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

No.67 A Concatenation of Events

Last week I wrote about multiple wreck events in which two ships happened to come ashore at the same place at different times, so to continue this ‘multiple wrecking’ mini-series within the blog, I’d like to focus on crews who have been doubly shipwrecked in a short space of time.

In May 1940 Hervé Cras, a ship’s doctor aboard the French destroyer Jaguar, survived the S-boat attack which sank her at Dunkirk. He finally made it out of Dunkirk aboard the Emile Deschamps and later recalled how the Jaguar‘s survivors stood up to salute their ship as they steamed out of Dunkirk, but were barked at to sit down again, because the vessel was dangerously overloaded. The Emile Deschamps picked her way carefully to Kent, but was mined close to safety off the North Foreland, the very last vessel of the Dunkirk evacuation to be lost in English waters. Once more Cras survived to tell the tale – literally: he became a leading naval historian, including a book on Dunkirk itself. (1)

On 3 January 1891 the Caroline Robert de Massy foundered off Dungeness while bound from the Black Sea port of Batumi for Antwerp with oil, following a collision with the Raithwaite Hall. The crew were saved, as were the seven crew of the vessel Ferdinand van der Taelen of Antwerp, returning home on the de Massy instead of their own ship, sunk in the Mediterranean on 23 November 1891, homeward-bound from Nikolaiev with grain. (2) All on board were taken up by the Raithwaite Hall and landed at Dover, the Ferdinand‘s crew presumably awaiting the next passing ship for Antwerp. It must have taken them at least three ships to get home, possibly four, if they were picked up by another ship in the original incident before being transferred to the de Massy, as the next available vessel bound for Antwerp.

Similarly, one of the survivors of the Earl of Dalkeith packet off Boulmer in November 1807 turned out to have also been rescued from the wrecking of the Leith packet off the Humber just a few months earlier.

On a related note seamen usually (not always . . . !) exerted themselves to save the crews of other vessels in distress, since they were painfully aware that another time they would themselves be in need of help. So it proved for the crew of the Anne Henrietta: on Christmas Eve 1768 they saved the crew of the William and John: their courage was rewarded within a few weeks, when they were themselves picked up by a passing fishing smack after their ship went down off Norfolk.

This post prepares the ground for October’s edition of the War Diary, looking at a notable wreck of late October 1914.


(1) under the pen name of Jacques Mordal, Dunkerque, 1968, Paris: Editions France Empire

(2) erroneously reported in the original source as Friedrich van der Taelen


No.66 Right Next to Each Other

102 years ago this week, on 15 October 1912, the French steamer Abertay went ashore in fog at St. Loy Cove in Cornwall. Nothing unusual about that you might think: indeed, going ashore in fog was once a common cause of loss in the good old British climate.

What was more unusual about this one was that another vessel loomed out of the fog right next to them.

‘She encountered very thick fog . . . The crew were astounded to find themselves alongside a large steamer; they shouted but got no reply from the vessel that towered over them, and they took her for an abandoned wreck. The Abertay was badly holed aft and, fearing she would sink, the crew clambered aboard the other vessel. The Newlyn lifeboat was launched at 6am, and the Mousehole lifesaving apparatus was on the scene but not required. By daylight, seeing there was no danger, the crew reboarded and saved their personal effects.’ (1)

That vessel was the South America, which had gone ashore only seven months earlier, and which was abandoned after attempts to refloat her had failed. A wreck had come to the rescue!

For an astonishing picture of the two together at St. Loy Cove, please mouse over the picture at the bottom here which then automatically enlarges. You can see how it would have been safer to clamber aboard until daylight came and the weather lifted, rather than jump into a sea of unknown depth, in an unknown location, and risk injury and death.  For scale look at the figures at bottom left.

Local dive guides note the wreckage of the two as now well mingled.

There are numerous ways in which multiple wreck events can occur at the same location; in the same weather event; by coincidence, months or centuries apart; or even as one wreck becomes a navigational hazard, which promptly causes others in short order. There are also cases of crews involved in multiple wreck events: more on that theme over the next couple of weeks.

In the meantime, for a previous post mentioning two U-boats wrecked under tow in the same event but in different locations, the second one fetching up next to an earlier wreck, please click here.

(1) original newspaper report, reproduced in Larn, Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, Vol.1, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.



No. 65 A Complete Absence of Fishermen’s Ganseys

It’s often said that ganseys (knitted sweaters) with traditional village-specific patterns have been used to identify the bodies of fishermen drowned at sea. It’s also often said it is a myth, so I thought the wealth of shipwreck data we hold would be an obvious place to shed light on this question!

In all my years researching wrecks, I do not recall ever coming across such a story, but I decided to take a more scientific approach: mining the database with its wealth of primary sources. The starting point was data for any fishing vessel lost in English waters 1750-1950, with 2,655 hits, using keywords for knitted clothing, bodies and the identification thereof. (1)

This approach yielded no results for any fishermen identified by their clothing, ganseys or otherwise.

The closest story was that of a French fishing vessel lost in October 1826 on the Kentish Knock at the entrance to the Thames. In early November some bodies washed ashore at Margate, ‘judged to be part of the crew of a French fishing boat, reported to have been lost on the Long Sand or Knock.’ This suggests their garb was distinctively French, but this clue was clearly combined with local knowledge of tides and currents and prior knowledge of the wreck.

By contrast, records of passenger vessel losses are rich in detail of bodies identified, and how, so here are just a few examples:

When the Elizabeth foundered in the Bristol Channel in 1781, the stockings on one victim identified him, but his clothing is likely to have been distinctive, since he was a Quaker. Again, when the Piedmont transport struck Chesil Beach, Dorset, in November, 1795, an officer was recognised by his scars (suggesting fairly rapid recovery of the body, consistent with a stranding).

In 1814, Captain le Coq of the Mentor, lost off Cornwall, is said to have been recognised by his gold watch and seal (from an as yet untraced citation from a primary source, indicating the body washed up fairly quickly afterwards). Who identified these individuals, all unknown in the communities where they met their final resting place?

In all three cases above there were survivors who would have provided corroborative information. Where the blanks could not be filled in, they were published in newspapers to aid identification. A night of carnage on the Bamburgh coast in 1774 resulted reports of bodies being washed ashore, among whom was a lady with ‘five diamond rings on her fingers, and gold ear-rings in her ears’.

The 1826 case on the Kentish Knock shows how difficult it was to identify fishermen washed up far from home and from the location of the wreck site. At the present state of knowledge there appears to be no reported evidence for the use of ganseys alone to identify drowned fishermen in English waters, unless a well-corroborated story comes to light.

Can anyone help?

(1) The National Record of the Historic Environment (NRHE) curated by Historic England. Keywords were: gansey and its synonyms guernsey, jersey, sweater, jumper + knit-; body/ies, corpse(s), remains; identified, known, proved (as in ‘proved to be’), recognised