About World War 2: The Sinking of the Rohna— Worst Loss of US Troops at Sea

Updated on November 25, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

The Transport Rohna

WWII: HMT (Hired Military Transport) Rohna. Prior to 1939.
WWII: HMT (Hired Military Transport) Rohna. Prior to 1939. | Source

Guided Missile Sinks Troop Transport

By 1943, Germany had developed and produced the first practical guided missile. One of its first major successes was the sinking of HMT (Hired Military Transport) Rohna, a transport carrying about 2,000 American troops. Of the estimated 1,180 dead, some 1,050 were U.S. soldiers. Although it was the worst loss of U.S. troops at sea during the war, few are aware of it. The incident was immediately classified and remained hidden from the public and is still officially unacknowledged.

Development of the Henschel Hs 293 guided missile began in Germany in 1940 and it was deployed in August of 1943. The Hs 293 was a radio-controlled glide bomb attached to a rocket engine. It was carried by German bombers, like the Heinkel He 177, to be used against Allied shipping. After it was dropped, the rocket motor started and propelled it forward at speeds of up to 580 mph. Five flares in the tail allowed the operator to keep track of it and guide it via radio signals, with its 650 lb warhead, to the target using a joystick.

Heinkel Heavy Bomber

World War Two: Heinkel He 177 German heavy bomber. Circa 1943.
World War Two: Heinkel He 177 German heavy bomber. Circa 1943. | Source

Convoy Under Attack

HMT Rohna was an 8,700 ton steamer converted to a troop transport. It was part of a convoy of 24 ships along with ten escort destroyers traveling east in the Mediterranean Sea towards the Suez Canal. On board Rohna were about 2,000 American troops bound for the Far East and 218 crew. On November 26, 1943, 15 miles off the coast of Algeria, the 24-ship convoy came under attack by about 30 German Heinkel 177 bombers late in the afternoon. For about an hour, the convoy's destroyers battled the bombers and managed to keep them away from the convoy's ships. Witnesses thought they saw British fighters being shot down, but they were actually witnessing Hs 293 guided missiles dropping and launching downward. None of these found their mark.

Germany's Guided Missile

WW2:  Henschel Hs 293. German anti-ship guided missile.
WW2: Henschel Hs 293. German anti-ship guided missile. | Source

HMT Rohna Singled Out

At about 5:30, two Heinkels approached the convoy at 3,000 feet. One attacked another ship, without result, but the other came for HMT Rohna and appeared to drop a large bomb. Suddenly, the "bomb" shot forward and down, straight for the ship. Rhona's guns started firing but to no effect. The Hs 293 penetrated into its engine room and exploded, killing hundreds of Americans and crew members. The ship listed 12 degrees and fires raged from bow to funnel. An hour later, the bulkheads collapsed and Rohna sank stern-first.

Many lifeboats and rafts had been destroyed in the blast and fires and there was difficulty launching those remaining because the explosion had blown out the hull plating, creating a “shelf” that prevented the lifeboats from being lowered. Also, panic and inexperience played a part. Of the 22 lifeboats on board, eight got away, but all were either swamped by the waves or capsized from overcrowding. The minesweeper USS Pioneer and another cargo ship started picking up survivors, while the destroyer HMS Atherstone provided anti-aircraft support. When it got dark, Atherstone also picked up survivors, as did the tug Mindful, which had arrived from Bougi, Algeria. By 2:15am the next morning, these ships had found and picked up about a thousand survivors. Some had floated more than 20 miles away.

Minesweeper USS Pioneer

WW2: The minesweeper USS Pioneer saved over 600 lives. 1943.
WW2: The minesweeper USS Pioneer saved over 600 lives. 1943. | Source

Aftermath

Before the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Allies had perfected radio jammers, which rendered the Henschel Hs 293 guided missiles basically useless.

All the survivors and all those on the rescue ships were commanded not to discuss the sinking of HMT Rohna, since the entire incident had been classified secret by the U.S. for security reasons. All news of the catastrophe was suppressed. At the end of the war, the government acknowledged the casualty figures and that HMT Rohna had been sunk by German bombers, but grieving family members were given no details about the fates of their sons, husbands and fathers.

Long After The Fact

It wasn't until 1967, after the Freedom of Information Act was enacted, that more complete details were reluctantly released. The U.S. Congress, in 1970-- 27 years after the fact-- passed House Concurrent Resolution #408 entitled “EXPRESSING APPRECIATION FOR U.S. SERVICE MEMBERS ABOARD HMT ROHNA WHEN IT SANK”. This was a non-binding resolution-- an unofficial acknowledgment-- recognizing the loss of life in the Rohna incident and the part the rescue ships played, especially USS Pioneer which picked up more than 600 survivors.

Other than that, the government remains mum to this day, as does the U.S. Military, on the tragedy that was America's worst at-sea loss of U.S. troops. This is all the more astonishing when considering that, of the nearly 4,500,000 American soldiers transported overseas during World War Two, about 1,100 were lost at sea-- 1,050 of them on HMT Rohna.

History Channel Allegations

The History Channel, an American television series, aired a program on the sinking of the Rohna that was very critical of the captain, crew and safety equipment during and after the attack. This program has been largely repudiated by eyewitness survivors. The History Channel’s credibility has suffered with the likes of its series “The Bible”, “Ancient Aliens”, et al.

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        10 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Diane, thank you for adding such a personal comment. The fact that individuals related to both sides can get together while the government turns its back and hides the truth is a sad commentary on secrecy taken to the extreme.

      • profile image

        Diane Pope Ison 

        10 months ago

        My dad was on the Rhona when it was attacked, he did not survive. It has been in the past 15 years that I finally found out about what had happened to my dad. Not by the government notifying family but my daughter found it on the internet. Two of my children went to Seattle to meet with a group of Rhona survivors and families who had lost someone. The Grandson of the German pilot was at the reunion. There are very few survivors left. The government definitely failed the families of the soldiers on the HMT RHONA.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        14 months ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Carolyn, the secrecy about the Rohna after all these years is baffling and infuriating. I am so glad to shed a little light on that tragedy.

      • profile image

        Carolyn S. Langston 

        14 months ago

        My uncle was on this ship. My grandmother died not knowing what happen to her son. My mother did find out what happen to her brother because of my research. He was one of 10 kids and I made a point of showing this to all of them. I also went to there reunion one year and met everyone possible that I could meet and talk too. It was a very moving reunion.

      • profile image

        Cheri Malena 

        14 months ago

        Thank you so much for your story. My grandfather was on of the men killed on this ship. I have tried to find details for years since the airing of the history channels version.

      • profile image

        Rita lewis 

        4 years ago

        I read the book but saw the video for the first time. I met most of the men speaking on it as I met them at Reunions. My husband David lewis served on the USS AM 105 Pioneer who rescued over 600 of the airmen from the Rohna. Thanks to the Captain Leroy Rogers. Thank you

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        5 years ago from North Carolina

        Checked - Rommel did indeed ask Hitler they be used against the beach supply zones after the fighting had moved farther inland. Interesting history what if there.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi alancaster149. Not that it would be much more accurate, but I think the buzz bomb's range was determined by a pre-determined number of rotations of a small "counter" propeller, which shut off the fuel when the count was reached. At the time, many who heard its engine cut off assumed it dropped when it ran out of fuel.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Alastar, that is something I hadn't heard of. I wonder whether they would have been accurate enough-- they could hit a target the size of London but they might hit Germans as much as Allies in a target area only a mile or two wide. Still, it's an interesting topic, especially if Rommel suggested it.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        There might have been a way out in firing off 'bombs' of aluminium foil, as the RAF did in raiding Germany at about the same time, to throw off German radar when crossing the Dutch coast. That was fairly effective, although the V-weapons' range and direction were determined by the quantity of fuel fed into their tanks and the angle of launch. The Germans themselves had practically no control over their V-missiles beyond launch, being still in the development stage.

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        5 years ago from North Carolina

        What do you think would have happened had Hitler concentrated his V-ones on the Normandy beachheads instead of as a terror weapon on London etc when they started in June. Rommel supposedly begged him to hit the beachheads with them. Am I correct in that?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for the kind words, Peter. I love researching and writing these articles and there's nothing like readers who enjoy the results!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, Alastar. I was also surprised that the Germans had a radio-controlled guided missile in operational use as early as that. The planned Normandy invasion might not have happened if the Allies hadn't discovered a solution to those guided missiles. Thanks for commenting.

      • Peter Geekie profile image

        Peter Geekie 

        5 years ago from Sittingbourne

        Dear UnnamedHarald,

        Thank you for another well written and researched article. Your work is always a pleasure to read.

        kind regards Peter

      • Alastar Packer profile image

        Alastar Packer 

        5 years ago from North Carolina

        Wow, few are aware of it is right. Knew there was something about Rohna story that was special, an intuitive feeling sort of. First off I didn't know the Germans had launched any kind of 'wonder weapon' type missile at enemy targets before June of'44. What a surprise to found out about this and the large American loss of life at that. Thank you David for bringing this tragic but astounding event to HP.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, Steve. I'll definitely keep that in mind. I tend not to cover topics that are already Hubs, but, at some point, I'm going to have to-- just for my own desire to cover history. Thanks for the comment and the idea.

      • Steve Lensman profile image

        Steve Lensman 

        5 years ago from Manchester, England

        All that loss of life, terrible. Interesting article David, thanks. The sinking of the USS Indianapolis would make a great (and horrifying) story for one of your hubs.

        Voted Up and Interesting.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi Gypsy. Yep, that is definitely the way of the world. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

        Gypsy Rose Lee 

        5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

        Voted up and interesting. Another fascinating bit of history I didn't know about. I must say that it is typical that the government clams up so to say. Passing this on.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi Graham. I'm sure that had something to do with it-- think of the angst of millions transported over the oceans. It was bad enough with the threat of submarines. But why it was secreted for decades is beyond me. Thanks, as always for your comment.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        Hi UH. a very sad tale indeed. Oviously it was classified so that moral did not drop at home. Surely though, the families of the lost should have been informed of the circustances of their loved ones demise. As usual a first class presentation.

        Graham.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        You're probably right, alancaster, although I would think those in danger of being attacked by guided missiles would have been better off knowing. Although it was a while before effective jamming equipment was available, the fact that the earlier attacks that afternoon had also included guided missiles shows they weren't a sure thing-- apparently a lot of high-caliber AA disturbed the missile operators. Thanks for the great comment.

      • alancaster149 profile image

        Alan R Lancaster 

        5 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

        I suppose the US military thought that the notion of guided weapons would spook their commanders - not unnaturally. There would have been little defence against a guided weapon, just as there was none against the V2 Flying Bombs launched from France against the southern parts of England. Something else the US might have been wary of was the German development of the V3, designed to be launched against New York or elsewhere along the Eastern Seaboard. That would have brought home the reality of war to the US' citizens.

        Well-researched, Unnamed Harald. I didn't know about this one either.

        Also, I suspect that if the US press got hold of it, there might have been panic about family serving in uniform. German spies in the US could have reported a success to their department head, Admiral Canaris (was he still in charge of the 'Abwehr' in 1943)?

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, rcrumple. That's the great thing about "national security"-- it's a great circular excuse: What happened? Sorry, "national security". Why is it considered "national security"? Sorry, "national security". You and I know there are bona fide reasons for some things being kept secret, but how many times are secrets kept for political reasons or to protect some powerful figures?

      • rcrumple profile image

        Rich 

        5 years ago from Kentucky

        Once again, we find the government hiding things that really didn't matter. If there was a weapon like the guided missiles being used, knowledge might have been greatly appreciated. Oh well, the government continues their heinous practices to this day. Great information and sad story, especially if the LST's did sail by without stopping to pick up survivors. Great job!

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi fpherj48! I think "fear of panic" is an excuse more than anything. Governments, as well as other institutions, revel in secrecy-- it's in their DNA. Always great to hear from you.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, RichardPac. I seem to have enjoyed history as long as I can remember, especially the first half of the Twentieth Century. Some hubs are about things I've known about for a while-- but I discovered I was running out of ideas, so I do a fair amount of research and surfing. I find that writing 500-1000 words works for me. It forces me to get to the "essence" of the story and I try not to overwhelm readers with too much at a time-- if the research overwhelms me, I know I have to make it more palatable to the reader. And I try to figure out what interested me in the first place and focus on that.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for commenting, krillco. Glad you enjoyed it.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, xstatic. Yes, the guided missiles, were fairly effective for brand new technology-- compared to dropping bombs, anyway. One can imagine the mayhem they might have caused on D-Day if the Allies hadn't figured out how to defeat them.

      • fpherj48 profile image

        Paula 

        5 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

        What an interesting and educational hub, Harald. How foolish are these secrets. I don't buy the explanations of "fear of panic." I'm not sure I understand why the average person is simply not trusted with information that in fact, should be known. What a tragedy....1180 lives.. how sad...........Thanks for another fascinating History lesson.

      • RichardPac profile image

        RichardPac 

        5 years ago from Sunny Florida!

        I had no idea. UnnamedHerald, just out of curiosity, how do you discover new topics for hubs? Are you a WWII history aficionado, or just sharing previously unknown glimpses? I love reading your articles, you really have an art for shedding light on certain topics.

      • krillco profile image

        William E Krill Jr 

        5 years ago from Hollidaysburg, PA

        Well written and valuable to a history hound like myself; thanks.

      • xstatic profile image

        Jim Higgins 

        5 years ago from Eugene, Oregon

        Another fascinating glimpse into a really little known incident in WW II. This is really interesting to me since I did not know the Nazis had such a weapon. Saying that though, I recall the V2 rockets which I suppose were similar.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Hi, Peter. It's depressing to realize how governments will classify nearly anything at the drop of a hat. And, if anyone asks why? "Well, it's for National Security... and your curiosity has been noted."

      • Peter Geekie profile image

        Peter Geekie 

        5 years ago from Sittingbourne

        Dear unnamedharald,

        Thank you for another well written and researched article. It is a sad fact that HM Government had a tendency to suppress any significant event to avoid panic and acknowledgement of an enemy success. There are many such D-notices issued.

        Kind regards Peter

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, austinhealy. This topic is something I knew nothing about either until I came upon it recently.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Pavlo, I asked myself the same questions and found no answers. Theoretically, the appearance of the guided missile had something to do with it-- but what's the point? Those in combat knew about it. The cynic in me thinks the military was embarrassed and/or they didn't want to panic soldiers in their tens of thousands crossing the Atlantic. There are allegations (which I could find no backing for) that 7 empty LSTs kept going past the survivors without helping and the commander of them was later relieved. If I find anything more, I will update this. And, once classified, government secrets tend to remain secret long after they need to be. Thanks for your great comment.

      • austinhealy profile image

        Bernard J. Toulgoat 

        5 years ago from Treasure Coast, Florida

        Another significant and highly interesting part of World War II history uncovered by you, an incident I had never heard of before. Thank you for sharing. Great writing!

      • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

        Pavlo Badovskyi 

        5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

        Great hub. I just do not get it, why was it classified? What could be the reason? It was not a mistake of the Navy and it was not some secret test of secret weapon.... then why was it necessary to hide the story for so many years?

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