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History Shipwrecks

RMS Mendi

REF NR: 229

1. The greatest disaster to occur in Isle of Wight waters was the loss in 1917 of RMS Mendi , a steamer carrying more than 800 South African labourers to the Western Front in France, with a destroyer as escort.

RMS Mendi sailed from Cape Town for France on 16 January, 1917, carrying 823 troops of the 5th Battalion, South African Native Labour Corps. Mendi stopped at Plymouth before leaving for her final destination, Le Havre.

The men on board were from rural areas of the Pondo kingdom. Rather than fighting they were expected to dig trenches, carry stretchers, repair roads and carry out other hard labour. They were not to be used as a fighting force and were forbidden to bear arms as there was a fear that they could revolt against military or civilian authority.

It was dark and foggy at 5am on 21 February, 1917. Twelve miles south of St Catherine's RMS Mendi collided with the liner Darro , which punctured her starboard side. RMS Mendi keeled over and sank in less than 20 minutes. The fog and darkness prevented an effective rescue, and in total 650 men drowned or died of exposure and hypothermia due to the icy waters of the English Channel.

1. Sources: BBC


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