Header
Home / Historical / TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 21 FEBRUARY
Amphibic Design - Websites - Graphibic Design
PT-SS_Mendi-1917
SS Mendi

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 21 FEBRUARY

21 February 1851, Barney Barnato born in London.
21 February 1885, Foundation stone of the Newton NGK Church laid.
21 February 1894, 25 miners killed in a De Beers mine mudrush.
21 February 1899, England defeat GW XV by an Innings and 25 runs. WA Shalders scores 76 runs for the Kimberley side.
21 February 1917, At least seven Kimberley men drown when the SS Mendi sinks off the Isle of Wight.

DID YOU KNOW

It is 102 years ago this very day, on 21 February 1917, that the merchant ship SS Mendi carrying troops was accidentally rammed and sunk by the steam ship SS Darro in the English Channel resulting in the deaths of at least 616 South African soldiers. (Reliable sources do vary). Of these at least 15 were from the Northern Cape and seven were from Kimberley. It is South Africa’s worst ever maritime disaster and ranks alongside the battle of Delville Wood as the two South African tragedies of World War I. 33 men of the 89-strong ship crew also perished.

PT-Position_of_Colision-1917

Position of the Collision between the SS Darro & SS Mendi

The 616 South Africans comprised at least 607 black soldiers and non-commissioned officers and nine white officers and non-commissioned officers. They were all serving with the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps, a unit comprising 805 black and 22 white soldiers. The SS Mendi crew totalled 89 men, and she was on her way to France.

Just south of the Isle of Wight, at approximately 05h00, the 4229 tonne SS Mendi was rammed and virtually cut in half by the 11484 tonne SS Darro. It was a very thick, foggy morning and the Mendi was going slow, sounding a whistle every minute to advise any nearby shipping. In contrast the Darro was travelling at high speed and was sounding no warning whistle nor horn. The SS Darro ordered her engines to stop at 04h55, the collision coming a few minutes afterward.

PT-SS_Mendi_Corner-Hollybrook_Memorial-1917

SS Mendi Corner – Hollybrook Memorial in South Hampton

For most of the men aboard the SS Mendi it was the first time they had ever seen the sea, and only a few could swim. There were not enough lifeboats, only seven that could hold 208 persons, and some could not be used because of the ship listing badly. There were 46 life-rafts and some 1300 life belts (jackets). It took only 20 minutes for the Mendi to sink beneath the waves.

Those not killed in the collision died from drowning and from exposure – the water temperature that morning was a mere 7 degrees celcius.

Inexplicably the SS Darro did not assist in the rescue of the men in the water (for various reasons put forward in the inquest), the rescue being done by the Mendi’s escort, the destroyer HMS Brisk.

In all disasters there is bravery.

Oral history records that an interpreter, the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha said as the men were in a state of panic:

PT-Rev_Isaac_Wauchope_Dyobha-1917

Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do … you are going to die, but that is what you came to do … I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers … Swazis, Pondos, Basotho … so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa …”

Another story emanating from the survivors is that several men did a barefoot “death dance” before the ship slipped beneath the icy waves.

A teacher who in civilian life was from the Pretoria area, Joseph Tshite, encouraged the men in the water with prayers and hymns while waiting for rescue. Sadly, he too succumbed to hypothermia. There are no doubt many untold stories of bravery in the water.

Some 207 South African survivors were picked up from the sea.

Most of those who died that morning have no grave, their bodies not recovered or still lying in the wreck on the sea board. Several bodies washed ashore in England and France, and did receive decent burial and memorials in the various towns.

There are several memorials to the SS Mendi. The Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton; thirteen men rest in cemeteries in England, one in France and five are commemorated by memorials in Holland. In South Africa there is the Mendi Memorial in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, and the Gamothaga Resort in Atteridgeville commemorates those who know no grave but the sea. Another memorial is in Cape Town on an embankment on the Mowbray campus of the University of Cape Town.

The Mendi is commemorated at the Delville Wood museum by fresco element with one panel bearing the names of the men lost. The bridge telegraph from the Mendi can be seen at the Maritime Museum on the Isle of Wight. The SS Mendi has also given its name to South Africa’s highest award for courage, the Order of the Mendi Decoration for Bravery.

May all of those who died on the SS Mendi 102 years ago today, RIP.

The Northern Cape SS Mendi Roll of Honour, kindly supplied by the Commonwealth War Graves:

BASILIE, ISAAC Private, 9170. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Griquatown.
BAY, JAMES Private, 9294. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Prieska.
BOTHA, Colour Sergeant, C H, 191. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. 73, Merriman St., De Beers, Kimberley.
ELAND, PIET Private, 11138. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
GEINA, MANIE Private, 9689. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. De Aar.
HENDRICKS, WILLEM Private, 11132. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
PIETERS, ISAAC Private, 11162. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Britstown.
JACKSON, ABRAMS Private, 9803. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Kimberley.
KATAZA, JOHN Private, 9686. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Victoria West
KOOPMAN, JAN Lance Corporal, 9293. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Prieska.
LEKHOTO, JOHN Clerk (Interpreter), 1791. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Kimberley.
LOUW, PIET Private, 11137. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
LUCAS, Private, 9708. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Douglas.
MARCH, MARTHINUS Private, 11135. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
MIJANA, WILLIE Private, 9831. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Kimberley.
MOTOBI, PETER Private, 7210. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Kimberley.
OLIJNN, PIETER Private, 11131. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
PETRUS, PAUL Private, 9296. “B” Coy. 4th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Prieska.
PAULUS, DOLF Private, 11133. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.
PERCY, Private, 9706. “C” Coy. 5th Bn. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Kimberley.
RATSHOGO, GILMORE Private, 10897. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Beaconsfield, Kimberley.
SWARTS, JAN Private, 11130. Medical Section. South African Native Labour Corps. 21st February 1917. Hopetown.

From Kimberley Calls and Recalls on Facebook By Steve Lunderstedt

Aeon Computer Kimberley

About Steve Lunderstedt

x

Check Also

PT-Ken_Viljoen-1910

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 14 MAY

UPDATED: 14/05/2019 14 May 1878, Griquatown besieged by the Griqua people. 14 ...

PT-RMS_Lusitania-1915

TODAY IN KIMBERLEY’S HISTORY 13 MAY

UPDATED: 13/05/2019 13 May 1888, Telegraphist Alfred Cogill dies. 13 May 1915, ...