Troopship Rohna sunk – over 1000 US troops lost

The Heinkel 177. The German long range bomber was under development for most of the war because of a demanding technical specification, including the capacity to dive bomb. By the time the issues had been resolved Germany was unable to build them in numbers.

The Heinkel 177. The German long range bomber was under development for most of the war because of a demanding technical specification, including the capacity to dive bomb. By the time the issues had been resolved Germany was unable to build them in numbers.

The worst troopship disaster to befall the U.S. happened on the 26th November 1943 when German planes made a concerted attack on a military convoy in the Mediterranean. A force of 30 He-177 planes, the much delayed German long range bomber, released 60 glider bomb at the ships but only succeeded in making one strike [see comments below about the attack].

The single missile caused fatal damage to the Rohna but most of the casualties probably happened subsequently. Over 2,000 US troops were on board and 1,015 would be lost together with 123 crew from the Rohna. There was difficulty launching the lifeboats, and there were issues with the life belt in use at the time which did not include an automatic light. The subsequent rescue of men in the water took place as night was falling.

Herman Pruskin was on board the Egra, another troopship in the convoy:

I then saw a formation of German planes 30-50 in the distance. Our British gunners were already firing in their direction, the tracer bullets still falling short of the formation. I then started to drag cartridge cases of 50 caliber machine gun ammunition from a shed which was about 30-50 yards from my gunners.

A group of planes peeled off and attacked the British corvette. At one point I thought I saw smoke with every gun blazing at the planes. At that point the planes dispersed and started to attack our convoy, some to the front and some at mid-ship. My gunner shot one plane down, still in the distance. Two more planes got closer to us and our guns got a second one.

As the third plane approached, we hit him and I noted another ( I thought) plane go straight over my ship. It actually was a radio controlled glider bomb the Germans were testing for the first time. I heard a tremendous explosion and turned to see the Rohna with a 6o foot or so hole in her side.

Aubrey H. Williams was on the Rohna, where they had been ordered below decks when the air attack started

It was pretty crowded and there was quite a bit of milling around. Some were trying to look out the porthole to see what was happening above us. When the bomb hit, a lot of us were knocked off our feet — dust and all sorts of debris and other hard objects were falling from above. Men who had been hit by falling objects were yelling and calling for help. T/Sgt Haedel was struck on the head by a piece of chain or steel cable, inflicting a bad wound on the side by his ear. He was bleeding badly. S/Sgt. Jokel and I tried to stem the bleeding but with little success. He was groaning, and I could tell he was in pain.

The order came to abandon ship. There was a rush to the stairs and Sgt. Jokel and I, kneeling over the injured Sgt. Haedel, were bowled over. The ship was dead in the water and starting to list to starboard. Smoke was coming into the troop deck. When the rush to get top side subsided, we grabbed a couple of guys and got Sgt. Haedel on his feet and up the stairs and on deck. We sat him down on deck leaning against a cabin or something and we went to look for a medic.

Men were trying to get some rafts and lifeboats into the water without much success, and others were getting ready to go overboard. I saw two soldiers in full battle gear, rifles, bayonets, etc. I told them to shed all their gear and take off their helmets, jacket, and shoes before jumping overboard. One of them started to do this, but the other man went over the side with all his equipment on. I didn’t see him hit the water, but he must have gone down like a rock.

Officers and NCO’s were shouting to shed all gear, shoes and jackets and go off on the high side of the ship, but a lot of them were going over on the low side. The sea was pouring through a large hole on the side of the ship and the current was sucking them through this hole and back into the ship. Some men had lost or misplaced their life belts. I saw on young soldier approach a Captain and I heard him tell the officer he had lost his life belt and asking him what he should do. The Captain gave the man his life belt. I never saw either of them again.

The vessel seemed to be settling and going down by the stern. I thought I had better get Sgts. Haedel and Jokel and leave the ship. I couldn’t find Sgt. Jokel, and Sgt. Haedel wasn’t where we had left him. There weren’t many people on deck so I went to the starboard side, found a line hanging over the side, grabbed it and slid down. I had taken off my shoes and jacket earlier. The swells were lapping against the side of the ship and I tried to time my fall to meet a swell when it reached it’s apex, but my timing was off, and I must have dropped thirty feet before I hit water.

I was a fairly good swimmer, so I got away from the stricken vessel as quickly as possible. There were men in the water all around me, and also what appeared to be bodies of some who had already drowned. Some men nearby were trying to get to a raft, but there were too many around it, so I stayed off.

As I swam away, someone called to me to try dog paddle, saying I would make better progress. And you know, it worked! By this time the swells were bouncing me around pretty good, but I was still making headway towards a ship I could see in the distance. The men around me had also seen it and some were swimming towards it, but others looked like they were exhausted and just waiting to drown. I started shouting for them to swim to the ship. We could now just about see it in the fading daylight. I think mostly I was shouting to keep up my spirits, but I like to think I was trying to get some of the more fainthearted ones to keep going. I could hear some praying and another man was actually crying. Ahead of me, two men appeared to be trying to get a life belt off a drowned soldier. Don’t know who they were.

What with the swells pushing me around, and doing the same to the others nearby, it wasn’t long before we were becoming separated. The calls for help were faint and shouts for assistance were becoming fainter as the distances widened. My attention was focused on that ship I was trying to get to, and as the darkness became deeper, I was beginning to wonder if I would make it before she moved away.

The full version these accounts, and several more, can be found at the Rohna Survivors Memorial Association. Some of the most recently released documents relating to the sinking can be found at Merchant Navy Officers

The troopship Rohna, sunk on the 26th November 1943 in the Mediterranean by German radio guided glider bombs.

The troopship Rohna, sunk on the 26th November 1943 in the Mediterranean by German radio guided glider bombs.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Veronica Wood June 20, 2015 at 10:39 pm

My late father was the gunnery officer on ss EGRA ( I think HMT during the war ) which was steaming alongside Rhona when she was struck by a German glider bomb . He never once mentioned this battle to his family until towards the end of his life , when there was a television programme about the sinking of the Rhona and he talked a bit about it , although we could see how the memory upset him . I know that he manned the guns on Egra , and I wonder if the gunner mentioned by Herman Prushkin was him , it would be so very interesting to find out . Dad mentioned the issues with the life belts , and said that they had been fitted incorrectly and that many of the unfortunate troops in the water had turned upside down and had drowned . He mentioned that the fleet had orders not to stop for survivors and had to steam on . It seems there was a rescue attempt at night though , I presume by a Royal Naval vessel . I would love to know if anyone has any more information . My son has a shell case from the battle from the decks of the Egra , which his grandfather had engraved with his ship’s name , the battle and the date 26 November 1943. We were unaware of it’s significance for years .
By the way, dad contradicted the assertion on the TV programme that the Rohna was a ‘ rust bucket ‘ and not fit for purpose , he told us that Rhona was no beauty , but seaworthy .
My dad , Eric Wood , died in 2008 , aged 97 .
We are so lucky to have had him for so long .

Editor June 17, 2015 at 10:27 pm

Marty

Thanks very much for the extra information.

Martin

Marty Bollinger June 15, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Thanks for the great site!

Some minor corrections regarding attack on Rohna. It is not correct that 30 aircraft launched 60 missiles at Rohna. In fact, 21 He 177 aircraft departed on the mission but seven were shot down before launching missiles. Only 14 aircraft launched a maximum of 28 missiles. Not all were aimed at Rohna. Other known targets include: 3 at HMS Colombo, 5 at HMS Atherstone, 1 at HMT Banfora, 3 at USS Pioneer and 2 at USS Herbert C. Jones. Only one missile was known to be targeted at HMT Rohna and it hit.

janet gearon January 5, 2015 at 9:30 pm

I have just been reading the information about SS Rohna. My father was [I believe] the gunner mentioned who was killed on that day. He was Ernest Keegan [known as Pat]. He was in the Royal Navy and was a Gunner.

My mother was always of the belief that the Italians had blown up the ship but it was not until the 1960’s that the truth was really known.

Is there anyone who was on board or who has any actual knowledge of the sinking who would have known my father or had anything at all to do with him.

Many thanks.

Janet Gearon.

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