Built by Harland and Wolff in Belfast, the Rohilla was built as a passenger and cruise liner and after her launch the Rohilla entered the London to India service operating from Southampton to Karachi throughout the winter months. In 1908 she joined her sister ship the Rewa as a troop ship, being designated No.6.
In 1910 the Rohilla conveyed members of the House of Lords to the Coronation Naval Review of King George V at Spithead, whilst her sister ship Rewa conveyed members of the House of Commons. It was not until the 6th August 1914 that the Rohilla was finally requisitioned as a Naval hospital ship.
After being requisitioned as a hospital ship the Rohilla was adapted to accommodate her new role as passenger accommodation was converted into hospital wards. The ship was equipped with two operating theatres, complete with X-ray appliances. The work continued day and night in an effort to make her ready as quickly as possible. Overseeing the work was the captain of the Rohilla, David Landles Neilson. He was given command of the Rohilla when she was built, spending his whole career with the British India Steam Navigation Company.
Based temporarily in Scapa Flow, the ship left shortly after bound for Dunkirk on a route that would take her down the east coast. The Captain hadn’t navigated the North Sea before and had to contend with, German submarines, and mines scattered around the coastline many in unchartered minefields.
Under war time restrictions the crew had to navigate their route using dead reckoning for navigation, war time restrictions meant that navigation lights were turned off, navigation signals were muffled and poor weather did little to help keep accurate courses. It is believed the last fix was taken and a new course set as they passed the Farne Islands off the Northumberland coast in worsening weather.
The Whitby Coastguard was positioned in a shelter on the cliffs that would, in good conditions have given him an clear view of the coast. He was aware of the outline of the Rohilla and knew instantly that the vessel before him appeared to be heading for Whitby Rock a treacherous reef system that would ultimately spell the end for the fine vessel. Under normal conditions the hazard would have been marked by the permanently moored Bell Buoy. However with the war conditions the bell had been silenced and the light extinguished. The coastguard tried in vain to warn the vessel of the impending danger despite signaling for thirty minutes the ship failed to alter course.
At 4.10 am on Friday 30th October 1914 there was a terrifying shudder as the ship hit the rocks at Saltwick Nab at full speed with
229 persons onboard. Although the ship was grounded only 600 yards from the shore the weather made any rescue attempt perilous, within
minutes the coastguard fired off the explosive maroons alerting the town to the unfolding drama. Coxswain Thomas Langlands had the unenviable task of informing his lifeboat crew that it was to perilous to launch the lifeboat in such bad weather. Miss Mary Keziah Roberts was a nurse and one of five women stranded aboard the ill fated vessel. She was unfortunate to have been aboard the Titanic as it foundered, she later described the sinking of the Rohilla as being more harrowing than that of the Titanic.
Dawn brought no further chance of launching the lifeboat, as the weather had not abated. It was still not possible to launch the number one lifeboat. The only other option was to get Whitby’s number two lifeboat into a position opposite the wreck of the ship. After being rowed across the harbour, the 36 foot lifeboat was lifted over an eight foot wall on the east pier. It was a formidable task to drag the heavy lifeboat across the scar. Even though the hull of the lifeboat had been holed as it was dragged across the scar it had the task of attempting the rescue.
Even so it reached the ship and with its crew of fourteen it managed to rescue seventeen of the ships crew. The second attempt succeeded in rescuing another eighteen men. After landing the men the lifeboat was in such a condition a decision was made that the lifeboat was not fit to launch again. It was dragged onto the scar where it was abandoned.
Despite the courageous attempts of a total of 6 lifeboats under severe conditions, of the 229 crew, doctors and nurses originally on board only 145 survived. In total 85 Doctors were killed. Bodies of the unlucky souls from the Rohilla were washed ashore and collected by the townsfolk. Many of the crew where never found.
Many of the crewmen were buried in Whitby where the owners of the Rohilla erected a monument to the ships loss. It was clear from advances in
shipbuilding and vessels of that era that a new breed of lifeboat was needed and shortly after the loss of the hospital ship, Whitby’s now outdated rowing lifeboat was replaced with a motor lifeboat.
Many of the lifeboatmen were awarded medals for bravery including the captain of the Rohilla who was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Society For Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for rescuing the ships cat. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution lists the events as one of the worst services in its history.