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.51: Charles Lightoller RNR

One of the early Wreck of the Week entries looked at Charles Lightoller, a Lancashire lad who went to sea, and I’d like to revisit his story by looking at his wartime service, as we anticipate the commemoration of the First World War.

Lightoller was one of at least two known survivors of the Titanic, both of whom survived further wreck incidents during the Great War, as it was called by contemporaries. Following the loss of the Titanic, in 1913 Lightoller rejoined the Oceanic, her sister ship, upon which he had served earlier in his career.

Both ships and men were forced to adapt to the conditions of war. Civilian ships were turned over for warlike purposes: Oceanic was requisitioned as an armed merchant cruiser, and Lightoller likewise became part of the Royal Naval Reserve aboard the ship. Oceanic too was wrecked when she struck the Shaalds of Hoevdi Grund, Foula in the early stages of the war in 1914, recorded here on the Canmore database, which records shipwrecks in Scotland in a very similar way to those in English waters on the PastScape database of English Heritage.

His wartime career encompassed at least two more wrecks in the closing stages of the war, both on the north-east coast. As commander of HMS Falcon, he was aboard when she sank after a collision in fog with the armed trawler John Fitzgerald off Flamborough Head in April 1918, but with no loss of life. Her stern section has been located and identified by her name inscribed on interior fittings, and, broken in two, she stands a mute testimony to the effects of the collision in which she was lost.

In July 1918 Lightoller, in his new command HMS Garry, was the cause of, rather than the survivor of, a wreck: a nearby patrol vessel spotted the periscope of UB-110 which was preparing to attack a convoy off Yorkshire. The convoy’s escorts zoomed to the U-boat’s position and depth-charged her: as she struggled to the surface, she was then rammed by the Garry. The position of her sinking is recorded, although it seems that she was raised and broken up shortly before the end of the war: some archaeological evidence may yet remain on the seabed.

Lightoller also went to sea during the Second World War, but that, as they say, is another story. Shipwrecks were an occupational hazard in times of peace and war: what is unusual about Lightoller is that his high profile following the loss of the Titanic makes his career and involvement in further wreck events more visible.

4. What links hospital ships, women’s rights, and the Titanic?

I can’t promise that every wreck will be topical – after all, in the northern hemisphere the prime ‘wrecking season’ is between October and March, and I also want to make the selection fairly random! However, this week features the Rohilla, a hospital ship which struck the coast of Whitby on 30 October 1914, i.e. 98 years ago this week.

Rohilla is one of a number of hospital ships which were lost during World War I, but she is the only one who is almost certainly not a war loss (the initial cause of loss was thought to be a mine explosion).

Of course, the cause of women’s rights was greatly advanced by the shipboard nurses who faced danger on the high seas, as well as the other women who stepped into wartime roles. One nurse on board Rohilla had had previous experience at sea as a stewardess, when she was rescued from the most famous wreck of all time, so our topicality extends to this year’s centenary of the loss of the Titanic.

For more on Rohilla, please see ‘one I made earlier‘:  including a link to genuine amateur footage of the rescue operation, redistributed by Pathé.

Rohilla was not the only wreck to carry a Titanic survivor who also survived a second wreck. Another wreck was HMS Falcon, in 1918: which was commanded by Charles Lightoller, the senior surviving officer on board the Titanic – again, he survived. As you can see, we try and tell a story and make links to events and people of cultural and historic interest to contribute to scholarship and drive public engagement with heritage. Charles Lightoller is also entered as a Person of Historic Interest, so all monuments linked to a particular person can be searched for.

If you know of any more Titanic survivors on other wrecks, please let me know – and I can update our records.