South African Military History 

P.O. BOX 12926


Our speaker on 8 February was Lt Cdr Herb Farrow who gave us an excellent illustrated talk on the SA Native Labour Corps and the loss of the SS Mendi on 21 February 1917.He recalled that he had first heard of the Mendi when Archbishop Tutu mentioned the ship at the BCEL Commemoration Service at the War Memorial in Cape Town in 1996.

Lt Cdr Farrow explained that the more than 40 000 South African servicemen who served in the German South West African campaign were supported by 33 546 African labourers and a further 18 000 served in German East Africa. The good work done by these latter and the heavy casualties suffered by the Empire in Europe prompted the British Government to ask South Africa to raise a 10 000 strong Native Labour Corps for service in France in 1916. The British government undertook to bear all of the expenses involved, so Genl Botha did not require Parliamentary approval for this step.

Our speaker explained why so many Africans joined up. Some wanted to serve King and Country, others were prepared to serve as non-combatants, some were keen to travel and see Europe, others hoped for improvements in privilege and status and many saw the war as a great adventure.

No less than 264 recruiting offices were opened in South Africa and the High Commission territories. A few recruits came from the then Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The depot for the contingent was at the WP Agricultural Society's show grounds at Rosebank, where the men were housed in tents and trained.

The fifth group of the SANLC sailed for England on 16 January 1917 in the SS Mendi, an Elder Dempster Line single screw steamer of 4 230 gross tons, presumably named after the Mendi tribe in Sierra Leone.

The Mendi sailed in convoy with five troopships carrying Australians and escorted by the cruiser Edinburgh. They sailed just before the German raider Wolf laid mines in the South African sea lanes. The voyage to Plymouth was uneventful.

From Plymouth, the Mendi sailed for France. At 0457 on the morning of 21 February the Mendi was steaming at slow speed and sounding her whistle because of thick fog. The SS Dano, a much larger ship of 11 484 tons was steaming at full speed and making no sound signals. Just short of 18 km SSW of St Catharine's Point on the Isle of Wight, the two vessels collided.

The point of collision was near the watertight bulkhead between No 1 and 2 holds and these were opened to the sea. It was probably while the boats and rafts were being lowered that the Rev Isaac Wauchope Dyobha exhorted the men to "be quiet and calm, raise your war cries and die like brothers doing the war dance on the deck."

A number of the lifeboats had been damaged and the water was bitterly cold. Inexplicably, the Captain of the Dano failed to lower any boats or assist in the rescue efforts being carried out by the escort destroyer HMS Brisk and sailed away. The Mendi sank some 24 minutes after the collision. In all, some 625 officers and men of the SANLC lost their lives.

This tragic and glorious episode in our military history prompted the Prime Minister Genl Louis Botha to move an unopposed motion of sympathy with the bereaved relatives of those who had died.

Lt Cdr Farrow described the Board of Trade formal investigation that resulted in the captain of the Dano being prohibited from commanding a ship for 12 months.

We were shown photographs of the memorials to the Mendi at Hollybrook in Southampton, Portsmouth, Arques le Bataille in France and at the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Brighton. The Earl of Buxton, Governor General during WW1, is buried at this church. Other memorials may be seen in Soweto and at the Delville Wood Memorial in France.

(This review has been specially written by fellow member Mac Bisset and edited and typed by fellow member Bob Buser).



A Talk by fellow-member Commander Jerry De Vries and Mr Ian Van Oordt of the The Cannon Association of South Africa.
Our speakers will also provide detail about the The Cannon Association of South Africa which is very active, especially here in the Western Cape. They now have 906 cannon listed in their records and more are appearing all the time. They have many tested for firing - most in the Western Cape. They will tell us about the oldest cannon in South Africa (now in Pietermaritzburg) from two Portuguese ships dated about 1514 - 138 years before Van Riebeeck landed!


* CANNONS GALORE!! Fellow member Gerry de Vries sent us the following e-mail: "You are going to get a talk in stereo. Ian van Oordt will talk of the functions, activities and progress of the Cannon Association, and I will give a talk on Cannon Research and Projects. We will both have several large format photographs.

The reason for the stereo talk is that we are trying to impress upon the historical genre the clear differences between the vision recording, usage and regulatory functions of the Cannon Association, and the recovery, restoration, repair and manufacture with which I am personally involved. We will also bring some samples to show."

Knowing Gerry as we all do, this is really going to be a SHOW not to be missed.


Future Lectures:

2) THE BALKAN WARS FROM 1821 to 1922
An illustrated Talk by Achilles Kallos on the Political and Military History of the Balkan Wars of this period. A detailed preview of this Talk will appear in our Next Newsletter.
Speaker: Colonel Lionel Crook
This is the second instalment of the 2-part lecture. The first part was delivered in October 2006 to great acclaim, and we are looking forward to Lionel's further presentation. He will deal with both the military aspects of the battle and the experiences of those taking part.


Society Meetings are held on the 2nd Thursday of every month, (except December when we are in recess), at 20h00 in the Recreation Hall of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road (off Liesbeek Parkway, Alma Road Traffic Light), opposite Rosebank Railway Station. Secure Parking inside. All visitors are welcome. Tea and Biscuits will be served.

Jochen (John) Mahncke
Tel.: 021 797 5167 - e-mail:

South African Military History Society /