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The RNLI rescue of The Rohilla,1914 at saltwick bay - Whitby

Saltwick Bay is just South of Whitby and is virtually overlooked by the Abbey. Its a flat rocked bay and can be prone to heavy surf. In 1914 The hospital ship "The Rohilla" was bound for Dunkirk where it would pick up wounded soldiers. It encountered heavy seas around Whitby. It was driven off course and was seen heading towards the rocks. The Coastguard signaled but the signal was either misunderstood or not seen. The ship ran onto the rocks at about 4-00 am. The first survivors simply swam ashore. Around five of the crew made it to the shore in this way. Thus began one of the biggest rescues seen on this area of the coast.

The Rohilla broke into two. The decks were swept clean by the huge seas. The ship had onboard 20 lifeboats and 40 boats overall but they were all smashed except for one by the huge breakers. The survivors were entirely reliant on help from the shore. The Rocket Apparatus was tried first. But the wreck was too far out. Communication was not possible.

The "John Fielden", the Whitby Lifeboat was launched first and took 35 people off in two waves at around 7-30am. Many of those taken off were wearing just their sleeping garments as they did not have time to change. But the Whitby Lifeboat was damaged on the rocks in the rescue and could not be used again.

There were five women on board(all nurses) and they all came off in the first wave of rescues. One was a Miss Daisy Pattison, once a boarder at Miss Theedhams school in Brunswick Terrace, in Scarborough.

Fifty hours were to pass before the remaining survivors were taken off. Various attempts were made and great courage was shown. Lifeboats were called up from various parts of the nearby coast, including Scarborough. It was extremely frustrating as the scene was clearly visible to the crowds who watched from the cliff tops just a quarter of a mile away. The men huddled onto the bridge. This was the only portion of the ship that was free from heavy seas. They had a long wait before rescue was made.

The Scarborough Evening News of 30th October reported "At the time of writing about 60 people were believed to be remaining on board and their position was thought to be one of extreme peril, as there was only half of the vessel left and that likely to perish at any moment".

The Upgang Lifeboat was brought from the North of Whitby. It had a shallower draught and it was felt it may be more suited to the heavy seas. The Scarborough Evening News reported,"There were six horses attached to it, and it was brought over the bridge which spans the harbour, and up onto the East Cliff. There was some rough going to Saltwick but the boat arrived safely. Then came the problem of getting it onto the beach,some 250 feet below. The boat was dragged to the edge of the cliff, and heavy ropes were attached to it. Long lines of men hung onto these, the boat was lowered down the almost perpendicular cliff. After such strenuous exertions it was pitiable that nothing could be achieved.... she was useless, wind and tide being too strong for her."

The Scarborough Lifeboat was called up. A telegram was sent from Mr Wilburn, of Lloyds in Whitby to Mr Stephenson and Mr John Owston jnr. It read "Secretary and Coxswain at Scarborough. Can you send Lifeboat with tug. Rohilla of Glasgow, ashore here; 80 crew remain on board. Ashore one mile south of Whitby".

The Scarborough Lifeboat was at sea from 3-30 pm on Friday until 11-25 on Saturday. It was better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. The Scarborough Lifeboat had "remained off the wreck all night and had made attempts by day and night to reach the vessel. Eventually they returned to Scarborough, rescue being found impossible by means of a rowing boat"[The Scarborough Pictorial]. The Lifeboat returned to Scarborough and was rowed into the harbour cheered on by a waiting crowd on the harbour walls.

The Lifeboats had been aided by the help from local trawlers. The Scarborough Lifeboat was taken up to Whitby with the aid of the "Morning Star", skippered by Mr Smalley. Trawlers helped in other ways. A Mr JS Ellis,owner of the Hartlepool trawler "Gamecock", telephoned from Scarborough to Hartlepool instructing his skipper to toe the Hartlepool Lifeboat to Whitby. Another Scarborough Trawler, the Bulldog, also left early on Saturday morning to tow the Runswick Bay lifeboat. But this was never launched.

The Tynemouth Lifeboat finally finished off the rescue. This motorised Lifeboat took 9 hours to reach Whitby as it sailed through the night. The final rescue took just one hour. The 50 men on board the wreck had been there for over 50 hours and their suffering was terrible. The last man off the ship was the ships Captain.

The Tynemouth Motor Lifeboat, discharged gallons and gallons of oil. This aided the rescue, since,the Mercurey reported, "as the oil spread over the wreck, the waves appeared suddenly to be flattened down as by a miracle all around the vessels bridge, leaving a gentle undulating sea".

Of the 220 people onboard 146 were saved. If the ship had been full of wounded soldiers then the loss would have been far greater. The rescue showed just how superior the motor lifeboats were. Several rowed Lifeboats were sent but could not overcome the heavy seas. Over the coming years these rowed lifeboats were replaced one by one by the RNLI.

In June 1915 the Admiralty gave the crew of the "Morning Star" a reward for their help in connection with the wreck of the Rohilla. The skipper, W Smalley, received a £5 reward and the crew members £2 each(they were T Eves, W Ramm, N Cowling and J Bullamore). The awards were presented by the Mayor of Scarborough Mr C C Graham. Mr W Ramm said that the "men were only sorry the Lifeboat could not get near some of those on the Rohilla off. If such occasion arose again, the trawlermen would do what they could to help".

sources
- Scarborough Mercury November 1914
- Scarborough Mercury June 4th 1915
- The Scarborough Pictorial 4th November,1914
- The Story of the Scarborough Lifeboats by Jeff Morris.