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SS Mendi's stories told almost 100 years after sinking
SS Mendi
SS Mendi was lost with over 600 troops on board

Many in the UK have never heard of SS Mendi, yet in South Africa's Easten Cape Province she is as famous as RMS Titanic.

In February 1917, she was lost off the south coast of the Isle of Wight with, 600 troops on board.

Sinking 9 miles (14.4 km) off St Catherine's point, it is a story that is still virtually unknown in the UK.

Diver Martin Woodward was the first person to find and identify the wreck of SS Mendi in 1974.

Foggy passage

It was not until later he discovered the tragic story behind the artefacts that he brought to the surface.

Martin, owner of The Shipwreck and Maritime Museum in the Isle of Wight said: "The ship was coming up through the Channel destined for Le Havre."

As part of the British Empire, South Africa was automatically at war with Germany. Thousands of men were recruited as labourers, to dig trenches more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) away from their homes.

Martin Woodward
Martin Wooward discovered the wreck of SS Mendi in 1974

The 4,000 ton Mendi was hit in fog by The Darro, almost three times the size of the troopship, and sank in 20 minutes.

Martin explained: "A lot of people who were in the holds were drowned instantly."

Left to drown

Most of the crew were unable to swim and had no knowledge of the sea, so their chances of survival were very slim.

Mystery still surrounds the events that happened immediately after the collision, as Martin explained:

"There was a huge amount of blame attributed to the captain of Darro. He did not stop, even though he knew there were people in the water shouting for help."

So why did Darro's captain make no attempt to lower the boats and rescue the survivors?

Martin said: "Seeing anyone struggling in the water should appeal to anyone's better nature to stop and help, but he did not do that."

Mama Pauline McGotyelwa
Mama Pauline McGotyelwa lost her grandfather on SS Mendi

Mama Pauline McGotyelwa's grandfather, Chief Hendry Bokleni, was one of the many from a village near the town of Mthatha, who volunteered for service and had hoped to serve as soldiers.

But in the apartheid ravaged country, the authorities would not allow black South Africans to be trained in modern weaponry.

Never forgotten

The propaganda at the time did not admit to that. The rebuff that black South Africans received when they volunteered their services, was that this was a white man's war.

In the 80 years between the loss of Mendi and democracy in South Africa, the bravery of the men on board was never forgotten.

Pauline says their story has been passed down through generations by word of mouth.

Commeration stone in South Africa
Each February, those who perished are remembered

She said: "I was 13 years old when I heard this story. I was living with my grandmother."

The men's wives knew nothing about the sinking of the ship until they were offered black mourning clothes.

Pauline explained: "They were brought black attire to wear, but did not know why. After a while they were told the soldiers had sank. They all had small children and nobody to support them."

Some 200 men survived and returned to South Africa with tales of great bravery.

Reverend Isaac Dyobha is said to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms and shouting:

"Be quiet and calm my countrymen. We are the sons of Africa so let us die like brothers."

Site mapped

Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology has been researching SS Mendi and following a geophysical survey of the wreck site has created a 3-dimensional computer model.

Southampton memorial
A memorial stands in a Southampton graveyard.

He said: "She settled on the sea bed upright. In recent years she has collapsed and more of the ship is laying in her starboard (right) side.

"We have not re-found the story, we have just located it. This brings what was thought to have been lost history back to life."

A lasting memorial to those lost on SS Mendi stands in Holybrook cemetery in Southampton.

Mysterious shipwreck appears
18 Feb 10 |  History
SS Mendi troopship remembered
23 Jul 07 |  England


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