Herbert Edgar Burton

1864 - 1944


The Rohilla Rescue

30th October 1914

Six lifeboats from stations as far apart as Tynemouth and Scarborough were involved over a period of two and a half days in the service to Rohilla, a 7,400 ton hospital ship with 229 crew and medical staff aboard. On the morning of October 30th 1914, she ran onto a reef near Whitby in an ESE gale, breaking in half in the mountainous seas.

At daybreak the people of Whitby began their rescue attempt, and the town's No. 2 lifeboat John Fielden was manhandled along the rocky foreshore and over a 8ft wall, to a spot a quarter of a mile from the wreck. The lifeboat's coxwain, Thomas Langlands, launched knowing that she had been stove-in in two places during her journey.

The lifeboat reached the wreck twice after a fearful struggle, and took off 37 survivors, but could not return a third time as the rocks had taken their toll on the lifeboat.

The lifeboat at Upgang, 2 miles away, accomplished another remarkable overland journey to the scene, but the huge seas forestalled another launch.

Messages had now reached Scarborough to the south and Teesmouth to the north. Scarborough lifeboat was finally towed out by a steam trawler, but when she arrived it was dark, and although she remained at sea all night in hellish conditions by daybreak it was obvious that still nothing could be done. The courage of the lifeboatmen of Teesmouth was just as great, but as they were towed across the Tees bar the lifeboat sprang a serious leak and had to be evacuated by the tug towing her. The Upgang lifeboat was launched again, but the sea and current were too strong and her exhausted crew were forced back. Whitby's No1 lifeboat under the command of coxwain Thomas Langlands was then towed to within half-a-mile of Rohilla, but even Thomas Langlands who had twice got alongside the previous day had to admit defeat.

The rocks where Rohilla lay proved no anchorage to allow a pulling boat to veer down, but perhaps Tynemouth's new motor lifeboat could drive in and out again without anchoring ? In command was coxwain Robert Smith, accompanied by Captain H.E. Burton RE, an expert on the new petrol engine.

At 1.00 am on Sunday the lifeboat was in Whitby harbour, and four hours later set out for the wreck. An eye-witness account in a contemporary edition of the Yorkshire Post said: The lifeboat throbbed her way towards the wreck and then, when within 200 yards of Rohilla, she turned seawards. A few fathoms beyond she discharged over the boiling sea gallons and gallons of oil.. the effect was remarkable; within a few seconds the waves appeared suddenly to be flattened down as by a miracle, In the meantime the lifeboat raced at full speed outside the line of breakers, past the stern of the wreck, and then turned directly to the shore. Guided with splendid skill and courage, she reached the lee of the wreck. Already the effects of the oil were beginning to pass off, and the waves were noticeably higher.

A rope was let down to the lifeboat, and figures scrambled down. In less than a quarter of an hour more than forty men had been taken into the lifeboat. It was then that two enormous waves were seen rolling up at tremendous speed. They swept over Rohilla onto the lifeboat, enveloping it. Each time the tough little craft disappeared for a moment, reappeared, tottered, and righted herself gamely. Closer still she hugged the vessel's side till every man aboard - fifty of them in all - had been hauled into the rescuing boat.

But the peril was not yet over ; as the lifeboat shot passed the wreck on her return journey she was struck broadside on by a great wave;but once more she manfully withstood the shock, and swept out to sea. The Whitby pulling lifeboat putting out to help a fishing boat. The pulling lifeboat remained in service at Whitby until 1957. The boat is today one of only two pulling lifeboats of the R.N.L.I in their original condition. The other is in the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.



   Herbert Edgar BURTON, GC, OBE

No. & Rank at the Time of Action: Major

Unit/Occupation: Honorary Superintendent, Tynemouth Motor Life-Boat

Date and Place of Birth: 1864

Family: Son of QMS instructor at Chatham School of Military Engineering. Major Burton had three sons and one daughter, one son being lost when the ship he was serving in was sunk during the 1914-18 war.

Early Life: Enlisting in the R.E. in 1878 at the age of 14, he progressed from Bugler to C.S.M. by 1888, became a Warrant Officer in 1894, and was commissioned in 1902 "for good services in the field". A Bt. Major in 1917 "for services in The Great War", he was Major, Coast Bn. on his retirement in 1919. His services at this stage totalled nearly 16 years in the ranks, nearly 8 years as a W.O. and over 17 years in command rank.

But Major Burton had by no means ended his career. In 1921 he was recalled as T/Major with the Defence Force, and he was employed as Adjutant to recruit and organise the 50th Divisional Engineers T.A. from 1922 to 1927.

Even then his service was not completely ended, for he came back to the 50th and 23rd Divisions for some months in 1939. In 1940 organized District Local Defence Volunteers, later Home Guard.

Date and Place of GC Action: 1st November 1914, off Whitby, North Yorkshire

The London Gazette: 30th June 1924


Account of Deed: On 1st November 1914 Major Burton displayed great gallantry and very fine seamanship in bringing the Tynemouth motor lifeboat 44 miles through a stormy night, unaided by coast lights, to Whitby and, after all other efforts had failed, rescued 50 people from the government hospital steamer Rohilla, which had been wrecked at Whitby two days earlier.

Remarks: EGM - GC exchange.

Additional Information: On the 6th of August 1914 Rohilla was requisitioned and converted for use as a Hospital Ship. On the 29th of October she left Leith bound for Dunkirk to board wounded but at 0400 the following day she ran aground on the Saltwick Nab, one mile south of Whitby. At the time the sinking was attributed to a German mine, this was propaganda, with no coastal lights available because of the war she lost her way, ran onto the bank and in the ensuing storm broke her back. Lifeboat crews from Whitby, Upgang and Tynemouth attended the stricken vessel and for their heroism were awarded three gold and four silver medals. Major Burton of the Tynemouth lifeboat was awarded an Empire Gallantry Medal on the 30th of June 1924 for his bravery, this was later changed to a George Cross in 1940 when the award was instituted. Because the ship was only four hundred yards from the shore some of the crew attempted to make their own way to landfall but sadly even with the efforts of the lifeboat crews 84 members of the ship's compliment perished out of a total of 229.

Burton's promotion and retirement were announced in the London Gazette as follows:

Capt HE Burton to be T/Major 5.9.15 (LG 9.10.15, p.9995).

Capt HE Burton RE awarded Brevet Major (LG 4.6.17, p.5467).

Capt & Bt Maj HE Burton OBE RE to be Major 4.6.19 (LG 2.8.19).

Maj HE Burton OBE Coast Bn, RE retired on retired pay having reached the age limit 15.9.19 (LG 17.9.19, p.11665).

Final Rank: Major

Other Decorations/Medals: OBE (Mil-Purple ribbon), Queen's South Africa Medal with clasps 'Transvaal', 'Orange Free State' and 'Cape Colony', King's South Africa Medal with clasps 'South Africa 1901' and '1902', British War Medal, Victory Medal, 1911 Coronation Medal and Army LS & GC. Additionally he was twice Mentioned in Dispatches, His Victory Medal is sadly missing from his group at the RE Museum.
RNLI Silver Medal for rescue of survivors of the wreck SS Dunelm, 1913, RNLI Gold Medal for rescue of survivors of the wreck of HM Hospital Ship Rohilla, 1914, American Gold Cross of Honour, 1915, Coronation Medal.

GC Location/Sale History: Royal Engineers Museum, Brompton Barracks, Prince Arthur Road, Gillingham, Kent ME4 4UG

Date and Place of Death: 7th December 1944, aged 80 years, at Beadnell, Northumberland.



The Rescue of the Ship Wreck HMHS Rohilla

British India Steam Navigation Co's liner HMS Rohilla was called up at the outset of the First World War and converted into a naval hospital ship to carry wounded soldiers. Built in 1906 by Harland & Wolff, the HMHS Rohilla was one of the first British India ships to be fitted with a radio.
HMHS Rohilla

HMHS Rohilla

Late in October 1914 and painted in her hospital ship colours of white all over, she set a course down the eastern English coast to pick up soldiers from Dunkirk. She carried a full crew along with passengers including medical staff. In total 229 persons were on board.

At around 04:00 on 30th October 1914 during a fierce gale and with no visible way markings due to the blackout conditions on land, the Rohilla ploughed into a reef off the coast south of Whitby. She lay with her back broken, and although only 600 yards from shore, the treachorous conditions of the high seas and storm force winds made her complete rescue impossible.

Over the next 50 hours one of the great rescue operations of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution ensued.

Six Lifeboats from miles around made their way to the wreck, whilst attempts to get a rocket line to the stricken vessel were unsuccessful, it was left to the brave members of the RNLI to attempt rescue. Through the outstanding bravery of the Yorkshire and Durham lifeboat crew many lives were saved from the broken wreck, despite her positioning on the rocks and the relentless waves pounding her. These boats were given the near impossible task of navigating their way in to pick up survivors without being able to anchor. Some of the lifeboats themselves obtained damage whilst attempting repeat rescues.

The saviour of the last fifty survivors, who had endured over fifty hours amongst the wreckage, was a motor lifeboat that had travelled through the night in a severe storm from Tynemouth, the Lifeboat 'Henry Vernon'. With its motor running the Henry Vernon was able to stay alongside the Rohilla whilst picking up survivors, all the time the waves crashed down. The Lifeboat was said to have been enveloped on many occassions by waves, each time righting herself and continuing the operation. All the time watched by the townsfolk from a nearby beach, who cheered the rescue attempts and waved lanterns.

The Tynemouth Lifeboat was to save 50 souls from the HMHS Rohilla that night. One of the survivors of the vessel Mrs Mary K Roberts, had been shipwrecked two years before, on the RMS Titanic.

The ships bridge washed ashore and what looks like smashed lifeboats from the ship

Debris washed ashore after the storm, including the Rohillas' bridge

Tragically 62 crew and 28 passengers perished aboard the Rohilla. Those recovered were buried in Whitby's Warpool cemetery.

Three Gold and four Silver medals were awarded to the lifeboat crews, Major Burton of the Tynemouth Lifeboat was to be awarded the Empire Gallantry medal, which was later changed to the George Cross when it was implemented in 1940.

George Cross

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