South African Military History Society

September 1982 NEWSLETTER

Past meeting - Johannesburg - 12th August 1982

The speaker on this evening was a man who has both an intellectual and an emotional interest in his subject. He has devoted several years to the research and writing of an, as yet unpublished, book on the topic and is involved in the administration of a scholarship which commemorates those who lost their lives at the time. Mr. Norman Clothier began a career in law which was interrupted by WW II, following which he entered the commercial field. During the war Mr. Clothier saw service in East and North Africa and in Italy, was wounded in action and produced a volume of poetry entitled, "Libyan Winter - Poems of a Springbok". He has served on the Board of the SA Defence Force Fund since 1975 and been a member of the SA Legion since 1951. Norman become National President of the Legion in 1974, a post he still holds, in which capacity he is closely involved with the Mendi Memorial Scholarship. The gallantry of the men on the Mendi not only inspired this scholarship but also motivated Norman Clothier to write the definitive account of "The Mendi Disaster - 1917".

The SA Native Labour Contingent was formed as a para-military unit for service behind the lines during the lst World War. Men were recruited by a circular sent to the various black chiefs and village headmen. Officers and NCO's were white South Africans too old for combat service who had experience in handling natives and were able to speak one of the black languages. Large numbers of blacks responded to the recruitment circular and included chiefs, sons of chiefs, mission workers and mission-educated men. Most of the recruits, however, were simply young men filled with the spirit of adventure. At the depot in Wynberg, they were given a rudimentary medical examination (which included carrying a load of 100 lbs. for 100 yds.) before boarding ships for Europe. Regular sailings took place to ferry the men and their officers to the Western Front, among the last of which was the ex-Elder Dempster liner, the troop transport 'Mendi'.

The Mendi was a 4229 tonner with four holds each of whach had two levels, the lower being on the waterline. Troops were carried in Nos. 1,2 and 4 holds while No.3 held stores and cargo. She left the Cape in convoy with Australian troops under the escort of HMS Cornwall. During, the long hot voyage there were frequent boat drills. Mendi carried 7 lifeboats, 3 on each side and one at the stern, which would carry 296 men, and 46 liferafts each capable of holding 20 men. Lifebelts were also available and most men carried theirs at all times.

At Freetown, Sierra Leone 5 million in gold was transferred from Mendi to Cornwall who parted company with the convoy and proceeded to England. After a voyage of 34 days Mendi and the other troopships reached Plymouth. On 20th February 1917, Mendi steamed for France carrying 802 men of the Labour Contingent, their 28 officers and her 82 crew, most of whom were West African 'Kroomen'. Their escort was the Acorn class destroyer, HMS Brisk. The weather was dull, overcast and misty so Mendi carried lookouts and kept her lights on. Also present in the Channel was MV Darro, a twin screw steamer of the Royal Mail Line, a much larger ship than Mendi. Darro was en route from Le Havre with lookouts posted and her lights burning like Mendi. However, despite the weather conditions, Darro was travelling at full speed.

At about 23h30 Mendi encountered fog and began to sound her whistle at one minute intervals as required by regulations. By 03h45 the fog was so thick that Brisk had great difficulty in keeping station on Mendi's stern light and speed was reduced. Mendi began to sound her whistle continuously from 04h00 onwards. Meanwhile, Darro heard nothing, continued to maintain full speed and did not sound her whistle even though there was an almost total lack of visibility. Shortly before 5am, Mendi sighted the masthead and red portside lights of the Darro looming up through the fog.

At virtually the same moment, Darro became aware of Mendi's green starboard light ahead. There was no time left in which to avoid a collision so at 04h57, 10 miles south of St. Catherine's Light off the Isle of Wight, Darro rammed Mendi at right angles.

The force of the collision carried 7 metres into Mendi's side such that one of the survivors was able to touch Darro's bow with one hand and Mendi's mainmast with the other. There was no immediate surge of water into the compartments as they were above the waterline. However, 140 men were already dead from the impact or trapped below because of damage to the exit stairs. The remaining troops made their ways to their boat stations and fell in quickly and quietly. As the ship began to list to starboard, an attempt was made to launch the boats. None of the portside boats made it as one stuck, one broke on the hull and the last capsized as it was launched. Of the boats on the starboard side, two got safely away and the third was swamped by men jumping into it. The fate of the stern boat is not known but it was not successfully launched. After the boats were off most of the life rafts were put into the water and got away safely. Many men still remained on deck including many of the white officers who had either given up their places to the men or were attempting to rescue men from the damaged hold. Exemplary discipline still ruled and there was no panic. The Rev. Wauchope Dyobha, interpreter and honorary chaplin, is said to have called upon the men to "Do what you have come to do, to die" and to have lead the singing of hymns. When 'Abandon Ship' was ordered, they entered the 3degC water and swam toward the boats and rafts. 20 minutes after the impact, Mendi sank taking many with her and leaving about 120 men in and around the two boats and hundreds more floating in their lifebelts.

The escort, HMS Brisk, launched her boats to pick up survivors and another ship, the Sandsan, arrived to render assistance. Darro, on the other hand, did not launch any boats or even hail her victim. Shouts were heard but not considered to come from the water. Those on Darro did not even know they had sunk Mendi until the two lifeboats approached and the survivors were taken on board. After working through the night saving as many as could be found, Brisk called in her boats at 09h00 and sailed for home.

Only 265 of the 912 on board the Mendi had survived the disaster. Many of the 647 men missing had endured a slow death in the open rafts or floating in the cold water. We must admire the bravery of these men who maintained their discipline in the face of terrifying circumstances and upheld their own honour and that of South Africa. (As a footnote: the number who died with Mendi is only 17 less than the total killed at the battle of Delville Wood.)

After the talk, Mr. Clothier answered several questions from the audience, giving further details of both the sinking and the Memorial Scholarship. The Society's thanks to Norman for his excellent talk were expressed by Mr. R. Murchison.

Prior to the talk, the Chairman had offered the hearty congratulations of the Society to Col. George Duxbury on his having been awarded the Order of the Star of South Africa in the rank of Commander. This announcement was met with applause. Mr. Kinsey also informed the Society of a change in the announced program of lectures. (See "Future meetings" below)

There was also the now customary slide presentation by Maj. D.D. Hall as a short before the main attraction. This time it took the form of a quiz on "Faces from the Boer War" and showed portraits and photographs of 26 famous British officers. Most of the audience seemed to score a pass mark but your scribe only got 4 right. (Van Dyke's Torture Tunnel is nought compared to the rigours of our own 'Entrance' Hall.)

The Old Kit Bag - Various items

Empty for this moment.

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Rod Murchison (726-3121(B))
(Scribe - still trying)

At the end of February 2015 the following e-mail was received from ROSEMARY WILKINSON

I am a ship editor for the 1st World War ships on the Naval-History website and I was trying to track down some information on SS Dano. A fellow editor gave me a link to your article because it was one of the few which referred to her and I could not find her on any of my usual websites. The reason would seem to be that her name is in fact "Darro".

The main sites which gave me confidence to change her name were

the latter gives a summary of the Wreck Report of the Board of Trade - the official body enquiring into shipwrecks in British waters or involving British ships.

Some additional information on the Mendi is on this site.

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