The HMT Rohna was struck by a German radio-controlled missile in World War II, and more than 1,000 Americans were killed in the attack. However, details of the attack were classified to protect morale. Contributed photo

Georgianna Anctil received the first telegram from the War Department in late December 1943, telling her that her son Ronaldo L. Anctil was missing in action somewhere in the North Africa area.

Five months later, she received a second telegram. This one said Ronaldo, a Lewiston resident, was killed in action, but it contained no additional details. No information on how, when or where, except the same generic “North Africa area.”

The military knew all of the details, but chose not to reveal them.

Ronaldo Anctil

To protect the morale of the troops and the citizens, the manner of Anctil’s death and that of more than 1,000 other Americans on Nov. 27, 1943, was marked classified. Survivors were ordered not to talk or they would face court martial.

Families of the 1,015 U.S. servicemen who died that day did not discover the truth for 50 years with many going to their graves not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Anctil was aboard the British troop carrier HMT Rohna off the coast of Algeria in the Mediterranean Sea when a German bomber squadron attacked. The Rohna was struck by a radio-guided missile, one of the first such successful attacks by the German’s new weapon.


The sinking of the Rohna was the greatest loss of life at sea by enemy action in the history of the U.S.

Officials thought that knowledge of the enemy having such a weapon would be devastating so the attack was marked classified.

“My mother, Laurette, always wondered what had actually happened to Ronaldo,” said Pauline Cote of Scarborough, whose mother married Anctil shortly before he went overseas. “All she ever knew is he died at sea. The Rohna disaster was classified for so many years. Too long. Survivors were told never to speak of the disaster.”

Laurette died in 1988, not knowing the full truth of her son’s death.

Ronaldo Anctil was born in Lewiston on Sept. 25, 1917, the son of Wilfred and Georgianna Anctil. His father died when he was 10 years old. A standout hockey player at St. Dom’s, Anctil was living with his mother and siblings on Blake Street working in one of the local mills when he enlisted in the Army Air Corps in January 1943.

He married Laurette Richard in April, before heading to Missouri and Alabama for training. He was transferred overseas in August, three months before his death. At the time he was sent overseas, his wife was pregnant with his daughter, Claudette, who he never met.


“My sister Claudette never really talked about her father,” Cote said. “He never saw her. I just think it was too painful for her. She did keep a picture of her father in military uniform all her life.”

Claudette was 2 months old when the second telegram arrived in May 1944 informing them of Anctil’s death.

A member of the 853rd Engineering Battalion, Anctil was assigned to the transport ship Rohna, an 8,700-ton steamer, which was converted into a troop carrier by England and was part of a 24-ship convoy heading toward Alexandria, Egypt. The ship was horribly overcrowded with approximately 2,000 passengers and crew.

A German bomber squadron attacked the convoy. While escort ships fought off much of the attack, one radio-guided missile slipped through and struck the Rohna’s engine room and exploded.

The weapon was a Henschel Hs 293, a radio-guided dive bomb. The 12.5-foot-long device was controlled by a joystick. Survivors of the Rohna attack described the bomb shooting forward and down directly at the ship after it was dropped.

It is unclear if Anctil died in the initial blast, went down with the ship or jumped overboard and eventually drowned. The 1,138 who died included British troops and Red Cross workers. Fewer than 800 survivors were rescued.


Anctil was among six Maine servicemen who died as a result of the attack. The others were from Portland, Falmouth, Bangor, Dexter and Old Town.

According to filmmaker Jack Ballo, who is working on a documentary on the sinking, “the large number of casualties was due to nonfunctioning lifeboats and inadequate lifebelts worn by the soldiers. ”

The Allies eventually learned how to jam the radio signal to thwart widespread use of the weapon, but the attack remained classified by both the U.S. and British governments.

Even though the names of the deceased were known, the War Department sent out telegrams simply saying that their loved ones were missing in action, Ballo said.

“It would be five agonizing months before the families would receive another War Department telegram stating that their loved one died without any other information,” Ballo said. “It’s hard to imagine the heartache and suffering the families of the casualties went through over those five months living with a false hope that one day their son would walk through the door again.”

After the war, the government confirmed that the Rohna was sunk by German bombers, but few other details were released. It wasn’t until the Freedom of Information Act was passed in the late 1960s that details of the sinking slowly emerged.


Survivors began talking more openly about the incident in the 1990s. One survivor was encouraged by his wife to write about his experiences for their children. It turned into an article published by American History magazine.

A memorial for the Rohna is located at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery in Alabama. The bodies of the dead who were recovered are interred in the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial in Tunisia.

While many Americans still are unaware of the sinking of the Rohna and the more than 1,000 lives lost, Ballo hopes his documentary will shed more light on the tragedy. He plans to release the film this fall in time for the 80th anniversary of the sinking.

Late CBS broadcaster Charles Osgood in a report on the Rohna in 1993 summed up why the story is so little known: “It’s not that we forgot. It’s that we never knew.” he said.

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