November 26, 2013

A Calamity at Sea, 70 Years Ago

By Jesse Greenspan
On November 26, 1943, the day after Thanksgiving, German bombers attacked a convoy of Allied ships traveling through the Mediterranean Sea on its way to the Far Eastern theater of World War II. At first, the assault appeared to be failing. But as the sun set, a remote-controlled glider bomb slammed into the HMT Rohna, a British transport with mostly Americans onboard, and blew gaping holes in both the port and starboard sides. Despite the presence of nearby rescue boats, 1,149 men went down with the Rohna, an incident the U.S. government largely kept secret for decades.
HMT Rohna (Credit: Getty Images)

The HMT Rohna, an 8,602-ton, coal-burning vessel, was not built for the military. Lacking alternatives, the British nonetheless pressed it and many other ships like it into service during World War II as troop transports. In the early-to-middle stages of the conflict, the Rohna carried men and supplies between Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Bombay, India, evacuated women and children from Singapore, and participated in the invasion of Sicily. It then headed to Oran, Algeria, where about 2,000 U.S. troops boarded it. On Thanksgiving 1943, the Rohna and five other troop transports left port to join convoy KMF-26 in the middle of its journey from Britain to India. Survivors of the Rohna disaster later recalled that their Thanksgiving meal consisted principally of watery canned chicken and weevil-filled bread.

The following late afternoon, as the convoy sailed roughly a dozen miles off the North African coast, about 30 German aircraft swooped in. The ships responded by opening fire, putting up a thick smoke screen and attempting to electronically jam the Nazis’ bomb frequencies. With the assistance of Allied fighter planes, they destroyed several German bombers while initially suffering very little damage of their own. During the second wave of the attack, however, a German bombardier guided a remote-controlled glider bomb—a precursor to today’s “smart” missiles—into the Rohna about 15 feet above the waterline. The subsequent explosion started an engine room fire, sent debris flying and knocked out the ship’s lights, communications systems and water pressure. It also punctured holes in the sides so large that, as one survivor put it, “you could drive a truck through.”

An estimated 300 men died in the blast, and the casualty toll only grew from there, arguably due in part to the Rohna’s deficiencies. Of the 22 lifeboats onboard, most were either destroyed by the bomb, defective or mishandled. And the remainder were “old, beaten up things,” one survivor asserted. At least some of the ship’s 101 rubber life rafts were likewise unusable, and the men apparently never received proper instructions on how to inflate their life belts. Moreover, the crew “had no thoughts in the emergency for anyone but themselves,” according to a report from the U.S. Adjutant General’s office. (Other sources say the crew acted honorably and that the life saving equipment was adequate.) Within an hour or so, the Rohna disappeared below the surface, and all those who hadn’t yet jumped into the water were forced to do so. Many were sucked under the ship never to reappear; others found themselves covered in leaking oil. The cold, darkness, big swells and strong currents also took their toll, as did German strafing fire.  

In the aftermath of the attack, the commander of the convoy designated a handful of rescue ships and ordered the remainder to continue on course. The USS Pioneer, a minesweeper, proved to be the most adept at finding survivors, picking up 606. The tugboat Mindful saved over 200 additional men, and the freighter Clan Campbell pulled 83 from the water despite high decks that made rescue operations difficult. At the same time, the destroyer Atherstone, the corvette Holcombe and a French tugboat that came from shore retrieved a few dozen men between them. The rescuers worked throughout the night, coming across their last survivor nearly 12 hours after the Rohna sank. Nevertheless, 1,015 American GIs, 120 British and Indian crewmembers, 11 gunners and three Red Cross workers didn’t make it out alive. No other U.S. military disaster at sea has ever been deadlier.

After a few weeks of rest, the Rohna survivors followed the rest of the convoy to India, from where some then dispersed to Burma and China. Meanwhile, since most of the dead bodies remained unrecovered, the U.S. government classified them as “missing in action.” The notified families originally held out hope. “From my experiences in the Navy I’ve heard of hundreds of men who were reported missing, and showed up a few months later,” Harold Glickman, the cousin of Pvt. Abraham Gunn, wrote to Gunn’s parents on January 5, 1944. “We just must be patient and calm, but above all we must never, never lose our faith.” Later on, however, the status of Gunn and his fellow Rohna victims was changed to “killed in action.”

In order to prevent the Germans from learning about the success of their cutting-edge remote-controlled bomb, the U.S. government disclosed only vague details about the incident, such as that around 1,000 men had been lost at sea. By and large, this secrecy stayed in place following the war. Finally, after a survivor secured the release of relevant documents under the Freedom of Information Act, the Birmingham News published a piece on the Rohna in 1993 that was picked up by the Associated Press. The first reunion of Rohna survivors took place later that year, a monument was dedicated at Alabama’s Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in 1996 and a few books on the subject came out in 1997 and 1998. Congress then got involved, honoring both the dead and the survivors in a 2000 resolution. “The men who gave their lives for their country on board this ship were heroes who deserve to be recognized and not forgotten,” congressman Jack Metcalf, the resolution’s sponsor, said on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives that September. “All Americans need to learn of their bravery and sacrifice.”

Name:HMT Rohna
Operator:British India Steam Navigation Company
Ordered:15 March 1941
Builder:Hawthorn Leslie, Hebburn-on-Tyne, England
Yard number:542
Launched:24 August 1926
Completed:5 November 1926
Fate:Sunk by the Luftwaffe in an air attack on 26 November 1943
General characteristics
Tonnage:8,602 long tons (8,740 t)
Length:461 ft 4 in (140.61 m)
Beam:61 ft 8 in (18.80 m)
Draught:29 ft 9 in (9.07 m)
Propulsion:Twin propeller
2 x 4 Cylinder Quadruple Expansion
5,000 I.H.P.
Speed:14.3 knots (26.5 km/h)
Capacity:281 First Class
33 Second Class
100 Third Class
5064 Deck Passengers (reduced later to 3851)

Carthage, Tunisia