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On 24th February 2013 the SA Legion held a parade at Milton Cemetery to commemorate the SS Mendi disaster, but also to honour 9 of the 646 victims.

 

These 9 were washed ashore off Portsmouth, and are interred in Commonwealth War graves in Milton Cemetery, but are mostly forgotten.

 

Click to Watch Video

 

However, the South African Legion UK held the first-ever memorial at the cemetery since the tragedy.

 

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(Address by Lgr Peter Dickens, Chair, SA Legion UK)

 

Let us die like brothers:

 

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Daro on a cold heavily-foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled war-time tragedy for South African forces. Daro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

 

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge, they were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha ‘to die like warriors… brothers together, dancing the death drill’, so they chanted and danced on deck until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

 

A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to resucue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

 

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived.


Convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments with South African officials demonstrating their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable. Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decade – however, I am glad to finally say that recognition is been awarded and these fine brave men are been honoured at last.

 

As called out by Rev Isaac Dyobha ‘let us die like brothers’ but a few days after Mendi sunk, 9 men washed ashore and were buried here at the Milton cemetery in Portsmouth, most poignantly – here too they where buried as brothers.

 

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The 8 South African labour Corps men are buried together – sharing the same graves, the 1 officer – Lieutenant R.A Mactavish is buried here too just a little up the same lane. The grave register shows on the first names of the Labour Corps men only, no rank, no surname – they are described in the register as ‘an African Native’, they are intervened directly to earth – no coffin was afforded these ‘native African’s. These are paupers graves.

 

Two graves – 488 and 490 contain 8 men, buried together – ironically – like brothers

 

A number of others came ashore elsewhere, almost a third of all the 1900 names listed at Hollybrook Naval Memorial, commemorating Commonwealth land and air forces whose grave is not known, are men of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps.

 

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

 

Today we honour these men with all the honour we can afford fellow brothers in arms – Lala kahle (We salute you).