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SINKING OF THE MENDI

The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of the Great War, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood.

THE JOURNEY

On the 16th January 1917, the SS Mendi troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to Europe carrying a contingent of the SANLC, comprising 802 Black soldiers, 5 white officiers and 17 NCO's as well as 89 crew members and 56 military passengers. They sailed at noon forming up in convoy with four ships carrying South African and Australian troops, and gold. They were escorted by the cruiser HMS Cornwall. The Mendi was commanded by the experienced Captain Henry Arthur Yardley.

The steamer Mendi, 4230 tons, was in the Liverpool-West Africa service until chartered by the British Government  and was named after the Mendi tribe in Sierra Leone. Her previous journey was the transport of Nigerian troops from Lagos to Mombasa for service in German East Africa.

SS Mendi

The convoy proceeded at a leisurely pace and the men fell into the routine of life in a troopship. The long slow voyage was a notably calm one and was marked by few incidents. The most striking one was the death of one of the assistant stewards who was buried at sea. The Mendi called at Lagos in Nigeria and Freetown in Sierra Leone where coal and stores were loaded. From Sierre Leone the convoy steamed on unescorted although that the last part of the journey was the most dangerous because of the U-Boot threat. A this time, the German submarines had orders to attack without warning making the British waters dangerous. The weather became cold, the sea rougher and the sky grey. The Black soldiers endured this with cheerful fortitude.

The Mendi came safely into Plymouth, 34 days out from Cape Town. Here, the military passengers landed.

THE SINKING

In the afternoon of 20th February 1917, the Mendi sailed from Plymouth and steamed to Le Havre in France, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk. The weather was overcast, threatening mist, with light winds and a smooth sea. With the night, the weather had become foggy and the whistle was sounded at one-minute intervals, as required by regulations. Thereafter the fog became thicker and the speed was reduced.

The SS Darro, 11 484 tons, was a much larger vessel than the Mendi and was commanded by Captain H.W. Stump. In the late afternoon of 20th February, she sailed from Le Havre and steamed at full speed to Falmouth with a cargo of frozen meat. In the foggy night, its lights were exhibited and the lookouts reinforced but the whistle was never sounded and the speed not reduced.

SS Darro

On the 21st February 1917, at 4.57 am, the lookouts of the Mendi heard a vessel coming through the water and sounded the whistle. As the Darro was travelling at full speed and making no sound signals, the second officer and the lookouts heard the signal and saw a green light. Orders were at once given to stop the engines and put them full speed astern and the Darro's siren sounded. It was too late. They were about eleven miles south to south west of St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight.

The Darro's bow crashed into the starboard side of the smaller ship almost at right angles with tremendous force and cut into her from keel to deck to a depth about 20 feet. Men standing on the Mendi were hurled to the deck by the force of the impact and the men who were sleep were abruptly woke up. The Darro struck near the waterlight bulkhead between N1 and N2 holds and opened both of them to the sea. On the Darro, the engines which had been going full speed astern were stopped and the two ships drifted apart leaving a huge open hole in the side of the Mendi into which the sea poured.

Captain Yardley was knocked down by the force of the collision. He got up quickly, went to the fore part of the bridge and ordered the engines to be stopped. He sent a man to tell the carpenter to sound the ship and gave the order to lower the boats to the rail. No SOS was sent out because the operator was not found.

Men shaken by the shock and sound of the collision began to struggle out of their blankets, picked up their lifebelts and made their way in the dark through the rising freezing water to the exits. But at leat one of this exits may have been damaged by the bow of the Darro, so that some of the men were trapped. A large number (one estimate was 140) never made their way to the deck and drowned in the blackness of the hold as the water rose quickly. For most of those who still survived, perhaps 750 men, there was now a struggle in the darkness to lower the boats which could take a total of 298 men. Moreover the Mendi as she sank lower in the water listed heavily to starboard and it became difficult to get out the port side boats.

The black troops were quiet and orderly at their stations as during the excercises at sea during the journey. Officers and men of the crew set to lower the boat of the starboard side. N1 and N3 boats were lowered safely and quickly filled with men. N2 boat was lowered safely too, but it capsized with men aboard after a mistake from a sailor. N5 boat was lowered safely to the water with two men of  the crew and four black soldier in manoeuvre, but a lot of men jumped into it on one side and capsized it. Everyone was thrown into the water and it was not possible to right it again. The N6 boat smashed against the ship's side and it was never known what happened to N7 boat.

The work went on to get out the 46 rafts, each capable of supporting 20 people and Black troops made the work in an orderly way under the direction of their officers. At the same time, others black soldiers came up from the hatch of N1 hold.

Somewhere about this time must have occurred the best known legend in the story of the Mendi. It is not confirmed by any survivor or official account, but oral tradition has preserved it and the press kept it alive. The Reverend Wauchope Dyobha cried out to the men :

Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly 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, Basutos, we 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.

And they took off their boots and stamped the death dance on the deck of the sinking ship.

Delville Wood Museum : fresco element

Captain Yardley, realising that the ship would not last much longer, ordered that everyone to leave the ship and get away from it before she sank. Many men threw themselves into the sea, singing, praying and crying. There was a big explosion which shook the ship putting out the lights and causing a panic and confusion. However a lot of Black soldiers remained aboard as they were too afraid to jump into the icy waters. Most of them had no experience of the sea, many probably not even having seen it before they embarked on the Mendi and very few could swim. In spite of the call to jump from their NCOs and comrades in the waters, they were still aboard of the dying ship when it sank.

During this agony of 25 minutes, no help came from the Darro, even so no far, and the HMS Brisk had lost visual contact with the Mendi in the fog.

About 120 men were now in and with the two boats, and some hundreds more were in the freezing water clinging to rafts or wreckage, or supported only by their lifebelts.

At 5.am, the Darro sent an SOS message to which the HMS Brisk replied. The crew inspected the vessel, lowered the boat to the rail and prepared to a potential evacuation. But the damages were moderately minor. No attempt was made to hail the other vessel or to lower a boat into the water.

Not far, in the icy waters, the tragedy carried on. Many frozen men hung to the rafts and several reached to go up on the keel of the N5 boat. Men without life belts drowned and the others died freezing or of exhaustion. The water temperature in the Channel at this is time of year is only about 7 degrees.

Captain Yardley floated for about an hour and a half and told : " I had a lifebelt on. There were hundreds of boys around me after the wreck. They died from exposure. They had all lifebelts on... It was very cold, dark, damp, miserable night..."

About 400 men drowned or died of exposure in the water or on the rafts.

The N1 Boat was the first to reach the Darro, about fifty minutes after the collision. The shipwrecked were so exhausted that they were helped by the crew to go up the gangway. The N3 Boat came alongside the Darro about ten minutes later. Some members of the crew heard the shouting of men on rafts. However, Captain Stump took any measure to rescue the men.

In the same time, the boats of the HMS Brisk, who came rapidly on the site after the wreck, carried on the searching but with great difficulty in the darkness and the fog. The SS Sandsend picked up 23 black survivors.

HMS Brisk

The Darro remained in the vicinity until 6.45am and then proceeded through the fog at reduced speed sounding her whistle. The HMS Brisk called her boats with her exhausted crews at 9.00 am and cruised looking in vain for survivors.

The tally of survivors was 267 : 107 on the Darro, 137 on the Brisk (of whom Captain Yardley) and the 23 men picked up by the Sandsend.

The final toll of this tragedy is terrible. Thirty-three members of the crew, two white officers, seven white NCOs and 618 black soldiers were lost. Among them were prominent figures : Pondoland chiefs Henry Bokleni, Dokoda Richard Ndamase, Mxonywa Bangani, The Reverend Wauchope Dyobha...

When the news of the tragedy was announced to Parliament on  the 9th March 1917, all the members of the South African House of Assembly, led by Prime Minister Louis Botha, rose in their seats as a token of respect.

The captain of the Darro, HW Stump, was later disciplined, but the sanction must be appear minor compared to the tragedy : a ship command suspension of 12 months.

Roll of honour of the Mendi

THE MENDI TODAY

The event is remembered by a number of memorial in South Africa, Britain and France.

The Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton bears the names of the men of the Mendi who had no known graves. thirteen men rest in cemeteries in England, one in France and five are commemorated by special memorials in Holland.

In South Africa, The Mendi Memorial in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, was erected in memory of the disaster and the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville commemorates those those who know no grave but the sea. Recently, another memorial to the Mendi was unveiled in Cape Town. Located on an embankment on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town, the site has significance to the Mendi, as it here that troops of the South African Native Labour Contingent had billeted before embarking on the ill-fated SS Mendi for France.

The Mendi is also commemorated at Delville Wood Commorative Museum by fresco element and one panel bearing the names of the men lost.

The bridge telegraph from the Mendi can be seen at the Maritime Museum, Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight.

A painting, The loss of the Mendi, by Hilary Graham, is exposed at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Museum of Art. Curious detail, the artist had depicted the tragedy in heavy seas, while the sea was almost like glass.

The Mendi has also given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on South African citizens who have performed extraordinary acts of bravery.

The SS Mendi is also honoured by the modern South African Navy, which has among its fleet the SAS Isaac Dyobha, a Warrior-class fast attack craft and the SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate.

SAS Mendi

On the 23rd August 2004 a wreath-laying ceremony was held when the SAS Mendi and the British Navy's HMS Nottingham met at the site where the SS Mendi sank.

In 2006, The Commonwealth War Graves Commission and History Channel released a 20-minute film, Let Us Die Like Brothers, exploring the Mendi disaster and Black South Africans' involvement in the Great War in Europe.

On 21st July 2007, a great ceremony took place at the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton, followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the site of the tragedy by the SAS Mendi.