Friday, November 24, 2017

An After-Thanksgiving Attack in "Suicide Alley," Part I

Editor's Note: Asked to name the ship that sustained the greatest loss of American lives during the Second World War, most if not all of the readers of this blog could probably name the battleship Arizona, which exploded and sank at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  But what about the ship that sustained the second-greatest loss of American lives? 

This is the story of that ship and the once-secret tragedy that befell her on November 26, 1943.

By Justin Hall
Curator, the National Museum of the American Sailor

On October 12, 1943, several thousand American GIs embarked at the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation in Newport News, Virginia, for the Atlantic crossing aboard the American transports William Rawle, Lambert Cadwalader, Booker T. Washington, Nicholas Gilman, and Betty Zane. After disembarking at Oran, Algeria, the Soldiers continued training in a staging area awaiting the next stage of their journey, which was withheld from them in order to maintain secrecy. Then on November 24, over 2,000 of them reembarked at Oran aboard HMT (His Majesty’s Transport) Rohna to join convoy KMF-26. Convoy KMF-26 was a troop transport convoy traveling to Port Said, Egypt and consisted of 17 ships in five columns, being escorted by 10 armed escort vessels and two fighter aircraft. While onboard Rohna, the GIs learned their destination would be the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. The men also practiced lifeboat drills and had Thanksgiving Dinner on the 25th.
As a civilian cargo ship before the war, Rohna carried approximately 100 passengers.  On the day she was sunk, the troopship was carrying 2,193.  (Wikimedia Commons)
A considerable number of the men had just deployed from the United States for their first tour; therefore, they were unaware that they would be passing through a section of the Mediterranean known as "Suicide Alley." This narrow stretch of the Mediterranean between Sicily and Tunisia had earned notoriety because Allied convoys had to travel through it. Consequently, German submarines and aircraft repeatedly attacked this location. On November 26, the minesweeper USS Pioneer (AM-105) reported a surprise aerial attack made up of 24 to 30 planes, first spotted by the naked eye at approximately 10 miles. These planes were identified as Heinkel 111 and Heinkel 177 bombers flying at an intermediate altitude and fast speed. After the convoy tracked the planes for one minute to confirm their first evaluation, the ships engaged with their anti-aircraft armament of 3-inch 50-caliber and 40mm guns and 20mm cannons. Enemy bomber attacks focused on the left section of the convoy, dropping 40 to 50 bombs. Fortunately almost all were near misses. Tragically, the Rohna was hit and would quickly sink.

A Heinkel 177 "Greif" heavy bomber carries a Henschel 293 rocket-boosted glide bomb. (
What makes Rohna different from all the other ships attacked in the convoy was that it was hit and sunk by a radio-controlled, rocket-boosted glider bomb. A less-advanced version had hit USS Savannah a few months before off of Italy. Rohna's Second Officer, J.E. Willis, watched the bombers from the bridge. As the glide bombs came within range of the 20-mm, Wills was finally able to identify the incoming object as a bomb and ordered all 20mm to target the bomb. The 20mm gunners failed to destroy the bomb and it hit the Rohna, traveling at about 370 miles per hour, about halfway down the port side, just above the water line, at the engine room level. Around 300 men were killed instantly. Immediately the ship began to flood. To make matters worse, all electrical equipment failed.  

Convoy tactics demanded that the ships remain on course, yet after the attack, six ships remained to pick up survivors or provide cover for the rescue ships. USS Pioneer picked up 606 survivors, but five succumbed to their injuries during the night and the remaining ships rescued less than 200 men. On Nov 28, 1943, the War Department in Washington received a classified message reporting Rohna had sunk within half an hour after receiving bomb damage and half the men aboard were reported as casualties. Darkness and heavy swells hampered rescue efforts and 1,015 American servicemen were among the 1,149 lost in the sinking.

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