The tragic sinking of HMS Barham

The tragic sinking of HMS Barham

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During the Second World War, South African Navy personnel – known at the time as the “South African Naval Forces” (SANF) were seconded to serve on ships in the Royal Navy. 

Nothing drives home the peril of serving on a fighting ship harder than this footage of the sinking of the HMS Barham, it is simply jaw dropping. Made even more poignant for us if you consider we are witnessing the loss of the following South African naval personnel in this tragedy.

BAKER, Dennis E W, Ordinary Seaman, 68617 (SANF)
GLENN, Paul V, Ordinary Seaman, 68906 (SANF)
HAYES, Richard T, Ordinary Seaman, 68499 (SANF)
MORRIS, Cyril D, Ordinary Seaman, 68932 (SANF)
UNSWORTH, Owen P (also known as R K Jevon), Ordinary Seaman, 69089 (SANF)
WHYMARK, Vivian G, Ordinary Seaman, 69024 (SANF)

It is our duty as South African veterans never to let selective history and the mist of time obscure the brave contributions of our countrymen during this war, it is our our duty as South African Legion to continually educate and keep this memory alive. 

HMS Barham was a Queen Elizabeth-class battleship of the Royal Navy She was sunk during the Second World War on 25 November 1941 by the German submarine U-331north of and off the coast of Sidi Barrani, Egypt.

Prior to this HMS Barham visited Durban, South Africa, in June 1941 for extensive repairs at the Victoria Graving Dock. The repairs where due to damage sustained in the Crete bombing. She sailed from Durban on the 31st July 1941.

Story for the South African Legion by Peter Dickens

SS Mendi Parade

Let us die like brothers – the legacy of the SS Mendi

The accidental ramming of SS Mendi Troopship by SS Daro on a cold foggy morning eleven miles off Isle of Wight, on 21st February 1917, became an almost unparalleled wartime tragedy for South African forces.

Daro, at almost three times Mendi’s weight, travelling ‘full ahead’ in fog conditions – not using her fog horn to warn shipping in the area or the appropriate lights – she rammed the troop ship with such force the SS Mendi sunk and was resting on the sea-bed within 25 minutes. The violent impact, nearly at right angles, left a gaping 20ft tear amidships instantly trapping more than 100 soldiers below decks who were unable to escape the rapidly rising water as the ship quickly listed to starboard.

Her crew, consisting 29 sailors, failed to launch sufficient life rafts for the 811 strong contingent of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). In the dense fog and inadequate rescue effort that followed, many remained aboard the ship, unwilling to commit to an icy plunge.

They were reportedly exhorted by the Chaplain Rev Isaac Dyobha  who called them together to  die like warriors and brothers.

He said  “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

Thus, together they danced a death drill, they chanted and danced on the tilting deck until finally being sucked into the vortex created by the sinking ship.

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water.  A catalogue of failures exacerbated the final outcome, the Darro for example made no effort at all to rescue the men in the water, and ultimately it was that many of these brave men had no experience of the sea combined with extended exposure to the frigid February waters, off St Catherine’s Light, that accounted for the unusually high death toll.

Fewer than 200 of the 840 souls aboard the SS Mendi survived.   The total toll on human lives lost that day reached a staggering 646.

Convention and prejudice meant this dreadful tragedy was not afforded appropriate recognition by respective Governments in South Africa and the United Kingdom.  South African officials during these years demonstrated their unwillingness to highlight black people’s wartime contributions by withholding medals and reasonable post-war recompense to ‘non-combatant men’ deemed somehow less valuable. Particularly poignant was that South African Labour Corps men, drawn from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, had readily volunteered their services to support the British Crown’s war effort on the Western Front in the hope it would win them greater political concessions at home. The reality was that remarkably little changed for 7 decades.

This however is now been redressed and today recognition is been awarded and these fine brave men are been honoured at last.  The South African Legion is one of the organisations which has taken the lead in highlighting this significant event – both in South Africa and abroad.  In the United Kingdom, the South African Legion branch located in the England honoured the Mendi fallen on the 24th February 2013 in Portsmouth in a specific ceremony dedicated to the men buried there.

As called out by Rev Isaac Dyobha ‘let us die like brothers’ but a few days after Mendi sunk, 9 men washed ashore and were buried at the Milton cemetery in Portsmouth, most poignantly – here too they where buried as brothers.

The eight South African labour Corps men are buried together – sharing the same graves, one officer – Lieutenant R.A Mactavish is buried here too just a little up the same lane.  The grave register shows on the first names of the Labour Corps men only, no rank, no surname – they are described in the register as ‘an African Native’, they are intervened directly to earth – no coffin was afforded these ‘native African’s.   These are paupers graves.


Two graves – 488 and 490 contain 8 men, buried together – ironically – like brothers.

During the ceremony held by the South African Legion – United Kingdom branch, as the honour roll was read, members of the SA legion at each headstone laid an individual garland.  The colours and standards of The South African Legion, Royal Navy Association and the Fleet Air Arm Association where dipped to the ground in honour of the men whist the last post was played.

Honours where also paid to a the small number of other victims of the Mendi who came ashore elsewhere.  However in reality most did not, almost a third of all the 1900 names listed at Hollybrook Naval Memorial in nearby Southampton, commemorating Commonwealth land and air forces whose grave is not known, are men of 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps.

After the ceremony Peter Dickens, the England Branch Chairman said ‘It’s a pretty significant parade for us because in South Africa the Mendi is taking more significance as people understand the contribution of black Africans to the First and Second World Wars. Today we come to honour the nine South African soldiers who washed up on shore in Portsmouth and who are buried here, but for many hundreds more the sea is their grave’.

Dickens went on to say that ‘more and more emphasis is now been paid to the contribution of Africans to the modern freedom of Europe, both in South Africa and here in the United Kingdom.  It is right, fair and long past its due date that these brave South African heroes are now been accorded their much deserved honour and respect’.

The shipwreck has recently been awarded World Heritage and War Grave status and an increasing number of Memorials are testament to contemporary recognition for, and acknowledgement of the sacrifices made by not only the 607 South African Labour Corps men lost that day on His Majesty’s service but also many thousand silent black South African citizens who risked everything to join Europe, ‘like brothers’.

Press Release written by Peter Dickens and Dave Mannall

SAS President Kruger Parade

The furious seas of February

A month to remember the SS Mendi, HMSAS Southern Floe and SAS President Kruger

Click for Image Gallery

The South African Legion – United Kingdom branch conducted a parade at the Portsmouth Naval Memorial located in Southsea Portsmouth on the 24th February 2013.

The South African Legion came together to remember all men lost at sea and to honour brave South Africans lost at sea in the month of February.  Of significance for the South African Armed Forces in this month is the loss of the SS Mendi during WW1, HMSAS Southern Floe in WW2 and the loss of SAS President Kruger some decades later.

Aside from the shared commonality of February, both instances where also the result of collisions with ‘friendly’ vessels, both instances where the result of ‘human error’ and in both instances brave men where lost to frigid waters in terrifying circumstances.

SS Mendi

The story of the SS Mendi , a troopship, started on a cold, foggy morning, around 05:00 on 21 February 1917, in the English Channel, near zero visibility was the recipe for a shipping disaster which caused barely a blip amid the chaos and carnage of the First World War, but has had consequences which have reverberated down the years in South Africa.

The SS Mendi, steaming rather slowly through the murky seas, was displaying the normal lights, and was, in addition, blowing her whistle at regular intervals, as required by the rules of shipping in foggy weather. The Darro, in contrast, was at full speed, displaying the normal lights but not making any audible warning signal.

On spotting the Darro the SS Mendi immediately sounded it’s whistle and tried to “hard to starboard.” It was too little and too late. The bow of the Darro tore through the hull of the Mendi and it rapidly sank with the staggering loss of 646 men.

The majority of men aboard the Mendi where from the 5th Battalion South Africa Native Labour Corps as well as the battalions support units.  They had volunteered to serve their country and the Empire, their task was a non-combatant one of engineering – digging trenches, building roads and bridges.   Helping Great Britain in her war efforts on the western front.

To understand the terror that must have gripped these men in their final moments when this collision happened, remember that most of them had never been on a ship before boarding this one, most of them had never even seen the sea. All of the aspects of travelling by sea would have been totally foreign to them, they were thousands of miles from kin and home, from anything they would have been familiar with.

In spite of this the men seemed, by all accounts, to have behaved with remarkable fortitude and sanguinity. There was no evidence of panic.

According to oral history handed down about the event one person’s act of leadership helped to keep the men calm and prevented what could have become a fatal stampede. This was a cleric among the men, one Reverence Isaac Dyobha, a Xhosa, who, at the last, held up his hands in supplication and loudly addressed the doomed men on the ship in these words:

“Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death. I, a Xhosa, say you are all my brothers, Zulus, Swazis, Pondos, Basutos, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our weapons at our home, our voices are left with our bodies.”

The reference to weapons was to the fact that the South African Government had agreed to send black men to assist the Allied forces as labourers, but, due to racial policies of the time, they insisted they could not be given weapons.

After this stirring speech the men left on the Mendi, according to the legend which has grown up around these events, took off their boots, and did a “death dance” on the tilting deck of the sinking ship. There were many more individual acts of bravery and selflessness in those terrifying early morning hours in the freezing water.

On receiving the news of the sinking of the Mendi the Prime Minister – General Louis Botha addressed the South African House of Assembly in Cape Town on 9 March 1917, with these words:

“Ever since the war broke out the ‘natives’ have done everything possible to help where such was possible in the struggle without ever doing anything which was in conflict with their loyalty to the Flag and the King. It has never happened in the history of South Africa … that in one moment, by one fell swoop, such a lot of people have perished, and, … I think that where people have died in the way they have done, it is our duty to remember that where people have come forward of their own accord, of their own free will, … and what they have done will redound to their everlasting credit.”

At the announcement of the loss of the Mendi all the members of the House stood as a mark of respect.

HMSAS Southern Floe

On the morning of 11 February Southern Sea arrived at the patrol rendezvous, two miles east of Tobruk, but found no sign of Southern Floe. This was reported but caused no concern at first; it had blown hard enough all night for the ship to find herself far from her station at dawn. However that evening, a passing destroyer picked up one man clinging to some wreckage – all that remained of Southern Floe and her company.

This sole survivor was Stoker C J Jones, RNVR (SA), lent from HMS Gloucester to fill a vacancy just before Southern Floe sailed from Alexandria. He was almost insensible after 14 hours in the water, but afterwards stated that he had been in the stokehold when, at about 04:00 there had been a heavy explosion and the ship had filled rapidly. In the darkness, he had found his way into the flooded engine-room and struggled out through the skylight as the ship sank. He had seen a few other persons in the water at that time and later had done his best to support a wounded man. In the absence of other evidence there is little doubt that a mine, either floating or moored, was the cause.

The loss of the ship, although but a trivial incident in a world war, came as a sudden and grievous blow to the flotilla and to the SDF. The ships had spent a bare month on the station and at home few were aware that they had arrived and had been in action. The casualties were the first naval losses suffered by the South African Seaward Defence Force and the sense of loss in the service was profound.

SAS President Kruger

The SAS President Kruger tragedy also reverberates down history, as it has been said that The South African Navy has never really recovered from it.

On 18 February 1982, four vessels – the pride of the South African navy where conducting a naval exercise – the SAS President Kruger was conducting a complex exercise with the submarine SAS Emily Hobhouse, another frigate, the SAS President Pretorius and the replenishment ship SAS Tafelberg. The high-intensity exercises had progressed over several days, with the SAS Emily Hobhouse pretending to attack the SAS Tafelberg, and the two frigates also conducting submarine seek and destroy exercises in zig zag pattens.

At approximately 4 am, the whole formation had to change direction by 154 degrees, a near complete reversal in direction. During the maneuver and error was made in the rate and degree of turn, radar contact was also lost in clutter and the SAS Tafelberg accidentally collided with the SAS President Kruger.

The damage was catastrophic damage. The SAS Tafelberg, being a tanker, was 18,980 tons with 1 to 4 inch thick bow steel. The PK was a mere 2144 tons, with 4mm thick steel.

Last minute actions where shouted out to avoid collision, but like the Mendi – too little – too late. The SAS Tafelberg was severally damaged in the impact, but more tragically SAS President Kruger sank as a result of the damage it sustained –  it sank 78 nautical miles south west of Cape Point with the loss of 16 lives.  Like the SS Mendi this took place in freezing waters, and – like the Mendi – the terror would have been no different to the men of the PK facing death.

Peter Dickens, the Chairman of the South African Legion, United Kingdom branch said this about the parade ‘Today, the legacy of both the SS Mendi and the SAS President Kruger is been remembered.  The men and woman of the South African Legion as well as other veteran organisations stand shoulder to shoulder with their Brothers and they remember them – they remember their fear, their anguish and their bravery.’

Dickens went on to say ‘This is a legacy of brave South Africans in full service of their country, and it is up to the South African veterans organisations – their brothers in arms to keep their memory alive.  Both the SS Mendi and the SAS President Kruger have suffered the consequences of memory fading into history, and it is with determined effort that we must continue to highlight the bravery and sacrifice of our South African men and women at sea.’

In the United Kingdom, the South African Legion was supported on this day by the Royal Navy Association, the Fleet Air Arm Association and the Royal British Legion, as in February they also remember the sea, and the lives of all fellow brothers in arms who have been lost to it.  Great Britain and her Commonwealth, through two world wars and subsequent wars at sea such as the Falklands has lost thousands of souls in the service of their country.  So, in February we remember the sea, and the men lost to it.