The Rohilla disaster

The hospital ship the SS Rohilla.
The hospital ship the SS Rohilla.
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by Dr Jack Binns

About four in the morning of Friday October 30, 1914, the crew and passengers on board the hospital ship Rohilla were shaken out of their beds by a violent collision. The Rohilla had struck jagged, submerged rocks, known as the Saltwick Scar, about a quarter of a mile from Whitby abbey’s east cliff.

The Rohilla had been steaming southwards out of Queensferry in the Scottish Firth of Forth to Dunkirk. A twin-crew steamer, 460 feet long and 56 feet broad, it had been built by Harland and Wolff at Belfast, registered at Glasgow, and belonged to the British India Steam Navigation Company of London. Its mission was to pick up British wounded at Dunkirk and ferry them back to “Blighty”.

On board the hospital ship that fateful night were 229 crew and passengers. Five of them were female: four Red Cross nurses and a stewardess.

At first nearly all seemed to be going well. Though Whitby’s number 1 lifeboat could not be rowed out of the harbour into such mountainous waves in the open sea, the number 2 John Fielden, was dragged over the beach and launched at daylight, about 7.30am. During the next hour and a half in two journeys it had recovered 35 passengers who included the nurses and stewardess.

However, at about 9am, the John Fielden was “stove in by the rocks” and totally disabled and every attempt to connect the stricken vessel with the shore or rescue boats by rocket line had ended in failure. By this time the Rohilla had broken in two and all its life craft had been sunk, smashed to pieces or swept away on to the rocks by the gale-force north-easterly. The Rohilla had no rocket lines of its own.

A distress call was made to Whitby’s reserve lifeboat at Upgang, the William Riley, but here the sea was still too high to launch it safely. Scarborough’s lifeboat, the Queensbury, was also summoned by telegram, but it too found the open sea impossibly rough. Not until 3pm, and then only with the help of a trawler, the Morning Star, were Scarborough’s lifeboat rowers able to round the outer pier and head northwards. A picture published later by the Mercury showed hundreds of onlookers watching the harbour launching.

By this time an eyewitness at Whitby was reporting the scene there in graphic detail. All that remained of the Rohilla was a floating hulk continually drowned by high waves and to it attached about 50 survivors.

The scene on the sea front and cliff at Whitby as I send this message is an intensely heartrending and pitiable one...I look out and see the bridge of the ill-fated vessel, with apparently some 40 or 50 people still alive on it...the water lashes up and the spray envelopes that stricken little band.

Soaked to the skin, frozen by the cold wind, many of them without outdoor clothing, there seemed little hope that any of them could survive for much longer.

By the following morning, Saturday October 31, Scarborough’s own lifeboat had returned home. After an ordeal lasting through the night, it had been found impossible to get anywhere near the remains of the Rohilla. In desperation, some men had been seen jumping into the boiling sea and attempting to swim ashore. A few of them had reached the arms of rescuers on the beach and were then rushed off to Whitby Cottage hospital, but most came ashore as corpses. The survivors were numb with cold, exhaustion and terror.

At 4.15pm Mr George Buchanan, Whitby’s coroner, announced the names of some of the dead and then adjourned the inquest until the following Monday.

Long before then, it had become clear that only a motorised lifeboat had any chance of approaching the broken remnants of the Rohilla. Accordingly, a summons was sent to Tynemouth, 44 miles away, for the Henry Vernon, and it arrived at Whitby at 1am on November 1. Amazingly, there were still about 50 terrified survivors on the ship’s bridge, and after discharging oil to calm the waters around it, the Henry Vernon was at last able to bring them off and take them all back to terra firma. Altogether their ordeal had lasted 50 hours.

In the end, of the 229, 85 had perished and 144 had not, though many of them were traumatised, mentally and physically. Amongst the survivors was Mary Roberts who had been aboard the Titanic two years earlier. Last to leave the Rohilla had been Captain Neilson, carrying the ship’s cat.

At the Whitby inquest that followed, Neilson and some of his crew still insisted that their ship had struck a mine. The captain refused to accept that he had sailed too close to the rocks and that he had ignored a message from Whitby in morse warning him of the dangers of his course and location. On the other hand, it had to be conceded that in the wartime absence of shore lights and illuminated buoys, the Rohilla had been allowed to follow a perilous route. In the end, Coroner Buchanan had nothing but praise for the extraordinary heroism of the several lifeboats crews who had repeatedly risked their lives in what were invincible conditions.

During the next weeks, mutilated and decomposing corpses were being washed ashore. None of them could be identified. Divers at the submerged wreck of the Rohilla failed to find any more bodies. Eventually, all the victims not claimed by relatives were buried in a mass grave in Whitby cemetery.

If there was any positive outcome of this tragic episode, it was to persuade the RNLI that motorised lifeboats were no longer a luxury and oarsmen rowing boats could no longer be expected to battle with the unremitting power of the sea.

The Rohilla was not directly a casualty of war, but in peacetime it would not have taken such a perilous route down the north-east coast during such a stormy night. The only consolation was that it did not carry hundreds of wounded soldiers.

Because the rescue had taken so long there had been time for camera men to make a movie film of the event which was shown by British Pathe News in cinemas all over the country and is now accessible online using this link – http://www.britishpathe.com/video/hospital-ship-rohilla-aka-rescue-of-survivors-from/query/rohilla