Threat on the Horizon
As the escorted convoy of 7 ships, including the SS Mendi sailed up from Cape Town, unbeknownst to them, they had already had their first encounter with the enemy. The 5 600 ton German cruiser, Wolf reached the waters of the Cape, after eluding British naval patrols and making her way west of Iceland south into the Atlantic Ocean. Her appearance, dark-hulled, was that of an ordinary cargo ship, but she carried 5,9-inch guns and four torpedo tubes, while her freight consisted of 600 mines. Wolf stayed hidden behind the horizon to avoid revealing herself to the cruiser HMS Cornwall escorting the convoy, and hinder her mission of laying mines around Dassen Island and the Cape Agulhas, which claimed several ships, the first which sank only 11 days later.
The wreck of the SS Mendi was first located 28 years after she sunk, near St. Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight, but only in 1974 was she identified. Divers found, among other things, a plate the men would have eaten off. At the bottom of the plate was the crest of the British and African Steam Navigation Company, allowing the wreck to be identified.
The SS Darro struck the SS Mendi on the starboard bow at a right angle with so much force that the Darro cut 20 feet (6 meters) into the Mendi's deck, from deck to keel, and forced her to swing left. The two ships spun round and drifted away from each other. One of the Mendi's holds flooded and an estimate of 140 men died in the collision or flooding. The SS Mendi swung around 180 degrees. Some say that she turned around, to return home.
The South African Native Labour Contingent men served their time in France. Some faced freezing temperatures that they never experienced before. They worked at railheads, docks loading and unloading supplies, dug trenches, built roads, forestry, etc. They were greatly praised for their hard work and conduct for the service of the Crown. In Abbeville, King George V even thanked them for their duties towards the empire. Yet, as the men returned to South Africa, they got nothing for their contribution. They did not receive a campaign medal, ribbon or any other medals for the war. Nor were the families compensated beyond the pay due to their loved ones who lost their lives. Although, their white counterparts were awarded and decorated. This was the decision of the South African Government.
Only many years later these men started to receive their recognition. The Order of Mendi for Bravery is a honour bestowed by the President of South Africa on any individual for bravery to saving life or property.
There are also two naval ships named in honour of the night of the 21st of February 1917. The SAS Mendi, a Valour-class frigate, and the SAS Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, Warrior-class strike craft.