About World War 2: The Sinking of the Rohna-- Worst Loss of US Troops At Sea
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 (His Majesty's Troopship) 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.
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.
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, a red glow appeared on the “bomb's” nose and it 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 swamped or capsized by the waves or overcrowding.
The minesweeper USS Pioneer and Clan Cambell (or Glencampbell-- the record is not consistent) 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.
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.
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.
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-- 57 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.