THE

TRAIN WRECKERS

The Men Who Battled Against Her Majesty’s Iron Horses

By H Labuschagne

They were a tough breed. They were the dread of the iron horse. They killed their prey swiftly and mercilessly. They took no prisoners. They did not flinch from danger. They lived constantly in the shadow of death, but it is there that they could live life to it’s fullest – with that dangerous morphine of adrenalin constantly pulsing through their veins. They were the Train Wreckers.

One night a lonely driver come riding his fearsome beast through the ink black darkness of the highveld, the friendly glow of the great oven in front of him casting sad and merry shadows across the deep lines on his face. He had come to fear the night. It was unsafe and he urged his stoker to feed his beast a few extra shovels of coal. He was feeling restless. He squinted as he tried to follow the powerful beam of light with which his monster pierced the darkness. There was something dark and sinister about the night. Something foreboding which made him think of the wife and family who waited for him far away in Cape Town. His new baby boy...

Shortly after midnight, as his great iron beast thundered through the night somewhere between Middelburg and Machadodorp, his drowsy manner was shattered as a whole sugar bag full of dynamite exploded underneath her wheels with a shock that hammered against his chest and seemed to suck the very air out of the sky for a moment. Immediately his beast shrieked in tortured agony. The driver wildly tried to grab hold of something as he was smashed against the dials, but a moment later the beast began to topple. He felt her falling and he could do nothing to stop it. For the briefest of moments, the image of his new wife and baby flashed through his mind. Then she struck an embankment head-on and crumpled like an old rusted metal can. A heartbeat later both driver and his stoker was cooked alive as a cloud of super-heated steam enveloped them while hot coals and ash rained upon their bodies. The Train Wreckers had struck again!

The train wreckers were to the Anglo-Boer War what the Dam Busters were to the Second World War. They were a small but deadly force which struck fear and frustration into the hearts and minds of British strategic planners. They cost the British taxpayers a fortune, they caused long delays, and they made John Bull look like a fool in front of her European enemies. Lord Kitchener read the latest telegram with a sinking feeling of dismay.

"Damn!" he shouted as he crumpled the paper angrily in his fist.

He rapidly angrily and strode over to the open window, leaving Captain Maxwell, or "The Brat" as he was called, staring at the back of his chief with wide eyes..

"We’ve got to stop them! One way or another, we’ve got to put an end to this train-wrecking business!" he roared, through tightly clenched teeth.

The Brat nodded and pursed his lips as he silently rocked on his feet.. He had heard these words before...

By this time, train wrecking was already a well-practiced art. Right at the outset of war, general White had already sent out a man to blow up bridges and culverts near Dundee. After the fall of Pretoria, British saboteurs were sent out to hinder the Boer retreat by blowing up more installations, and once the redoubtable liar, opportunist and romantic adventurer, Ludwig von Steinaecker, had his men successfully blow up a Boer train near Komatipoort. It was the Boers, however, who managed to turn train wrecking into an art. Until that time, train wrecking had been mostly restricted to blowing up railway tracks, culverts and bridges. Blowing up an actual moving train was much of a hit-and-miss affaire involving the laying of old fashioned fuses and the use of good timing and even better luck. The most successful method at the time was to lay an electric fuse between the detonators and the person who had to press down the plunger at exactly the moment when the train passed over the charge. This is what Lawrence of Arabia did, and his experiences show that he too, had had enough trouble with this technique. For starters, the cable would have to be well camouflaged. Then, the person doing the detonation would have to hide nearby, and his timing would have to be rather good if he wanted it to go off right in front of- or underneath the train. After the derailment, there was the added danger of having to escape from a train which might have been loaded with some very angry and upset soldiers – often across wide open and barren terrain. Definitely not an exercise for the faint-hearted!

All of this changed thanks to a relatively simple device which was invented by a young German called Carl Cremer. Cremer was a well-educated young man who came from a background of sophistication and culture. His invention was both simple and fairly reliable. To start with, the stock and barrel of a Martini-Henry rifle would be sawn off so that only a few inches of barrel remained. The trigger guard would also be sawn off in order to expose the trigger. This would leave you with only an action, a trigger and about a six inch stub of barrel. To this barrel would then be fixed a package of about fifty sticks of dynamite or so. The rifle would be loaded with a cartridge of which the bullet had been removed. It had to be a black powder cartridge, though. Modern smokeless cartridges used cordite, which burned, instead of exploded on detonation. This ingenious firing device would then be buried just underneath the gravel and right next to a railway track. The apparatus would be installed horizontally, so that the trigger would point upwards. When a train’s wheel passed, the wheels would either press the track down, or simply hit the trigger. This would cause the shot to go off, and if all went well, all of this would result in a fireworks display, followed by a skillfully derailed train and another telegram in the hands of an increasingly irate Lord Kitchener.

With this new invention the results were fantastic. For the first time, the Boers could positively derail any size train without having to go to the dangerous effort of having to hide a man who would detonate the charge. It worked like a charm. Soon the Cremer technique was copied and used all over the highveld. Trains began to be derailed left right and centre. At first the Boers merely used to derail trains as a means of destroying the enemy’s lines of communication, transport and supply. Soon, however, Lord Kitchener’s infamous "Scorched Earth Policy" came into effect. What this meant was that within a few months nearly all the farms and most of the small town on the entire highveld of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State were burnt down or dynamited. All the Boer stock and crops were either captured or destroyed. Women and children were sent to concentration camps, where at least 26,000 would ultimately die of disease, neglect and starvation. For as far as the eye could see – an many miles beyond – the highveld became a lonely, howling wilderness. Lonely plains filled with desolation, with burning farms and stinking piles of rotting animals. The idea had been to wipe out the commandos’ food supply. This concept worked to some extent, and failed in others, for the Boers quickly found that they would henceforth have to live off the land. It also inspired them to start using the enemy as their commissariat. It wasn’t long, therefore, before the first supply columns were attacked and relieved of the food, clothing, boots and ammunition which had been destined for Her Majesty’s soldiers.

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Train Wrecking was a dangerous occupation and things frequently went wrong, as this drawing illustrates. An armoured train has just shown up. It is sweeping the attackers with a powerful searchlight's beam, and firing upon them with an artillery piece.

Trains were naturally the grand prize, for they often transported massive amounts of vital stores such as maize meal, bully beef, clothing, medical supplies, and horses, plus the occasional luxuries such as champagne, wine and spirits, tobacco, newspapers, dynamite for the next train, and even sometimes money. Eventually the situation became so bad that a British parliamentarian felt it necessary to complain about the fact that the Britannic Government was now not only supplying their own army with supplies and ammunition, but also the army of it’s own enemies as well!

 

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Bridge blown by Boer Train Wreckers
Any ideas on how to get this heap of metal back onto the tracks without the use of a modern crane? A costly disaster which would be yet another stone in the shoe of the Imperial war effort.

In the beginning the train wrecking business proved to be relatively easy and highly advantageous to the commandos. A number of trains were derailed and relieved of supplies by ordinary burghers, before being burnt. The shock of the explosion and the element of surprise was enough to enable small commandos to quickly overpower any soldiers on the train. In his book, "Hoe Ry die Boere, ‘n Kommando Dagboek," Schikkerling tells of a train-wrecking party who called themselves the "Dynamite Section." Only problem was that when he got to know them better, he had to find that up till then this little group of daring adventurers had never wrecked a train before! As time went by, though, the authorities began to change things a bit. Large numbers of troops were sent along on trains in order to protect it. Locomotives would be strongly armoured and rapid firing "pom-poms" or even big artillery guns would be mounted on special armoured trucks, which would sometimes be further fortified with sandbags. Trains were equipped with powerful searchlights, and greater care was taken to protect the railway lines. At all the major stations, special armoured trains were kept under steam at all times, so that, at a moment’s notice, they could be sent out to any place where Boers might be attacking a train or a blockhouse line.

As Lord Kitchener began to systematically divide the country up into a patchwork of barbed-wire, eventually lined with more than eight thousand blockhouses which were connected by telegraph and telephone, the railways also became better protected. Soon the amateurs began to lose interest in train wrecking. It was becoming a highly dangerous, specialized business. Tougher troops were placed on trains. Machine guns were added. Now the Cremer mines had to be camouflaged with the utmost care as inspection parties were sent out daily to check for any sign of disturbance. The train wreckers found that two men would have to hold hands and walk on the rails for a hundred yards before carefully laying the mine, in order to avoid footprints being seen. As the British system of railway protection improved, so the Train Wreckers adapter their techniques.

Protected by armoured cars, the soldiers on trains also began to show far greater fight. Often a large commando would have to do some hard and serious fighting before taking a train. The mortality rate among train wreckers rose alarmingly. In most encounters, precious lives were now lost during the attack. Schikkerling recounts how his commando had been taken under fire by a train-mounted British gun at a distance of 800 yards. Several men were killed in this encounter, and a mare which was standing in front of him was hit in the stomach so that it’s contents spilt out in front of him. Still, however, the train wreckers would not give up. Walter Mears took three trains near Standerton. Some of general Ben Viljoen’s men also took individual trains. The greatest train-wrecker of all, however, was undoubtedly captain Oliver Jack Hindon – a Scot by birth. Jack Hindon once took three trains in spectacular fashion within twenty minutes. This was probably the largest singular blow struck at trains during the entire war. Even Hindon, though, lost a large number of good, irreplaceable men and attacks on trains frequently went awry. The train wreckers had to have nerves of steel and the hearts of brave lions. Without the train supplies, though, the war effort would have been severely hampered. By this time, the Transvaal had long since lost it’s only connection to the outside world – and it’s supplies – when the Delagoa Bay railway line was closed to them. They were now solely dependent on their enemy for war materials. By late 1901 and early 1902, most burghers had already had to swop their Mausers for captured British Lee-Enfields, due to lack of ammunition.

 

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Another expensive act of sabotage
Again, how did the British engineers ever manage to get this heavy locomotive back on it's tracks? No wonder the engineers spend most of their time trying to get Kitchener's rolling stock rolling once more!

Gradually the frustration of men like Kitchener began to rise. Each train which was wrecked, was an extremely expensive loss. Not only would trains have to be imported from England, but the supply losses were increasing the costs of war and lengthening the war by sustaining the enemy. At a time when the British government was putting a lot of pressure on Kitchener to cut expenses, this was serious. In desperation, the train wreckers became branded as a peculiar brand of low-class criminal which had to be dealt with with severity. The British propaganda machine began to vilify the train wreckers at every opportunity. The name of Jack soon Hindon became anathema to British ears. Hindon captured a camp newspaper which stated that orders had be issued that Hindon and his men were to be pursued especially and that no prisoners should be taken.

Hindon then received a letter from commandant-general Louis Botha, saying that Lord Kitchener Lord Kitchener was accusing Hindon's men of having fired on a British nurse on one of the trains, using a revolver. None of Hindon's men owned or used revolvers, and he refuted the accusation during a military hearing. The British press began to make more and more accusations of Boer train wreckers that were supposed to have attacked women on British trains, which the Boers of course, denied with vehemence. Lord Kitchener sent a written protests to commandant-general Botha, in connection with train-wrecking. Botha responded by praising Hindon and telling him to continue his good work. He answered as follows: "Concerning your protest, I contend that I have the right to attack the lines of communication and supply of my enemies where an when possible; and it makes absolutely not the slightest difference whether this destructions should last one day or one month. In each case where my commandos had derailed a train which had contained women and children, there had also been soldiers in it; and ammunition, supplies etc.; and if some of these women and children had been killed or wounded, then the blame for it rests on your shoulders and not mine". The propaganda machine was doing it’s work...

Added to this, the British authorities now also decided to take a step which is still considered to be one of the most loathsome methods of warfare. It started transporting women – and sometimes children too – on trains in order to discourage further attacks. Then came the tragic train attack during which Jack Hindon lost one of his most trusted men, the clever inventor, Carl Cremer. Hindon and his men had again succeeded in bringing an iron horse to a standstill, and were just about ready to launch their planned attack on the train with full force. Just then, however, the men spotted a white flag being flown from one of the train trucks. Unbeknown to them, this truck contained Boer women, who were waving the flag, and shouting to their countrymen, in order that they might know not to fire on their own kin. This signal was misunderstood. Thinking that the entire train was surrendering, the Boers quickly rose and came charging in to take command of the train. Just as they came close to the train, however, they were unexpectedly greeted by a lethal hail of lead which killed several men. It turned out that the rest of the train was full of British soldiers!

In the process, Carl Cremer appeared to have lost his glasses. Not being able to see without them, Cremer could not flee and so he simply had to remain standing right next to the train, holding up his hands in surrender. It was then when one of those tragic incidences of beastly behaviour took place. Before anyone knew what was happening, Cremer was suddenly mercilessly shot and killed on the spot. Several other prisoners were made, but the joy was greatest when it was found that the inventor of the Cremer mine had finally been killed.

The murder of Carl Cremer naturally did not stop the train wrecking business. Even though all the major railway lines were protected by lines of specially imported barbed wire, booby traps, mines, horse-spikes, guards, blockhouses, and guard dogs, the train wreckers continued capturing trains and convoys. Lord Kitchener kept receiving the same disturbing telegrams periodically, and the Boers continued burning, derailing and looting military trains. Finally, after much bitterness and anger, Kitchener resolved to henceforth always include prisoners of war, and non-combatant Boers who had taken the oath of neutrality, on all trains as means of protection. Especially when artillery was transported, women and children would be sent with it. After many months of massive damage, the train wreckers’ activities finally came to an end. As with many ground convoys, the enemy began hiding behind innocent women and children. Jack Hindon never attacked a train again. The risks were too great...

Nobody knows for sure how many trains had been derailed and wrecked during the war. As with most other military statistics, the numbers had been manipulated greatly by the authorities in order to lessen the embarrassment, but it must have been an exceedingly large one. The archives are full of pictures of numerous trains which had ploughed into the ground next to their tracks. How many bridges the Boers had blown, nobody can say, but again, dozens and dozens of pictures attest to the fact that nearly all the major bridges in the old Boer countries had been blown sky-high. Culverts and miles of railway track had likewise been demolished. Whatever the statistics might be, one fact stands clear: The Boer train wreckers had been some of the most daring heroes of the entire war era. Together they had struck at the very arteries of England’s war machine, and managed to keep the commandos fighting right until the bitter end. Their role had been a great one indeed.

As for Jack Hindon, he later had the opportunity of actually meeting the man whom he had caused so much grief during the war months. You have caused me more trouble, commandant, on my lines of communication than any other" Kitchener was reported as saying.

Hindon must have smiled when he answered that was happy to learn this from such a distinguished source!

 

Bibliography:

Die Boere-Offisiere van die Tweede Vryheidsoorlog, 1899-1902., Malan, J., J.P. van der Walt., Pretoria., 1990

Hoe Ry Die Boere, ‘n Kommando Dagboek., Schikkerling., R.W., Afrikaanse Pers-Boekhandel., Johannesburg., 1964., 968.04 SCH

Kaptein Hindon: Oorlogsavonture van 'n Baas Verkenner., Preller, G., J.L. van Schaik., Pretoria., 1916

Slegtkamp van Spioenkop, Oorlogsherinneringe van Kaptein Slegtkamp., Mostert, D., Derde Druk., Nasionale Pers., Kaapstad., 1945