The sea was calm on the afternoon of 20 February 1917 as the SS Mendi left Plymouth harbour for Le Havre under the command of Captain Henry Arthur Yardley. Acting as escort was the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Brisk. Below decks were over 800 members of the South African Native Labour Corps, bound for service on the Western Front. They had been recruited from across South Africa and had travelled on the Mendi from Cape Town via Nigeria.
Although the weather remained calm during the night, dense fog gathered making visibility very poor. By 04:00, as the Mendi passed the Isle of Wight, Yardley had cut the ship’s speed to slow and was regularly sounding the ship’s whistle. These were busy shipping lanes and the thick fog had created a dangerous situation.
At around 05:00 on 21 February, officers on the bridge heard the engines of a vessel close at hand. Out of the fog loomed the bulk and lights of a much larger ship. The officers ordered the engine room to reverse, but massive bows struck the Mendi and slashed through its steel hull. They penetrated a forward hold, where many Labour Corps men were quartered. This was the cargo ship SS Darro, travelling at its full speed of 12 knots. What happened next is revealed in evidence gathered by a Board of Trade investigation. Continue reading »