90th Commemoration of the sinking of the
SS MENDI - Southampton

 

On 16 January 1917 the SS MENDI, a troopship, sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France, carrying the Fifth Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent. On board were 805 black privates, 22 white officers and 33 crewmembers.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, just south of the Isle of Wight, the 4 000-ton steamship was rammed and almost cut in half by an 11 000-ton liner, the SS DARRO. The SS MENDI sank in 20 minutes, and 607 black troops, nine white officers and all 33 crewmembers died in the icy waters of the English Channel.


SS MENDI

Captain HW Stump of the SS DARRO was later disciplined for travelling at speed through fog without sounding a warning horn. It was also said that he took no steps to save the drowning, merely floating his ship nearby, while lifeboats from the SS MENDIís escorting destroyer, HMS BRISK, rowed among survivors, trying to rescue them.

In 2007 the South African Navy was requested to participate at the 90th anniversary of the sinking of the SS MENDI which took place at the Hollybrook Memorial, Southampton.  The South African Navy Band was tasked to provide music for this solemn occasion.

On 17 July the Band departed for England, arriving at Heathrow Airport in the early hours of the following morning.  After a couple hours travelling by road, we reached our final destination and booked into our accommodation at HMS NELSON, Portsmouth.


Band arriving at accommodation - Portsmouth

On the morning of 19 July we were once again on the road back to London for two performances later in the day. These performances included:

  • a Marimba Group concert at Trafalgar Square; and
  • a gala dinner concert hosted by the South African High Commissioner at South Africa House for various dignitaries.


Marimba Group in Trafalgar Square


South Africa House


Planning the gala dinner programme at South Africa House


Petty Officer Emmanuel Twala, Chief Petty Officer Sam Naidoo and Leading Seaman Lebo Mphuthi ready in their best for the evening gala performance

On 20 July rehearsals for the 90th Anniversary Commemorations took place at Hollybrook Memorial and this culminated in the solemn event taking place on the morning of 21 July with representatives from both the South African and British governments being present.


Members of the Band off-loading instruments before the start of the commemoration service


War graves at Hollybrook Cemetery


The SS MENDI memorial wall


SS MENDI memorial wall - Southampton Cemetery


Members of the SANDF marching into place for the SS MENDI commemoration service

After a successful week in England the Band returned to Cape Town on 22 July.