World War One had just broken out. A hospital ship called the Rohilla was heading to Dunkirk, France to rescue wounded British soldiers. On board were 229 people, primarily medical staff.
These included 15 men who were all members of the St John’s Ambulance Brigade group in Barnoldswick, Lancashire, and five nurses. One of these nurses was called Mary Kezia Roberts. Two years beforehand, Mary had been rescued after another boat she had worked on as a stewardess – the Titanic – had sunk.
Thanks to the wartime black-out, no coastal lights were visible and the Rohilla was navigating blind. On Thursday, October 29, in storm force conditions, the vessel veered miles off course and hit rocks just off Saltwick Nab, about a mile south of Whitby.
The boat was pounded by mountainous seas and broke in two. Many on the aft part were immediately washed away and drowned.
Although it was only 600 metres from shore, the atrocious conditions were to make rescuing survivors from the wreck almost impossible. The rescue efforts were to take over 50 hours and involve six RNLI lifeboats from Whitby, Upgang, Scarborough, Teesmouth and Tynemouth – most of them rowing boats – and their courageous crews, along with many people from the local community who rushed to the coast to help.
The Empire Gallantry Medal would later be awarded to Major Burton of the Tynemouth lifeboat for his role in the rescue. Three Gold medals and four Silver medals were awarded by the RNLI to members of their crews for their gallantry – the highest awards the RNLI can bestow.
A young scout from Middlesborough called Arthur Shepherd become the first scout to receive the Cornwell Badge of courage for his bravery in assisting the rescue efforts on shore. It was presented to him by Lord Baden-Powell. Captain Neilson of the Rohilla was to be awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for his efforts in the rescue of the ship’s cat. And the lives of 146 people would be saved.
As soon as the Rohilla was wrecked, the lifeboat crew at Whitby was alerted, but due to the atrocious conditions, Whitby’s lifeboat could not be launched from the harbour, so it was carried by hand over a seawall and across rocks to be launched from the beach nearest the Rohilla. She was damaged during the journey but eventually launched at 8am, despite the huge surf pounding the beach.
The five nurses – including lucky (or unlucky) Mary Roberts – were rescued, along with 12 men. The lifeboat launched again and rescued another 18 men, but was so badly damaged in the process she couldn’t be launched again.
Next came the Upgang lifeboat, which was pulled by horses on a carriage through Whitby then across fields to the top of the cliffs. Horses and over 100 willing helpers were then used to lower the boat down the cliff face using ropes. But the seas were too dangerous for the boat to launch, so the crew remained on standby.
Scarborough lifeboat was being towed towards Whitby by a steam trawler – the conditions were such that rowing to the Rohilla was impossible, even for the hardened lifeboat crew. On arrival, the conditions were too rough for them to approach the wreck so they remained out at sea for the night, with huge waves repeatedly filling their boat. After 18 hours of this, they were forced to give up and return home. The Teesmouth lifeboat attempted to launch but was swamped by the heavy seas and sprang a leak. She had to be towed back into harbour.
On the morning of Saturday October 31, more rescue attempts were made. One Whitby lifeboat was unable to get close to the wreck, another, the Upganag boa, battled for more than an hour to get close to the Rohilla, and at one point got to within 50 yards, but the rowers were eventually beaten back.
Those trapped on the wreck were becoming increasingly desperate. Some attempted to swim for the shore – many onlookers risked their own lives rushing into the heavy surf to try to help them.
With all attempts by rowing lifeboats to reach the survivors having failed, the motor lifeboat at Tynemouth, the Henry Vernon, was summoned by telegram. Local legend has it that the new 40ft self-righter, which was built in 1911, was distrusted by some of the Tynemouth lifeboatmen, used to rowing the traditional ‘pulling lifeboat’. It’s said that in order to find crew to man it, Cosxwain Robert Smith, had to call in untested volunteers from the town.
The Henry Vernon made the treacherous 44-mile journey to Whitby in total darkness, reaching Whitby at 1am on Sunday November 1. Several gallons of oil were loaded onto the boat and it made its way to the wreck, where the oil was discharged onto the water where it had the remarkable effect of calming the white water.
Coxswain Smith rapidly brought his lifeboat alongside the wreck and the remaining fifty survivors – who had survived over two days on the wreck without food or drink – were taken onboard. The last to leave the Rohilla was the Captain, David L Neilson, who carried the ship’s cat with him.
The effect of the oil didn’t last long and enormous waves struck the lifeboat as she headed back to the harbour but she made it – and the boat, her crew, and the survivors were met by hundreds of cheering locals who had lined the quayside.
Of the 229 people on board when the Rohilla had been wrecked, 84 had died. The rescue was one of the most momentous in RNLI history and numerous awards for gallantry were made to members of the lifeboat crews.
The successful use of one of the first motor lifeboats in the RNLI fleet during the rescue also increased the popularity of these ‘new-fangled’ innovations, which were initially distrusted by their crew – and paved the way for a new phase of lifeboat development.
The centenary of the rescue will be commemorated in Whitby this weekend (31 Oct – 2 Nov). The commemoration will see a series of events and tributes to remember both those who died and the remarkable RNLI volunteers who helped save 144 lives.
NOTES TO EDITORS
The 7,409-ton SS Rohilla was built in 1906 by Harland & Wolff, the Belfast ship builders who also built the Titanic. The Rohilla was originally a cruise liner owned by the British India Line and then requisitioned in August 1914 as a naval hospital ship.
RNLI tribute film: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRgYujXxSTs
Downloadable press version of the film: http://www.rnlivideolibrary.org.uk/getvideo.aspx?vid=77sGLbvm
British Pathe footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qUzIw_RS0qk
For more information about the Rohilla centenary commemorations: http://rnli.org/NewsCentre/Pages/Centenary-of-dramatic-RNLI-rescue-off-Whitby-to-be-marked-in-weekend-of-commemor.aspx.
For more information contact the RNLI Press Office: 01202 336789/ firstname.lastname@example.org