The South African Navy (SA Navy) frigate SAS Amatola (F145) will be deploying to the United Kingdom and Germany in the new year to take part in joint training exercises and a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the SS Mendi.
Scheduled to depart Naval Base Simon’s Town on January 16, 2017, the frigate will conduct a border patrol of the South African West Coast under the auspices of Operation Corona whet en route to the United Kingdom.
Whilst in the UK, Amatola will undertake the Royal Navy’s (RN) Basic Operational Sea Training (BOST) work-up inspection. The RN describes BOST as "demanding but rewarding,” combining surveys of the physical condition of the ship with tests of the crew's readiness for deployment, including a warfighting and damage control scenario. The objective is to ensure the ship is at the right level of operational capability to progress to multinational, task group training.
This is not the first time Amatola has participated in the RN BOST work-up inspection, as she was the first South African ship to do so when she underwent the same rigorous exercise in 2007. Amatola has since undergone a R400 million mid-life refit and overhaul in Durban between March 2014 and July 2015, coming back into service at Simon’s Town earlier this year.
The refit involved the replacement of both main propulsion units, refurbishment of gas turbines, a complete blast and re-coating of the ship and the refurbishment of accommodation, bridge, engine control room, galley, mess, helicopter deck and hangar and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.
Amatola has participated in a number of exercises and missions since her mid-life update, the latest being Exercise Red Lion, where she fired an Exocet anti-ship missile at a target.
Following her BOST training, Amatola will visit Plymouth, home to the Devonport Naval Base, the largest naval base in Western Europe. While there, on February 21, she will commemorate the sinking of the steamship SS Mendi in the English Channel on the way to France on February 21, 1917.
Mendi sailed from Cape Town, en route to La Havre in France carrying the last contingent of the South African Native Labour Contingent (SANLC), comprising 805 black privates, 23 white officers and non-commissioned officers and 33 crewmembers.
On the morning of February 21, 1917, having left Plymouth, the larger cargo ship SS Darro, travelling at full speed and emitting no warning signals in the fog, rammed the Mendi, which sank in 20 minutes. No steps were taken by Darro to lower boats or rescue the survivors. She stood off and floated nearby while lifeboats from the Mendi's escorting destroyer, HMS Brisk, rowed among the survivors, trying to rescue them. A total of 616 South Africans (607 black SANLC troops and nine of their fellow white countrymen) and all 33 crewmembers drowned.
The SA Navy website notes there were many stories of bravery as the ship went down. One of them is that of the Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, who cried words of encouragement to the dying men.
“The men sang and stamped the death dance together as the SS Mendi sank, taking with her all still on board and many who leapt into the icy waters,” the website states, “Of note is that, regardless of clan or tribe, these men faced death together as South Africans.”
The Mendi disaster was one of South Africa's worst tragedies of World War One, second perhaps only to the Battle of Delville Wood. The SS Mendi is honoured by the modern South African Navy, which renamed the Warrior-class strike craft SAS Frans Erasmus to SAS Isaac Dyobha in April 1997. The last of four Valour class frigates built for the SA Navy, SAS Mendi (F148), is named after the SS Mendi.
Following a provisioning stop at Naval Station Rota in Spain, Amatola will arrive in the German port of Kiel for Exercise Good Hope VII, the seventh iteration of the biannual maritime interaction between the South African and German navies.
The overarching aim of Exercise Good Hope VII is to achieve and maintain levels of readiness required for the respective navies to be able to fulfil their maritime tasks.
Afterwards, Amatola will conduct several port calls off the west coast of Africa en route back to South Africa, arriving in Simon’s Town on April 19, having spent three months on foreign deployment.