My interest in James was prompted when a relative of his, Cath Johnstone, got in touch with me via my website.
Going back to the start of the story, John Holgate and Elizabeth Halliday married on 28th December,1906 at Stobhill Manse, it was recorded they stayed in Newtongrange, and they set up home in 60 St David’s Newtongrange where first John Halliday Holgate was born in 1915 and James in 1918.
Elizabeth Halliday died on February 27th,1930 age 51 and James Holgate died on October 22nd 1937 age 59. The family address was still 60 St David’s, Newtongrange.
Cath’s late father and Jimmy Holgate were cousins and both had worked at the Lady Victoria Colliery as surface workers. In 1940 both were called up, Jimmy duly joined the Royal Engineers but the Lothian Coal Company were short of skilled workers and decided to use Cath’s father as a test case.
They were successful and this set a precedent, with surface workers in key jobs being exempted from the call up thereafter.
On Christmas Eve 1942 Jimmy boarded the SS Benalbanach, a troop ship, with hundreds of other men from a motor transport unit. She was carrying 389 men of Motor Transport unit and a crew of 74 from the Clyde to Bona, North Africa where allied forces were fighting the German Afrika Korps. On the 7th January 1943 she was sunk NW of Algiers when convoy KMS-6 she was part of, was attacked by a single Italian torpedo bomber.
The Benalbanach was hit by two torpedoes launched from the aircraft about 150 miles NE of Algiers, she caught fire, blew up and sank almost immediately taking the lives of 57 crew members and 353 service personnel, Jimmy was one of those men.
The tragic news was received by the extended family back in Newtongrange,
The news of Jimmy’s death was passed to John who was a Prisoner of War in Germany.
To my mind the Holgates have a long and proved association with Newtongrange going back about a hundred years, sadly by the time it was decided that names would be added to the memorial none of the Holgates were still alive and Cath was not aware of the situation.
It would seem unthinkable to deny James Holgate his rightful place with his comrades from Newtongrange. I hope the Council do the ‘right thing’ by James.
Please read this eye witness account and then look me in the eye and tell me James Holgate should not be on our war memorial.
One of James’s comrades who survived the sinking, George Codling recalled the day to his daughter Lisa who graciously shared her father’s story via the BBC WW2 Peoples War website which is now sadly closed.
Every day much the same, we passed Gibraltar, saw the lights in Spanish Morocco on the other side of the straits, this would be January 7th, I think about 4am. The mediterranean is rougher than the Atlantic which suprises me.
At 6.10pm as the light was failing I was heating water amidships when every ship opened out with their guns at 5 Savoia Topedo planes as they flew through the convoy, a few yards only from above the water. I dived down the first hatch for cover from the flak as our ships were practically firing on to each other. I was just taking stock of my surroundings when there was a crash, the ship heeled over and as the lights went out the roof fell in, missing me by about a yard. Although shaken, I managed to keep cool, took my lighter from my pocket and endeavoured to strike a light but dropping the lighter in the process.
Next, I groped before me and climbed up the wreckage with the horrible thought that I was to drown helplessly, but I managed to find a way onto what was once the deck. Debris was thrown everywhere and the water was almost up to the bridge. The aft had been blown off by the explosion which was terrific owing to the nature of our cargo, ammo, bombs, high octance spirit, etc. I climbed onto the bridge where an attempt to lower the lifeboat was being made. It looked to me as if the boat would capsize so I did not climb in, which was fortunate as it did capsize, flinging the men into the water, where they clung to the bottom of the boat.
I jumped overboard, my life jacket being secure, and swam ahead of the bows of the ship. The sea was covered with oil and debris and men were all around shouting and screaming, this was the most terrible thing of all, to hear them and no-one could help. I swam as hard as possible but did not seem to make progress. The ship stood on her tail as it were and towered above me and then slid quietly, taking the capsized boat down along with the men. There was no suction whatsoever. From being torpedoed to sinking must have been seconds and yet to me felt like hours, even now.
My brain still being cool, I made my way to a merchant seaman as he had a red light on his jacket. Recognising him I said “Hello Mac,, how are you doing?” we laughed about this afterwards. We also saw my officer about 20 yards away and I shouted at him asking if he was alright, he replied in the affirmitive, then we drifted further apart. The Merchant seaman and I then grabbed a piece of wood about 6feet by 2feet and pushed it before us.About half an hour of being in the water 3 more merchant seaman joined us and we made progress to where we believed the destroyer to be. The sea became rough and I swallowed gallons of it mixed with fuel oil. I was violenty sick. We only saw the horizon about every sixth wave, the rest of time being in a trough, visibility nil.
We were frozen by this time and I had cramp in both legs. I just barely remember being hauled on board the destroyer covered in fuel oil. I was washed down and had my clothes cut off. I trembled and shook for a solid hour after being dumped on an improvised bed.
We had been picked up at 8.45 after having been in the water for 2 1/2 hours. I only said one prayer while swimming, to be rescued and brought ashore safely. I thought too, of death but never gave up hope. Those poor lads who went, I’ll never forget. The sailors were grand, the only word for them.
We landed in Bone on the 8th January, which was my birthday, my life as a present. My lungs were oiled up and breathing was difficult for three days. My officer and his batman were saved. Survivors were 28 and some of those were off another ship.We lost 410 of a compliment of 430.
This story was written by my father in his own words just after the war. He was a tanker driver in the Motor Transport Corps. I can’t be any more specific as he rarely talked about his experiences in the war.
He died of stomach cancer in December 1981.