Rohilla centenary: New light shed on disaster

HMHS Rohilla ran aground off the coast of Whitby 100 years ago
HMHS Rohilla ran aground off the coast of Whitby 100 years ago

The tragedy that befell hospital ship SS Rohilla off the coast off Whitby 100 years ago today (Thursday) continues to fascinate many people.

Archive documents and facts uncovered by Whitby author Colin Brittain for a new book on the subject show that some 234 (not 229 as originally thought) were on board the vessel that had been converted from a passenger steamer and was on its way from South Queensferry, Scotland to evacuate wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.

It ran aground on Saltwick Nab during a full southwesterly gale and with the lighthouses unlit due to the war. The ship’s back soon broke.

Conditions made rescue extremely difficult, but lifeboats from Whitby, Upgang (near Whitby), Redcar, Tynemouth and Scarborough attempted to close on the wreck.

In all, 145 including Captain Neilson and all the nurses, as well as Titanic survivor Mary Kezia Roberts, survived but 89 perished – five more than originally stated.

One man, a strong swimmer, attempted to swim to the shore and was within an arm’s length of those trying to pull him from the sea when a huge wave dashed him against the rocks and he perished.

That is just one of the fascinating revelations in the new book.

Colin, who has researched the subject for more than three decades, is one of a team that has been preparing for the centenary celebrations and commemorations due to take place this weekend.

He published his first book on the disaster in 2002 but the second edition of ‘Into the Maelstrom – The Wreck of HMHS Rohilla’ has just been released and also, for the first time, in Kindle format.

When he submitted the idea for a second book, his publishers’ contract stipulated the length and some “small changes”. But the fascinating facts he uncovered and his concern about cutting out too many of the new facts led to an agreement for a much bigger book.

At first it was thought the ship had hit a mine but it now appears that it was simply too close to the coast.

A coastguard officer saw the ship approaching the rocks and tried to warn the vessel but the crew only noticed the signals later and were puzzled as to what they were.

By the time a signaller on the vessel got to the bridge it was too late to save it, explained Colin.

“Imagine how that coastguard officer must have felt. Straight after the first edition was published I was – and still am – getting letters forwarded to me by the publisher and emails from people who were related in one way or another to the tragedy,” said Colin, 50, a former sub-aqua diving instructor who had been diving the wreck for a number of years and used it to introduce people who were new to diving.

“I have never stopped collecting research material and it was only when I began revising my book that I became aware of just how much new information and photographs I had to work with.”

In the first edition, the reference to Titanic survivor Mary Roberts was fairly small but in the new book, following information from more relatives, it merits its own section.

Colin added: “It has taken over a year to complete the revision. The first edition contained 128 pages whereas the content of the new edition has increased to 320 pages.

“No chapter has been left untouched and the new book holds many new revelations.”

He is looking forward to the commemorations when he will meet, for the first time, many of the relatives from around the country and others from Canada and Australia.

Colin’s book reveals the gallant rescue efforts made by lifeboat crews whose boats were launched after daring feats of ingenuity and bravery by the crews and many townspeople including those from the St John Ambulance Brigade whose Whitby division had been formed just a month earlier. Many people from that organisation were also serving on the ship.

The Whitby lifeboat had to be lifted over a wall before it could attempt a rescue.

On its first trip it took ashore nursing staff and then 18 people on the second, but the coxswain had to make a difficult decision not to go again because the boat had been so badly damaged.

A series of later efforts to reach the wreck were made by Upgang’s lifeboat, the William Riley, and lifeboats from Scarborough and Teesmouth, but to no avail.

On the Saturday morning, Whitby’s number one lifeboat, under the command of Coxswain Thomas Langlands, was taken in tow by a steam trawler, but could not get close enough to the stricken Rohillia to effect a rescue.

At dawn on Sunday, with the fate of the survivors on the wreck looking bleak, Tynemouth’s 40-foot motor lifeboat Henry Vernon braved treacherous conditions and carried out a dramatic rescue with Coxswain Robert Smith at the helm.

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 Henry Vernon and to Coxswain Thomas Langlands of the Whitby lifeboat.

Silver medals were awarded to the 2nd Coxswain of the Whitby lifeboat, Richard Eglon and George Peart of Whitby who repeatedly braved the violent surf to help men who had attempted to swim ashore.

“It has been like a labour of love. It has taken a lot of work but it is something I have enjoyed doing,” continued Colin.

The second edition of ‘Into the Maelstrom – The Wreck of HMHS Rohilla is available in shops around Whitby and from publishers The History Press.