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New Zealand Railwaymen In North Africa During WW2

During the Second World War, New Zealand railwaymen constructed and operated the desert railway in the North African campaign, which became a crucial strategic operation, transporting soldiers, equipment and supplies to the front line—one that that the Germans were determined to destroy.

A steam engine on the desert railway operated by the 16th Railway Operating Company of the New Zealand 2nd Expeditionary Force in 1942/43.  Photo: © Historical Aviation Film Unit Collection

Of the thousands New Zealanders who gave up home, said goodbye to loved ones, and set forth to take part in the Second World War, many of them would end up as soldiers in the North African desert. Others would become pilots, joining the 'glamour boys' of the Royal Air Force in the fight for Britain, while others found themselves in the Navy, helping to bring about historic victories such as the Battle of the River Plate.

It's these men that we usually think of when we commemorate the military personnel who went to war -- the soldiers, the pilots, the sailors. But there were others -- the non-combatants who also gave up home and said goodbye to loved ones -- that are often overlooked in the rush to remember our other brave servicemen. The doctors, nurses, chaplains and railwaymen, and all the others working behind the lines.

The men of the New Zealand Railway Battalion, all non-combatants, would almost single-handedly build the desert railroad that would become a vital life line for the Allies.

A train operated by the 16th Railway Operating Company, passes a destroyed German Panzer tank.   Photo: Copyright © Historical Aviation Film Unit Collection

The North African campaign was pivotal to WWII and the ultimate victory there is largely put down to the fighting qualities of the British 8th Army, New Zealanders included. But what people often fail to consider is that in order to fight, an army needs supplies, it needs transport, nourishment. Remember that train of fresh water? That wasn’t just a train. That was also an engine driver and a fireman. Men behind the scenes, who, because of the way history is written, have often stayed behind the scenes.

Overlooked in other war histories, these men played a significant role in the Allied victory in North Africa. The desert railway became a crucial strategic operation, transporting soldiers, equipment and supplies to the front line.

The various challenges they faced, from relentless bombing, to the dreaded fifty-day-long khamseen winds, to the siege of Tobruk, culminated in the second Battle of El Alamein, during which Field Marshal Montgomery stated, 'Well, now it's the railway versus Rommel.'

Nerys Udy speaks to the gathered crowd at the Blenheim (New Zealand) Anzac Day Service on 25th April 2013, regarding the New Zealand Railwaymen who operated in North Africa during the Second World War.

For more details on the 2/NZEF railwaymen, Brendon Judd's excellent book 'The Desert Railway', is a tribute to the courage and enterprise of these railwaymen who kept the trains running no matter what. This book is described as:

....the untold story of the hundreds of New Zealand railwaymen--shunters, builders, engine drivers, firemen, engineers, who answered the call to construct and operate a railway network in the Western Desert during the Second World War.

'The Desert Railway' is available here:

Another engine of the 16th Railway Operating Company 2/NZEF, on the North African Desert Railway, in the yards waiting for its next run to the front.   Photo: Copyright © Historical Aviation Film Unit Collection

For those readers not in Australia or New Zealand, Anzac Day (25th April), the anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in Turkey in 1915, is a commemorative day held in both countries, to remember the veterans of the armed services of both Australia and New Zealand. For more information see:

Slideshow of photographs of the rolling stock and railway line constructed and used to great effect by the Allies during the North African campaign of the Second World War. These previously unpublished photographs from the North African campaign, circa 1942, were taken from the personal photo album of a member of the 16th Railway Operating Company, 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force.

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