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Sinking of HMT ROHNA 1943: Private William McGowan RAMC

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:59 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

On 25 November 1943, American Thanksgiving Day, the British troopship HMT ROHNA sailed from Oran in Algeria, headed for Bombay via the Suez Canal. (That same day, President Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Chiang Kai-shek and other notables were having dinner in Cairo.) An elderly passenger ship built for the India run, ROHNA was shabby from war service, though witnesses differ about the degree: it had recently assisted at the invasion of Sicily. Named after a town in central India, it was designed to carry 100 passengers in comfort, but now held a crew of over 240 ""Australian and British officers and Indian seamen""and almost 2000 military, mainly US GIs sent to projects in India or to train the Chinese against the Japanese.. There were also dogs, goats and a horse. At a total of 2246, it was as crowded as eighteenth-century immigrant ships, or the slave ships of the Middle Passage. Convoy KMF-26 had formed at Gourock on the Clyde; by 25th there were 24 ships sailing in six columns.

Glaswegian Private William McGowan, 25, of the Royal Army Medical Corps, was the youngest survivor of 13 children of a Partick family, and a former pupil of St Aloysius College where he was a talented amateur footballer. He was in a small medical unit headed by Major Edwards, but there were very few British troops and there was a US medical unit. However his previous troopship had been damaged in a heavy storm and had to make for the safe haven of Algiers. There is an airgraph (a small print from microfilm) from Billy in Algiers to his brother John, a Glasgow schoolteacher, serving in the Royal Navy in the same sector, sketching a ship and wishing him a Merry Christmas 1943. He must have sent it just before sailing on the ROHNA.

German action had recently sunk several Allied troopships. Where the disaster occurred, his brother's destroyer HMS CROOME was frequently on patrol: three weeks earlier, they had rescued survivors of the troopship MARNIX from Convoy KMF-25-A. So the convoy should have been prepared for trouble. In fact, ROHNA, described by a survivor as a 'rustbucket', had insufficient lifeboats and safety equipment, much of it allegedly rotten or jammed; the crew were ill-trained and the passengers given little instruction in emergency procedures; it was the only ship without a barrage balloon. On 26 November, the convoy had passed Algiers and was crossing the Bay of Bougie when it was attacked by 35 German planes from Southern (occupied) France. The Heinkel 177s each carried two Henschel 293 guided bombs, the latest offensive technology. Rocket-propelled, twenty feet long, with wings, weighing1500 pounds, they were radio-guided to their target by a crew member. (The bomber captain lived into the 1990s to give a detailed account.) The device had been developed by Professor Herbert Wagner, who even before the war ended was the first German spirited to the USA to work on guided missile programmes.

Defensive fire from the convoy and escorts partly thwarted the attackers, but an H293 hit the ROHNA on the port side, astern of the funnel, exploded in the engine room, and blew a huge hole in the starboard. Then it was mostly chaos: survivors' accounts speak of horrible injuries, confused procedures, panicking crew, failing equipment; some lifeboats and rafts proved unusable. The ship's hospital, which would have been Billy McGowan's post, was right at the stern, so vulnerable to the blast and the inrush of water. Survivors' statements confirm that several of the medical unit were seen at their posts though 'the M.I. room was wrecked and smoke and flames were coming from the hatch'. Major Lindsell of the Hertfordshire Regiment testified that they 'displayed the very highest devotion to duty in the treatment and evacuation of casualties from the ship. The high number of seriously injured personnel who were among the survivors bears testimony to their great work amidst the added difficulty of a fire burning within a few feet of them and smoke and steam enveloping their post'. Within an hour the ROHNA sank stern first, taking many with her, and leaving hundreds clutching wreckage, or struggling to remain afloat; German planes strafed them several times. Following orders, the convoy sailed on, leaving several escorts to search for survivors: next day they found men floating alive as far as twenty miles from the sinking; eventually bodies washed up on beaches in North Africa and Italy, but 829 GIs were never found. Total fatalities were probably 1157, making it the greatest US loss at sea in World War II.

Why is this disaster""comparable with the sinking of the USS ARIZONA at Pearl Harbour""so little known and omitted even from large histories? Information reaching relatives was delayed and inaccurate (was there a submarine attack?); survivors' letters were censored, and some families did not know the truth for 50 years. Military authorities warned troops not to speak and threatened court martial. Individuals criticised the ship and crew, but official histories published no account. The authorities possibly feared the effect on morale if superior German technology were reported, but the continuing secrecy about the state of the ship, convoy organisation and behaviour of the crew may have been from a desire not to embarrass the British and US governments or military. In 1960, a military historian who had been on the ROHNA was refused Pentagon permission to write a book. The 1967 US Freedom of Information Act made some information available, but families never received formal notice of the fate of relatives. In Glasgow, Billy McGowan's mother received confirmation four months after the event that he must be presumed killed; in official correspondence the ship, theatre of war, or circumstances are not mentioned. Repeated attempts by his siblings to get further details produced unhelpful official replies. The War Office paid his mother seven shillings (35p) for 17 weeks. His old school publication mistakenly reported him killed in an attack at Bari in Italy. As his body was never found, he is commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial in Surrey.

Partial relaxations of official records such as contemporary witness statements, pressure from survivors and from casualties' families, who had remained in ignorance for decades, have finally generated interest, though recent family requests for relatives' service records have in some cases produced partially redacted documents. More information has come from survivors; historian Carlton Jackson wrote the book Allied Secret and there was a History Channel documentary. Finally, 80 years after the disaster, a crowdfunded documentary featuring survivors had a public premiere. Perhaps now the episode will finally reach the history books. ;
Dr Ian McGowan


Item list and details

1. Photo HMT ROHNA with troops 2. Photo William McGowan 3. Christmas greetings before sailing 4. Rescue from HMT Marnix 1943 5. Rescue from HMT Marnix 1943 6. Rescue from HMT Marnix 1943

Person the story/items relate to

Private William McGowan RAMC

Person who shared the story/items

Dr Ian McGowan

Relationship between the subject of the story and its contributor

He was my uncle.

Type of submission

Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

Record ID