NZ railwaymen took on Rommel in World War II and won

New Zealand railwaymen who served during World War II earned the admiration of legendary British general Sir Bernard Montgomery for their work in special military rail companies that laid rail and ran trains during the war-changing North African Desert Campaign.

The 16th and 17th Railway Operating Companies along with a Survey, Construction and Maintenance Company were formed in 1940 after the British Government asked for railwaymen to run trains in the European campaign.

Because France was overrun before they could arrive, they were diverted to the Western desert. Their job was to help run and extend more than 400 miles of railways moving troops and supplies.

Lt-Col A H Sage was given overall command and one of the company leaders was Major F W Aickin, a future senior railway official.

The railwaymen’s story is documented in official war histories but told more recently by a KiwiRail staff member, Brendon Judd. He gathered information about the railway operating companies as a research topic for a Master’s Degree and later turned it into a book, The Desert Railway.

“I became interested in what was known as the Railway Group while I was working as a locomotive engineer in Palmerston North many years ago,” he said.

“I was saddened that their enormous contribution to the war effort in North Africa was forgotten after they were disbanded in1943 and returned to New Zealand.”

The shortage of skilled railwaymen during World War I was the reason the British Government asked New Zealand for railway staff at the outbreak of World War II.

“Planning a battle is not solely a matter of deploying brigades, regiments and divisions—they have to be fed, watered and munitioned, and in a desert neither food nor water are easily obtained,” wrote T F Cody in the official History of New Zealand in World War II.

“With the lengthening line of communications it was of supreme importance that, through the efforts of Indian, South African, Australian, British and New Zealand railway sappers, the line connecting Alexandria with Tobruk was operating within the times set down in the movement plan.”

One of the New Zealand railwaymen involved was Palmerston North sapper Bren Campbell who started his career as a locomotive cleaner in Taihape in 1937.

In the desert, he fired trains in spite of strafing runs from enemy aircraft. Brendon Judd describes how Bren survived one attack by diving under the locomotive tender, only to be forced out when scalding hot boiler water spilled from the bullet-riddled locomotive.

“He sought sanctuary from the marauding Messerschmitt by trying to hide in a small depression in an otherwise featureless desert. He recalls seeing the aircraft diving towards him, ready to open fire, but then turning away for reasons Bren has long wondered about.”

Official war historian J F Cody, takes up the story: “Most heavily attacked of all and a sitting shot for these raiders were the trains themselves, which were later forced to carry their own barrage balloons and ack ack guns.

“Everyone on the Railway Construction operation took their hats off to the New Zealand engine crews, who in their noisy cabs were liable at any moment to be the target for vicious hails of cannon and machine gun bullets, but though casualties were inflicted by these unheralded attacks, they continued bringing their trains through cheerfully and dauntlessly.”

Major Aickin, commented on the situation his men faced. “It was obvious we could not afford to lose our locomotives at such a rate…. In any case the British Railways could not afford to hand locomotives out to us like children's toys to be destroyed in a week, and accordingly something had to be done about it…. All trains henceforth were provided with two anti aircraft teams, each occupying a wagon at opposite ends of the train, one being armed with machine guns of various types and the other with Bofors or Breda guns.”

The Railway Operating Companies and the Survey and Construction Company extended railway lines 275 miles into Lybia, almost to the port of Tobruk. At one stage, the Kiwis set a record for the length of track constructed in a day.

They also operated lighters in Tobruk, often without any maritime experience.

“A measure of the contribution they made can be gained from the comments of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery,” says Brendon Judd. “He famously stated at the beginning of the Battle of El Alamein in 1942, ‘Now it’s the railway versus Rommel’, - in terms of the trains keeping the front-line troops supplied.”

When the desert campaign ended, the Railway Operating Companies were disbanded and the men returned to help cope with the workload created by the influx of United States troops stationed in New Zealand to fight against the Japanese in the Pacific.

Brendon Judd says their contribution was overlooked at the end of the war, to the extent that they were sometimes denied entry to RSAs on the basis that they hadn’t been fighting soldiers.

However, their work and the losses they incurred were recognised by Railways at senior level and the commanding officer of one of the operating companies, F W Aickin, went on to become Railways’ General Manager after the war and be a controversial advocate for electrification.

Sources: THE DESERT RAILWAY: The New Zealand Railway Group in North Africa and the Middle East during the Second World War by Brendon Judd; KiwiRail Express Newsletter; Official History of New Zealand in World War II, T F Cody.