No.68 HMHS Rohilla

Diary of the War Part III

One hundred years ago yesterday HMHS Rohilla, a liner requisitioned as, and converted to, a hospital ship, struck the rocks at Whitby while southbound from Queensferry and Leith for Dunkirk to pick up patients from the Western Front. I have written about her before but this week I would like to look again at her significance, while this weekend the Whitby RNLI commemorates the loss of the Rohilla with services and events, including a ‘live’ Twitter feed of the rescue as told by a survivor, Fred Reddiough.

Like another wreck in 1912, she was the product of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, and was also linked through one of her survivors to that wreck – Mrs Mary Roberts, who found the experience of being dashed on the rocks at Whitby far worse than experiencing the cold waters of the Atlantic from the Titanic. As with our survivors last week, Mrs Roberts’ experience illustrates that those who went to sea could expect to be shipwrecked at least once in their careers, frequently more often: undergoing multiple shipwreck was very common.

That experience of being so close to shore, yet so far from help on the rocks in the mountainous waves and cold seas of a North Sea storm, was what made the wreck of the Rohilla so terrifying. The storm continued unabated for three days as the ship was pounded by waves and began to break up, with the stern coming away on the Friday afternoon.

The Rohilla struck with such force that the Captain was convinced that she had been struck by a mine and reiterated this view at the inquest, which was also reflected in the findings of the jury, who found that the ship ‘struck something before grounding’. (1) If true, then she would have been the first mine casualty off the North Yorkshire coast, but she was not recorded as a war loss in official sources. The 22 recorded losses to mines up to this point of the war, mostly off Tynemouth or the Humber, suggest that a mine as the initial cause of the incident is perhaps less likely, and the shock felt simply that of the force with which she struck. (2)

The circumstances of her original loss, followed by time and tide, have ensured that the Rohilla is a scattered wreck, whose remains are partly confused with those of another wreck, the Charles, which stranded nearby in the Second World War.

The Whitby and other local lifeboats attempted the rescue under horrendous conditions, one even being lowered down a cliff, but it was not until the motor lifeboat was sent for from Tynemouth, speeding through the night, that a large-scale lifeboat rescue could be attempted. Modern technology was on the march and astonishing footage also exists of locals forming a human chain to bring survivors to shore.

Her story is perhaps one of the most moving shipwreck events of the whole war, and not only because of her difficult position in difficult conditions, and the associated loss of life. The Captain altered course to avoid minefields and was unable to make use of the usual navigational clues, since lighthouses were extinguished as a result of the war: wartime exigencies were already contributing to casualties. Her journey was one to fetch home war casualties, so that those who were travelling to help became those in need of help.

For previous posts in the War Diary, please click here.

(1) Times, Nov. 5, 1914, No.40,688, p5

(2) National Record of the Historic Environment shipwreck database, accessed October 2014

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