People may not be aware, or the older people may have forgotten, about the part South Africa played in support of the War Effort during World War 2. Not only did South Africa supply soldiers for all duties, both at the front and at the rear, but industry kicked in and clothed, fed and equipped them.


Sir Patrick Duncan was Governor General of South Africa at the time and he established the Governor General’s fund. All Civil Servants accepted a drop in salary to augment this fund, and there were other means of fund raising, for example a patriotic ‘stamp’ which one could affix to a letter, showing that you had donated even a small sum to the fund:


Another example was an 18th Century Fair which was held in Pinelands, a ‘Garden Suburb’ of Cape Town:




Bear in mind that not everybody in South Africa at the time, from General Hertzog down, was entirely behind South Africa’s involvement in the War. Some, led by the Ossewa Brandwag, were expressly against it. 

Several publicity drives were carried out in the early stages of the war, showcasing smart soldiers and South African-made war materiel, from boots to Armoured Cars. Their purpose was also to recruit, not only into the Armed Forces, but also into industries producing much needed equipment. The first was the ‘Steel Commando’, in which soldiers of the Special Service Battalion and the South Africam Permanent Force Band travelled the country in Ford trucks.



 'Steel Commando’ crossing the Swartberg Pass 

This was followed by the ‘Air Commando’, secifically for the benefit of the Air Force. Then came was what became known as the ‘War Train’.  In all, the detachment from SSB and the SAPF band covered about 40 000 miles in a period of four months.



The War Train took six weeks to tour the country, starting in Johannesburg on 22nd March 1941, travelling to the Eastern Transvaal, down through Natal to Durban, then inland through the Orange Free State and then South to East London, following the Garden Route, but taking in Oudtshoorn, to Cape Town. It then went North through the Karoo to Kimberley and the Western, then Northern Transvaal before turning South from Messina to arrive in Pretoria on 7th May. It made a second trip, starting in Pretoria on 12th May, and proceeded via Bechuanaland, then the Rhodesias, ending in Elizabethville in the Belgian Congo on 2nd June. 


A combination of Military precision and Railway Time-table accuracy prevailed. At each of the 38 stops, everything was pre-arranged and timed to the minute! The troops and band would march, a civil reception was laid on with speeches and then the public, normally starting with the school-children would tour the train and opportunities were there to sign up, to clamber over the equipment and even to taste the army bisucuits! 

The troops on the tours were under the command of Colonel GCG Werdmuller. One gets a glimpse of the organisation required from this letter from him to the Adjutant General, dated 17th January 1941:



Detail is shown below, in which he fights for the inclusion of ‘at least 200’ members of SSB which had ‘afforded one of the main means of propoganda on the last tour’. He adds that ‘this was most forcibly demonstrated [on the last tour] by the fact that spectators from many miles off the Column’s route came to see the renowned SSB Retreats and Church Parades: (As a past member of 1SSB, it is great to be reading this!) 


For example, when the War Train arrived in East London, their Daily Dispatch of Thursday April 10th 1941 read as follows (and I quote the article in full):



“City Praised for its Part in Production of Supplies 


“The “War Train” arrived in East London yesterday morning and was officially welcomed to the City by the Mayor (Mr E W Pemberton) in an address delivered from a dais in front of the railway station. There was a large crowd assembled in the street for the ceremony and around the dais were Defence Force officers and detachments from the Womens Auxiliary Services. The remarks of the speakers were met by loud bursts of applause. 



Drum Major DA ‘Stoney’ Steenkamp leads the South African Permanent Force Band followed by a detachment of the Special Service Battalion (SSB) through the streets of Bloemfontein on Saturday 5th April, 1941

“Shortly before starting time, members of the S.S.B., touring with the train, marched along Station Street to form a Guard of Honour in front of the dais on which the Mayor and Town Clerk (Mr W Sinclair Thompson) in civic robes, the Mayoress (Mrs V G Lewis), Col. V G Lewis and his Brigade Officer, Lieut D. Gale, Mr R S Parsons, railway systems manager (Cape Eastern), Wing Commander J M Baxter, Fortress Commander, and Mr Ivan King, Chairman of the local advisory committee to the Director of War Supplies. 

“Col. G C G Werdmuller, at the head of his men, was addressed by the Mayor, who said he extended a hearty welcome on behalf of the City Council and residents of East London. They had followed the journey of the “War Train” with interest and had been keenly looking forward to a closer acquaintance with them and their wonderful train. 

“He hoped they would thoroughly enjoy their stay in the City, and he wished them every success in the remaining portion of their journey. 


“Mr Parsons said he would add the welcome of the railway staff of the Cape Eastern systemto that the Mayor had said. He was sure that Col Werdmullerwould be the first to admit the large part played in the production of war supplies by the Railway. There was another aspect of the question. That was in transportation. Ever since the shadow of war had decended on them the railway, on a single track, had carried enormous civilian and military traffic. He left it to them to judge whether they had been successful in that. From the 100 000 men employed on the railway they had released 8,000 for active service, yet those remaininghad carried on with great credit. He thought that what the railways were doing would be viewed in the future as a wonderful effort. 

“The train would give an insight into what was being done towards the war effort. 

“If they could make complete howitzers in South Africa, even with South African steel, surely after the war their artisans could be utilised for the making of agricultural and industrial tools and machinery. 

“Col. Werdmuller, in reply, said that it was their privilege to visit East London in what was now generally called the “War Train”. He was sure they would find much to interest them in the trains which showed both the military and the home front sides of the Union’s war effort. 


“The main purpose of the tour was to demonstrate to the public what was being done to secure the home front. He would mention that not only had the armoured trains been fully equipped in the workshops of the South african Railways and Harbours, but also that all the equipment on the trains had been manufactured out of purely South African materials, with South African labour. 

“Another purpose of the tour was to recruit trainees for the basic technical training scheme, and applicants for training under that scheme were invited to register with recruiting officers on the trains. 

“Recruits for the army would naturally be accepted. They should apply to the recruiting officers on the train. 

“It should be clearly understood that workers would not be enrolled for immediate employment in war supplies factories. Workers desiring to be considered for such work, and particularly skilled artisans, were nevertheless invited to record their names with the recruiting staff accompanying the trains. He appealed to persons who had, through hobbies and otherwise, acquired a skill which readily fitted them for conversion into war supplies workers to come forward and offer their services. He made that appeal at the request of the Director-General of War Supplies, Dr. H J van der Bijl. 


Dr H J van der Bijl (centre), Director-General of War Supplies, inspecting Armoured Car production. A total of 5 746 Marmonn-Harrington Armoured Cars were built in South Africa during the war. Compare this with other makes made in UK, eg Daimler Mk I & II, 2 694; Humber Mks I – IV, 5 400 (approx) and AEC Mk I – III, only 629!


“There was another aspect of war supplies which had to be emphasised, and that was that men employed in key positions in industry were doing their duty as definitely as those in the army. The home front was as vital to their success as the military one, and it was the Government’s definite policy that there should be no reduction in the production of food; that South African munitions industries should still expand, and they must not disturb the normal trade and commerce of the country more than was necessary. 

“Fine munitions work, including precision work was being done in the railway workshops, where they were turning out trench mortars in quantities in excess of expectations. Work was at present handicapped by the unavailability of the present building, but that would be rectified as he understood there were funds on the estimates for the purpose. They had also turned out hangars and fittings for the South African Air Force and they had done work, not only for local requirements, but also local firms had actually sub-contracted for inland centres. There was also a considerable production of glycerine, which, as everyone knew, was used in munition manufacture. 

“Col. Werdmuller said he was pleased to present Mr Ivan King, chairman of the advisory committee to the War Supplies Committee and also Colonel Lewis who had met them at Burghersdorp, Queenstown and now in East London. He was also pleased to see Mrs Lewis, commandant of the women’s auxiliary. They all know how much women were doing towards the war effort. 

“Last time he had been in East London he had boasted that there were 40 000 women playing their part, but now he could say that 400 000 women were standing four-square behind General Smuts to see the war through. 

“He thanked Mr Parsons for the excellent arrangements which had been made for the visit. Finally he would reaffirm the confidence in their wonderful leader and Commander-in-Chief in the outcome of the war. 

“Following the ceremony, the Mayor, city councillors and members of the civic party welcoming Col. Werdmuller and his men were taken on a visit of inspection through the train. City councillors attending were Messrs Tiddy, Starkey, Neale, Lazarus, Lloyd and Bowes. There were in addition many prominent citizens. 


“Since entering the Cape from the Free State, the “War Train” has been travelling over the mountains in three sections, which arrived within an hour of each other between 7.30 and 9.30 am yesterday. 

“Throughout the day a constant stream of sightseers thronged the station. 

“After the official party had inspected the train, the first to be given the privilege of passing through were the schoolchildren of East London. When they had seen the train, the public were allowed in. 

“Apart from the two trainloads of troops and civilian personnel – numbering altogether more than 400 – the train is composed of two war supplies exhibition vans and four armoured trucks carrying a searchlight flanked by machine-guns, an 18-pounder gun on a fixed mounting, the first howitzer on its carrying vehicle and with its ammunition trailer and a South African armoured car. 

“The exhibition vans contain a tabloid display of war supplies made in South Africa almost entirely from South African material and with South African labour. 

“Even the parachute draped on the outside of one of the vans was made in South Africa, though the cotton had to be imported. 

“The parachute is being turned out in large numbers for the South African Air Force. It is used for dropping supplies to troops cut off from other means of transport. The 15 varieties of buckles are turned out in South African workshops from South African metal and the cordage and web harness are also made in South Africa from South African material. 

“In the munitions van is a great variety of arms and ammunition shown in the various stages of construction – the parts of a South African howitzer, shells, small arms ammunition, aerial bombs ranging from big 500 pounders to 20 pounders, bomb and shell fuses, and the first bayonet made in South Africa. 

“Enough bayonets to equip several brigades of infantry are now being turned out in Transvaal railway workshops. They are made from the finest coach spring steel. 

“There is armour plating, too, made in the great Iscor works, showing the mark of a bullet, and placed side by side, for comparison, with a piece of ordinary steel, several times thicker – the thickness it would have to be to resist the same bullet. 


“Steel helmets are shown – South Africa is making thousands daily, enough to equip not only her own forces, but those of other units of the Commonwealth as well – with the famous camouflage net, a South African innovation, handmade by Natives, 1 000 of whom are employed in this work. 

“Among other things the South African mortar is shown, with a barrel in cross section to demonstrate how the bomb is fired into the air. East London railway workshops are contributing considerably in the production of mortars. 

“Equally interesting is the coach exhibiting the uniforms, clothing, blankets, and rations South Africa is producing in great quantities. 

“Next to the exhibit of modern South African army boots is a pair of old army boots which went through the East African campaign in the last war. 

“Miniature South African army biscuits (claimed to be the most nutritious in the world) were made specially for the war train’s tour, and are laid out for sampling by visitors in the army rations section. 

“All day, crowds of children crowded around the howitzer and clambered over the armoured car, which had been run off the armoured trucks on to the platform. 

“Behind the armoured trucks was a truck on which the men receiving instruction under the basic technical training scheme were at work on their machines. This proved a big attraction, as did the local basic training exhibit on the platform nearby. Here seven men from the East London C.O.T.T. centre, under the care of a local instructor, Mr T P Smith, were at work on a shaping machine, a drilling machine, a lathe, and a fitting bench. The exhibit was arranged by Mr P Gnodde, principal of the East London Technical College.” 

There was also a travelling Post Office on board, as borne out by these letters. Defence Force personnel on the train could send letters free of charge. Members of the public could use the facility, but had to affix a stamp:





That is the end of the Daily Dispatch article. Similar articles must have appeared at every stop along the route. It raises several issues, not least Dr van der Bijl and the role of Iscor. From an excellent book published at the same time, early 1941, called South Africa Fights, by J S M Simpson, it is worth picking out just four pages:






The second-last sentence is particularly relevant to this article: “There were the railway workshops, full of highly skilled technicians and plant which kept in operation the world’s most efficient 3-ft, 6-in gauge railway system.” 

Finally, in connection with the famed Special Service Battalion, here is a picture of a treasured item in my collection: 


It is an SSB Officer’s cane, found during the war by a friend of mine on a bench in Gardens in Cape Town. He gave it to me on account of my connection with the Battalion, in which I trained during 1969 and ’70.


Andy Selfe

February 2010



Special thanks must go to André Steenkamp in Pretoria and John Stinson in Pinelands for their help in compiling this article