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A safe pair of hands for WW1 relic

FCDO Services’ Logistics teams recently helped to repatriate a World War One relic from one of the twentieth century’s worst maritime disasters.

Tragedy of the SS Mendi

During World War One, the British Government used the SS Mendi as a troop carrier, taking soldiers from Britain to Europe. On 21 February 1917 it set sail from Portsmouth, destined for France. Along with the crew, the ship carried members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) on their way to serve alongside many other British Empire forces on the Western Front.

In the early hours of the morning, just a few miles off the Isle of Wight, Mendi was hit in dense fog by the cargo ship SS Darro. The Darro survived, but the Mendi rapidly sunk, resulting in the loss of 607 black troops of the SANLC, 9 of their fellow white countrymen and all 33 crew members.

Rediscovery of Mendi’s brass bell

Divers identified the wreck of the Mendi decades later, but the brass bell from the ship was not found. Then, in early 2018, it was anonymously sent to a BBC journalist.

The British Government arranged for the bell to be returned. Prime Minister Theresa May presented it to the South African people at an official ceremony in Cape Town.

Transporting the bell

FCDO Services’ Logistics teams worked closely with their delivery partners. They arranged for the bell’s journey by air freight to South Africa and made sure that it travelled securely. The bell was handed to the Defence Adviser at the British High Commission in Pretoria just two days later.

Steve Macro, Head of Supply Chain at FCDO Services said, “This was a whole team effort requiring a great deal of preparation and work around the logistics due to the size of the bell which weighed around 39kg. We had to liaise with several organisations regarding the movement, tracking and paperwork for the shipment as the date of the official handover ceremony crept ever closer.”

Following the successful delivery and handover of the ship’s bell, Assistant Chief of Defence Staff at the Ministry of Defence, Major General Giles Hill CBE, praised the “patience, wise counsel and hard work” of FCDO Services’ teams “in the final journey of a significant piece of South African history.”

He also said “The handover has generated a great deal of positive comment and reflection in the South African press and has considerably assisted our Defence Section’s access and influence in the country as well as that of our FCDO colleagues.”

The impact

After 1917, the account of the Mendi became a symbol of racial injustice in South Africa. Annual Mendi Day commemorations were discouraged by white-led governments.

Upon receiving the bell from the British Prime Minister, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “The gift of this bell is like returning their souls (those who perished) to the land of their birth.”