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.44 The Dmitry

As a result of a comment left on the Heritage Calling blog, I’ve been thinking about the relationships between EH properties and wrecks. Coastal properties come to mind: castles and religious sites on easily defensible headlands, overlooking the sea, sites of warning and succour in time of need, witnesses to battle and wreck alike. Here’s one example:

One day in 1885 a brigantine from Narva in modern-day Estonia, but called ‘Russian’ at the time, managed to make it safely into harbour during a ‘storm of great violence’ which battered the north-east coast. A ship had already been lost nearby, and the lifeboat was prepared in case she, too, should need assistance: ‘A little excitement prevailed among the thousands of people on shore, for it seemed certain that if the vessel was cast upon the rocks she would be immediately dashed to pieces and the crew drowned. The craft, however, steered straight for the port, and by good seamanship got into the harbour safely. She proved to be the Russian brigantine Dmirty‘. [sic] Another newspaper noted: ‘A cheer broke from the spectators on the pier when they saw her in safety.’

The following day the gale had abated: ‘The Russian vessel Dimitri [sic] which so gallantly entered the harbour on Saturday in spite of the terrible sea afterwards ran ashore in Collier’s Hope. It was supposed that she would be safe here, but on the rise of the tide yesterday morning, the seas beat over her with great force. Her masts fell with a terrific crash, and the crew were obliged to abandon her. She is now a complete wreck.’  

‘Collier’s Hope’, or Collier Hope, indicates the importance of the coal trade for local ships and others from further afield who called here en route for the Tyne in ballast. The Dmitry was also in ballast, with silver sand from Antwerp for Newcastle, suggesting she too was bound to the Tyne for coal.  

Does she sound vaguely familiar? Then read on!

Anyone at Whitby Abbey that morning would have seen the wreck down below at Collier Hope, in the lower harbour between Tat Hill Pier and the East Pier at the harbour entrance.  She must have been among the most memorable of the many wrecks at Whitby, her loss to a freak accident in apparent safety a shocking counterpoint to her safe arrival when all seemed lost. Here she is:

‘The sequel to the strange arrival of the derelict in the storm last night is almost more startling than the thing itself. It turns out that the schooner is a Russian from Varna, and is called the Demeter. She is almost entirely in ballast of silver sand . . . ‘ (Bram Stoker, Dracula, 1897) 

Whitby Abbey, N080819, © English Heritage
Whitby Abbey, © English Heritage