Sunday, 23 February 2014

Remembering the Mendi. Hollybrook Cemetery

Every year about this time I try to write something about the Mendi disaster, it is one of those tragedies that is becoming even more known now compared to when it happened in 1917. Last year I was fortunate enough to confront the Mendi legacy at Hollybrook Cemetery in Southampton, and at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth.

Today, 23 February 2014, the South African Legion of Military Veterans in the UK held a commemorative service at Hollybrook Cemetery, to Honour and Remember those men from the South African Native Labour Corps who lost their lives in this tragic disaster so many years ago. The Isle of Wight is not too far from Southampton, and this is really the main centre in the UK where they are remembered on a memorial.

Unfortunately it was a cold and grey day in Southampton, and I kept on thinking that it was probably a cold and grey day when they died. I do not recall reading what the weather was like on that day, but it was foggy on that morning when the Mendi was lost. 

The occasion was well attended, not only by foreign dignitaries, but also by South Africans that have made the United Kingdom their home. 

We were fortunate enough to have wreaths from a number of service, veterans and military organisations, and the Mayor of Southampton was there to lay a wreath on behalf of the city from where so many South Africans have sailed from or to.

The point was made that the men who sailed on the Mendi were not conscripted into service, they were volunteers, their status was as non-combatants, and they were involved in a war far removed from their homes and villages back in Africa. Sadly very little information exists on the men themselves, they do not have record cards, and there is no service or medical file for them. Often their names were incorrectly captured, and CWGC has recently replaced the panels of the memorial to reflect the names of these men and to correct grammatical and spelling errors. Yet, when I was validating records for the South African War Graves Project I could not help but wonder who was Saucepan Maake or Canteen Mahutu? Their real names are lost forever, we know nothing about them. 

The Roll of Honour of the Mendi is a long one, each must have had a mother and a father, or siblings, maybe a wife and children to whom they never returned. Over the years their immediate family would die out too, and they would be only a distant memory of somebody that never returned from what was in effect a "White Mans War". Today we helped to keep that memory alive of these men, and I hope that one day when we too are gone somebody will continue with the Remembrance of those who did not return.

"Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die... but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers. Swazi's, Pondo's, Basuto's, we die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. "

Those inspiring words are words that need to reach out to a younger generation, so that they too can show the courage that the men on that sinking ship had, so many years ago and so far from home.

The playing of the Last Post, and the act of Remembrance always seem so minor, but those few minutes leave you time to reflect on those who have made the final sacrifice. The Centenary of World War One is months away, and all of the participants in it have their own part in the tragedy and waste. The Sinking of the Mendi and the Battle of Delville Wood are significant to South Africa, and we must never forget them, and those who fell in those moments of madness almost a century ago.

They shall grow not old,

as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them,

nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun

and in the morning

We will remember them.

And then we were finished,  our wreaths were laid and group photographs were taken. The fact that so many had braved the chilly weather was a good sign. Seven services had been held for the Mendi this year, and I cannot help but feel that this one was the closest to the place where the sinking had occurred.

Soon Hollybrook would grow quiet again, and people would pause at the Cross of Sacrifice, and see the many names that are remembered here, and just maybe somebody will reach out and touch the names, making a tactile connection to one who has long entered into the other realm. Maybe they too came from South Africa and came to discover our proud military heritage that is remembered here. And I know that somewhere, many years ago, families in African homes remembered their lost family member, and that they too hoped that somebody would reach out and take the flame of Remembrance from them when they were gone, that flame has passed to us now, the next generation of servicemen from the SADF, and one day we too will pass it onwards. 

Rest in peace Men of the Mendi, 

"....... We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegaais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. " 

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Boscombe Down Aviation Collection.

The real reason for my walkies yesterday was to visit the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection which is at Old Sarum Airfield. It isn't a very long walk to get there, and to be honest I was very disappointed by the collection.

My first oooh moment was when I saw my first Hawker Hunter. It is a real beaut of an aircraft, with that strange otherness that many British aircraft had in the days when the UK aviation industry was still producing aircraft.

The aircraft behind it is a Jet Provost, and she isn't looking as immaculate as the Hunter is. The problem with aircraft is that realistically they should be kept under cover, but that's assuming you have cover to keep them under.

Of course the saddest find was the cockpit of a Comet MK2 that now stands forlornly on a corner. It is as close to a Comet that I would ever get, but this poor remnant is very sad. At one point in history these aircraft were the ground-breakers of long haul jet flight, but now it is relegated to a mere shade of its former self. 

Once inside the museum I was surrounded by cockpits and very few intact aircraft. I think that was one of the reasons I felt so disappointed; there are very few intact aircraft here. 

I do understand though the limitations of a collection like this, these museums are really operated by volunteers and people who have a love for these machines. Money is tight, space is tighter and exhibits are not always easy to acquire. If anything a cockpit is better than nothing. Boscombe Down was originally an aircraft testing site at Amesbury. The collection is probably part of the equipment that was at that original airfield.

The other intact aircraft are: 

Hawker Sea Harrier
Gloster Meteor
Chipmunk WD321
There is also a Jaguar under preservation, although it may be be a long time before  she is any sort of state to be displayed properly.

I did look around the cockpits, and the pair of Canberra remnants were very interesting, considering that the SAAF flew Canberras during the Bush War.

I have no idea how they managed to squeeze into those small spaces though, access to that transparent nose was almost impossible, never mind how they did it with their flying gear on and while in flight. That is the one thing that did strike me, all of these cockpits were really small and cramped and it does give a better appreciation for the men who flew them.

Not all aircraft here are fighters, there are two larger cockpits which are more my size. This particular aircraft is a Hawker Siddeley Andover and it was used for early trials of low light and infra red night flying.

The "front office" of a modern fighter is a mix of analogue and digital, although I cannot recall which aircraft this is. The museum was reasonably busy too, and trying to get a coherent set of images was difficult as people kept on drifting in and out of view, or popping up where you don't want them to be.

Unfortunately the Lightning was blocked off so I could not get a look into her cockpit, but I was really amazed at how big this part of the aircraft was. It is just a pity that there was no complete Lightning to see.

That was about it, all that remained was photographing the two helicopters through the fence. One being a Wasp and the other a mystery.

For some reason I thought this yellow machine was Russian. But it turns out that is is a Sycamore XJ380. The Sycamore has the distinction of being the first British designed helicopters to fly.

Then I was ready to head off home, I did not include all my images here, there are too many. But like so many of these places you tend to realise that you missed seeing everything, or taking notice of some of the smaller exhibits. I do however feel a twinge of nostalgia for that Comet outside, and they do have a wonderful model of one of these aircraft

As well as a lot of seats from the Comet standing outside.

From the days when passengers were treated as travellers and not as cattle.

There is also a memorial to the Air Observation Post Squadrons that were based at Old Sarum Airfield during World War 2.

That concluded my photography, and I hung around at the airfield for awhile but there was nothing really exciting going on there so I headed off back to Salisbury.

Unsorted random photographs.

BAC1-11 Cockpit
GAF Jindivik target drone
Lloyd Loom chair as used by Battle of Britain Pilots waiting to scramble
Hawker  Harrier vectored thrust nozzles
Rolls Royce Avon engine
Back seat driver (Navigator?) of a Canberra