What Really Happened to the Rohna In World War II

Lloyd Carter - Survivor of the Sinking of the Rohna

Lloyd Carter (b 11/14/1920-d 10//1996)

Technical Sergeant 25th Fighter Squadron 51st Fighter Gp.
Aerial Crew Chief 750
Battles and Campaigns : China
Decorations and Citations: Distinguished Unit Citation, American Defense Service Ribbon, American Theater Ribbon, Asiatic Pacific Theater Ribbon, w/1 Bronze Stars, Good Conduct Medal, Purple Heart.
Wounded in action: Mediteranean Sea North Africa, 26th of November, 1943
Survivor of the H.M.S. Rohna's sinking
Survived by jumping overboard, and hanging on to one of the lifeboats

The following account of the sinking of the Rohna was taken from EX - C.B.I. ROUNDUP

The Rohna Story

By Thomas W. Hooks
One afternoon in late September, 1943, a troop train pulled out of Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis with 252 enlisted men and five second lieutenants heading for the East Coast. For some unknown reason, the base officers designated the writer as C.O. of shipment AF 826 B. No travel orders were issued - merely a roster of all the men. The orders were vocal and simple - the one word GO. Thus we left, with destination unknown, and arrived four months later. Most of us were glad to be moving toward active participation in WW II. You would have to say that our logistic system was working perfectly, for there was always an officer waiting at transfer points who knew we were coming, and told us where to go.

We sailed three days later from Newport News, Va., aboard a U.S. Liberty ship, as part of a 15 ship convoy headed across the Atlantic. It was an uneventful voyage, going thru Gibraltar and arriving at Oran, North Africa, in 18 days.

On November 25, 1943, we sailed from Oran enroute to Port Said and Bombay via the Suez Canal with four other ships, ,and joined convoy K.M.F. 26. Although we never saw more than ten to fourteen ships in the convoy, there were 24 forming six columns, four ships in each column, and being escorted by seven or eight British destroyers. The convoy was made up mostly of British ships, entirely under their control.

Our ship, the H.M.S. Karoa, with 1,300 troops was the smallest of the three which figure in this article. The Banfora, the other ship besides the Karoa closest to Rohna, the target ship, were all registered by the British India Steamship Navigation Company. They were combination carriers of freight and passengers from Britain to Bombay and Calcutta; being manned by British Officers and Asian crews.

On the afternoon of November 26, 1943, at 16:45 the convoy came under air attack by about 30 German Hinkels 177, and these with later arrivals kept up the attack for a period of 2 hours and 20 minutes. The Germans made their first attacks upon the escort vessels, trying to knock out the cruiser H.M.S. Conventry, and the destroyer H.M.S.Atherstone. The Atherstone survived five near misses by radio controlled glider bombs during this period, and the troopship H.M.S. Banfora had a very close miss.(Il) There were a total of eight German planes shot down during this attack by guns on Allied escorts and troopships. The'large planes carrying glider bombs stayed off at a safe distance to release their controlled bombs.(l)

At 17:00 four new planes appeared to , join the attack. Then at 17:25 two larger bombers appeared and one of them released a glider bomb headed for the H.M.S. Rohna from an altitude of 3,000 ft. This was a radio controlled glider bomb that struck H.M.S. Rohna midship on the port side at the engine room level - just above the water line. The engine room flooded, all power failed. The No. 4 bulkhead collapsed tearing into one of the troop decks. The whole area exposed to the blast caught fire - and shell plates on both port and starboard sides were blown outwards. The Rohna was mortally wounded by this bomb hit. Communication was out. It took some time for abandon ship orders to reach everyone. Passage from any part of the ship to another was almost impossible. (1)

The Rohna carried 22 lifeboats but six were destroyed by the initial explosion. A number of boats were lost when troops cut the falls; they fell into the water without being loaded and sank. Some lifeboats had block and tackle that jammed; so eventually only eight lifeboats were lowered safely. There were 2,000 troops aboard and 195 crewmen, 25 officers and 13 other personnel. (1) A report from the Imperial War Museum lists 1,050 Americans, five ship's officers and 115 Asian crew as being lost in this disaster. The figure 1,050 was also used in a Florida news paper minimum article after the war. This figure of 1,050 ranks very close to the number of Navy men lost (1,160), on the U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor, and this was also one of the major disasters of WW II. There were 800 men rescued from the Rohna, and most landed at Phillipville, North Africa. No breakdown was available as - to country, service or units of these men. This was quite remarkable considering the condition of the ship with fire raging, few lifeboats launched, darkness coming so quickly and delay of rescue ships in arrival.

The stricken Rohna was damaged in -so many ways that those left alive after the first explosion and fire had a very difficult time saving themselves. It . must be remembered that for the men on the Rohna to be rescued, and to escape the fire, they had to get off the ship either by jumping into the water, or being lowered to the water by lifeboat. Second Officer J. E. Wills of the Rohna .5s quoted as saying, that only eight lifeboats were successfully lowered; so that meant that most men had to jump. For "he injured it meant being fortunate in being near a lifeboat that was safely lowered - for they could not move far in seeking another boat. Five of the six survivors who contributed to this account were picked up from the water, some jumped; and one got out thru a square porthole onto a rope ladder - although he was injured. Their pickup time ranged from one to seven hours. Although some of the men commented about life rafts falling on men already in the water - it should be pointed out that drum life rafts fall by -gravity into the water after being cut loose - and cannot be controlled.(12)

A few comments by some of the six survivors will show the dangerous hardships suffered. "I was just below deck when we were hit. Those on deck opened a hatch and reached down and pulled me out of the entrapment. I yelled to a man from my Company to pull me out. He was killed." This man was saved by the U.S.S. Pioneer.(9) "The small British boat that picked me up said I had drifted three miles and had been in the water three hours. The boat only picked up three men - and it was almost capsized going, in."(5) Another says, "From my position in the water a short distance from our ship I saw a lifeboat fully loaded with men having a problem trying to be lowered; suddenly one end dropped and all the men came rolling out like marbles to the water 30 ft. below. I was told some man picked up an axe and chapped the rope at the block and tackle. Many of these men were crushed between the boat and sides of 'the ship."(10) The survivor from Solon, Iowa, wrote, "I can't give you the exact hour but H.NM.S. Minefield was sent out during the night to the vicinity of the attack and picked us up after midnight. Blackouts were all the go those days, but the Minefield was brave and vulnerable, her crew were the real heroes; her searchlights were bright and welcome in the pitch black night, each time we were spotted it gave us new hope, then it would turn to some object nearby, they were not about to miss or pass by anyone as the search continued."(10)

Thru a very fortunate chain of recent events, the writer was able to meet and interview face to face a survivor of the Rohna. His name is Tom Hollimon who also lives in Baton Rouge. To his credit he has been successful in business and family life.

All of the survivors of the Rohna are important; however, Tom Hollimon is somewhat special, since he was a member of the 853 Engineer Aviation Battalion, belonging. to their Headquarters Company. This Battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. Alexander J. Frolich, and had 30 officers and 793 enlisted men aboard the H.M.S. Rohna bound for India. The disaster claimed 10 officers and 485 enlisted. Of the 278 survivors there were 138 who suffered injuries. Tom Hollimon was awarded a Purple Heart for his injuries.

At the time the "bomb" hit the Rohna, Tom was three decks below the main deck, along with a majority of the Battalion. The explosion blew a hole in both sides of the ship, wrecked the engine room, killed many outright from the Battalion, and knocked down the stairway leading upward from the hold that Tom was in. The men who were alive, and able, picked up the stairway and replaced it in a position so they could use it to escape, and Tom used it. By the time Tom reached the main deck, several life boats were being lowered, and he slid down a rope leading to a boat already in the water. The lifeboat was heavily overloaded, so Tom asked others to join him in going into the sea - which he did.

Darkness came quickly and the sea was heaving in large swells many feet high after Tom was in the water, where he spent part of the next few hours hanging onto a raft, which was hard, with the raft going up and down - sometimes rapidly in the large sea swells. It was cold in the water, and a brisk wind made it feel even colder. Rescue ships finally arrived, and with the darkness and the rough sea they had much difficulty in finding and rescuing the men who were still alive in the water. About I a.m., Tom made his way to a rope ladder hanging over the side of H.M.S. Minefield. The Minefield was praised by several survivors for searching so diligently for the men who often were hid in the high swells. In climbing the rope ladder Tom had to really on tightly, for as the ship rolled from side to side the ladder would hang way out and then slam back against the side of the ship and often knocked men off. Tom made it to the top and was pulled aboard where he collapsed. His rescuers stripped off his clothes, wrapped him in blankets and placed him in a warm bunk below.

The rescue of Torn points up one common factor about most survivors - they each had to be in good physical condition in order to have strength to make it from the Rohna to a rescue ship and a strong will to live. The 853 Battalion was reorganized and served in India - where Tom spent 30 months. There were many heroes on the Rohna - some died and -some lived - and Tom Holliman has to be one of them.

In the afternoon of November 29, 1943, near Crete, three German bombers attacked the H.M.S. Karoa. Do not think we knew they were coming, but as soon as they were sighted we began zigging and zagging as best we could at 10 knots. Our only protection were four British 40 caliber guns - two forward and two aft. Everybody got on deck with a life preserver on, and all we could do was watch and wait and PLAN. The planes were the same size as our B-25, and one Of them made 'two runs at our ship dropping 500 lb. bombs. I looked up and saw a string coming down - and I told myself if I could count to 30 - all would be well - and by George I made it. The bombs landed as close as 25 ft. - mostly stradling us. They would hit the water and make a fountain as they exploded. I was real proud of the way our men behaved under attack. It just proved that most men can think clearly right up to the last seconds while alive when death seems so close.(12)

Information published in England after WW II regarding the success and development of the radio controlled glider bombs gives us a revealing idea how far advanced the Germans were in this area. Extensive advances had been made on this bomb in 1937 forward, as well as rocket bombs used against London, Details published in 1960 in an English account shows that seven Allied ships were sunk, mostly in the Mediterranean during the month of November 1943 - and five Royal Navy Destroyers at other times. With such heavy losses the Naval forces learned how to counter these deadly attacks, and the Germans shifted to the lesser risks of nightime raids.(2)

One of the largest ships sunk by these bombs was the Dutch liner, Marnix Van St. Aldegonde, of 19,335 tons carrying Canadian troops to Italy. Fortunately there was small loss of life. A most effective stop to these glider bomb raids was carried out by 115 U.S. bombers which largely destroyed the base used by German Gruppee II,'KG 40 in Occupied France. (3)

Most American observers of the glider bomb attacks for the first time were awed by such advanced weapons of war - and classed them as Buck Rogers copy. The use of the word "Glider" denotes and is defined as an aeroplane without power. This word "Glider" was used most often in describing the bomb that sunk the Rohna. But after WW II publications on German aircraft of this period show these bombs to BE POWERED and guided by newly developed methods. The bombs were designated to be named Henschel Hsl93A, and the Germans made 1900 in one model, and 1700 in the second model, from which the Rohna bomb came. The construction of the Hsl93A was very complicated, almost being able to perform as well as a piloted plane. The bombs traveled at a speed of 260 to 560 MPH; used a rocket motor for a few seconds after release which was run by a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and sodium permanganate, radio control by use of a joystick control box to a receiver which in turn controlled a gyroscopic autopilot. Those who witnessed the use of the "glider bomb" did not know they were looking, at the forerunner of our modern rocket missile. It was several years later before news became widespread about these rocket advances. (2)

We anchored in Lake Ismilia, part of the Suez for four days while taking on supplies and coal. We sailed thru the Suez and Red Sea into Aden for a couple days, and then into Bombay in mid December. Then we took a slow train for five days to Karachi, where we saw a great American Mess Hall. Our long journey together was over and I was relieved of my duty as C.O. I was assigned to 31'0 Troop Carrier in Assam, alone with half of our men, where I stayed a year, before being moved to Calcutta for another year.

Lately, I have begun to realize that this tragedy was an important paragraph during WW II that should be related in history books. For obvious reasons it was not reported during the war, and perhaps for some time after the war.

It has never been my wish to place blame for this tragedy, as I realize there are many facts not known to me then or now. I felt guilty for quite awhile that we did not turn back to rescue many men overboard, swimming and on rafts. I had observed them from the Karoa with classes belonging, to some of the ship's officers. It was a sad and frustrating sight - always vivid in my mind. It has been convoy procedure to designate certain ships to pickup survivors. This I learned many months later. All the witnesses I know, and the survivors who wrote to me, have a vivid memory, and cannot forget, and like myself are reminded each year at Thanksgiving of what happened. And we are extra Thankful.
1. Verbal account by Second Officer J. E. Wills, H.M,S. Rohna, given in England on 17 December, 1943. Public Record Office, England.
2. Excerpts from "German Aircraft of the Second World War," by J. E. Smith and Anthony L. Kay. Drawing of Hsl93A. Royal Air Force Museum, London.
3. The War at Sea-1939-1945 by Captain S. W. Roskill, OSC, R..N, Vol. 111, The Offensive. Par,, 1, June 1943-31. May, l@.
4. Numerical description of Roster of Sunken Ships Registered in England. By Imperial War Museum. H.M.S. Rohna Survivors
5. Jake Shimp - 2070 10th Avenue, Belle Fourche, S.D. 57717-Al 8268,
6. Kenneth Guilbault - 122 Brewster Street. Springfield, Mass. 01 1 19 - Al 8260.
7. William F. Wolff, 2605 N.W. 31st, Miami. Fla. 33142 Co. 8, Heavy Construction Btn. - 31st Signal: 250 men in organization -and 50 survi@.
8. Frank Schultz - 242 Lowell Roac. Buttalo, N.Y. 14217.
9. Saul Levine - 106 Park Avenue, Monticello. N.Y, 12701 Co B, 31st Signal Construction Btn.
10. A. J. Sizinger - Box 439, RR @4, Lake McBride, Solon, Iowa 52333.
11. H.M.S. Banfora Jasper L. Spain, 1744 Reindeer Dr., N.E., Atlanta, GA 30329.
12- H.M.S. Karoa Thos. W. Hooks. P.O. Box 14556. Baton Rouge. LA 70898.
13. Thomas G. Hollimon. 935 Cora Drive, Baton Rouge, LA. Survivor of H.M.S. Rohna.
14. Lloyd Carter, RFD. 6, Columbus, Indiana - Survivor of H.M.S. Rohna.