We know that thousands of kilometres of 60cm railways were used on the Western Front during 14-18. There was a far-away war which also involved a 60cm railway.
German South West Africa was colonised in the late 19th century, against the better judgement of the then administration, though once Wilhelm II became Kaiser, he was gung-ho for expansion even in this far and unpromising land.
|Southern Africa in 1920 showing rivers (including wadis) but not railways. In 1902, a railway 382 km long was built to connect Windhoek to the coast. Courtesy Times Publishing|
In the teeth of all commonsense, the German colonists determined to use Swakopmund, a small and rather poor harbour just north of Walvis Bay as their port. The link with the interior would be by ox-cart! Oxen were duly used, struggling up a dry river–bed, using water from the irregular rainfall. The territory was that of the fierce Herrera who, for a time tolerated the struggling settlers. Then rinderpest killed off the oxen and the Germans turned to technology. Wilhelm II took a pride in his small colonies and sent a major in his Pioneer Corps to GSWA. A 60cm gauge railway, it was hoped, could be quickly built to link Windhuk with the coast.
|Cover design by James Albon|
The origin of the Feldbahn (German military railways) is interesting and described in more detail in my book. In 1888, Prosper Péchot had persuaded the French Army to adopt a 60cm gauge system of portable military railways. Indeed, since 1886, exercises and experiments had been taking place around the frontier town of Toul. The Germans were also looking at military railways. In 1888, they abandoned their flirtation with other gauges and adopted 60cm gauge.
|Péchot-Bourdon 0-4-4-0 locomotive, first built in 1888. Its weight, evn when loaded with water and fuel was under 14 tonnes so that it could run on portable track. Image courtesy Raymond Duton|
In 1889, Péchot’s elaborate bogie wagons and his Péchot-Bourdon locomotive caused a sensation at the Great Exhibition in Paris. At that time, the Germans abandoned their experiments with 2 and 5 tonne locomotives and standardised on the Zwilling 2 x 7 tonnes unladen.
|Drawing of Zwilling courtesy Old Steam Locomotives of South Africa Website|
In 1897, work started on the Namibian railway. Zwilling locomotives were sent to provide motive power and the first track was portable - a German answer to portable Péchot track. In the fearsome desert conditions, battling sand, dirty water and angry locals, the lifetime of a locomotive was short, but at any one time, 40 or so Zwillingwere at work. The railway Swakopmund-Windhuk was officially opened in June 1902, length 382 km.
The military turned the railway over to civilians to run – as the Staatsbahn – but continued to use it as a testing ground. They learned to use prefabricated track for the first phase of construction, then rapidly to replace it with track laid on sleepers. The German Brigadewagen, maid-of-all-work bogie wagon (originally based on a Péchot wagon) was proved and improved in the hostile conditions. Locomotive tenders were used for supply on long, hot, desert runs and precipitous gradients. The most admired, numerous and successful of all military locomotives, the Dlok 0-4-0 was developed.
By 1914, the German Feldbahn led the way in quantity, quality and number of operators. The French on the other hand had retired Prosper Péchot and their 60cm système Péchot was stuck in a time-warp.
|A restored 0-8-0 T Dlok in German Army colours simmers gently on the track at Apedale Staffs. Photo Malcolm Wright|
In 1892, rich deposits of copper were found in Tsumeb, Damaraland. The Otavi line (to be run by the Otavi-Minen-und-Eisenbahn-Gesellschaft OMEG) was begun in 1903 but delayed by the Herero war 1904. This was an unequal fight. No-one at the time counted the number of Herero dead, but we can sure that there were many. The survivors later returned as railway workers. Brenda Bravenboer in her book 100 years of State Railways in Namibia p 65 describes them as ‘willing labourers who had endurance’. Tsumeb was 570 kilometres from the sea; this incredible narrow gauge railway was opened to traffic in November 1906.
A particularly interesting new departure was the HD class 2-8-2 tender locomotive (58 tonnes with tender). Three were ordered from Henschel und Sohn in 1912, for the Otavi Railway. This class was to feature in the Great War Namibian Campaign. Many more examples were later ordered from Henschel though they were now known as the South African Railways NG5 class. The last were ordered after the Second World War and continued in use for a total of 50 years!
|Botha and Seitz. Henshel 2-8-2 with tender July 1915. Photo from Illustration magazine|
Pic Never mind the human drama in the foreground! Behind them is a fine example of a Henschel 2-8-2 tender locomotive. There are lights to the front and rear. The characteristic safety valve with cross bonnet shows up well, but skirts have been added to tender and locomotive, decorously veiling their wheels from sight. The sandbox also is an addition.
In 1910, the process began of converting the Swakopmund-Windhuk line to standard gauge. 60cm material was transferred to replace worn-out stock on remaining narrow gauge lines.
The German administration may have hoped that South Africa with its substantial Boer population would stay out of the First World War. They were disappointed. On 4th Aug 1914, General Louis Botha, Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, pledged support to Britain on behalf of his country. On 8th August Doctor Seitz, Governor of GSWA, mobilised his small force of 5000. There was deliberate destruction of infrastructure to delay the enemy, which was successful for a time.
In January 1915, an invasion force occupied Swakopmund on the coast. Repairs were required both to the port and the railway.
|Dr Seitz, Governor of GSWA July 1915 From Illustration magazine|
General Smuts joined the Union Defence Forces on 30th April 1915. The Germans retreated northwards. Windhuk was taken on 12th May – the name was changed to Windhoek.
The Germans requested an armistice, but to the indignation of the Allies, they made use of this as a breathing space and started their retreat up the Otavi section of the line. During June, SA troops advanced and Otavi was captured on July 1st. German forces continued their withdrawal.
More Union Defence Forces were coming from the north and east. The Germans were surrounded. Governor Seitz and Lt Col Franke agreed to surrender. The ‘peace of Khorab’ was signed on 9th July at Khorab farm near Otavi.
|Botha and his staff coming to take the German surrender Namibia 1915|
The war showed the flexibility of narrow gauge. In spite of ‘strategic destruction’ by the retreating Germans, 358km of 60 cm railway were repaired within 26 days, greatly strengthening the Union advance.
After the treaty of Versailles, GSWA was mandated to the Union of South Africa effective from 17th Dec 1920. Gradually the railways were integrated into the SAR system and official 60cm disappeared. Its last flowering was on private lines supplying the diamond mines in the south.Namibia became an independent country on March 21st 1990. My belated congratulations to this wonderful country!.