Rohilla was a British India passenger/cargo vessel requisitioned as a hospital ship in WW1. She was lost on 30 October 1914 on striking a reef at Saltwick Nab near Whitby during a storm with great loss of life despite heroic efforts to rescue those on board by several lifeboats.
I have often walked along stretch of coast where Rohilla was lost but knew nothing about the disaster before creating this page. Coincidentally, I am writing this on 30 October 2016 - exactly 102 years since she ran aground.
This page includes information originally published in an article on the MerchantShipsOfficers.com website. Much more information about the loss of the vessel can be found in Colin Brittain's book 'Into the Maelstrom : The Wreck of HMHS Rohilla' - External Ref. #86.
|Original Owners and Managers||British India SN Co Ltd|
|Country First Registered||UK|
|Shipbuilder||Harland & Wolff|
|Country where built||UK|
|Breadth or Beam||56 Ft|
|Engine Type||Quadruple-expansion Steam Engine|
|Engine Details||Two quadruple expansion steam engines with cylinders of bore 27", 38 1/2", 55 1/2", 80" and stroke 54"|
|Engine Builder||Harland & Wolff|
|Engine Builder Works||Balfast|
|Engine Builder Country||UK|
|Boiler Details||3 single-ended and two double-ended boilers|
|Propulsion Type||Twin Screw|
|Crew||84 at time of loss|
- Three steel decks
- Fitted with electronic lighting
- Fitted with wireless equipment
|6 September 1906||Launched|
|17 November 1906||Completed|
|Outset of WW1||Requisitioned and converted to a hospital ship|
|30 October 1914||Foundered on rocks and lost at Saltwick Nab|
Rohilla was ordered by British India Steam Navigation Company for use on the London to Calcutta service. She was designed with a view that she could also be used as a troopship. The ship was named after the Rohillas - Pashtun highlanders who lived in Rohilkhand, east of Delhi, in the modern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The Calcutta service operated during the winter months
In 1908 Rohilla became 'Troopship No.6'. Her hull was painted white with a blue riband, and her funnel was painted buff. Two years later she was one of the first BI ships to have radio receivers fitted, and was hired in 1910 for the Coronation Fleet Review, carrying members of the House of Lords (some sources say House of Commons).
On August 4 1914 Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Belgium. On 6 August 1914 Rohilla was requisitioned for use as a hospital ship and became His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Rohilla after conversion work.
Conversion included converting the passenger accommodation into wards and installing x-ray apparatus and two operating theatres. The work was overseen by Captain David Landles Neilson who had been in command of Rohilla since she entered service.
As a hospital ship, her hull was painted white with a green band running parallel to the water line and she would fly the flag of the Red Cross in addition to her national flag.
On 29 October 1914, Rohilla departed South Queensferry in the Firth of Forth bound for Dunkirk to bring back wounded servicemen. Weather conditions were deteriorating as she left.
Wartime restrictions meant that all shore lights visible from sea, including lighthouses, were extinguished and even the bells on warning buoys were silenced.
At 03:30 on 30 October 1914 a sentry on duty at Whitby Harbour saw a large vessel pass close to the end of the pier in the darkness. Shortly afterwards a coastguard saw what was happening and tried to attract the attention of those on the ship to no avail and she ran aground at Saltwick Nab.
Although the ship was only about 400 yards from shore, the conditions were treacherous. She rapidly broke her back and lifeboats attended from Whitby, Upgang, Redcar, Tynemouth and Scarborough. Some of those on board managed to swim ashore and others were rescued by the lifeboats over the course of three days. Ultimately 146 of 229 were rescued including Captain Neilson and all the nurses.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institute gives the following timeline of the rescue:
Friday 30 October 1914
4:00am – In pitch black, high seas and storm force winds, Rohilla runs on to dangerous rocks and breaks in half. Around 60 souls on the back half of the ship are lost. Maroons sound and Whitby Lifeboat Coxswain Thomas Langlands and crew race to the station.
The sea is too heavy for the Whitby No. 1 lifeboat to launch. The crew plan to wait until daylight and launch the No. 2 John Fielden lifeboat instead. About 100 volunteers carry the rowing lifeboat over a 2.4m sea wall to reach the beach nearest the wreck.
Daybreak – The Whitby crew launch John Fielden and reach Rohilla, a quarter of a mile from the shore and surrounded by rocks. They save 12 men and 5 women (all the nurses, including Mary Roberts). The crew rescue a further 18 men on a second launch. But the lifeboat is badly holed and can’t go out again. Survivors cling to the wreck. Volunteers and horses transport the Upgang lifeboat William Riley through town, over fields to the top of the cliffs near the scene of the wreck. The volunteers lower the lifeboat 10m down the cliffs, but the terrible seas prevent the launch. Teesmouth motor lifeboat and Scarborough lifeboat are called by telephone. The Scarborough rowing lifeboat can't launch unaided in the gale.
2:30pm - Teesmouth crew decide to delay launching the lifeboat until the morning, when accompanied by a tug.
3:30pm - Scarborough’s lifeboat Queensbury sets off, towed by the steam trawler Morning Star.
6:00pm - Queensbury and the Morning Star arrive on the scene. It is too dark to reach the wreck. Both craft remain nearby throughout the night.
Saturday 31 October 1914
5:00am - Finding it impossible to get near the wreck, the Queensbury and Morning Star return to Scarborough. The Teesmouth lifeboat leaves Redcar for Teesmouth but hits a trough of a wave and springs a leak. They are towed back to shore.
6:00am - Volunteers haul the Upgang lifeboat over the rocks into the best position for launching. On Rohilla, around 50 survivors huddle together on one small portion of the wreck.
7:00am - Whitby No. 1 lifeboat launches safely down the slipway and awaits a steam trawler Mayfly, which was summoned by telegram from Hartlepool.
8:00am - The Mayfly arrives and takes the lifeboat in tow. They get to within half a mile of the wreck but the sea is too heavy for the men to row nearer. The lifeboat returns to harbour.
9:00am - Upgang lifeboat William Riley launches and the crew struggle for an hour to reach the wreck. They are forced to give up, exhausted. On one occasion they got within 50m of the wreck. Some of the desperate survivors jump overboard and attempt to swim ashore. A number of onlookers rush into the sea and drag many survivors to shore. Many others are beyond help. Local man George Peart repeatedly goes into the sea and pulls survivors to safety.
4:15pm - The Tynemouth motor lifeboat Henry Vernon reaches Whitby after being summoned by telegram. The crew launched within 15 minutes of receiving the telegram. In command was Coxswain Robert Smith. They travelled 44 miles through the night, unaided by any coast lights due to the war.
Sunday 1 November 1914
1:00am - Tynemouth motor lifeboat arrives in Whitby Harbour.
5:00am - The crew pick up barrels of oil to quell the waves.
6:30am - The lifeboat gets within 200m of the Rohilla. It discharges gallons of oil and the waves flatten. The crew pulls alongside the Rohilla, and the lifeboat crew save every man aboard – all 50 of them. The last man to leave the ship is the Captain. The people of Whitby rush to the quayside on the western pier with blankets, tea and other comforts. Ambulances, motor-cars and stretchers are waiting. The survivors were onboard for over 50 hours. Some are in their pyjamas. On one man’s shoulder is a little black kitten. 84 men lost their lives that day but 145 people were saved.
The Empire Gallantry Medal was awarded to Major Burton of the Tynemouth lifeboat for his role in the rescue. Captain Neilson was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for his efforts in the rescue of the ship's cat. Three Gold medals and four Silver Medals were awarded by the RNLI.
One of the lucky survivors was Mary Kezia Roberts who had also survived the wreck of Titanic just over two years earlier. She had been a stewardess and must have been one determined lady as she continued working at sea until the late 1920s - her final ship being Rajputan. Bizarrely, Mary Robert's trunk from Rohilla appeared for sale on eBay and was purchased by Whitby Museum quite recently.
A great deal more information about the attempts to rescue survivors can be found in Colin Brittain's article at Ext. Ref. #85.
British Pathé has a short newsreel clip or rescue attempts that can be viewed HERE.
Liverpool Echo 31 October 1914
The Liverpool Echo carried the following storyline:
ABOUT 50 MEN SAVED. -- GOOD NEWS FROM WRECKED HOSPITAL SHIP. -- NUMBER ON BOARD. -- SURVIVORS STILL CLINGING TO THE WRECK.
About fifty men were saved this morning from the wreck of the hospital ship Rohilla Whitby. This cheering news was received at noon to-day. About sixty-two, however, remain on board.
An earlier message said: The people left on the wrecked hospital ship Rohilla, which went on the rocks south of Whitby, yesterday morning are still clinging to the wreck.
A telephone message from Whitby at four o'clock this morning states that a flashlight message from the wreck says that those upon it will cling on as long as they can. Their number is 100; it was 108 earlier, but eight have been drowned.
The tug and the Scarborough lifeboat are standing by, and a trawler from West Hartlepool, which hopes to render assistance, is expected to arrive shortly. The tide is now going out — it was high tide just before two o'clock — and if the sea further abates there is yet hope of rescue.
A small sailing vessel has been wrecked and broken up by the gale at Sandsend, on the north side of Whitby, and several of the bodies which have been washed ashore may be men of her crew, and not of the Rohilla's.
HOSPITAL SHIP DISASTER. -- TRAGIC SCENES ON THE WHITBY COAST.
HOW IT HAPPENED. -- A TERRIBLE DAYLONG VIGIL.
It was at ten minutes to four yesterday morning that the disaster happened. On Thursday night and during the early hours a tremendous gale raged in the North Sea. The night was pitch dark, and this accentuated the dangers of navigation. Shortly after half-past three o'clock a sentry on duty on the Whitby Pier Head was astonished to see a large vessel pass silently by within few feet of the pier.
Almost immediately afterwards a coastguard sighted the Vessel. He saw her peril she skirted the submerged rocks that stretch out their long arms from the foot of the cliffs south of Whitby, and he tried to attract the vessel's attention. This he was unable to do, and the inevitable happened. The crew of the Rohilla stated that they had absolutely no knowledge of their position when the vessel struck. When the news spread, a stream of people at once began to flow from the town up the steep steps towards the Abbey, and along the cliff top in the direction of Saltwick Nab. The cliff top, which at this point is some 390 feet above water level, was soon fringed by hundreds of spectators.
In early morning light the boat was observed lying a little the north of the extreme point of Saltwick Nab, a low promontory jutting out to sea south of Whitby. Viewed from the top cliff she did not appear to be more than couple of hundred yards away, but at that height the distance was deceptive.
She was fully eight hundred yards out, and huge seas were breaking clean over her. Twice a rope was thrown by rocket aboard the stranded vessel. Once it reached the forestay and hung there in full view of the shore, but out of reach of the poor fellows on the wreck, which was swept continuously by tempestuous seas. Another time communication was effected, but fate was again unpropitious and the rope broke.
The suspense of those on the cliffs was terrible, those desiring to help witnessing the failure of repeated efforts. The forepart of the ship was quite untenable. Shelter was possible only amidships. When the rocket reached the vessel the rope broke, and two members of the crew displayed great bravery in securing it, one man swinging on stay for several minutes in endeavouring to co-operate with those on shore.
A correspondent of the "Yorkshire Post," describing the scene as the day wore on, writes:
Every now and then the captain signals to the shore, and inch by inch calculates how much closer his vessel is to her doom. At midday he sends the message that nearly twenty men are dead from exhaustion. Earlier the day, one ship's boat has got ashore with a few men, and two perilous lifeboat journeys have been made to the ship. Each time seventeen or eighteen men have been saved. At the second time the lifeboat staves her side, and she is beached, and thenceforward she is useless. Several corpses have been washed ashore.
A 100 TO 1 CHANCE
Two men, strong and valiant swimmers, determined to reach the shore by their own resources. Almost naked, but wearing lifesaving jackets, they plunged boldly into the breakers, and then began an unequal contest with the elements. Tossed this way and that, now on the crest of a largo wave, now flung into an abyss of water, they struggled bravely on, their progress watched with frantic excitement by men on shore. At last with almost the last breath beaten out of their bodies, they were flung contemptuously towards the foot of the cliffs by the violent currents, and rescuers dashed into the water almost to their necks, gripped them surely before they could be whisked away again, and brought them safely to land. They were rubbed vigorously, covered with warm clothing, and given copious draughts of warm tea, and soon they partially recovered from their terrifying experience. They had gained the victory with the chances at 100 to 1 against them.
STERN AND ITS OCCUPANTS DISAPPEAR
It was clear that the Rohilla was slowly breaking up, and about ten o'clock the stern, upon which number of men still clung, was completely overwhelmed by an unusually large wave. When the smother of foam had passed by, the spectators saw that this part of the ship had turned turtle, and there was not trace of its former occupants.
The bows were also settling down and giving every indication an early break-up. About hour later the funnel fell away to seaward, and, after battering against the side of the ship for some time, sank out of sight.
All who were left on board alive were now clustered on the bridge, the superstructure of the ship being alone above water. The bows had also broken away, leaving the central part of the boat standing like small island in an angry sea, and it was continually deluged by the waves.
Telegraphing last night, the correspondent said:- Rockets are being fired still, with the same negative results, and out at sea two or three ships are flashing signals to the coastguard station on the cliff. A tugboat has in tow the Scarborough lifeboat, but in the present state of the sea she cannot hope to approach from the seaward side.
A SURVIVOR'S STORY
The majority of those rescued yesterday were seamen and firemen of the Merchant Service. One of them was old man of seventy, who had sailed the seas for fifty-five years and this was his first experience of shipwreck. Of the five women rescued four were nurses, and the other the ship's stewardess. One survivor described his experiences follows:
No sooner had she struck than she began to break up like matchwood. All the electric lights went out. All we could do was to wait shivering on the deck for orders. It was not until daylight came that we could do anything. Then the captain asked for volunteers to take the only remaining boat — for all the others had bean smashed away — and tow ashore with line. A lot of us volunteered, and five of us were sent with the second mate. We had hardly got afloat when one oar after another was smashed. It seems a miracle that we got ashore. We lost the line when a big wave came and nearly swamped us. It was a wonder that the boat righted itself, and when she did she was half filled with water. Close in we were upset, and it was only with the assistance of the people on shore that we were able to scramble to safety through the water, which was breast high.
Daily Mirror 2 November 1914
The Daily Mirror carried the photograph below with the caption "The Rohilla being broken to pieces by the waves, Several men standing on the Bridge, while one of them is seen dropping into the water to try and fight his way to the shore. Note the lifeline which fell across the rigging too far away to be reached".
The Mirror also carried the following quote:
Bound on an errand of mercy to Belgium the British Hospital Ship Rohilla was wrecked in a terrible gale on the rocks off Whitby. One lifeboat rescued thirty-five persons, but the others failed to reach the vessel though the gallant crews cheerfully risked their own lives in the attempt. Realising that their only hope was to jump for it several men dived into the sea from the doomed vessel, though not all of them reached the shore alive. The remaining fifty survivors were rescued yesterday
Daily Record and Mail 3 November 2014
The Glasgow newspaper 'Daily Record and Mail' contained several articles about the disaster and a photo of some of the survivors. I have transcribed the articles as the original source faint and difficult to read.
SCENES AT THE ROHILLA WRECK
GLASGOW MAN'S THRILLING STORY
HOW HE SWAM ASHORE
SHIPMATES WASHED OVERBOARD
FRUITLESS EFFORTS OF THE ROCKET BRIGADE
It was a thrilling story that Mr. William Dick, a Glasgow memoer of the crew of the wrecked Rohilla, told on his arrival into the city last night from Whitby.
Mr. Dick has had a large share of good fortune at sea. During his career he has suffered shipwreck three times, the accidents on two of the occasions taking place in Newfoundland.
Giving the details of his latest adventure to the "Daily Record and Mail" he explained that he was on duty at 4.15 on Friday morning when the Rohilla struck.From occurrences of a similar kind earlier in his life he knew in an instant by the shiver that went through the vessel that she was aground.
Quite a gale was blowing. On emerging from the engine-room he saw everyone hurrying about looking for the boats. With the exception of the men on watch, who wore their oilskins, all were more or less in a state of deshabille. Of excitement there was really very little. Everyone was concerned with his particular duty. Mr. Dick saw heavy seas carry away two of the boats from the starboard side. He had forgotten to provide himself with a lifebelt and set at once about repairing the omission. The main deck was his objective. But by this time all the lights were out. Directed by their voices, he came across two men and asked them where the lifebelts were. One of them made answer "They are here in a box." He lost no time in securing one.
Mr. Dick then attempted to get on to the boat deck again. He made the discovery that the ladder had been carried away by the wild seas. Finding his way to the lee-side of the vessel, he climbed up the outside of the hull and so regained the deck. Chance had brought him just opposite the Marconi room. He asked one of the operators if any message had been despatched. The reply was "I have sent the S.O.S. and got an answer." To the best of Mr. Dick's recollection the response had been made from Newcastle. In small groups others joined him in the operators room where they all stayed until the arrival of daylight about seven o'clock.
A PRECARIOUS POSITION
During the weary hours he looked out and saw a sight which will not be effaced readily from his memory. Half a dozen of the crew were clinging to the main rigging. One man named Scott was hanging head down. At a later stage Mr. Dick learned that the poor fellow had died from exposure in that position. One of his feet had become entangled in the rigging and the cold caused him to release his hold.
Some of the men brought the fifth engineer into the operators room. He was insensible. He had been hanging on to the engine-room skylights with the seas breaking constantly over him. The ship's doctor attended to him, and at the end of an hour, much to the satisfaction of all, the engineer began to show signs of recovery.
The doctor later reported to the people assembled in the room that there were signals from the bridge calling upon them to come forward. When the company arrived at the bridge one of the ship's boats - the only one he saw lowered - was on her way to the shore with a line. The connection with land was not made however. When some distance from the ship the line parted. The boat was almost swamped and was finally got ashore in a waterlogged condition.
Mr. Dick had frequently looked to ascertain if people ashore were trying to launch a lifeboat. He joined a party of between 30 and 40 in the captain's cabin, and there recieved a quantity of dry clothing. By that time the nurses who had been on board were safely ashore, having been removed in the lifeboat. Back the boat came for a second time on its mission of mercy. Mr. Dick, unfortunately, had not been aware of her presence when the boat was alongside the wrecked vessel. Another large party was saved by the second trip.
VESSEL BREAKS IN TWO
Looking aft, Mr. Dick saw five or six of the crew clinging together on the poop. The vessel had broken in two aft by that time. Mr. Dick stood watching them for two or three hours, expecting every minute to see them carried away by the seas. It was a terrible sight he says, to see people so near hand and not be able to help them. A little later when he turned round he found that they had all been washed away.
The funnel of the vessel later went over the side. The rest of the day was spent watching the life-saving apparatus at work. The people on shore sent off about 30 rockets, but only one good line reached the ship. About a hundred yards of line were pulled on board, and then it parted, the block having become entangled with the rocks. More rockets were fired after that mishap, but they either fell short or the line parted in the air above their heads. Their feelings at such moments could be imagined.
Signals made to them in the Morse code acquainted them with the fact that another lifeboat was being brought overland. Mr. Dick saw a boat being pulled over the cliffs. All wondered why it was not being launched. An explanation was signalled that owing to the wild weather a rescue could not be attempted until next morning.
By orders of the captain a roll-call was taken that night when 108 men responded. By Mr. Dick's calculation, they had lost about 50 men owing to the seas which swept the vessel.
The question was put to the company by the captain whether they wished to make rafts or remain by the ship until next morning. In the opinion of the captain the steamer would keep together through the night. It was decided to stay by the ship.
The weather continued pretty much the same, being even fresher towards midnight. The company spent the night huddled in the three cabins on the boat deck. Everyone longed eagerly for daylight, which was long in coming. When daylight came it was found that bit by bit the vessel had been breaking up during the night.
He had been keeping a sharp look-out for the lifeboat. At last they saw it being hauled round the cliffs. With difficulty it was launched and an effort was made to reach the ship, but it failed as the sea continued very boisterous. IN the end the attempt was abandoned.
A GRIM ALTERNATIVE
It was at that stage that the captain remarked "If I were some of you young men, I would make a bid for the shore." Indicating a rock he said "Once past that you would find comparatively smooth water." Several of the men were engaged making rafts out of such material as chests of drawers and gratings afforded. Addressing his mate, who was standing beside him, Mr. Dick said "I may as well be drowned in trying to reach the shore now as later when she breaks up under us."
He decided to wait until it was low water as he had observed that there was a powerful current running between the ship and the land. A couple of the crew had a similar intention for when the tide became suitable they slipped down a rope, wearing lifebelts, and gaining the water struck out for the shore.
"Are you coming?" inquired Mr. Dick at his companion. "I am afraid of cramp" was the answer.
Wishing him "Goodbye", Mr. Dick was soon battling for his life on the waves. "I am a fair swimmer," he stated in the interview, and I think I may say for myself that I did pretty well. The sensation was far from pleasant I can tell you. The big breakers when they hit you, turn you round and round five or six times and pound you under.
"When about sixty yards from the ship I began to feel myself encumbered by my pyjamas. Supported by the belt, I stood up in the water and divested myself of the garment. I could see another man following me. I was continually being knocked under by the breakers. Sometimes the swell would lift me up and I could see the people on the shore waiting for us. While we were fighting landwards a signal had been sent from the ship to keep a look-out for us. Glancing back I noted that I was increasing my lead from the other chap in the water. The nearer the shore I got the weaker I became. But the sight of the people waiting nerved me on. They had fastened themselves together with ropes and several of them had waded out as far as they dare venture into the water. One of them encouraged me with the cry 'Cheer up, I'm coming for you.' He caught hold of me under the arms and dragged me ashore.
"I was given a good cup of beef tea, put on a stretcher, and carried along the beach to the Cottage Hospital where I received the best of attention. I cannot speak too highly of the kindnesses shown to me and others from the ill-fated vessel by the warm-hearted people of Whitby."
Dundee Evening Telegraph 16 November 1914
The Dundee Evening Telegraph carried the following report:
LAST OF THE ROHILLA
Heavy seas battered the remains of the Glasgow hospital ship Rohilla at Whitby on Saturday, and completely scattered the chart-house and portions which had, contrary to expectation, remained standing after the stranding of the vessel on October 30th and from which 50 survivors were rescued.
For over two days bodies have been washed ashore almost daily, and the solemn processions of jurymen though the town consequently been frequent. Three bodies were washed ashore on Saturday and three more yesterday, but identification is almost out of the question.
Newspaper Reports of Unknown Date
The next press cutting includes a list from the Admiralty of those saved. I do not know whether or not it is a comprehensive list though. The reporter notes that searchlights had been brought to the scene and installed on the cliff to illuminate the wreck and rescue efforts.
This press cutting includes what it describes as a third list of 'the saved'.
Full details of the inquiry can be found in Colin Brittain's book 'Into the Maelstrom: The Wreck of HMHS Rohilla' External Ref. #86.
No time was lost before starting investigations of the disaster. The Glasgow 'Daily Record and Mail' carried this report about the beginning of the Coroner's enquiry on 3 November 1914:
THE CORONERS INQUIRY
WOMEN SENT AWAY FIRST
From our Own Correspondent - Whitby, Monday
The inquest was resumed at Whitby Court-House today upon the victims of the disaster to the hospital ship Rohilla. Mr. George Buchanon was the Coroner.
Evidence of identification was taken on ten bodies on Satuerday and similar evidence wa given respecting fifteen more bodies this morning, and then proceedings were adjourned until the afternoon.
The fifteen bodies were those of sick berth steward Sidney Morris, carpenter Edward Rose, bedroom-steward Colin Gibson, sick berth reserve Henry James Barter, sick berth steward Alfred Page, electical engineer William Perrin, fireman James Stewart, third officer P.C. Moore, quartermaster Nicholson, third engineer J. Brown, and steard John Fogerty.
Evidence of identification was given by Mr. Peter Cairns, secretyar of the Glasgow branch of the Cooks and Stewards Union also by several of the crew.
John William Thomson, superintendent of the Barnoldswick Ambulance Division, after identifying Henry James Barter, one of the members of the division, said eleven of their division were not accounted for. Eight or nine were married, with families who wished to get the bodies home. If recovered, the Admiralty would provide coffins but nothing further. He thought they should do more. The Coroner said it should be considered.
The fist witness when the inquest was resumed in the afternoon was Mr. Littler Jones, a surgeon in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who said that heavy weather was experienced after the Rohilla left the Firth of Forth. He joined the ship early in August. Captain Neilson had commanded all the time, and discipline had been good. The ship was rolling a good deal on Thursday night. A few minutes before four on Friday morning there was a sudden crash. He turned on the light, which almost immediately went out.
He went on deck, but it was impossible to see where the ship was. The captain was giving directions calmly. Perfect order was maintained. The captain wanted all the men on the poop to go forward as well as those aft but the men could not cross the after-part where seas were breaking over. The lifeboat came to them shortly after daybreak.
Four nurses and a stewardess were put on the lifeboat. The captain ordered the women to go first, then the doctors, the sick attendants, the crw, and the officers, leaving himself the last to be rescued. The witness thought the captain did not select individually. One doctor was in the first lifeboat. The witness could not see them landed.
The sea was very heavy and the wind very hard. The spray went as high as the top of the funnel. The witness was the last in the lifeboat the second time, about seventeen being rescued. He helped th carry ashore a doctor who was sick. The lifeboatmen certainly did their duty. He landed in the boat in four feet of water. He asked the people on the beach to drag the lifeboat toward the Nab again and he and others would attend the rescued.
The ship's starboard lifeboat was launched in perfect order, with supplies, as inspected at boat-drill the previous day. Second Officer J Wynne and a crew went in her with a line before the Whitby lifeboats were launched, but the boat drifted towards Whitby and the line parted. The men landed ashore. The ship had many lifeboats, both ordinary and collapsible, and he believed there were also 2,500 lifebelts handy. Before he left the scene the vessel had broken in two, the engine shaft being supposed to hold it partly together.
The poop was separated by the breaking seas. All the ship's boats had been swept away or completely disabled. Seas broke over all but the chartroom. There was no food available and very little water.
Concluding his evidence, Dr. Jones said he heartily thanked the Whitby inhabitants, high and low, rich and poor for all they had done for them.
The evidence of the captain and first officer was deferred owing to their indisposition.
DIFFICULTY OF THE LAUNCH
Captain John Milburn, Lloyd's Agent, a local shipowner and a member of the local National Lifeboat Committee, said the lifeboat could not be launched from the harbour and it was right to drag it over the rocks and scar as was done. The lifeboat men had great difficulty because of the heavy seas and current.
The lifeboat drived about hald a mile after rescuing the first party but landed them on the beach.
The lifeboat was again launched near the place wehre she first put off and with the same crew.
The sea was heavier near the wreck, which had started breaking, but the lifeboat safely landed the second party. The tide was rapidly rising near the cliff and the witness agreed that it was not safe to go again because of the weather.
The coxswain said the bigger Whitby lifeboat could not feasibly be launched and the Upgang lifeboat which might be used in place of the first Whitby lifeboat, which had been left damaged under the cliffs near the wreck, could not then be launched. The witness agreed that the Upgang lifboat was afterwards brought two miles by road and lowered doen the cliffs. He wired for the South Gare motor lifeboat from the Tees. It broke down however.
The crew wanted to launch the Upgang lifeboat but it was too rough. It was launched on Saturday morning at low tide but was unable to reach the wreck. He then telegraphed for the Tyne motor lifeboat and it left ot 4.30 on Saturday afternoon and arrived on Sunday morning. At seven o'clock she rescued all from the wreck. The wind and sea had slightly moderated, but hd did not think an ordinary lifeboat could have been successful.
A tug with oil was sent to tow the Runswich lifeboat out but the survivors were meantime landed. A trawler brought the Scarborough lifeboat on Friday.
Whitby's larger lifeboat was towed out but to no avail. Rockets were fired continuously to establish communication with the wreck but failed. Lines reached the wreck but broke when secured or could not be secured on board.
APPEAL TO THE ADMIRALTY
The Admiralty were approached as to sending destroyers, and they sent a search-light. A motor lifeboat using oil on the water could probably have rescued all safely on Friday.
The foreman of the jury said the coast was very dangerous, and there were no tugs at Whitby.
Thomas Langlands, the Whitby lifeboat coxswain, gave evidence that the dragging of the lifeboat over the rocks was a difficult task. Describing the rescues, he said tons of water went over the wreck. The lifeboatmen were handed a small line, and gave their cable to those on board. The second journey was a good deal worse and heavy seas were running. There was risk of the lifeboat being badly damaged by the wreck.
After landing the second party the lifeboat was left on the rocks near the cliff as there were not sufficient people to launch her into the sea. The lifeboat was damaged and it was dangerous to launch her again. Everytning possible was done.
Lieutenant Sparks thaked Langlands and his crew. Langlands added that he had been coxswain nearly forty years and hand never had such an experience.
Richard Eglon, second coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, said a third trip was impossible. With a motor lifeboat at Whtby none would have drowned. The lifeboat was nearly upset by a big sea when leaving the wreck.
Charles Davy, chiev of the coastguard at Whitby, spoke to firing rockets without avail, and working for fity hours continuously in efforts to succour the people on the wreck. Some rockets reached the wreck and one rope was secured on board, but it was of no use. Everything possible was done.
Abraham Jefferies, coastguard on duty at the time, said he sighted the ship at twenty minutes to four bearing N.N.W. The wind was between seven and nine knots per hour and the sea was running heavily. The course was not that taken by other vessels. He tried to warn her of the danger and used a foghorn. The ship stuck at 4.10 or 4.15.
The inquest was adjourned until Thursday.
Captain Neilsen's Evidence to the Inquest
This account is a transcription of the newspaper report - presumably referring to the next session of the inquest.
CAPTAIN NEILSEN EXPLAINS DISASTER
At the Coroner's Inquest
The inquest on the victims of the wreck of the hospital ship Rohilla was resumed at Whitby today.
Mr. W.S. Gray expressed the Admiralty's deepest sympathy with the relatives of those who had been lost and praised the heroism of the rescuers.
Mr. E. D. Mackinnon, representing the owners of the Rohilla, the British India Steam Navigation Company, said teh rescue work deserved the highest praise. The care of the dependents of the lost would be the Company's chief consideration.
Captain Neilson, the Master of the Rohilla, giving evidence, said there were 229 aboard the vessel. They left the Firth of Forth in fine weather for the time of the year. The ship was sound and well-fitted and was bound for Belgium to receive wounded. Off St. Abb's head the weather became worse, and the vessel rocked badly. He altered the course to clear the mine fields, and believed his course would bring him seven miles off Whitby and four off Flamborough Head. That course was kept until the disaster occurred.
We saw no shore light, no land. After the last course was set he passed ships going both ways. He was on the deck the whole time. Allowance had been made for the wind and the sea. When the ship struck he knew she was badly wounded and said, "Mine; my God."
The vessel took the ground with a grating sound. A ship passed on his starboard beam and ten minutes later it was reported to him someone was morseing. He thought it was a ship's light. He know Whitby High Lighthouse was extinguished owing to the war. If the lighthouse had been lit he would have known his position long before the disaster. He thought he had struck a mine outside the rock. He ordered the morseing to be read but never ascertained, as the disaster followed quickly. It would have been disastrous to have run the ship off the land after the first shock.
Report From The Straits Times
On 12 December 1914 The Straits Times published a long article that summarised the disaster and inquest. The extract below adds some information given to the inquest and the verdict of the jury:
The First Shock
After the luncheon adjournment, Duncan C. Graham, fourth officer, said the first shock made him think the ship had struck a mine. He was knocked off his feet.
Colin C. Gwynn, second officer, said that on Friday morning at four o'clock the captain ordered him to tell the engineer to slow down. Whilst taking the message the ship struck a mine. He was lifted off his feet. Witness confirmed the captain's evidence. He went ashore in the ship's lifeboat. He cut the line intended to establish communication as it fouled the rocks and the boat was in danger. He lost three oars. He thought the rocket brigade might have worked from the beach to be nearer the wreck. The effect of the first shock was like being lifted up in a lift and being let down.
Chief Officer Bond agreed with the captain as to the mine. The shock knocked him off his feet against the bulkhead. He swam ashore floating on a box.
The captain interposed with the remark that those on board gave three cheers when they were told from the shore that Bond, who could not swim and was thought from the ship to have drowned, was saved.
Second Officer Winstanley also gave confirmatory evidence. He said he felt the lifting sensation, and the captain said "My God! a mine."
The captain said he could not thank all classes in Whitby enough.
True British Seamen
The Coroner, summing up, said an awful tragedy had been enacted during two days before their eyes. The men on the ship had behaved in accordance with the traditions of British seamen. The war deprived navigators of lighthouses and shore lights in the North Sea.
The jury found John Smith died on board from exhaustion, and others were drowned. They added a rider that the ship struck something before grounding, and that the master navigated with seamanlike care in exceptional circumstances, and was free from blame. They recommended a rocket apparatus for passenger ships and the provision of a motor lifeboat at Whitby. They expressed their high appreciation of the conduct of the master, officers, and crew and the manly endurance of extreme privation and suffering. The jury added an expression of sympathy with the relatives of the deceased.
Did Rohilla Strike a German Mine?
The captain of Rohilla clearly thought his ship had struck a mine - as did a number of the crew. Whether this was the case we will never know.
What we do know is that the Germans had placed mines along the North-East coast by the beginning of 1915 as can be seen from the image below. Plotting a course for Belgium meant either risking the open North Sea to the West of the Dogger Bank, or dodging between the Dogger Bank and known minefields.
The clipping below describes the funeral of the first 10 victims to be buried at Whitby. The report also notes that the Whitby lifeboat had recovered the ship's safes including the ship's papers and money from the wreck. Funerals continued over a period of time as further bodies were recovered. With the usual government meanness for anything related to loss at sea, the Admiralty restricted payments to £5 per person including the cost of the coffin.
An unknown newspaper carried the following article regarding Royal National Lifeboat Institution Awards:
According to Wikipedia:
The Gold Medal of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, the highest honour the institute could award, was presented to Superintendent Major H. E. Burton and Coxswain Robert Smith of the Tynemouth lifeboat Henry Vernon and to Coxswain Thomas Langlands of the Whitby lifeboat. The Empire Gallantry Medal (subsequently changed to the George Cross) was awarded to Burton and Smith in 1924.
Remembering the Disaster
In 1917 a monument was erected at Whitby by the British India Steam Navigation Company, commemorating all those who lost their lives in the tragedy.
Whitby Lifeboat Museum Exhibits
There is a permanent exhibit covering the loss of Rohilla in the Whitby Lifeboat Museum which includes a model of the ship.
Ceremonies of Commemoration
Despite having occurred over 100 years ago, the loss of Rohilla is still a topic of great interest and many commemoration events have been held.
60th Anniversary Commemoration
90th Anniversary Commemoration
A ceremony, including laying wreaths at sea, was held on the 90th anniversary of the disaster.
The centenary of the Rohilla disaster was marked by a memorial service, the dedication of a plaque on the West pier on Whitby harbour and a small flotilla of boats, including the preserved lifeboats William Riley and Henry Vernon that had taken part in the rescue, went to the site of the wreck and laid floral tributes. Families of those lost came from all over the world to take part.
- Source unknown
- By courtesy of the National Library of Scotland
- By courtesy of Colin Brittain (Wikipedia Commons)
- By courtesy of the RNLI
- By courtesy of Popular Mechanics Magazine (January 1915)
- By courtesy of the Daily Mirror
- By courtesy of Mail Online 2 November 1914
- By courtesy of the Wartime Memories Project
- By courtesy of Robin Cook: Whitby through Time
- Adapted from World War 1 at Sea - Naval Operations, Vol 2 December 1914.
- By courtesy of D.P. Ings
- By courtesy of David Mitchell