TRIBUTES have today been paid to hundreds of South African soldiers killed 100 years ago today when their ship, SS Mendi, sunk.
It was one of the worst maritime disasters in British history, with more than 600 men losing their lives when the ship was struck by SS Daro in thick fog off the Isle of Wight on February 21, 1917.
To mark the centenary of the tragedy, South African Navy frigate SAS Amatola and Royal Navy destroyer HMS Dragon left Portsmouth Harbour this morning to lay a wreath at the spot where Mendi sank.
Dignitaries from Portsmouth and South Africa were accompanied by relatives of the victims to pay their respects, with wreaths being laid by the wreck.
It comes after the city paid its own tributes to the men of Mendi last week, with a ceremony held at Milton Cemetery, where nine of the soldiers are buried.
Britain’s defence minister Mark Lancaster was one of those to attend the service, along with a South African Navy guard of honour, relatives, officials and military top brass from the African nation.
Paying tribute to the heroism of the men who lost their lives, he said: ‘These are men, who like many thousands from across the British Empire, had travelled far from their homeland to join strangers in their struggle for freedom and sovereignty.
‘They came to help but they died before they had the chance to. They died with dignity and bravery but they did not die in vain.’
The soldiers were mostly black and were part of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps.
This year, Portsmouth will commission a new war memorial in honour of the men of Mendi.
It is believed the granite plaque will be based on Southsea’s seafront.