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  • Claire Jordan

The Wreck of the Rohilla

On the night of 30th October 1914, in the middle of a storm, the hospital steamship ‘Rohilla’, loaded with 229 people - crew, doctors, nurses and orderlies - left the Firth of Forth and steamed south, heading for Dunkirk with a mission to rescue wounded British soldiers and bring them home.

The North Yorkshire coast that night was being battered by a full North-North-East gale but the lighthouses and warming lights along the shoreline were extinguished because of the wartime blackout.

(This isn't as crazy as it might sound; the German Navy would attack Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool six weeks later, shelling the towns without warning from the sea, causing 592 casualties, many of them women and children.)

At about 4am, the Rohilla’s Captain Nielson, believing the ship to be several miles from the coast, was entirely horrified when he felt the 460ft long, 7000 tonne vessel hit something immovable beneath them and almost immediately break her back.

At first he thought he’d hit a mine, but the awful truth soon became clear: he had run aground on the treacherous Saltwick Nab, a vicious rocky reef lurking in the waters just east of the sturdy little North Yorkshire town of Whitby.

Crowds of Whitby folk, sleepless in the storm, soon gathered on the cliffs in the deafening darkness and watched in horror as a tragedy began to unfold in front of them.

The Rohilla was only about 400ft out, but that distance was nothing but bitter blackness, boiling seas and jagged rocks.

Most of the stranded crew and hospital staff had been roused in panic, and clambered hastily out in their nightshirts to cling to the splintering ship and gaze in shock at the magnitude of the situation that faced them.

So began three solid, sleepless days of storm.

For a start, rockets were launched from the shore in attempts to get a rope line out to them, but in the high winds, none could be secured by those on the wreck, some of whom began to lose their grip or to jump in and swim for it.

They would be swiped away by the roiling seas or picked up by the waves and broken on the rocks. The people of Whitby started to wade out into the freezing waters to try to help them in, and formed human chains in attempts to reach those struggling in the water.

As dawn broke, Whitby’s first rowing lifeboat launched and managed to rescue 35 people in two trips including all the women who’d been on board, one of whom had also survived the sinking of the Titanic two years earlier.

(She would later say that living through the Rohilla was worse for her than Titanic.)

But after this early success, it became clear that the now-damaged lifeboat would not manage a third trip.

Calls went out along the coast for the lifeboats from nearby towns, all of which were hampered by the same storm.

Another rowing boat was lowered on ropes down the cliff-face from underneath the ancient Abbey by hundreds of local men working in desperate unison, but even from this altered position, the attempt to launch was ultimately futile, the little boat repeatedly beaten back onto the rocks.

Those still on the wreck could see all of these abortive attempts. After hour upon hour in flimsy clothing clinging soaked and frozen to the broken ship, they could feel the ship breaking up beneath them and their strength beginning to ebb. Some tried repeatedly to jump in and swim for it.

But even the strongest swimmers were no match for the furious waters and those that made it to shore were hauled out of the saltwater, torn and bloody.

Soon, the closest homes in Whitby were awash with battered survivors, the women and children working swiftly to warm and bandage the exhausted bodies.

As the second day passed and the storm refused to let up, the only hope for those still somehow holding onto the wreck seemed to lie with the new-fangled motorised lifeboat named the Henry Vernon, then stationed at Tynemouth.

But she had to wait until the next day to launch, and then had her own difficulties in making her way down the coast to Whitby.

Meanwhile, the Rohilla continued to disintegrate into the sea and the storm roared on.

When the Henry Vernon finally arrived on the scene, several attempts were made to manoeuvre close enough to the Rohilla for the ever-weakening survivors to be taken off, but each time hopes were dashed.

The sea remained too angry and unpredictable.

If the Henry Vernon was smacked against the Rohilla’s remains, not only would the Tynemouth lifeboatmen be likely lost, the survivors’ last chance would be gone. The men still on the wreck were at the end of their endurance.

This had to work.

On the third day of the disaster, as everyone’s last shred of strength approached, a bright idea was had.

The Henry Vernon approached the Rohilla for one last try, watching for the right moment to pour onto the roiling waters a quantity of oil.

And magically, it worked.

The oil sat heavily enough on the surface of the sea to allow the lifeboat close enough to snatch the remaining men from the wreck.

Last off the ship was the Captain himself, with the Rohilla’s bedraggled black cat tucked firmly under his arm.

(The RSPCA would award the Captain their Bronze Medal for his magnificent efforts to save the cat.)

The remains of the Rohilla are still there, just under the waves off Whitby, a memorial to the 85 who died in the disaster, and to the immense courage and kindness of the townsfolk and particularly the Lifeboatmen of Whitby and the north-east coast, none of whom would give up on the doomed steamship full of strangers without the most ferocious of fights.

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