On January 16, 1917 the SS Mendi troopship sailed from Cape Town en route to La Havre in France carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) comprising 805 black privates, 5 white officers and 17 non-commissioned officers as well as 33 crewmembers.

On the morning of 21 February 1917, another ship, the SS Darro (10 0000 tons) travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals, rammed the SS Mendi (4230 tons), which sank in 20 minutes. There are many stories of bravery told about these men as the ship went down. One of the most famous is that of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who cried words of encouragement to the dying men. Oral history narrates that he exhorted his countrymen with the following inspiring words shortly before the ship sank:

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basothos and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies..."

Of the 805 black troops 607 were lost along with 9 of their fellow white countrymen and all 33 members of the ship's crew. The event is remembered by a number of memorials in South Africa, Britain and France. The names of those who died in this tragic incident are engraved on the Hollybrook Memorial, in Southhampton, for those lost at sea and also at the SS Mendi Memorial in Attridgeville near Pretoria. The South African Navy has honoured the Reverend Dyobha by naming a strike craft (fast attack craft), the SAS Isaac Dyobha (P1565), after him.

The last of four MEKO A-200 patrol corvettes purchased by South Africa from Germany is named after the SS Mendi to honour the valour showed by the members of the SANLC in their last moments. The first three, already in South Africa, are the SAS Amatola, SAS Isandlwana and SAS Spioenkop. Whilst some of the names commemorate famous battles in South African history, the symbolism of the ship's names is not in the battles themselves, but in the valour shown by both the victors and the defeated in the battles. The corvettes are thus collectively known as the Valour Class.

The wreck of the SS Mendi lies 11,3 nautical miles from St Catherine’s Light, the most southerly point of the Isle of Wight, on a bearing of 217 degrees magnetic. (Click here to view a map...) Today, 23 August 2004, HMS Nottingham, a Type 42 destroyer from the United Kingdom's Royal Navy and the SAS Mendi rendezvoused at the position to lay wreaths in remembrance to those who passed away for their country and the allied forces.

At 13:30 the off-watch personnel of the SAS Mendi mustered on the flight deck. The commanding officer, Captain Kevin Packer, opened the ceremony. Lieutenant Theo Hokoma (the personnel officer) read a brief history of the SS Mendi. The scripture reading from Revelations 21, verses 1 to 5 was led by Chaplain Patrick Diniso. The prayer was followed by a poem recited by its composer, Petty Officer Mpho Rakoma:


SS Mendi, our fallen heroes
We come here today
To commemorate February 21, 1917
Celebrate your bravery
Hails for your courage

SS Mendi, our fallen heroes
Our courtesy visit
Is also to acknowledge
The mighty Mendi name
To understand its origin

SS Mendi, our fallen heroes
We're visiting your resting place
To connect and accept the event
For blessing and guidance
Through the deep blue seas

SS Mendi, our fallen heroes
We bid you farewell
In accepting our call
To guide the Mendi name
Aluta continua

Rear Admiral (Junior Grade) Khanyisile Litchfield-Tshabalala and Captain Packer then laid a wreath, which was followed by a wreath from the HMS Nottingham.

It is 87 years after the SS Mendi tragedy, but today the souls of the South Africans that passed away have been remembered and honoured by the SAS Mendi and its crew on behalf of the South African people.

Click to enlarge
HMS Nottingham with the Isle of Wight in the background.

Click to enlarge
FLTR: R Adm (JG) Litchfield-Tshabalala, Capt Packer and Lt Hokoma.

Click to enlarge
FLTR: R Adm (JG) Litchfield-Tshabalala, Capt Packer, Lt Hokoma, Cpln Diniso & PO Rakoma.

Click to enlarge
Lt Hokoma reading the history of the SS Mendi (Cpln Diniso is on Lt Hokama's left).

Click to enlarge
PO Rakoma reciting his poem.

Click to enlarge
The wreath.

Click to enlarge
R Adm (JG) Litchfield Tshabalala and Capt Packer lay the wreath with HMS Nottingham in the background.