On 21 February 1917 the SS Mendi was destined for France carrying men of the 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps to support the Allied forces in France during World War 1. Thick fog covered the calm sea making it extremely difficult to see. 20km off the Isle of Wight the SS Darro, a ship twice the size of Mendi, suddenly appeared out of the fog and struck the Mendi between the forward hatches cutting a massive hole.
The SS Darro inexplicably did not stop to pick up survivors.
646 men, almost all of which were black, lost their lives that day. Nine soldiers, from 5th Battalion of the South African Native Labour Corps, who died in this, one of the worst British maritime disasters, are buried in the cemetery.
Lord Mayor of Portsmouth, Cllr Hugh Mason said: “646 brave men died in this tragedy; sons, fathers, friends and neighbours. It’s something that would never happen today because of technological advances, a fact that underlines the tragedy of that day.
“We must continue to tell the story of the SS Mendi to ensure this dreadful and shameful event is never forgotten. It is important for our maritime city and I am honoured to be part of this service.”
The Lord Mayor and Brigadier General M.E. Gcaza, representing the South African High Commissioner, will lay wreaths and the Lady Mayoress, Miss Marie Costa, will read a tribute entitled the Sinking of the SS Mendi.