ON a dark and foggy February night, 646 people died in one of the worst maritime disasters in history.
The 4,000-ton SS Mendi, carrying mostly black South African troops who had come to dig trenches, was cut in half as it was struck by the SS Darro, an empty meat ship bound for Argentina.
Within 20 minutes, the ship had sunk off the coast of the Isle of Wight.
Most of the fallen from 1917 disaster were never found, but nine bodies washed up at Portsmouth and were buried in Milton Cemetery.
So it was a poignant moment, tinged with sadness and respect, as servicemen who had served in the South African forces came together yesterday to commemorate the SS Mendi disaster.
Members of South African Legion UK held the first-ever memorial service at the cemetery since the tragedy.
They took part in a parade to the graves of the fallen – whose first names were all that was recorded on the graves’ register.
Poems were read out and wreaths were laid.
The Reverend Ken Appleford, from St Mary’s parish, Portsmouth, led the service and paid tribute to the ‘supreme sacrifice’ of these men. He added that ‘the price paid for freedom is high’.
Peter Dickens, 45, chairman of South African Legion UK, said: ‘It’s a pretty significant parade for us because in South Africa the Mendi is taking more significance as people understand the contribution of black Africans to the First and Second World Wars.
‘Today we come to honour the nine soldiers who washed up on shore in Portsmouth and who are buried here.
‘There was a reverend who gave a speech on board the Mendi when it was about to sink. He called his brothers to die together like brothers.
‘Because they were unarmed, he called on them to do a death dance as it went down. The significance for us is eight people who washed ashore here are buried in mass graves. There’s two graves with four people in each and a lieutenant who’s buried nearby. They are buried as they died – like brothers.’
Stuart Robertson, 47, who served in the South African army, said: ‘It’s a very overlooked tragedy.
‘It wasn’t heroics on the front line but was a tragic accident at sea. Many could not swim. For most of them their grave is the sea.’
South African ship sank in shark-infested waters
PEOPLE also went to the ceremony to commemorate another tragedy. The SAS President Kruger sank in February 1982 with the loss of 16 lives after colliding with SAS Tafelberg in the South Atlantic.
Cameron Kinnear, 52, from Southsea, survived.
He said: ‘Any survivor comes at some point to ask “why me?”
‘I don’t swim. After about three hours when I was finally picked up by another ship I was thinking “why are the guys on the ship standing there with automatic rifles?”. Only afterwards, I realised it was because of the sharks.’