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Centenary of South Africa’s Worst Wartime Naval Disaster remembered

17 February 2017

A First World War disaster at sea that claimed the lives of more than 600 South African servicemen, will be remembered at CWGC Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton, on Monday, February 20.

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. The disaster claimed 646 lives in total.

Inexplicably SS Darro offered no help. The survivors, picked up by HMS Brisk and other ships, told tales of bravery and selflessness. The story of the chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha, has become legendary in South Africa.

According to testimony, the men formed ranks on deck and Reverend Dyobha addressed them with these words;

‘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. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.’

Most who perished have no grave but the sea and are remembered with honour by the CWGC at the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton - you can watch the original unveiling of the memorial here.

Nine men, whose bodies were washed ashore, are buried in Milton Cemetery, Portsmouth, where a service will take place to mark the 100th anniversary on Friday, February 17.

The services will be led by the South African High Commission, with help from the CWGC and The Royal Navy.

Further information on the story can be found on our blog.

Watch an educational video entailing life on the Mendi here.


For more information, contact: Samantha Daynes on 01628 507102 or by email


Notes for editors:

1. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates 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 more than 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries.

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2. Photo and other credits

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