The sinking of the Mendi

The Mendi had left Cape Town on January 25th, 1917. She stopped three times, delivering cargo and taking on supplies. Firstly in Lagos in Nigeria and then in Sierra Leone, where a small gun was fitted to the stern. Her last stop was Plymouth, England, on February 19th. She sailed for France the next day. On this last, hazardous, leg of her journey she was escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk.
 
The sea was calm but after midnight thick fog surrounded the Mendi. She had to slow down until she was barely creeping forward. As German U-boat submarines hunted in the area, slowing down was dangerous. By 04:57 a.m. the Mendi was 11 nautical miles (20 km) off the southern tip of the Isle of Wight.
 
The last voyage of the ss MendiThe last voyage of the ss Mendi
 
Suddenly the steamer Darro emerged from the dark and fog. The Darro was a mail ship, twice the size of the Mendi. She was sailing at full speed. She drove into the side of the Mendi amidships, cutting into hold where men lay asleep.
 
Drawing of the Mendi showing where it was rammed by the Darro.: Drawing courtesy of the National Maritime MuseumDrawing of the Mendi showing where it was rammed by the Darro.: Drawing courtesy of the National Maritime Museum
 
The damage was fatal. As the Mendi listed further and further to starboard, none of the life boats on that side could be launched. Although the port life boats were launched and there were life rafts and lifebelts, few of the men could swim. Most had never seen the sea before they boarded the Mendi at Cape Town.
 
The Mendi sank within 25 minutes. Almost 650 men, both crew and Labour Corps died; drowned, or killed by the cold.
 
Inexplicably the Darro offered no help. The survivors, picked up by HMS Brisk and then other ships, told tales of bravery and selflessness. The story of the chaplain, the Reverend Isaac Dyobha leading a Death Dance has become famous in South Africa. According to the story, the men formed ranks on deck and Reverend Dyobha addressed them;
Photograph of Rev. Dyobha: courtesy of Jeff OplandPhotograph of Rev. Dyobha: courtesy of Jeff Opland‘Be quite 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.’
SS Darro.: Photograph courtesy of the South African National Museum of Military History.SS Darro.: Photograph courtesy of the South African National Museum of Military History.