HMHS Rohilla
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Whitbys Greatest Maritime Disaster

On Thursday October 29th 1914, the 7400-ton hospital ship “Rohilla” sailed from Queensferry, Scotland bound for Dunkirk. She had 229 people on board, including a full complement of medical staff and 5 nurses. Just after 4 0’clock on the Friday morning in steadily worsening weather, the ship ran aground on rocks off Saltwick Nab, 1 mile south of Whitby. The vessel soon broke her back, the stern section sank taking with her many of the ships complement.

In the prevailing conditions it was impossible to launch the Whitby No.1 rowing lifeboat Robert and Mary Ellis. It was decided to attempt the rescue using the No.2 lifeboat, “John Fielden”, which was kept afloat in the harbour. She was hauled out of the water, dragged along the beach and physically lifted over an 8-foot high wall on to Whitby scar – being holed twice before they reached a position opposite the foundering Rohilla.

In spite of the tremendous surf, which was pounding onto the rocks, the lifeboat, was launched at 7am, and after a desperate struggle, she reached the wreck some 450 yards off shore and surrounded by jagged rocks. 5 nurses and 12 of the men were rescued and landed on the beach. The lifeboat put to sea again straight away and succeeded in rescuing another 18 men, during which time the lifeboat sustained further damage on the rocks. It was realised that she was too badly damaged to make any further attempts of rescue.

The Upgang lifeboat was taken almost 2 miles from the boathouse to a point on the cliff tops adjacent to the wrecked vessel. In an amazing feat the lifeboat was lowered by ropes down the vertical cliff face to the beach 200 feet below. By then the seas had grown considerably, and reluctantly, they were forced to postpone the attempted launch. Frantic telephone calls had been made to Scarborough and Teesmouth for assistance. The Scarborough lifeboat was towed by a tug the 16 miles from its home port. However with such atrocious conditions breaking around the Rohilla, the crew were disheartened that they could not close on the wreck.

The Teesmouth lifeboat, the Bradford IV, ran in to mountainous seas sustaining considerable damage, and had to be towed back to station. At 7am on Saturday morning, the Whitby No. 1 lifeboat, under the command of Coxswain. Thomas Langlands, was taken in tow by a steam trawler, but even with his skill he was unable to get the lifeboat closer than half a mile from the stricken Rohilla and they had no option but to return to the safe confines of the harbour.

At 9am, from her position under the cliffs, the Upgang lifeboat was finally launched under the command of Coxswain. “Pounder” Robinson. For over an hour the crew battled desperately to reach the Rohilla, totally exhausted, they were forced to return to shore.

With only the bridge and fore section still above water it was evident that only a motor lifeboat could attempt the rescue of the remaining survivors that numbered 50. A telegram was sent to Tynemouth and at 4.30pm, on the Saturday with Coxswain. Robert Smith was at the helm, the 40-foot motor lifeboat, Henry Vernon, set off on what undoubtedly a very hazardous 40 mile journey south in tremendous seas and total darkness.

The Tynemouth boat reached Whitby harbour at 1am on the Sunday, and at dawn set out on a valiant rescue attempt. Steadily the motor lifeboat made her way round to the wreck, which was still being battered by huge seas 3 days after running aground. About 200 yards from the wreck the crew discharged oil into the foaming white water. Within minutes the effect was quite dramatic, and the huge breakers were flattened out in to a heavy swell. Coxswain. Smith then brought the lifeboat in at full speed, and with superb skill, took her along side the remains of the Rohilla close to the bridge. Within seconds the survivors had lowered ropes, and slid down in to the lifeboat.

40 men had been taken aboard when 2 enormous waves roared clean over the Rohilla completely enveloping the lifeboat. Miraculously the lifeboat survived and the remaining 10 men were taken on board. The whole rescue took just over 15 minutes. The danger was far from over for the effects of the oil were beginning to diminish, and as the lifeboat was brought clear of the Rohilla, she was struck broadside by an enormous wave which rolled her over on her beam-ends. Within second she came upright again, and Coxswain. Smith eventually brought her in to the safety of Whitby harbour.

RNLI gold medals were awarded to Coxswain. Thomas Langlands of Whitby and Coxswain. Robert Smith  and Capt. Burton of Tynemouth. Silver medals were awarded to the 2nd Coxswain of The Whitby Lifeboat, Richard Eglon, the 2nd Coxswain of the Tynemouth lifeboat James Brownlee and Lieut. Basil Hall of Tynemouth. A silver medal was also awarded to George Peart of Whitby who had repeatedly braved the violent surf to help several of the men who had attempted to swim ashore.

Copyright © Colin Brittain 1999 - 2014