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99th Anniversary of South Africa’s Worst Wartime Naval Disaster remembered

17 February 2016

A First World War disaster at sea, that claimed the lives of more than 600 South African servicemen, will be remembered at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, England at 10:30am on Saturday 20th February.

The memorial service will be hosted by South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Mr Obed Mlaba.  He will be joined by the South African Defence Advisor to the United Kingdom, Brigadier General Sithabiso Mahlobo MMS, the Mayor of Southampton, Councillor Linda Norris, and a number of dignitaries - including representatives from The South African Legion, The Royal British Legion, The Royal Naval Association and The Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Members of the public and media are welcome to attend.

On 21 February 1917, the 4,000-ton SS Mendi, carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps was struck by the much larger SS Darro, in thick fog off the Isle of Wight. The Mendi sank within 25 minutes and the vast majority of those on board drowned.

As the ship sank, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha called the men together on deck and exhorted them to die like warriors and brothers.  He said:  "Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now 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 drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies."

The disaster claimed 646 lives in total. Most have no grave but the sea and are remembered with honour by the CWGC at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton. Nine men, whose bodies were washed ashore, are buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth.

Peter Dickens, the Regional Chairman of the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the United Kingdom has helped to organise the ceremony and said: "More and more emphasis is now been paid to the contribution of African servicemen and women to the Allied war effort during the two world wars. It is right, fair and long overdue that these brave South African heroes are now been accorded their much deserved honour and respect. Today's service at the CWGC memorial in Southampton is another step in recognising and acknowledging the sacrifices made - not only by the 600 South African Labour Corps men lost on the Mendi but also the many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, 'like brothers'."

For more information, contact: Peter Francis on 01628 507163 or 07766 255884 or by email peter.francis@cwgc.org 

Ends.


Notes for editors:

1. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org)

The CWGC maintains the graves of the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two world wars. It also holds and updates an extensive and accessible records archive.

The Commission operates in over 23,000 locations in 154 countries across all continents except for Antarctica.

2. The SS Mendi

On 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi was transporting 823 members of the South African Native Labour Corps to France. She had sailed from Cape Town to Plymouth, before proceeding towards Le Havre. At 5am, she was struck and cut almost in half by the liner, SS Darro. 616 South Africans and 30 British crew members died in the disaster.

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Daro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

Daro, at almost three times Mendi's weight, travelling 'full ahead' in fog conditions - not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights - she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to the freezing waters.

A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome. The Darro, made no effort to rescue the men in the water.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived.   The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

Today, the anniversary of the SS Mendi disaster is aptly the day on which South Africa remembers her fallen soldiers and is now commemorated as Armed Forces Day in South Africa. Throughout the country, parades and ceremonies will be held to commemorate those South Africans who made the ultimate sacrifice in wars across the globe.

3. Let us die like brothers

Produced for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission,Let us die like brothersis an award-winning and freely available education resource dedicated to the memory of those lost on the SS Mendi. Aimed at upper primary and secondary schools, the resource investigates the aspirations and treatment of black troops and the legacy of their sacrifice.

4. The CWGC Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton

The Hollybrook Memorial commemorates by name almost 1,900 servicemen and women of the Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports or other vessels torpedoed or mined in home waters.

The memorial also bears the names of those who were lost or buried at sea, or who died at home but whose bodies could not be recovered for burial.

Almost one third of the names on the memorial are those of officers and men of the South African Native Labour Corps.

Among those commemorated on the Hollybrook Memorial is Field Marshall Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, who died when the battle cruiser HMS Hampshire was mined and sunk off Scapa Flow on 5 June 1916.

The memorial was designed by T. Newham and unveiled by Sir William Robertson on 10 December 1930.