The Rohilla Disaster
In 1914 John Bleakley was ships storekeeper aboard the hospital ship HMHS ROHILLA. On 29 October 1914 the hospital ship "Rohilla" with 229 people on board left Queensferry for Dunkirk to pick up the wounded from the battlefields of France. At 4am on the 30th October she ran onto the rocks at Saltwick Nab, about a mile south of Whitby. A warning morse-code signal was sent by the Whitby coastguard and was ignored by the ships captain who believed he was seven miles offshore
At the time the sinking was attributed to a German mine, this was propaganda, When the ship hit the rocks most of the crew where below decks asleep and would have known nothing until the point of impact. All the internal fitting began at once to rend and tear, it is likely that those crew members on the lower decks would have died quickly as the sea flooded in.
Weather conditions were very bad and it was impossible to launch the Whitby No.1 Lifeboat and row her around to the wreck. Instead, the No 2 boat "John Fielden" which was kept afloat in the harbour was hauled over the beach to a position opposite the "Rohilla" and, despite the awful conditions, was launched at 7am and eventually reached the wreck after great difficulty. 5 nurses and 12 men were rescued on this first trip, followed by a second trip when a further 18 men were rescued. During this second trip, though, the "John Fielden" was so badly damaged that she could not be used again.
ABOVE; a painting of the ROHILLA rescue
The Upgang Lifeboat was then lowered down the vertical face of the cliffs but by this time the sea was so rough that it was decided that any attempt to reach the wreck would end in disaster.. Meanwhile telephone calls had been made to the Scarborough & the Teesmouth Lifeboat Stations asking for assistance. The Scarborough Lifeboat "Queensbury", towed by a steam trawler, arrived at Satwick Nab at 6pm but by then it was pitch dark and this combined with the severe weather and the fact that the wreck was surrounded by jagged rocks made it impossible for an attempt at rescue to be made. They waited nearby in case they could make such an attempt and the following morning they did so, after 18 hours at sea, but were driven back by the high seas. They had, then to give up the attempt and return home to Scarborough. An attempt was made by the motorised Teesmouth Lifeboat "Bradford IV" to make the 22 mile journey to Saltwick, but she was badly damaged in the attempt and her crew had to be rescued by a tug.
On Saturday 31 October 1914 at 7am the "Robert & Mary Ellis" of Whitby was launched into Whitby harbour and Cox Thomas Langlands took her out to sea to await the arrival of the steam trawler "Mayfly" from Hartlepool which was to tow her to the wreck. Unfortunately they could get no closer than half a mile from the wreck and had to return to Whitby.
The Upgang Lifeboat "William Riley" was then launched at 9am but after an hour of battling with the seas Cox Robinson and his exhausted crew had to give up the attempt.
It was now quite clear that only a motor Lifeboat was going to be able to effect any further rescue attempt and the ""Henry Vernon" from Tynemouth (44 miles north) was called upon. At 4.15 pm on 31 October she set out from Tynemouth under Cox Robert Smith, with assistance from 2nd Cox James Brownlee and Captain H.E.Burton, Honorary Superintendent at Tynemouth.
They arrived at Whitby at 1 am on 1 November and at 6.30am set out with Whitby 2nd Cox Richard Eglon as Pilot and assisted by Lieutenant Basil Hall RN, District Inspector of Lifeboats. About 200 yards from the wreck the Lifeboat discharged a large quantity of oil into the water to cam the huge waves, then went in to attempt the rescue.
They managed to get some 40 men on board the Lifeboat before both the "Rohilla" and it were hit by two huge waves. However, she managed to rescue an additional 10 men from the wreck - 50 in all. In total, of the 229 people on board the "Rohilla", 84 were lost. Several of those involved in the rescue attempts received RNLI Medals - Gold to Cox Thomas Langlands of Whitby, Cox Robert Smith of Tynemouth & Captain Burton of Tynemouth; Silver to 2nd Cox Richard Eglon of Whitby, 2nd Cox James Brownlee of Tynemouth, Lieutenant Basil Hall & George Peart, who had repeatedly helped men who had managed to swim ashore from the wreck; RNLI Thanks on Vellum were awarded to Cox Pounder Robinson of Upgang & 2nd Cox T.Kelly of Upgang; monetary awards were made to all the Lifeboat men involved and to the crews of the two trawlers which had acted as tugs.
What makes the Rohilla incident so poignant are the accounts of the prolonged rescue attempt to save those still on board. It was 50 hours after the stranding that the last survivors were brought ashore in full view of the hundreds of townsfolk who came to watch the rescue from the beach and cliffs above the wreck, waving lanterns and cheering on the rescuers.
The first of many inquests took place on the Saturday following the sinking and Mr George Buchanan was appointed Coroner, many witnesses were called including the ships Officers most notably her Commander, Captain Neilson. Captain Neilson was adamant, as were his Officers that Rohilla had struck a mine and he made the judgement to drive his ship for shore before she sank.
Lessons from the sinking of Titanic two years previously had set in train improvements in ship safety and equipment. The Rohilla disaster was to have similar effect. The coroner had focused on the failure of the rocket brigade to get a line successfully attached to the wreck from the Nab cliff. Had this been achieved early on, more people might conceivably have been saved.
The first funeral took place on the Wednesday after the sinking and was attended by most of the inhabitants of Whitby along with rescuers, company representatives and local dignitaries. Of those that lost there lives, and where bodies were recovered most were interred at Whitby Cemetery in the following days, others were claimed by relatives and interred in their home towns.
Efforts where made over the next few days to try and recover the bodies of those still missing, but where prevented by rough weather. At a later date divers descended to the wreck but failed to locate any bodies. Weeks after the incident some bodies where washed ashore but where too badly decomposed to identify.
Rohilla's company, British India Steam Navigation Co., Ltd erected a memorial a short while later dedicated not only to its thirty-one Officers and Crew that lost their lives but also to the sixty men that perished along with them. There is a marked difference to those alleged to have lost their lives, it ranges from 83 through to 91 whose names are on the monument.
Below; the burial takes place of those whose bodies were recovered from the disaster
BELOW; The monument on the mass grave is unvieled
John Bleakley's name on the memorial in Whitby Cemetery
The main source of information and pictures on this story was from the book
“Into The Maelstrom” written by Colin Britain.