by Chris Szabo, defenceWeb
The ship’s bell of the ill-fated SS Mendi has been recovered after decades of uncertainty about its whereabouts.
The bell was left anonymously for a well-known local television personality in the southern English coastal town of Swanage. BBC reporter Steve Humphrey, one of the longest-serving journalists for BBC TV South, told defenceWeb he had first heard rumours about the bell over 30 years ago, but they had remained rumours.
He said he now believes the bell was recovered from the wreck, which lies some 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight, in or around 1980. Swanage lies across from the Isle of Wight and is about 30 nautical miles from the Mendi wreck site.
An anonymous tip led him and a TV crew to Swanage Pier in the early hours of 15 June. Humphrey said the bell was wrapped in plastic inside a tarpaulin sack and tied with string and duct tape. There was a note taped to the sack with Humphrey’s name on it, but he realised later that it was in fact an envelope.
The author of the letter, which Humphrey shared with defenceWeb, said the anonymous donor “knew of [the Mendi’s] historical importance to South African heritage” but was concerned that it might not go to the right place.
Knowing Steve Humphrey’s interest in the SS Mendi story and having seen his reports on TV, the donor felt he could get it to the proper authorities. The letter ends poignantly:
“This needs to be sorted out before I pass away as it could get LOST.”
Humphrey in his BBC report, says “I’ve been looking for this bell for the last 30-odd years, so this is quite an emotional moment.”
The Mendi was declared a War Grave by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2009. It was designated a Protected Place under the UK Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. People may dive on the wreck, with permission, but it is a criminal offence to remove anything or damage the wreck.
The SS Mendi Memorial in Cape Town was listed as a national heritage site by the SA Heritage Resources Agency in 2016.
When the ship’s bell was likely removed almost 40 years ago, there was a law that stated the find had to be reported to the authorities. This did not happen. It is possible that this is the reason for the anonymous donation of the bell. Under current laws, the wreck of the ship and everything on it, including the bell, is the property of the UK MoD.
The reporter said there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the find. He told defenceWeb that, “A couple of experts have seen our tv pictures and are in no doubt. Also, intermediaries I have spoken to over past 35 years have always said it was taken during a dive on the wreck in the early 1980s.”
He said the bell was currently in “secured storage” and would soon be in a “prominent museum”, but that this state of affairs would only be temporary. He added that the museum would have equipment and expertise which could be used to verify the authenticity of the bell further.
The relevant UK authority, the Receiver of Wreck, would speak to the owner of the Mendi site, the British MoD, and would jointly decide where the ship’s bell would be placed. Humphrey said the main “claimants” to the Mendi ship’s bell were the following:
Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton, or the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, or somewhere on the Isle of Wight as being the closest land to the wreck site, or perhaps at the museum at Delville Wood in France.
However, if Steve Humphrey had his way, he would send the bell on the SA Navy’s frigate SAS Mendi, along the route the original Mendi took, but in reverse, and donate it to the South African people.
He said it would be a wonderful idea for the descendants of the disaster’s victims to be able to hear the ship’s bell, and therefore the best place for it would be the South African Parliament.
Asked why ship’s bells were so important, he said they are known as the “beating heart of a ship” because hours, changes of the duty watch, which do not coincide with normal hours, are struck on the bell. Ship’s bells are also used in foggy conditions and when dignitaries are taken on board. This can also be done with pipes. There is a large amount of lore associated with ships’ bells.
Nowadays, the bells are often recorded and played through a loudspeaker system on large ships, but ships still keep their bells as an important part of maritime and naval lore. One example is the ringing of 16 bells on New Year’s Eve – by the youngest member of the crew, eight bells for the Old Year, and eight bells for the New. (Eight bells meaning “noon”, the highest number in the naval watch system.)
If a sailor has died, he or she can be honoured by the striking of “eight bells” representing the end of his/her watch.
An interesting tradition of the Royal Navy – a custom kept by the South African Navy – is that a member of the ship’s company is christened in the upturned ship’s bell.
The loss of the SS Mendi is one of the UK’s worst maritime disasters of the 20th Century as well as one of the greatest losses of life in South African military history. The Mendi was a troopship carrying members of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) from Cape Town to Le Havre in France via Portsmouth in the UK. While crossing the English Channel, the ship was struck by the much larger SS Darro and subsequently sank.
The Mendi was carrying 823 soldiers of the 5th Battalion, SANLC, plus the crew, of whom 616 South Africans died (607 Black troops) and some 30 of the ship’s crew. The rest were rescued by the nearby Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Brisk.