The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 saw 1,177 sailors and crewmen onboard the USS Arizona (BB-39) lose their lives. While a devastating blow to the US Navy, the battleship wasn’t out at sea at the time – it was anchored at Ford Island. The largest loss of American life at sea due to enemy action during the Second World War was actually when the British India Steam Navigation Company’s HMT Rohna was sunk by the Luftwaffe while sailing in the Mediterranean.
Construction of the HMT Rohna
Construction of the HMT Rohna began in 1925, when the British India Steam Navigation Company ordered two new vessels for its Madras-Nagapatam-Singapore service. Rohna was built by Hawthorn Leslie and Company at its shipyard at Hebburn, along the River Tyne.
Launched in August 1926 and completed a few months later, the vessel was used for civilian purposes, with the ability to carry 5,064 deck passengers, before new rules reduced that total to just 3,851. Despite this, she could still carry more individuals than any other ship registered in the United Kingdom. This made Rohna‘s commission as a troop transport during the Second World War not all that surprising.
Service during the early days of World War II
The HMT Rohna was sailing the Indian Ocean when the UK entered World War II. Largely operating unescorted and occasionally traveling as part of convoys, she ferried thousands of troops to different areas, including through the Suez Canal and between Bombay, Marseille, Durban, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam.
Rohna was involved in several important campaigns early on in the Second World War. She ferried troops throughout the North African Campaign, as well as during the invasion of Sicily, which ended in an Allied victory and resulted in the collapse of Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini‘s regime. Lastly, the vessel ferried troops during the Allied invasion of Italy.
The HMT Rohna transported a number of American soldiers
In November 1943, the HMT Rohna picked up 1,981 American soldiers, with her final destination being India. In addition to these troops, she was also carrying a primarily Indian crew, as well as British and Australian officers. The soldiers, tasked with building Boeing B-29 Superfortress bases in India, were largely from the 853rd Engineer Battalion, Aviation, as well as the 322nd Fighter Control Squadron, the 31st Signal Construction Battalion and the 44th Portable Surgical Hospital Unit.
To serve as protection against potential enemy attacks, 18 soldiers aboard Rohna were tasked with manning her Oerlikon autocannons and QF 12-pounder 12 cwt naval gun.
Sinking of the HMT Rohna
On the morning of November 25, 1943, the HMT Rohna and four other troop ships departed Oran, in French Algeria. The next day, the convoy came under siege by a group of Heinkel He 177A Greifs, Junkers Ju 88s and torpedo bombers. While the convoy was defended by Free French Air Force Supermarine Spitfires, there were only four up against over 20 Luftwaffe-flown aircraft.
The He 177As were armed with Henschel Hs 293 radio-guided glide bombs, which they dropped on the ships below. The majority were unsuccessful in hitting their targets, as the way they were released made it difficult to accurately hit. The convoy fought back with their anti-aircraft guns.
Around an hour in, Rohna was struck by a bomb on her port side, becoming the only casualty of the skirmish. Many onboard were injured or killed, while several escaped and boarded lifeboats. In total, 1,138 were killed, of which 1,015 were American, and 782 reached the lifeboats. They were later rescued by the cargo ship Clan Campbell and the Auk-class minesweeper USS Pioneer (AM-105), who themselves were protected by the Hunt-class destroyer HMS Atherstone (L05).
Legacy of the sinking
Along with the 1,015 US personnel who died during the attack, another 35 later succumbed to their injuries, making the sinking of the HMT Rohna the largest loss of American life at sea due to enemy action in a single incident during WWII. The US government wasn’t transparent about what had happened. In January 1944, the families of those killed received a telegram that revealed their loved ones were missing. They received a follow-up a few months later, which said that those missing had been killed.
In February 1944, officials revealed to the press that there had been an incident that caused the deaths of over 1,000 American soldiers, but held back the total casualty numbers and the name of the ship until June 1945. While they admitted Rohna had been sunk by German bombers, they kept back details regarding the radio-guided glide bombs until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1967.
The reason behind the subterfuge? American officials didn’t want the German forces to know the explosives were effective. Since Rohna‘s sinking, a number of memorials have been dedicated to the men who lost their lives. They’re located in London, UK; Bronx, New York City, New York; Seale, Alabama; Chittagong, Bangladesh; and Mumbai, India.