Centenary of SS Mendi disaster

Cover of a book detailing the sinking of the SS Mendi. SUS-170130-125705001
Cover of a book detailing the sinking of the SS Mendi. SUS-170130-125705001

This year marks the centenary of what is known as one of the worst maritime disasters in UK waters.

On February 21, 1917, a British ship – the SS Mendi – sank off the Isle of Wight.

It was not hit by a German weapon but by another British ship, the Darro, in thick fog.

On board were nearly 900 men on their way to support the war effort on the Western Front. The Mendi sank in just 20 minutes, leading to the death of more than 600 men. 

Only 14 bodies were ever recovered from the wreck and buried on British soil; nine in Portsmouth, three in Littlehampton, one in East Dean and one in Hastings.

The wreck itself, which is now recognised as one of England’s most important World War heritage assets, was only discovered 57 years after the tragedy in 1974.

In South Africa the tragedy of the Mendi became a focus for Black resistance during the Apartheid era, and today the Mendi is the highest Civilian honour in South Africa.

‘We Die Like Brothers’, published by Historic England, is the first book to tell the story of the Mendi, from a historical and archaeological perspective.

It tells the story of the men who died in the incident, as well as the political aftermath of the tragedy. 

The book outlines the magnitude of the tragedy, saying: “The Mendi is part of a much bigger story. World War One was not just a European war. It was a truly global conflict.”

It is written by John Gribble and Graham Scott, both of whom are experienced marine archaeologists and divers who have been involved in the study of the Mendi for many years. John manages the Maritime and Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit at the South African Heritage Resource Agency, while Graham is a senior specialist archaeologist for Wessex Archaeology.

On February 20 and 21, 2017, both South African and British dignitaries will mark the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi.

To mark the centenary on February 20 there will be an event at Hollybrook Military Cemetery in Southampton. Also, on February 21, a naval ship will be sailing from Portsmouth to commemorate the tragedy.

The book is available from historicengland.org.uk.

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