SS Mendi was a single crew steamer of 4230 gross tons, 370 feet (113 meters) in length and 46 feet (14 meters) the beam, owned by Elder Dempster Line in the Liverpool-West Africa service.
In the autumn of 1916 she was chartered by the British Government. She is presumably named after the Mendi tribe in Sierra Leone, from which she regularly sailed. She was fitted as a transport ship in West Africa, i.e. a troopship, with fittings she brought out of Liverpool. From there she loaded Nigerian troops at Lagos, transporting them to Mombasa for their service in German East Africa. She returned via Durban to Cape Town. According to a report of the Board of Trade Court of Inquiry: ‘The fitting were overhauled at the port, and were, in every respect, the same as if she had been chartered to carry European troops.'
From Cape Town she embarked with 5 million pounds of gold bullion and the remaining fifth battalion of the South African Native Labour Contingent men, consisting of 5 officers, 17 non-commissioned officers and 802 native troops. In addition there were a small number of military passengers returning to Europe after wounds or leave, and a party of men selected by Major Miller for service of the Royal Flying Corps. (They will all disembark at Plymouth, just before the accident.)
The master of the SS Mendi was Captain Henry Arthur Yardley. He has been at sea for many years and had been master of a number of ships since his first command in 1901. A total crew of 89, including master and officers, mostly British, with a minority of black West African 'Kroo boys'.
The SS Mendi had four holds. Nos. 1 and 2 forward of the midship deck. Nos. 3 and 4 aft. No.3 hold was used for cargo and stores, No. 4 was used to house the majority of troops, as it was larger, which would later have grave consequences. She carried 7 lifeboats, 46 liferafts and 15 life-buoys. In addition to this, she carried 1319 life belts for adults. During the voyage, the crew and the troops frequently exercised fire and boat drills. All the life saving equipment was found in good order.
On the afternoon of the 20th February 1917, the SS Mendi set out to La Havre, France with destroyer HMS Brisk escorting. The weather was overcast with threatening fog and light winds on a smooth sea. At 5:30 pm it was particularly dark. Lookouts were stationed at various points throughout the ship, even more than usual. The SS Mendi exhibited her sidelights and stern light, but did not exhibit her masthead light, even though she had it lit and ready to be hoisted. Her whistle constantly blew through the thick fog. She sailed at reduced speed the whole night until the next morning at 4:57 am, when the SS Darro loomed out of the fog at full speed, ramming into her starboard side...
SS Mendi Specifications
The SS Mendi was a British single-screw steamship, built of steel at Linthouse, Glasgow, by Messrs. Alexander Stephen & Sons, Limited. Her respective dimensions were: Length, 370'2"; breadth, 46'2"; depth of hold, 26'96"; gross tonnage, 4,229,53 tons; and registered tonnage, 2,638,72 tons. She was fitted by her builders with three triple-expansion, direct-acting, vertical, inverted-cylinder engines of 654 h.p. nominal, supplied with steam by four steel boilers, working at a pressure of 180 lbs. The diameter of her cylinders being 29 inches, 46 inches and 77 inches, respectively, and the length of stroke 51 inches. Her speed is given in the register as 13 knots.
She was owned by the British & African Steam Navigation Company, Limited; Mr. John Craig, of Colonial House, 20 Water Street, Liverpool, being her registered manager. She was a clincher built, schooner rigged vessel, with two masts, six water-tight bulkheads, and seven water-ballast tanks of a total capacity of 750 tons. She had two decks, a forecastle head, a raised 'midships or upper deck in two parts - one part forward of the funnel containing the saloon, the other abaft the funnel providing the second-class accommodation - and a poop deck. Communication between the two parts of the upper deck was by the usual ladders at the fore and after ends of the intermediate space. A flying fore-and-aft bridge connected the poop with the after part of the upper 'midships deck; a similar flying fore-and-aft bridge gave access from the forecastle head to the fore part of the upper 'midships deck; and above the forward 'midships deck, on the fore part, was the navigating bridge.
She had four holds, with four hatchways, the dimensions of the latter being, respectively: No. 1 - 17'4" by 14"; No. 2 - 23" by 14"; No. 3 - 15'2" by 14"; No. 4 - 15'2" by 14". The height of the hatch coamings was 2 feet. For the convenience of the troops in the 'tween decks, on the voyage in question, a booby hatch was fitted to the No. 1 hatchway, having the opening on the starboard side and a wide ladder with handrails leading to the 'tween decks, in addition to the usual iron rung ladder in the fore part. A small two-step ladder led from the booby hatch to the deck. There was no door in the bulkhead separating No. 1 and No. 2 'tween decks, and no means of direct communication between the two. Two booby hatches were fitted to No. 2 hatchway - which was much larger than No. 1 - one of these having the opening on the starboard side, and the other the opening on the port side, with ladders leading to the 'tween decks, similar to that fitted to No. 1 hatchway, besides the usual iron rung ladder. A two-step ladder was also provided from each booby hatch, similar to that fitted at the No. 1 hatchway. The No. 4 hatchway was similarly fitted with a booby hatch and ladders, for the same reason. The hatchways were covered with portable wooden gratings of the kind ordinarily used in transports, which could easily be unshipped, and which, in bad weather, could be covered with tarpaulins and battened down. On this voyage they were not so covered. She had seven boats - six of which were life-boats - capable of carrying, in the aggregate, 298 persons.
Of these, No. 1 life-boat, with a capacity of 49 persons, was carried on the starboard side of the forward 'midships upper deck; No. 2 life-boat, with a capacity of 48 persons, on the port side of the same deck; No. 3 life-boat, with a capacity of 48 persons, on the starboard side of the after 'midships upper deck ; No. 4 life-boat, with a capacity of 49 persons, on the port side of that deck; No. 5 life-boat, with a capacity of 41 persons, on the starboard side of the poop deck ; No. 6 life-boat, with a capacity of 39 persons, on the port side of that deck; and No. 7 boat (the gig) inside and abreast of No. 5 life-boat, on the starboard side of the poop deck. All the boats were of wood and clincher built; and all, except the gig, were carried under davits, swung out ready for lowering, and had ordinary disconnecting gear, with the falls running in threefold 12-inch blocks. All were properly equipped according to Board of Trade Regulations. She also carried 46 life-rafts of the buoyant air-tank type, each fitted with life-lines round the structure, and each capable of supporting about 20 persons in the water; their total capacity being about 920 persons. About 20 of these rafts were placed on the hatches on the after well deck - principally on the No. 3 hatch - and the remainder on the hatches and on top of the structures on the fore well deck. At the time of the casualty they were secured with light lashings, easily cut. She had 15 life-buoys, placed round the rails on the navigating bridge, promenade deck and after end of the combined poop and bridge deck. Six of these buoys were fitted with Holmes' lights, and two of them with lines. She was provided with 96 life-belts in the first-class accommodation, 64 in the second class, 50 in each of two boxes on the navigating bridge, and 810 in bales of 40 and 50, distributed in the troop decks. In addition to these, 153 life-belts were sent to meet the vessel at Lagos, and there were 15 children's life-belts in the ladies' cabins; making a total of 1,319 for adults and 15 for children. All the life-belts were of the ordinary cork pattern, as required by the Board of Trade. She was, also, fully equipped, according to Board of Trade Regulations with the necessary pyrotechnic and other signals.
There were three compasses in position, one on the fore part of the navigating bridge, one before the wheel on the bridge and one on the poop. She was supplied with a patent sounding machine, the usual deep-sea and hand leads and lines, and a patent taffrail log. She also had a Marconi wireless installation, in good working order, the operating room being abaft the funnel, in the space between the two parts of the 'midships upper deck. In all other respects she was well fitted and found.