A safe pair of hands for WW1 relic

FCO Services’ Logistics teams recently played a vital part in the repatriation of a World War One relic which was involved in one of the twentieth century’s worst maritime disasters over one hundred years ago.

The SS Mendi was chartered by the British Government as a troop carrier and set sail from Portsmouth on 21 February 1917 destined for France. Along with the crew, the ship was carrying members of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC) to serve alongside many other British Empire forces on the Western Front.  During the early hours of the morning and just a few miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, the cargo ship SS Darro collided with the Mendi in dense fog. The Darro survived the collision however the Mendi sunk resulting in the loss of 607 black troops of the SANLC along with 9 of their fellow white countrymen and all 33 crew members.

The wreck of the Mendi was identified by divers decades later but the brass bell from the ship was never found until early 2018 when it was anonymously sent to a BBC journalist.

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

FCO Services’ Logistics teams, working closely with their delivery partners, arranged for the bell’s onward journey by air freight to South Africa using a secure transit system. 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 FCO 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 FCO 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 FCO colleagues.”

Over the years the account of the Mendi had become a symbol of racial injustice in South Africa where 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.”