The Sinking of SS Mendi

The troopship SS Mendi left Cape Town on 25 January 1917, carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps bound for the Western Front – some 823 men of the 5th Battalion. She stopped three times during her voyage, delivering cargo and taking on supplies. Her last stop was Plymouth, England, on 19 February. She sailed for France the following day. Since German submarines were present in the English Channel, she was escorted on this last, hazardous, leg of her journey by the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Brisk.

After midnight on 21 February, thick fog surrounded Mendi and she had to slow down until she was barely moving forward. By 04:57 a.m. Mendi was 11 nautical miles (20 km) off St Catherine’s Point, on the southern tip of the Isle of Wight. Without warning, the steam ship SS Darro emerged from the dark and fog. She was a mail ship, twice the size of Mendi.

SS Mendi

SS Darro

Despite the conditions, Darro was sailing at full speed with no warning signals. She drove into Mendi’s hull amidships, cutting into the hold where men lay asleep. The damage was fatal. As Mendi listed further and further to starboard, none of the life boats on that side could be launched. Although other life boats were eventually used, along with life rafts and lifebelts, few of those on board could swim. Most had never seen the sea before they boarded Mendi at Cape Town.

SS Mendi sank within 25 minutes. Darro offered no help to those in the freezing water. Almost 650 men lost their lives, both from her crew and from the hundreds of South Africans aboard. Those survivors picked up by HMS Brisk and other ships coming to their rescue, told tales of bravery and selflessness.

Bronze Relief at Delville Wood Museum in France which depicts the sinking.

Those aboard Mendi were the last contingent of the SANLC to be transported to Europe. The survivors were assigned to other labour battalions and continued to perform their duties in France.

On 11 November 1918, an Armistice came into effect on the Western Front, and the guns fell silent. The sinking of SS Mendi was one of the worst maritime disasters in British waters, and among the darkest moments of South Africa’s war. The number of lives lost was second only to the casualties suffered by the South African Brigade at Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The Mendi has given its name to South Africa's highest award for courage - the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery, bestowed by the President on the country's citizens.