World War Two Railwaymen

The 16th and 17th Railway Operating Companies along with a 9th Survey, 10 & 13 Construction 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.
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.
When the desert campaign ended in May 1943, 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.
Have had an interest in Railwaymen for a while and have managed to collect a few bits and pieces belonging to these brave chaps.
Below is a group photo taken at Hopu Hopu Camp, Nagruawahia dated July 1940 of the 17th Railway Operating Company before they left NZ. First noticeable thing about this photo is the spread of age of these chaps there seems to be more than usual sprinkling of guys that look as though they are at the thick end of 40.  And there is a good smattering of troops, both enlisted and officers, who are wearing WW1 ribbons.
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17th Railway op company name.JPG
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Towards the centre of the photo the group of servicemen show a large number of WW1 veterans evidenced by their ribbons. The two officers each have a fairly long ribbon bars and the Captain looks like he is wearing the ribbon for the Military Cross.
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Christmas cards of the 16th and the 17th Railway Operating Company.

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railway-op-company-5railway-op-company-5-5The job of crewing these trains was a dangerous one. Not only was there the threat of having your train strafed and blown up by the Luftwaffe but there were the less obvious threats inherent with operating a railway at a time of war. The following paragraph from the official history of the NZ Engineers explains how a young fireman by the name of Henry Sommerville Boyd Leighton was killed in an accident at the station at Fuka;

At Fuka…. an Egyptian engine driver who was at the throttle of a heavy goods train failed to notice, first, that he had arrived at Fuka, and secondly that there was a petrol train standing on the main line at the station. The accident cost us one of our young firemen who was killed instantly. The brakesman of the standing petrol train, a 16 Company man, did a few somersaults in company with his brake van which immediately caught alight, having been sprayed with petrol. Without knowing exactly how it came about the brakesman stepped unharmed from the blazing and derailed vehicle. His escape was miraculous as the brake van took the first blow from the heavy engine of the colliding train, the total weight of which was over 800 tons. As mentioned previously there were no signals at stations, no headlights on engines and no tail lights on the brake vans.

From my collection of items is this photo of Henry SB Leighton’s grave markerrailway-op-company-4

 railway op company 4.5

Another little item that once belonged to Sargent O.R. Nelson of the 16th Railway operating company.railway-op-companyFrom the Australian War Memorial website here is a photo of the front of the Fleet Club, Alexandria.

Last item is for a reunion held in 1960 in Dunedin NZ.railway-op-company-1


5 thoughts on “World War Two Railwaymen

  1. From B. JUDD’s book for the 17th ROC he lists a Sapper E.G. EWART and Sapper R.J. EWART. If you don’t have a copy of “The Desert Railway” by Brendon JUDD, I recommend it. Other than the WW2 NZ Engineers Official History (available through the NZETC) this is the only book I could find with any details about this interesting group of kiwis.


    • I have a copy of the book which I am re reading at the moment.
      It has been the only way to get an insight into what my Grandfather did during the war. He like so many I guess just didn’t want to talk about it once they got home.
      I also have the picture of the 17th taken in the Western Desert in 1942.


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