The day the

A Look at the Greatest Train Disaster of the War

H Labuschagne

They could hear her coming from far way. The asthmatic throbbing of the old girlís laboured breathing drifted clearly across the still, early morning landscape. It caused the menís pulses to quicken. They had been waiting for her all night and as she came, a hairy feeling of uncomfortable nervousness began to rise in their stomachs.

She had learned not to come at night anymore. Not long ago they had lain in wait of her sister at this very same spot. They knew that she would never expect them to wait for her in the same spot again. The puffing slowly came closer. Early this morning the men had got quite a scare. A trolley with two men had come past, pumping and wheezing all the time as they inspected the line. With blood that froze in their veins, the men had stared at that trolley, waiting for the awful explosion which would blow man and machine to fragments when they passed the mine. But that morning it didnít go off. With a sigh of relief they realized that the trolley had been too light. It hadnít triggered the device. The men stroked their bestubbled faces and squintingly searched the horizon with red, sleep-deprived eyes. She was coming...

A little while later, they watched her smoke drift into view. A steady black stream. Healthy and vibrant. Not long after that, she herself appeared. All black and shiny in the early morning light. Pulsating with energy and power. Brass tubing and dials gleaming. Beautiful. She came quickly Ė almost recklessly, for she knew that the line was clear. The trolley-man had said so. The men watched with a rising feeling of tension which knotted their stomachs as she steamed rapidly closer. Their tension rose as she neared the fateful spot, their eyes glued to their quarry. Would she notice anything? Would fate somehow be mean enough to intervene today? As she approached the dreaded spot, the men half-rose to see better, for they knew that there would be no stopping now. This time they would get her!

As the big lady reached the spot, her tremendous weight depressed the rails underneath her. One rail bent down a little more than the other. Only a fraction of an inch, but it was enough to depress the trigger of Cremerís device. The hammer fell, itís minute but deadly click drowned in the din of the passing wheels. A fraction of a heartbeat later, all hell broke loose as fifty sticks of dynamite exploded in a shattering ball of flame. The rails danced like snakes and immediately the grand old ladyís legs wobbled beneath her. For the briefest of moments it looked as if she would regain her composure, but the very next moment she screeched and struck the Burmese sleepers. "Thud!-thud-thud!" went her wheels on the weathered wood, and then they struck gravel. That was enough! It was all over. She stuck the nose of her cow-catcher solidly into the hard African soil and shoved. She twisted a little, and before another moment could pass, dove off the line. A massive cloud of dust instantly erupted, great clods of earth were thrown high into the air and half a second later, she ploughed through thirty feet of veld, stuck fast, buckled, twisted and keeled over with an agonizing groan. After her came all her trucks. Ton upon ton of beautiful Birmingham steel with their stupendous combined kinetic effect slammed into her hard iron body, twisting themselves, mangling her and filling the air with the blood-curdling sounds of tortured and screaming metal. Steam from her ruptured boiler screamed like demons from her ruptured sides.

The men watched in fascinated horror. It was over so quickly! Then followed the signal to charge. They leaped upon their horses and the wind sang into their ears as they rushed upon the stricken lady, firing from the saddle, whooping with instinctive and primitive excitement. When they came to her, however, all was eerily quiet. "Was it a trap?" they wondered. It wasnít. Although the old lady was lying on her side and puffing angry billows of super-heated steam, they knew she was done for. So was the driver. Only the conductor had survived to inform them that it he was dead. The men stared at the broken body in embarrassed silence as a feeling of guilt toyed with their emotions. Then one of them came running up:

"Captain, sheís empty! All the trucks are empty!"

The men groaned in stunned disbelief. After a whole night out in the cold, after hours of dangerous work and careful planning, after lack of sleep and the cultivation of dozens of new ulcers, she had to be an empty train! Captain Hindon wiped his tired red eyes as he stared at the tired faces of his men.

"Iím sorry fellows. Who knows? Perhaps next time..."

One-by-one the hardened guerilla fighters turned to go and drown their disgust with a mug of coffee and to go and prepare their first meal in hours. Just then, however, a new sound caught the attention of some of the men. What was that? Slowly one of the bearded men began to smile. And another, and then another, and then the sound of a whistle could be heard. The sound was still faint, but it was distinct. Suddenly they beamed with joy. Another train was coming!

The burghers hurried back to their horses and mounted in great excitement. Almost impossible to believe, bu they were being given another chance! This time the burghers rushed out to meet the new train. They had to try to cut off her retreat, for it was obvious that she was an unarmoured goods train and the commandoes needed the stores that she would be carrying. This time, things went much better than anyone could have hoped for. The train tried to speed up, but the horses caught up with it easily enough. From all sides the men leapt from their ponies and scrambled up the iron monster. Quickly they reached the driver, and within minutes they had brought the old iron lady to a puffing halt. She came to rest close to the other stricken train that lay bleeding to death in a twisted pile of iron and steel. The train had been captured, but again luck had sidestepped them.. Could it be possible? Another empty train! The burghers groaned with disgust as they fought to regain their breath. So much effort wasted!

They stood around for a while, searched for anything of value and told a few jokes to try and make themselves feel better. Then, just before the burghers decided to pack up and leave, someone brought the conductor forward.

"Captain Hindon, this man says that there is another train on itís way here. A loaded passenger train. Shall we try and get that one as well?"

Jack Hindon looked at his men. The men grinned. What a morning!

The third train put up much more of a fight. She was coming from Balmoral and she was loaded. Heavily. The Boers knew that the prize would be big, and this time they had some time to plan for it. It was quickly decided that they would ride a few miles further back and surprise the train at a different spot so that she would not be able to spot the two stricken trains in time. Jack Hindon had a plan and they knew it would probably work. They just needed enough time to lay a proper ambush. When the driver spotted the Boers, he acted exactly as they had hoped he would. He open up the steam a bit. At this signal, the veld burst open with Boers who came tearing across the highveld towards the old iron woman. Like a raging veld fire they came. The driver must have been a man with a sense of humour and a feeling of invincibility, for merely responded by given her more steam and mocking the Boers with a long, drawn out whistle as if to say: "Come catch me if you can!" The railway line made a turn up ahead, and the driver could not see that the road was blocked, therefore he intended to give the Boers a bit of a run for their money. Soon his monster was roaring full steam ahead with the Boer horses in full pursuit. The men were firing from the saddle, but the driver and his passengers were unconcerned. With wide grins the soldiers leant out of the windows and from dozens of windows they boisterously waved their handkerchiefs at their crazy enemies.

"Come on, you bastard Boers! Come get us if you think youíre up to it!"

The soldiers were enjoying it immensely. So did the driver as he spurred on his gleaming machine and as the sweating stoker fed her hungry belly with mounds of coal. Every now and then the grinning stoker would quickly pause to see whether the Boers were still coming. They were. Good! Their mirth, however, was to last but a short while, for the very next moment the train gave a long drawn-out shriek of surprise as the driver suddenly spotted the two smoking wrecks in front of him. Immediately he slammed on the brakes and soldiers and cargo were thrown violently forwards as the polished wheels began to scream on their tracks. Everybody had to hang on as their weight shifted and things began flying all around them. This was the moment which the Boers had been waiting for. As one, they leant forward and gave their horses free rein. Their hooves drummed on the hard earth. Already the front ones were swarming up the train. It didnít take them long to take the train. Before the troops could recover from their shock and surprise the Boers were upon them. Everywhere the bearded men of the veld swarmed up their trucks and poked the icy steel of their Mausers into startled British faces. The train fell without a shot.

The Boers were very happy with their prize. Asking their captives to kindly step aside, they quickly worked through the heavy train. She was loaded with supplies Ė far more than they could ever carry, so the spoil was great. They quickly took what they needed. A few minutes later a burgher came with a great shovel full of coals from the locomotive. The men had done it before, so they knew exactly what to do. Coals were quickly scattered, and before long the captured soldiers stood in sullen dismay as they watched the entire long train going up in hungry flames and thick smoke.

Still not satisfied, the Boers marched back to the middle train. This one too, still had to be destroyed. A man was quickly dispatched to fire it up a little more. Slowly the old iron monster was reversed towards the burning train. Then the steam was turned upon again. With fascination and horror the troops watched as the train began to gather up speed once more. Faster and faster still it was being sent towards the first, mangled train. Then the driver jumped out. With all steam open, the old lady was picking up speed rapidly. Then, just as she neared full speed, she blind iron dragon hit the front train with the tremendous force of hundreds of tons of hurtling steel. With a tremendous, earth-jarring crash she smashed into the steel cars and literally climbed up and over the first train with cars bobbing and leaping over one-another like lambs. The Boers stared with amazement. They had never seen such terrible destruction before, but when they thought of their women and children dying in the British concentration camps, they minds eased somewhat. "A little tit for tat," someone could have been excused for thinking...

With two trains now utterly demolished, the burghers turned back to the rearmost burning train. One of the British drivers, however, must have got carried away by the excitement of the moment, for he suddenly volunteered to repeat the performance, stating that it would be one of the most unusual things he would ever have the opportunity of doing in his life. Accordingly, he was given permission to show his skills at wrecking the property of his queen and country in front of a horrified congregation of his fellow-countrymen. With expert hands, he opened up the steam and fed a few last shovels full of coal from the bunker. Then he turned her loose. She came around the corner with all the pent up fury and destruction of a collapsing iceberg. Then, again at the last moment, the driver suddenly jumped out, rolled in the grass and scrambled to his feet to eagerly watch the last awesome spectacle unfold before his eyes.

This last old iron workhorse rushed at the two smouldering wrecks with the wind fanning her flames in macabre fashion, billowing pillars of the thickest black smoke trailing behind in a wild rush of utter madness. She struck the other two wrecks at full speeds, tearing into them, leaping into the air and literally climbing over their mangled bodies. With this tremendous last blow, the entire heap burst into a flaming inferno which could be seen for miles and miles. Tons of expensive imported British supplies hissed and sizzled as the hungry flames consumed them. The British spectators had never seen anything like it in their lives before, but then, neither had their captors. Struck silent by the fury of he display, the Boers stared at their handiwork with large eyes. It had been a good day. A very successful day. This incident would be the greatest act of train-wrecking of the entire war. Before long, the name of Jack Hindon would be known by every British general, much as a new swearword would quickly be known by everyone in the British army. The effects were satisfying: The Boers had struck a stunning blow at the British communications and supply lines, the wrecks would block the vitally strategic Delagoa Bay railway line for many days, Boer morale had been boosted, their supplies replenished, and this expensive disaster would hurt the British war chest and embarrass Britannia considerably before her enemies.

Many decades later, watery-eyed old men in England and South Africa would still sit and stare into the distant yonder as old men often do. Perhaps some of them could not help but smile as they allowed their minds to wander back to a time long, long ago when they had witnessed one of the most tremendous train wrecks of all time...



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

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