Monday, April 6, 2015

"We Have Fought Three Times With The Machines, And I Won." - Armored Trains & Herero Rifles in 1904 (Part I)

Illustration by Carl Becker, in Deutsche Reiter in Südwest (1907)
The narrow gauge railway in German Southwest Africa connecting Swakopmund to Windhoek played a significant part  during the opening weeks of the German - Herero War in 1904. At least three times, Herero forces fought off and turned back relief forces trying to reconnect Okahandja and Windhoek by rail.  They tore up tracks and destroyed key bridges at Wilhelmstal and near Osona Station, further hampering German efforts to respond to the widening uprising.  They also attacked a separate rail line then under construction to Otavi.  Even after rail service was restored between the coast and the capital, a considerable number of troops was required to fortify the towns and stations along the railway , as well as several rapid firing artillery pieces that together with the additional manpower might otherwise have been available for combat operations in the field.

The need for a railroad in Southwest Africa had become a transportation necessity following the outbreak of the livestock disease Rinderpest in 1897 which killed at least half of the settlers' oxen and nearly destroyed the vast Herero cattle herds.  By mid June, 1902, the Germans had completed a feldbahn or narrow gauge railway between Swakopmund and Windhoek.  The line gained nearly a mile of elevation (1654 m)  as it traveled inland.  It was operated by the Imperial Railway Command and possessed a small number of passenger carriages (1st and 2nd class) along with more than three hundred (mostly open) goods wagons.

Zwillinge steam locomotives, water tender and loaded trucks on the Swakopmund - Windhoek line
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
Zwillinge engines, nearly identical except for the overhanging cab of the engine at right
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
The trains were very slow (8.6 mph /14km/hr) but much faster than ox wagons and could make the 237 mile (382 k)  journey in just 2-3 days.  Most were drawn by twin (zwillinge) locomotives with wheels in a 0-6-0 configuration, paired cab to cab so a single engine crew could simply step across overlapping plates to run them forward or in reverse.  There were more than fifty of these steam engines on the line, of which just a single specimen survives and is on display outside the train station in Namibia's capitol Windhoek. 

Wounded soldiers at Abbabis station
(Photo from database maintained by Goethe Universität Frankfort am Main)
The railway featured prominently in the events just prior to and following the Herero uprising. The first of these, centered around a disabled section of track where the line between Windhuk and Okahandja crossed the Swakop River, will be the topic of the next post in this series.

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