On the right track




During the Second Anglo-Boer War the railway lines were vital life lines, but there were vulnerable to sabotage and attack. That’s where the armoured trains came in. By Servaas van Breda.

The Second Anglo-Boer War began on 12 October 1899 and would continue for two and a half years.

Both sides, in one way or another, were very dependent on the railways. The railway lines were vital life lines for transporting both civilian goods and for moving troops and supplies.

The railway lines did, however, have a fundamental flaw - they were vulnerable to both sabotage and attack. This is where armoured trains came to the fore.

The British had some 15 to 20 of them that were constructed at Salt River, Kimberley, Durban and Bulawayo.

An armoured train was basically an armoured locomotive with one or more wagons on each end. There were many different variations, depending on their function at the time.

The locomotives which were armoured on the Western Railway were CGR 3rd and 4th Class engines, while those armoured at Durban were, naturally, NGR types.

The style of armouring depending on which workshop did the job and the availability of steel plate at the time.

The drivers of the locomotives often had no way of seeing where they were going and had to rely on an electric bell or telephone system from the train commander situated in the leading wagon.

Armoured trains came in all shapes and sizes depending on their function.  One of the most simple armoured wagons was the low-sided flat car or flat wagon. It was reinforced with sandbags and was little more than a mobile slit trench.

Then there were the armoured personnel carriers. These were wagons where the sides had been built up with steel plating or lengths of rail and they offered pretty decent protection. Again details differed, depending on where they had been built. These wagons were not only used on armoured trains. Often they were attached singly to passenger or goods trains as an escort.

Occasionally they were shunted into a remote siding and left as a kind of a mobile fort or strong point.

Armoured trains were mainly used in a defensive role, but they could also be used offensively when needed.

For that reason there were numerous wagons designed for that specific purpose. For example, some wagons were fitted with one or more Maxim machine guns. These could lay down devastating fire.

There were also four-wheeled wagons armed with Pompom guns mounted on a pivot to fire in any direction.

For heavier guns there were bogie vans equipped with a pair of six or twelve pounder guns, one facing in either direction.

Later on special wagons, like bigger editions of the Pompom wagon, were designed and brought into use. Often they were fitted with a canvas awning or roof which protected to gun and crew from the sun and, to a lesser extent, concealed the nature of the wagon from a distance.

Now let’s take a look at another important aspect of the railway lines, and one that can still be seen today. These were the blockhouses.

In all, some 8,000 blockhouses were built during the war. Some were built from stone, others from concrete, depending on the availability of materials. Their purpose was to protect the railway lines, especially the bridges, against sabotage.

Most blockhouses followed a similar design. They were three storeys high and were about six metres square. There was no entrance from the ground floor and this area was used for storage. Entrance was via a ladder to a door on the first floor and the ladder was pulled up after them. The first floor served as the living area.

The top floor offered a good view of the surrounding countryside.

The roof was corrugated iron with guttering all around and downpipes that led to storage barrels on the ground floor. Many of these blockhouses can still be found today.

READY TO ROLL: Make up of a typical armoured train during the Anglo-Boer War. Note that the locomotive is in the middle of the train, with armoured wagons on either side offering protection.

Finally let’s go back on the offensive. Because of the success of armoured wagons armed with machine guns, Pompoms when used in support of the infantry, it was decided to use something a little larger.

Some six-inch guns were taken off warships in Simon’s Town and mounted on specially built wagons. Being naval guns they were naturally manned by Royal Navy gunners.

These were sizeable guns and, unlike the gun wagons that accompanied normal armoured trains, they were only taken forward when required.

Usually they were located so that they could fire straight ahead, or a section of the track could be slewed to point them at the target It was also possible to use out-riggers to enable them to fire to the side when necessary.

The British Army’s planning was based on the assumption that the Boer forces would fall back on their capital and defend it to the last.

On this basis they foresaw the need to have to besiege Pretoria and they therefore made provision for this contingency.

First they organised the equipment necessary to build a narrow-gauge railway line around Pretoria. Secondly, the plan was to bring up a 9.2 inch gun that could fire a shell a distance of nearly 13 kilometres.

As we all know, the siege of Pretoria never took place and the gun, which had been mounted on a special wagon at Salt River and test fire into False Bay, finished the war at Machadodorp without ever having fired a shot in anger.

Editor’s Note:

This article is based on talk originally written and presented by David Rind at a Model Railway Convention.

Servaas assisted David with the research, as he had access to the archives at the Naval Museum.

David was tragically murdered in 2001 and Servaas was given the presentation by David’s widow.

He added information about the make-up of the trains and has since presented the talk at the Military Academy in Saldanha, at the Staff Naval College, and to MTR 3 and 2 students.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to see more about the topic of the use of trains and the railway during war, we can look at some articles of the armoured trains that were used during World War I and World War II.

Let us know.

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