Death in foreign waters – the last voyage of the SS Mendi
By MPS van der Merwe,
Curator: Iziko Social History Collections Department
In August 1914, war was declared between Britain and Germany. South Africa, as a British Dominion, had a constitutional obligation to support the war. During the First World War, Britain transported thousands of troops from its Dominions to the war fronts. The Royal Navy did not have enough ships to do this, necessitating the British government to charter, or purchase merchant vessels and convert them into troop carriers.
The Elder Dempster Line Karina Class steel screw steamerMendi was such a vessel ('Mendi' is a tribe and dialect of Sierra Leone). The SS Mendi was engaged exclusively in the important Liverpool-West Africa trade until 1916, when she was chartered by the Ministry of Transport. The ship was then fitted out as a troop transport at Lagos in Nigeria, using fittings brought from Liverpool. Holds 1, 2 and 4, were each fitted with 'tween decks on which the troops would be quartered, while Hold 3 was reserved for cargo.
After a voyage from Lagos to Durban, the SS Mendi, under the command of Captain Henry Arthur Yardley, made for Cape Town, where the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) was embarked. It comprised five officers, 17 non-commissioned officers, and 802 enlisted labourers, together with about 1 500 tons of government cargo. The labourers were quartered in the normal passenger accommodation. The crew was berthed forward, under the quarterdeck. All of the passenger accommodation was cramped and uncomfortable, particularly for those on the 'tween decks.
The reality of war at sea was brought home to South Africans and especially Capetonians during this time. The Seiner Majestät Schiff Wolf (IV) – probably the greatest raider of them all – left Hamburg on 30 November 1916. The disguised and armed merchant raider, or auxiliary cruiser, was in Cape Town waters on Tuesday, 16 January 1917, when her destructive visit was to start.
On 16 January 1917, the SS Mendi left Cape Town at noon and formed up in convoy with five other merchant ships: the Union-Castle mailship RMS Kenilworth Castle (II) which was also carrying South African troops as well as gold bullion, the Orient Steam Navigation Co. Ltd passenger liner SS Orsova (l), the Oceanic Steam Navigation Co. Ltd (White Star Line) liner SS Medic, the Pacific & Orient Steam Navigation Co. passenger liner SS Berrima, and the Commonwealth & Dominion Line Ltd liner SS Port Lyttelton. All these were carrying Australian troops. The six ships were escorted by the HMS Cornwall, an old British County Class cruiser armed with fourteen six-inch guns, and a speed of 24 knots.
Late that afternoon, the lookout on the Wolf (IV) reported seven vessels approaching from the direction of Cape Town. Korvettenkapitän Karl-August Nerger stood on the bridge flying the British flag as the convoy approached. His strict order stipulated that he was to avoid raiding action until he had laid most of his mines, and even from a distance he could tell that an attack would be suicidal folly. The warship was none other than HMS Cornwall, a 9 800 ton armoured cruiser that had sunk the German light cruiser Leipzig during the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and carried more than twice the fire power of the raider.The flag on the Wolf (IV) was lowered and recognised by the cruiser. The SS Mendi was on her final and catastrophic voyage. If the SMS Wolf (IV) had laid her mines earlier, the outcome for the convoy could have been disastrous.
On the afternoon of 20 February 1917, SS Mendi left Plymouth in the company of the Acorn Class (H Class) destroyer HMS Brisk (sunk by a mine on 2 October 1917). It was overcast with threatening mist, light winds and a smooth sea. At 17:30, lookouts were posted, and at 19:30, navigation lights shown. At 03:45 the following morning, conditions worsened, and an hour later the destroyer was alongside SS Mendi requesting her to increase speed, a request Captain Yardley decided not to heed immediately. Minutes later, at 04:57, the much bigger passenger and cargo ship SS Darro (launched in 1912, the same year as the RMS Titanic disaster, and by the same shipbuilders)under command of Captain Henry Winchester Stump, struck the SS Mendi with a heavy right-angled blow between No 1 and No 2 holds. The depth of the cut was about 20 feet (6 metres) below the waterline.
The SS Darro backed out of the opening shortly after striking the SS Mendi. Captain Yardley stopped the engines of the SS Mendi and ordered the boats lowered. Two boats floated and two capsized because they were overloaded. One boat was stoved in, and some were not launched. The boats had a combined capacity for only 298 men, but there were 89 crew and 824 men on board. The rest of the life-saving equipment consisted of life rafts, life rings and life jackets.
It became a struggle for life and survival, as many men were thrown into the water and many jumped into the sea rather than into the life rafts. Many SANLC men were crushed to death as the bow smashed into them where they lay on their blankets on the deck of the hold, and subsequent inrush of water, as they could not fall in at their muster stations. Panic and confusion in the darkness also played a part.
Releasing secured life rafts by untying instead of cutting the ropes wasted precious time. SANLC trooper Jacob Koos Matli saw an abandoned life raft still tied to a railing. Sixteen-year-old William Bonifacius Mathumetse was among the last to jump in the water. He splashed around helplessly, repeating the Lord’s Prayer, before struggling away and coming across two dead soldiers wearing life belts. He pulled them together to make a float, resting upon them.
The ship appears to have gone down by the head, about 20 minutes after the collision. Large numbers of the SANLC labourers and crew members ended up in the water rather than in the boats and life rafts. Trooper Matli and a crew member, William Brownlee, recalled the whirlpool that sucked down many men. A substantial amount of men subsequently died from hypothermia as the water temperature was reported to be eight degrees Celsius. The delay in assistance reaching them, and their inability to find or climb into life rafts, were other factors.
The HMS Brisk sent boats to search for survivors, and landed 137 survivors at Portsmouth after escorting the SS Darro to St Helen’s Road on the east coast of the Isle of Wight. The coal and general cargo steamer Sandsend operated by Pyman SS Co. Ltd (G Pyman & Co.), of West Hartlepool, arrived and her boats picked up 23 survivors (SS Sandsend was sunk by the German submarine UC 48 on 16 September 1917). They were subsequently transferred to the minesweeper HMS Balfour before being landed at Newhaven in Sussex.
One raft apparently made it safely to the Dorset coast with a few survivors aboard. Ndebele-speaker, Alpheus Moliwa Zagubi, and two SANLC companions, appear to have been the last survivors rescued.
The SS Darro was indeed a ship of shame. The Board of Trade Inquiry found that although the master of the SS Darro, Captain Stump, acted appropriately towards his own vessel, he had failed to render assistance to the SS Mendi. No boat was even sent to investigate or assist – and they saw two boats and a raft with survivors coming alongside. They could also hear the shouts of men in the water until about 06:30. There was nothing physically preventing rescue operations. The Inquiry concluded that the collision was caused by the excessive speed of the SS Darro and the failure of Stump to use sound signals. It was also concluded that the loss of the SS Mendi and those on board had been caused by the master of the SS Darro. His master’s certificate was therefore suspended for 12 months.
A faction within the Board of Trade differed with the findings. They were of the opinion that Stump got off lightly. His master’s certificate should have been cancelled rather than suspended. In one memo, Stump was described as "a standing menace to seafarers".
In the book, Macqueen’s Legacy Ships of the Royal Mail Line, Stuart Nicol, makes the following mention of the Darro: "Darro was involved in a catastrophic accident in February, 1917. Its failure to appear in the Company's war history was perhaps because it was not an act of war but, for all that the wartime ban on lights probably contributed. She was in the English Channel in foggy conditions when she was in collision with Elder Dempster's Mendi. The latter vessel carrying South Africans sank in a few minutes and over 650 lives were lost. I have not seen reports of Darro's losses and damage, but she was back in service by May, 1917. "
The wreck of the SS Mendi lays roughly 11 nautical miles south-west of St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight in 35-40 metres of water. The site was found in 1945 by sonar, and in 1953 a new survey resulted in an improved position of the site. In 1974, Mr Martin Woodward dived on the site, and his subsequent investigations led him to conclude that it was the wreck of the SS Mendi.
The British-based company, Wessex Archaeology, recorded the site in more detail, as did GrownUPSAC, a branch of the University of Portsmouth Sub-Aqua Club in July 2005. The SS Mendi is remembered in various ways:
- SM Bennet Ncwana instituted the Mendi Memorial Club after the First World War, and kept the memory of the SS Mendi alive by an annual commemoration, Mendi Day.
In 1936 the Mendi Memorial Bursary fund was established to sponsor promising black pupils.
- Several memorials in South Africa and abroad were erected over the years to commemorate the Mendi tragedy:
Hollybrook Memorial, Hollybrook Cemetery, Southampton
Bokleni Memorial, Newtimber, West Sussex
Delville Wood Memorial, Delville Wood, Belgium
Mendi Memorial and Garden of Remembrance, Avalon Cemetery, Soweto
Mendi Memorial, Atteridgeville, Pretoria
Mendi Memorial, New Brighton, Port Elizabeth
Mendi Memorial, Mthatha, Eastern Cape
Mendi Memorial, Maseru, Lesotho
Mendi Memorial, Gaborone, Botswana
Mendi Memorial, University of Cape Town
Mendi Memorial, Nyandeni, near Port St Johns
- The Mendi tragedy is also remembered by the SA Navy in the naming of two of their ships, the strike craft SAS Isaac Dyobha, and the SAS Mendi, one of the new corvettes.
- The Order of Mendi for Bravery is awarded to South African citizens who have displayed extraordinary acts of bravery.
- The Mendi tragedy is remembered by Iziko Museums of South Africa at the Iziko Maritime Centre in the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. An exhibition called "The last voyage of the SS Mendi: Death in foreign waters” is on permanent display.
The exhibition consists of panels with images and text discussing the war, the SANNC, the SS Mendi, the tragedy and struggle and survival. Other panels are devoted to remembrance of the ship and the wreck today. Three monitors relay audio-visual documentaries regarding the tragedy and remembrance of the tragedy. There are also a few objects on display coming from the wreck of the SS Mendi, as well as a objects related to the First World War.
It is heartening that this tragedy, since 1994, now forms part of main stream history in South Africa and that the war heroes of the SS Mendi are remembered and honoured. South Africa must never forget them.
Type: Steel twin screw steamer
Official Number (ON): 132026
Code Letters: JBCW
Year Launched: 1912
Shipbuilder: Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast
Owners: Imperial Direct Line Ltd
Managers: Elder Dempster & Co. Ltd
Port of Registry: Belfast
Engine Builder: Harland & Wolff Ltd, Belfast
Gross Tonnage: 11 484
Net Tonnage: 7 291
Length: 500.7 feet (152.61 metres)
Breadth: 62.3 feet (18.99 metres)
Depth: 40.2 feet (12.25 metres)
Type: Steel screw steamer
Official Number (ON): 120875
Code Letters: HDGP
Year Launched: 1905
Shipbuilder: A Stephen & Sons, Glasgow
Owners: British & African Steam Navigation Co. Ltd
Managers: Elder Dempster & Co. Ltd
Port of Registry: Liverpool
Engine Builder: A Stephen & Sons, Glasgow
Gross Tonnage: 4 230
Net Tonnage: 2 639
Length: 370.2 feet (112.84 metres)
Breadth: 46.2 feet (14.08 metres)
Depth: 23.3 feet (7.1 metres)