SS Mendi Remembrance, Noordwijk, 21 February 2018

At 11 am on Wednesday February 21 2018, the South African Ambassador to The Hague, HE Vusi (Bruce) Koloane, His Worship The Mayor of Noordwijk, Alderman Jan Rypstra, under the guidance of programme director, Deputy-Mayor Gerben van Duin, joined with the ambassadors of several countries, and the military attachés of several more, and representatives of the South African Legion and other veterans, at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the General Cemetery in Noordwijk in the Netherlands, on the 101st anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi*.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lgr. Andrew Bergman addresses the event on behalf of the South African Legion

The Dutch Armed Forces provided a Guard of Honour, a brass band, and several pipers to add colour to a dignified event. Rev. Andrew Gready led the service with hymns in the cemetery hall, before conducting the wreath-laying at the graveside. South African Deputy Military attaché, Lt Col Andrew Mafofololo orated the Act of Remembrance.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South African Deputy Military attaché, Lt Col Andrew Mafofololo and the South African Ambassador to The Hague, HE Vusi (Bruce) Koloane lay a wreath on behalf of South Africa

In his speech, the South African Ambassador to The Hague, HE Vusi (Bruce) Koloane specifically acknowledged the contribution of the SA Legion to “keeping the flame of remembrance for the SS Mendi alive“. After the service, the South African Embassy hosted a delicious lunch of South African food and wine at the ultra-modern Noordwijk Sports Centre.

* On 21 February 1917, the SS Mendi, a troop ship out of Cape Town carrying 823 men of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps bound for Le Havre in France was rammed by the Daro in thick fog in the English Channel of the Isle of Wight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South African Deputy Military attaché, Lt Col Andrew Mafofololo orates the Act of Remembrance

They were travelling to support the war effort, in particular Britain and her allies, who were running out of people and supplies.

The SS Mendi sank quickly with the loss of more than 600 South African servicemen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wreath laid on behalf of the South African Legion

In 2012, February 21 was proclaimed as the day to observe Armed Forces Day annually.

Since 2014, an annual remembrance and wreath-laying service has been held at the gravesides of Privates Sitebe Molife, Natal Kazimula, Abram Leboche, Arosi Zenzile, and Sikaniso Mtolo, who lie buried in the picturesque seaside town of Noordwijk in the Netherlands. They all perished when the SS Mendi sank, and their bodies were washed-up on the (neutral) Dutch coast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For South African Legion Europe Branch
Text: Lgr. Andrew Bergman (Chairman SA Legion Europe Branch)
Pictures: Johanna Bergman-Badings


Wreath laying party at attention

 

Lgr Theo Fernandes laying a wreath on behalf of the SA Legion

 

Shipmate Rod Fraser delivering the Exhortation. SA Legion standing to attention in the background

 

 

Naval cadets leading the march past

 

SA Legion in the march past

 

Standards in position

The Woking Armed Forces and Veterans Annual Parade was held on June 24th. Led by the Woking Branch of The Royal Naval Association and this year’s event commemorated, in particular the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (known by sailors as the Jenny Wrens). The parade marched through the town to Jubilee Square, where there was a short service, wreath-laying at the Woking War Memorial, and a march past taken by the Woking Mayor and Mayoress, Councillor Graham and Mrs Sarah Cundy.

The Mayor receiving wreath

The South African Legion England Branch & the RBL South African Branch have a long standing relationship with the Woking Branch Royal Naval Association, and it’s one of the highlights of our calendar to take part in the parade. This year the SA Legion was represented by Lgr Cameron Kirk Kinnear (Regional Chair), Lgr Claudio Chistè (England Branch Chair), Lgr Theo Fernandes (who laid the wreath on behalf of the branch), Lgr Justin Bosanquet and Lgr Lesley Ferrando.

 

One of the WW2 veteran’s long SA connection

After the parade, refreshments were served at the Woking Railway Club; this provided an opportunity to for fellow veterans to catch up and mingle, many of whom served in WWII. Amongst others; interestingly, one of the oldest veterans in attendance, Woking resident Bill Moore (93), had a strong southern African connection!

Lgr Lesley Ferando with Bill Moore

Bill was born in Dunoon, Scotland and served during WWII in 138 (Special Duties) Squadron of the Royal Air Force,  which was later assigned to Bomber Command operating under No. 3 Group. He was based at RAF Stradishall and RAF Tempsford. He flew Westland Lysander planes into occupied territories to place or recovery agents and equipment. The Lysander was favoured because of its exceptional short-field performance which enabled clandestine missions using small, unprepared airstrips. Bill tells some interesting stories about some of the agents and resistance members they dropped off and pick up – among them four young men who went on to become prime ministers of France! Bill’s squadron was also the first to begin dropping food to the Dutch to alleviate the terrible famine in the occupied country during the winter of 1944 – 1945. By the end of the war 138 Squadron were stationed at RAF Tuddenham in Suffolk, and from there flew to pick up prisoners of war and return them home.

Throughout his service during the war, Bill earned an impressive array of medals – including the French National Order of the Legion of Honour and the RAF Air Crew Europe Star (“France and Germany”). Other medals include the RAF 1939-1945 Star (“Bomber Command”); RAF Defence Medal; and RAF War Medal. Bill has a long connection with Africa, which draws him to the SA legionnaires – he went out to Rhodesia after the war and spent 50 years there, at times involved in building infrastructure. He tells an amusing story of turning an airfield into a racecourse in only a few days for a Royal Visit by the late Queen Mother – although as he remembered with a smile the wind sock had to stay up! Bill returned to the UK some 14 years ago. The most important thing to him is his family, and he’s fortunate to have a number of them reasonably nearby. His oldest great-grandchild is in his mid-twenties, and the youngest is just 15 months old. It was a real privilege to have the opportunity to talk to Bill and hear a little more of his life story, an unexpected benefit of taking part in the parade.

 

Article written by Lgr Lesley Ferrando, with photo images by Lgr Justin Busanquet and Shauna Fernandes

 


The centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, as well as Armed Forces Day was commemorated at Noordwijk in the Netherlands on 21 February 2017.

The ceremony began with a moving chapel service led by Rev. Andrew Gready. Short speeches were delivered by the Mayor of Noordwijk Jan Rijpstra, South African Ambassador Vusi Koloane, Lesotho Ambassador Ms Mpeo Mahase-Moiloa, historian Mark Sijlmans, and myself on behalf of the South African Legion.

The service was followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the gravesides of five named, and one unnamed SS Mendi casualties, whose bodies were washed-up on the Dutch coast, and now rest in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section of the Noordwijk General Cemetery.

The now-annual event was hosted by the South African Embassy in partnership with the Municipality of Noordwijk – who have been of amazing support in the way they have embraced ‘their’ SS Mendi casualties – and the South African Legion (EU branch).

South African dignitaries included the Ambassador, as well as Defence attaché Brig. Gen. Mac Letsholo, Chargé d’Affaires Mrs. Namhla Gigaba, and a fine delegation of embassy and consular staff.

In addition to Lesotho, the Ambassadors of Cameroon, Egypt, Kenya, Senegal and Zambia were also in attendance.

The Defence Attachés of the USA, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, Romania and Uganda also attended.

The Royal Netherlands Armed Forces sent several high-ranking officers from various branches. They also supplied a Guard of Honour of Dutch soldiers to perform ceremonial duties such as raising and lowering the flags. They also supplied a very competent trumpeter who played Last Post, and a piper who added much decorum to the proceedings.

Afterwards, the SA Ambassador invited guests to an informal dinner of South African food and wine in Noordwijk’s superb new sports complex.

After dinner, I was given the opportunity to say a few words. As a token of our appreciation for their continued support, I presented SA Legion Shields to the Mayor of Noordwijk, Ambassador Koloane, and Brig. Gen. Letsholo.

I also presented the Ambassador, the General, and Chargé d’Affaires Namhla Gigaba with first editions of Fred Khumalo’s just-published novel ‘Dancing the Death Drill’, that includes the sinking of the SS Mendi in its plot. I presented a further two copies to the Mayor of Noordwijk for the city’s public library.

Dominoes

It is incredibly heartening to see how an event that was started by the South African Legion EU Branch just three years ago has grown from a modest ceremony with a few dozen attendees to an annual remembrance embraced by the SA Embassy as well as the international diplomatic community, and attended by well over 80 people. It was just a pity it fell on a work day, which prevented more of the UK Legionnaires from attending.

It was humbling for the SA Legion to receive special mention in Ambassador Koloane’s speech, in which he thanked us ‘for keeping the memory alive’.

 

Andrew Bergman, Branch Chair SA Legion Europe gave the following speech:

Locoburgemeester Van Duin, your Excellency Ambassador Koloane, Brig. General Letsholo, Madame Gigaba, ladies and gentlemen, dames en heren, maNena nomaNenakhazi

In his iconic 1914 poem entitled ‘The Soldier’ English First World War poet Rupert Brooke says:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’ some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

These words by an Englishman, so loving of England, could just as easily have been penned in isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sesotho, or any of the other languages that make up South Africa’s inimitable multicultural tapestry today, by a member of the South African Native Labour Corps:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’ some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever eKoloni, kwaZulu, Mpumalanga, Lesotho, mZanzi Afrika.

Many of the men who were lost off the Isle of Wight that dark February night 100 years ago had never seen the sea before they gathered at the Green Point Track near to Cape Town harbour to board the SS Mendi. So as the sea engulfed the ship, they had little chance in the frigid waters.

The remains of those pitiful few SS Mendi casualties that the cruel sea surrendered might lie in foreign fields, but still, today, after 100 hundred years, their sacrifice does South Africa credit. Their names join those of thousands of soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice – for better or for worse – for King, Commonwealth and Country.

Nederland koos voor neutraliteit in de Eerste Wereldoorlog, maar toch waren Nederlanders niet gespaard van de vele nare neveneffecten van een oorlog dat op hoor afstand werd gevochten. Vanuit Nederland hoeft men vandaag maar een dag-ritje Ieper of een weekeindje naar Parijs te maken om de relatief – en certainement na Zuid Afrikaanse begrippen – zeer kleine geografische afstanden waarin de industriële oorlogsellende waarna te SS Mendi stoomde zich afspeelde.

Zo werd zelfs de stoffelijke resten van de Zuid Afrikaanse soldaten, gedragen door zeestromingen en aangespoeld op de Nederlandse kust. En hier in Noordwijk werd onze kameraden, geboren in de droge uitgestrekte vlaktes van Zuidelijk Afrika, of in de heuvels en bergen van KwaZulu or Umtata of Lesotho, of Botswana, uiteindelijk met respect en liefde te rusten gelegd.

Maar uit het bloed-doorweekte as van de oorlog rijzen vaak ook positieve dingen. Vandaag krijgen de leden van de South African Native Labour Corps het aandacht dat ze terecht verdienen, maar tot onlangs door ‘selectieve geschiedenis’ grotendeels ontnomen waren.

Dan, over de loop van drie jaar, tijdens het regelen van deze nu jaarlijkse herinneringsbijeenkomst, heb ik een bijzondere relatie zien bloeien tussen Gemeente Noordwijk, de Zuid Afrikaanse veteranen, en de Zuid Afrikaanse diplomatieke vertegenwoordiging. Ik ben zeer benieuwd om te zien wat daaruit ontwikkeld.

So today, on the occasion of the centenary of the sinking of the SS Mendi, and in celebration of South African Armed Forces Day, the Europe Branch of the South African Legion of Military Veterans embrace and salute our comrades-in-arms, past, present and future.

And we remember that there is one corner of this field in Noordwijk, where Privates Leboche, Zendile, Molide, Kazimula, and Mtolo now lie, that is forever mZanzi Afrika.

Report by Andrew Bergman, images by Johanna Bergman-Badings.


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