Many years ago I was fortunate enough to read “Black Valour” by Norman Clothier. At the time it was the definitive book about the Africans and Coloureds that served with the South Africans during the wars. It also spurred my interest in the Mendi, and the men who lost their lives in the sinking. It took many years to finally be able to visit the Mendi Memorial at Avalon Cemetery and from then on things just happened. My Mendi Webpage is still a work in progress even after so many years, and deep in my heart I always wanted to visit some tangible relic to the Mendi in the United Kingdom. My chance came on 10 April 2013, while I was in Southampton and I decided to visit the old Cemetery here. But when I arrived at it I decided to carry on going and find Hollybrook. I was not going to lose the chance of a visit while I had time or weather on my side. Hollybrook in itself is not a great cemetery, it is, however, an OK cemetery, and it does have a World War 2 CWGC plot as well as a number of CWGC headstones inside the cemetery
The plot I was after was at the opposite side where I had come in and I soon found it on a slight rise. Up till this point the weather had been poor: overcast, misty and generally not great for photography, but suddenly the sun came out as if it knew I was there.
The Men of the Mendi have a small corner of their own, and it had recently been visited by HRH Prince Michael of Kent, and wreaths had been laid at the site. When I saw that first plaque I broke out in tears. It was one of those truly seminal points in my life.
I ran my fingers over the names, names that I have on my Roll of Honour, and that I had read record cards of, or who I had read about. They became real, and yet they were long gone. Like them I was far from South Africa at that moment, and I felt humbled that I was representing their home on this day. I wish I had had something from there to leave behind for them, but all I really had was my own sadness at seeing these men who went willingly off to war, and who never returned,
I noticed that the wreaths were from other Commonwealth nations, but saw that there was nothing from our own government. What would these men say about South Africa of 2013? It matters not, what matters is that they never get forgotten. And that seeing those names up close and personal was a moment in my life that won’t leave me.
This particular memorial at Hollybrook commemorates by name almost 1900 servicemen and women of the Commonwealth land and air forces whose graves are not known, many of whom were lost in transports, torpedoed or mined in home waters. The memorial also bears the names of those who were lost or buried at sea or who died at home but whose bodies could not be recovered for burial.
Not too long ago the CWGC was able to correct a lot of the errors in the names on this memorial, and I hope to be able to correct my own list as well. Sadly, all that is left of their lives is this name on a plaque. And I think that in this case, there is a small piece of England that is uniquely South African. They were men that came from the tip of Africa, to fight in a war that they knew nothing about, and they died far from their homes, never reaching their destination, but remaining here, far from the sunshine that was now fading as I took my last few photographs. But if I do think about it , these men were never really forgotten, their families remembered them, and their comrades, but they too have passed on, and that duty has been passed on to us, a generation of ex-servicemen who also served their country.
© DRW 2013-2021. Images recreated and links repaired 29/03/2016