Three Ships Commemoration honours South Africans who perished ‘In Waters Deep’ *

RICHMOND UPON THAMES – On Saturday 22 February, Legionnaires from the South African Legion of Military Veterans (UK and Europe), the Royal British Legion, and representatives of the Memorable Order of Tin Hats (MOTH) gathered at Richmond’s East Sheen cemetery for the annual Three Ships Commemoration. We also commemorated and gave thanks for the courage and dedication of the SA Medical Corps.

Following the chapel service, the company, led by the piper, marched with standards to the nearby South African Cenotaph, where the SA Legion, MOTH General Browning and Gazala Shellholes, and a contingent from the Countess Mountbatten’s Own Legion of Frontiersmen laid wreaths, accompanied by standard-bearers from the Royal British Legion.

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SS Mendi

At 5 am on 21 February 1917, in thick fog about 10 nautical miles (19 km) south of St. Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company cargo ship Darro accidentally rammed SS Mendi’s starboard quarter, breaching her forward hold.

Darro ,an 11,484 GRT ship, almost three times the size of the Mendi, survived the collision but Mendi sank, killing 616 Southern Africans (607 of them black troops) and 30 crew.

The chapel service was led by Lgr Cameron Kinnear, SAL UK & EU Regional Chair and himself a survivor of sinking of the SAS President Kruger

An interpreter, Isaac Williams Wauchope, who had previously served as a Minister in the Congregational Native Church of Fort Beaufort and Blinkwater, is reported to have calmed the panicked men by raising his arms aloft and crying out in a loud voice: “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do…you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers…Swazis, Pondos, Basotho…so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies.”

HMSAS Southern Floe

On 11 February 1941, HMSAS Southern Floe, was sunk by a mine off Tobruk with the loss of 27 men, with a sole survivor, Stoker C J Jones. A passing destroyer picked up one man clinging to some wreckage – Stoker Jones was all that remained of Southern Floe and her company.

SAS President Kruger

SAS President Kruger was the first of three President-class Type 12 frigates built in the UK for the South African Navy during the 1960s.

The ship spent most of her career training and made visits to foreign ports in Africa, Western Europe and the United States. In the late 1960s, she was modernised and equipped to operate a helicopter.

Lgr Cameron Kinnear, SAL UK & EU Regional Chair
and himself a survivor of sinking of the SAS President Kruger

In the mid-1970s, President Kruger played a minor role in the Angolan Civil War as a part of South African operations against the communists. The ship was placed in reserve in 1977, but was recommissioned in 1980. On the morning of 18 February 1982, President Kruger was conducting anti-submarine exercises, when her replenishment oiler, SAS Tafelberg, impacted President Kruger on her port side at 03:55.

SA Legion England Chair Lgr Russel Mattushek

The impact tore a large hole in her side and killed 13 of the 15 men sleeping near the point of collision. The ship took on a large list and the captain ordered “abandon ship” at 04:32. The exercise was immediately terminated and the other ships present began rescue operations. More ships, both military and civilian, began arriving after dawn, as did aircraft from the South African Air Force. A total of 177 crewmen of the 193 aboard were rescued, one of them our Regional Chairman for United Kingdom and Europe, Lgr Cameron Kinnear.

SA Legion Ceremonial Officer Lgr Brain Parry

Accordingly, this commemoration is personally very poignant and sobering for many of us.

Following the event, the Royal British Legion in Teddington once again made us most welcome for a traditional braai and social.

Eyes Right!

* In Waters Deep
By Eileen Mahoney

In ocean wastes no poppies blow,
No crosses stand in ordered row,
There young hearts sleep… beneath the wave…
The spirited, the good, the brave,
But stars a constant vigil keep,
For them who lie beneath the deep.

‘Tis true you cannot kneel in prayer
On certain spot and think. “He’s there.”
But you can to the ocean go…
See whitecaps marching row on row;
Know one for him will always ride…
In and out… with every tide.

And when your span of life is passed,
He’ll meet you at the “Captain’s Mast.”
And they who mourn on distant shore
For sailors who’ll come home no more,
Can dry their tears and pray for these
Who rest beneath the heaving seas…

For stars that shine and winds that blow
And whitecaps marching row on row.
And they can never lonely be
For when they lived… they chose the sea.

Lest we forget

Main text by Lgr Simon McIlwaine

Photography by Lgr Victor Ho

UK Founders Day Parade

Purpose: Founder’s Day (also known as Oak Apple Day) is the highlight of the Royal Hospital Chelsea’s calendar, an event attended by all our brethren, the Chelsea Pensioners, celebrating the founding of the Royal Hospital by King Charles II. The event has taken place every year since the founding of the Royal Hospital in 1681

Wall of Remembrance Service

Purpose: Memorial Service for the fallen for Border Operations

SA Legion Spring Social and Family Day

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Purpose: Informal South African Gathering

  • This will be an informal event hosted by the South African Legion – United Kingdom and Europe
  • A great atmosphere for the whole family and friends for those that are not inclined to attend a formal event.
  • An ideal opportunity for everyone to meet up and have an enjoyable afternoon and evening with a many events , food, drinks, and fun.
  • This event will also present itself as an opportunity to recruit


Nation-building Tribute

Purpose: In celebrating Freedom Day in South Africa, the South African Legion – England Branch, in association with the Royal British Legion – South African Branch, gives tribute to three statesmen whose nation building vision and deeds shaped modern South Africa – Nelson Mandela, Jan Smuts and Mahatma Gandhi, whose statues are all represented on Parliament Square in London as great visionaries of not only South Africa, but also Great Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations.

Parachute Jump – Crossing the Rhine – Operation Varsity 1945

Training / Retraining / Certification to jump done at Pathfinder Group – Teuge, Netherlands.

 Purpose: Ceremony and Parachute Jumps in honour of the Commonwealth and US soldiers who fell during the Battle of Operation Varsity crossing the Rhine

Further details TBC

Commonwealth Day Parade

Purpose: The annual celebration day for the Commonwealth of Nations, consisting of 52 member states, of which South Africa is a member.

Three Ships Parade

Purpose: We remember all this South African navy ships lost at sea through the ages, starting from chronological order:

  • WW1: SS Mendi, which lead to 616 South Africans and 30 crew who lost their lives at sea, in South Africa’s biggest naval loss in history.
  • WW2: HMSAS Southern Floe, was sunk by a mine off Tobruk with the loss of 27 men, with 1 sole survivor, Stoker C J Jones.
  • Post-WW2: SAS President Kruger, President-classType 12 frigate which sank in 1982 with the loss of 16 lives after colliding with her replenishment oilerSAS Tafelberg, in the South Atlantic.
  • This day also marks South African Armed Forces Day, which was chosen to coincide with the sinking of the SS Mendi, indicating the impact which the sinking of the SS Mendi has had on a national level. For many South Africans there has been an awakening of an illustrious heritage, which identifies with the whole South African society. All groups have equally played a very important role in the defence of South Africa dating back to WWI.

SS Mendi Remembrance & Wreath Laying, Noordwijk, the Netherlands

NOORDWIJK, ZUID-HOLLAND – In what has become an annual event embraced by the South African Embassies in The Hague and Brussels as well as the municipality of the city of Noodwijk, a ceremony honoured the fallen South African servicemen of the SS Mendi (at least five of whom lie buried in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of  Noordwijk General Cemetery), as well as all fallen South African servicemen and women.

Following a welcome address by South African Deputy Military Attaché, Lt. Col. A Mafofololo, Rev. Andrew Taylor led a dignified service of remembrance, which included a reading by Zeb Ngobese of the poem in isiXhosa Ukutshona Kukamendi (The Sinking of the Mendi) by S.E.K. Mqhayi (see below).

Ms Olitha Lebelo, Counsellor Political at the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa to the Kingdom of the Netherlands

Ms Olitha Lebelo, Counsellor Political at the Embassy of the Republic of South Africa to the Kingdom of the Netherlands greeted diplomats, dignitaries, and military attachés from several countries including Great Britain and the USA.

US and British military attachés with Ms Olitha Lebelo

In his address, SA Legion EU Branch Chair, Lgr Andrew Bergman highlighted that “on the 103rd anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, and in celebration of South African Armed Forces Day, we also commemorate 25 years of democratic defence – 25 years during which the South African National Defence Force has already built-up a track record of distinguished service, especially as part of international peacekeeping missions in Africa.

Lgr Andrew Bergman, SA Legion EU Branch Chair

“This is something of which all South Africans can justifiably feel proud, but such a record of distinguished service always comes at a price, so that once again the 21st Century has already sadly seen South African soldiers who have fallen on a foreign field,” he pointed out.

The gathering was also addressed by local Noordwijk historian Mark Sijlmans who has done extensive research and helped to identify the SS Mendi casualties who lie in his city’s general cemetery.

After the service, pipers, a band, and a bugler from the Dutch Armed Forces accompanied a wreath laying at the SS Mendi graves by the Mayor on Noodwijk, Alderman Wendy Verkleij, Ms Olitha Lebelo and Lt. Col. A Mafofololo on behalf of the Republic of South Africa, Lgr Bergman on behalf of the SA Legion, and several of the military attachés present.

Last Post was sounded followed by two minutes’ silence, and the National Anthems of the Netherlands and South Africa.

Following the event at the cemetery, the South African Embassy hosted an informal lunch with South African wine at Noordwijk’s modern sports centre.

Lgr Andrew Bergman, Ms Olitha Lebelo, and Lt. Col. A Mafofololo

Text by Lgr Andrew Bergman
Photography by Johanna Bergman Badings

Local news coverage: Burgemeester Verkleij legt krans bij herdenking gezonken SS Mendi.

S.E.K. Mqhayi
(See English translation below)

Ewe, le nto kakade yinto yaloo nto.
Thina, nto zaziyo, asothukanga nto;
Sibona kamhlope, sithi bekumelwe,
Sitheth’engqondweni, sithi kufanelwe;
Xa bekungenjalo bekungayi kulunga.
Ngoko ke, Sotase! Kwaqal’ukulunga!
Le nqanaw’, umendi, namhla yendisile,
Na’ligazi lethu lisikhonzisile!

Asinithenganga ngazo izicengo;
Asinithenganga ngayo imibengo;
Bekungenganzuzo zimakhwezikhwezi,
Bekungenganzuzo ingangeenkwenkwezi.
Sikwatsho nakuni, bafel’eAfrika,
KwelaseJamani yaseMpumalanga,
NelaseJamani yaseNtshonalanga.
Bekungembek’eninayo kuKumkani,
Bekungentobeko yenu kwiBritani.

Mhla nashiy’ ikhaya sithethile nani,
Mhla nashiy’iintsapo salathile kuni,
Mhla sabamb’izandla, mhla kwamanz’amehlo.
Mhla balil’oonyoko, bangqukrulek’ooyihlo,
Mhla nazishiy’ezi ntaba zakowenu,
Nayinikel’imiv’imilmb’ezwe lenu
Asitshongo na kuni, midak’ akowethu,
Ukuthi “Kwelo zwe nilidini lethu?”

Ngesibinge ngantonina ke kade?
Idini lomzi liyintonina ke kade?
Asingamathol’amaduna omzina?
Asizizithandwa zesizwe kade na?
Ngoku kuthethe ke siyendelisela,
Sibhekis’ezantsi, sihlahla indlela.
AsinguHabheli na idini lomhlaba?
AsinguMesiya na elasezulwini?

Thuthuzelekani ngoko, zinkedama!
Thuthuzelekani ngoko, bafazana!
Kuf’omnye kade mini kwakhiw’ omnye;
Kukhonza mnye kade’ ze kuphil’ abanye;
Ngala mazwi sithi, thuthuzelekani,
Ngokwenjenje kwethu sithi, yakhekani.
Lithatheni eli qhalo labadala,
Kuba bathi: “Akuhlanga lungehlanga!

Awu! Zaf’int’ezinkulu zeAfrika!
Isindiwe le nqanawa, ‘de yazika,
Kwaf’amakhalipha, amafa nankosi,
Agazi lithetha kwiNkosi yeeNkosi.
Ukufa kwawo kunomvuzo nomvuka
Ndinga ndingema nawo ngomhla wovuko,
Ndingqame njengomnye osebenzileyo,
Ndikhanye njengomso oqaqambileyo.
Makube njalo!

S.E.K. Mqhayi

Yes, this thing flows as a normal thing from that.
The thing we know is not scared of that;
We say, things have happened as they should have,
Within our brains we say: it should have been so;
If it hadn’t been so, nothing would have come right.
You see Sotase, things came right when the Mendi sank!
Our blood on that ship turned things around,
It served to make us known through the world!

The British didn’t buy us with begging;
They didn’t seduce us with long strips of meat;
They didn’t bribe us with things as high as the stars,
They didn’t bribe us with profits.
We say unto those who died, you were Africans,
Those who died in the country of the rising sun,
Those who died in the country of the setting sun,
You didn’t die out of subservience for the king,
Nor because you wanted to kowtow to Britain.
On the day you left home, we talked,
On the day you left, we promised to look after your families,
On this day we shook hands, our eyes were wet.
On this day mothers cried, you fathers sobbed,
On this day you left the mountains of your birth,
You left the rivers of our country behind
We said to you, going there as dark-skinned men,
We said: “You are our sacrifice from here.”

Could we have sacrificed anything more precious?
What did it mean to sacrifice a village?
Was it not giving the bull calves of your homestead?
Sending those very ones who loved you as a nation?
We’re talking deep now; we have added our voice,
Proudly we are part of those opening the road to freedom.
In the way Abel was the sacrifice of the earth?
In the way the Messiah was the sacrifice of heaven?

Be consoled, all you orphans!
Be consoled, all you young widows!
Somebody has to die, so that something can be built;
Somebody has to serve, so that others can live;
With these words we say: be consoled,
This is how we build ourselves, as ourselves.
Remember the saying of the old people:
“Nothing comes down, without coming down.”

Awu! The finest of Africa was busy dying!
The ship couldn’t carry its precious cargo,
It was echoing into the inner circles,
Their brave blood faced the King of Kings.
Their deaths had a purpose for all of us
How I wish I could be with them,
How I wish I could stand with them on resurrection day,
How I wish I could sparkle with them like the morning star.
Let it be so!

Translated from isiXhosa by Antjie Krog