South African, UK navies to commemorate 100th anniversary of SS Mendi sinking

SS Mendi. Photo: Royal Navy

The Royal and South African Navies will gather in February next year to commemorate the sinking of South African troopship SS Mendi.

After it was rammed in fog off the Isle of Wight on February 21 1917, SS Mendi took 616 South Africans down with her.

To mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy, the South African Navy is dispatching its frigate SAS Amatola to the UK to support ceremonies ashore and over the wreck site – the first stage in a three-month deployment to Europe.

Royal Navy divers are planning to go down to the Mendi’s wreck, which sits upright on the seabed in murky waters 100ft down and a good 20 miles southwest of the southernmost tip of the Isle of Wight, placing the South African flag and wreath in memory of all 646 souls lost.

The Mendi was an ageing steamer, pressed into military service in 1916 as a troopship.

In January 1917 she left Cape Town with 823 men of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps aboard.

After a month-long journey, the ship called in at Plymouth before making for Le Havre in France to offload her passengers.

Instead, before dawn on February 21, she was struck by food transporter SS Darro, which drove a 20ft deep gash in the Mendi’s bow before extracting herself and continuing on her way.

Destroyer HMS Brisk managed to save about 100 people, but almost the entire battalion of labour troops, plus 30 of the Mendi’s crew – again Africans – died as the ship sank in just 20 minutes.

They faced death with unknown courage. The Rev Isaac Williams Wauchope calmed his countrymen with rallying words:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do.

“Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers… Swazis, Pondos, Basotho… so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

In the Mendi’s death throes, some of the men reportedly broke out in song, while others supposedly performed a ‘death dance’ on the upper deck.

As well as being a national tragedy, the sinking inspired poetry, books, monuments as well as a present-day warship in the South African Navy.

Some of the Mendi’s dead were eventually washed up on the south coast. They were buried at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth and Hollybrook in Southampton. Centennial services are planned at both as part of February’s commemorations.

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