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
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
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
The Rescue of the Ship Wreck HMHS Rohilla
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
washed ashore after the storm, including the Rohillas' bridge
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.
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