Tuesday, January 15, 2019
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SA commemorates sinking of SS Mendi

altOne of South Africa’s worst military disasters, the sinking of SS Mendi, has been commemorated by the chiefs of Services and Divisions of the South Africa National Defence Force.

The ceremony was held at Ga Mothaga Recreation Resort at Atteridgeville near Pretoria during the annual Memorial Service presented by the SA Legion, Atteridgeville Branch.

The 4 230 gross registered ton (GRT) passenger ship SS Mendi was ferrying 823 members of the mostly-Pondo 5th Battalion, SA Native Labour Corps (SANLC) from Britain to France during the First World War. At 5 am on February 21, 1917, while under escort of the destroyer HMS Brisk, she was struck and cut almost in half by the 11 000 GRT liner SS Darro.

Described as South Africa's worst naval disaster, 607 members of the SANLC, nine of their white countrymen and 33 crewmembers died when the troopship sank 11 miles off St Catherine's Light in the English Channel. Famously, the Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobha led the doomed men in song and dance as the ship went down.

The men of the ship of the South African Native Labour Corps came from a wide range of social backgrounds, and from a number of South African peoples. Some men were killed outright in the collision, and some were trapped below decks. Many however gathered on the listing deck of the SS Mendi.

The British Ministry of Defence in 2009 designated the site of the wreck off the Isle of Wight an official war grave.

Over 80 000 African South Africans volunteered for service in non-combatant roles. Because of prevailing racist attitudes at the time none of these South Africans could be armed, although black troops recruited in Kenya, Malawi and Rhodesia served with distinction.

Two chiefs of services were present during the wreath-laying ceremony on Sunday, including the Chief of the SANDF, General Solly Shoke, and the Chief of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano.

Veterans organisations and military attaches from the UK, France, Canada and many other countries also laid wreaths during the ceremony.

The sinking of the SS Mendi was also commemorated at the University of Cape Town on Sunday, with a memorial service hosted by the Cape Garrison Artillery.