette presentation folder, with original presentation label inscribed ‘Presented to Chief Officer George Preston Stronach, G.C., with the compliments of The Gramophone Company limited’; together with two contemporary letters relating to the issue of the record, dated 25 November 1943 and 18 January 1944.

xiv. Merchant Navy officer’s cap, with embroidered bullion peak and badge.

xv. Model of the S.S. Ocean Voyager, contained in a William Grant Scotch whisky bottle.

For the recipient’s related miniature dress medals, see Lot 1049.