A hot train

In the centre of Cuba lies a town called Santa Clara. Here, the revolutionaries under the guidance of Che Guevara derailed a train carrying military equipment and soldiers. In memory of this event, a museum has been created using the train wagons captured on the day. Inside each closed wagon, a part of the story is told. Visiting this at 4pm, when we thought things would be cooler, proved how much we underestimated the heat.

A step inside the first wagon, was a step into pure airlessness and I couldn’t help my mind wondering to another train derailment – that by the Germans of the British line in Tsavo in 1915. And whilst writing this yet another sprung to mind – the derailment of the Whisky Train near Val during the Anglo-Boer War. The soldiers in all were in an unenviable position and stood no chance against those ambushing the train.

An intriguing feature in another Cuban wagon, one pock-marked with bullet shots, contained a section inside showing how the wagon was protected. A board was placed around the inside of the train and between that and the outer casing, sea sand was poured in. This created a protective layer which deflected the bullets as evidenced by the marks on the side of the wagon. It’s unlikely the trains in Tsavo had such protection but similarly, Batiste’s army hadn’t realised the value of having a wagon or two at the front of the train to provide a buffer for mines and to lure hidden gunmen into giving themselves away.

While there was much fraternising when the contents of the whisky train were offloaded, there was little in the Cuban scenario. Guerrilla fighting continued in the town as evidenced by the bullet holes in the walls across the road from the 1726 church. Apparently the rebels moved through the houses and scaled down walls from the second storeys in order to make it difficult for Batiste’s soldiers to hit them.
The final wagon was dedicated to the women who had served the revolution. Interestingly all the info was only available in Spanish – this was the case for all the wagons except the first overview one and those showing weapons and the bullet marks (is this what most English speaking visitors are interested in?).

One thing I found intriguing in all the places we’ve visited in Cuba is the absence of AK-47s – weapons of choice (used) by the Angolans and Umkomto uSizwe during the struggles in southern Africa. The rebels had very few weapons, hence the need to derail a supply train. But what was rather startling – with the Bay of Pigs incident was that the invading army (Batiste’s men) were using 1897 and 1903 US weapons: this in 1961 and it has generally been regarded that the 1870 black smoke rifles used in 1914/18 Africa were outdated! One almost got the impression that the Americans did not expect Batiste’s men to be successful and so set them up to fail with poor quality weapons. The absence of Russian weapons for use by the rebels suggests that this relationship only developed after Castro and the rebels were successful and by all accounts the derailing of the train in Santa Clara was the turning point which saw the rebels gather support and succeed.



A trip to Iceland was the inspiration for this blog. Visiting the house where Gorbachev and Reagan met to discuss the end of the Cold War, I found a board which read as follows:

The beginning of Free Telecommunications in Iceland

On June the 26th 1905 Iceland was first connected to the outside world by means of telecommunications.

The first wireless message was received here from Poldhu in Cornwall, England. The telecommunications equipment was provided by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co at the suggestion of entrepreneur and poet Einar Benediktsson. Messages were received here until October 1906, when the operation was terminated due to a government granted monopoly on telecommunications in Iceland.

This memorial plaque was donated by Vodafone

Reading Marconi immediately made me reflect on Africa – Marconi was the big telecommunications provider there too and during World War 1 provided radio support for the Lake Tanganyika Expedition.

On 7 December 1915, The Marconi Co [was] ordered to prepare two 1½ KW cart
sets. They will be ready to be shipped [on the Anversville] at Hull on or before 1 Jan.

The Marconi Company would pay for the services of the engineers who supported/worked the equipment. This included ‘One Engineer. 4 Operators … They would be borne on the ships books [sic] for disciplinary services’. They would be under the command of Spicer-Simson unless lent to the Belgians. The Engineer was Sub-Lieut EF Boileu, RNVR and the ship they were ‘borne’ on for disciplinary services was HMS Hyacinth. (The Lake Tanganyika Expedition Primary Source Chronology)

Prior to World War 1, Marconi had supplied equipment which was used during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902. M de Bruijn et al in The Social Life of Connectivity in Africa tell how wireless and radio developed in Africa including mention of L59, the German Zepelin which never reached Lettow-Vorbeck.

Interestingly though, the underwater cable which linked Zanzibar with Europe at the start of the war was managed by the Eastern and South African Telegraph Company. It merged with Marconi in 1929. In the 1930s, wireless was to have a major impact on the development and use of airpower across Africa and although Guglielmo Marconi died in 1939, his name continues as noted in an article on communications between South Africa and Nigeria in 2001.

The Marconi collection can be consulted at the Oxford Museum of History of Science and Bodleian.

Battle on the Lomba 1987 by David Mannall – Review

Angola is a place that conjurs up mixed emotions for different people, particularly South Africans who study the First World War in Southern Africa and lived through the 1980s when some South African servicemen saw action in Angola (I actually don’t know if any women were involved other than in nursing/administrative capacities).

During World War 1, South Africa never invaded Angola although rebel Manie Maritz escaped there and was arrested by the Portuguese. The invasion was left to the Germans under Franke and for years this little incursion has remained one of the ‘more forgotten’ aspects of World War 1 in Africa. South Africa’s incursion into Angola in the 1980s is more well known despite the South African government of the time’s attempts to keep it quiet. This is one of the reasons for my latent interest in the area: it’s about getting the minority story out.  This period though is a far more challenging one to study, in my opinion at least, than that of WW1. I experienced this first hand a few years ago when I researched Britain’s response to SA in Angola (1975-1989) for a paper I presented in Lisbon. The challenge was trying to be objective whilst reconciling what I’d picked up as a young schoolgirl with what I was reading in the official documents and what veterans of the conflict had told me.

This latter aspect is something which David Mannall in his Battle on the Lomba 1987: The day a South African Armoured Battalion shattered Angola’s Last Mechanised Offensive – a crew commanders account picks up on and which he has to deal with from the other side – that of the soldier being in a war no-one back home really knows is happening.

I got to read David’s book having discovered him and it through a forum set up by Jennie Upton. My knowledge to that point had been mainly around Cuito Cuanavale and 32 Battalion and of course Maggie Thatcher’s reasons for supporting South Africa and so this offered an opportunity to discover a bit more about the campaign and have a welcome diversion from things WW1 (a change is as good as a holiday). Armed with a synopsis of the book from David’s book launch in London, I was sure this would not be a disappointing read.

At the time, David said he hoped the book would have an interest for a wide-range of reader. And he was not wrong.  The book is written in an easily accessible fashion – but is not for the faint-hearted. It expressly conveys the language and thinking of the day in white South Africa and gives some idea of what it’s like to be caught up in the heat of battle with its accompanying loss of life.  One of the things I’m tempted to do when I get a moment, is to count up all the different terms for women mentioned – most triggered trips down memory lane. David’s language is colourful and descriptive. It gets to the essence of what he’s trying to say and in a way that you just can’t take offense (unless you have a real aversion to reading foul language in context).

For those interested in the pure military aspects, these abound as the book is written by a soldier and about battle. However, social and cultural historians as well as those interested in personal relationships and life in the armed forces will find enough to quench their thirst on this emotional roller-coaster read. (see Having read books like An unpopular war, David’s account struck me as balanced and insightful – trying to understand the why behind actions and how these worked to create a close-knit fighting team. I’m a pretty hardened battle-account reader but there were occasions within the book that I found myself caught up in the moment: perhaps another consequence of studying a time linked intimately with my own? I had uncles and cousins who served – my brother was too young – but they never spoke about their time and still don’t – does having this close connection put a different light onto reading recent historical accounts? I don’t know… I then found this review by Robyn Hastie.

Another great interest in David’s account is the interplay and complexity of the armed forces. This is something that I’ve started investigating in the WW1 context and therefore struck a chord. It’s not just about the guys on the front-line but all those silent individuals in the background which make it happen. I’ll probably never get round to counting the number of terms used for women, but I’ll definitely be exploring the logistics involved in the well-armed military machine.

And what was touchingly unexpected was the thought for the men on the opposite side – especially those who lost their lives. Wars happen, killing and death are part of war, but it never fails to amaze me how the humanity of (wo)man continues to shine forth in so many different ways.

Finally, I cannot comment on the accuracy of detail in the account as it is a personal account and I haven’t read enough of the time and theatre to make such a judgement. However, speaking as an historian, this book will form a valuable contribution to historians of the future who come to piece together an incredibly complex time in South Africa’s history and which saw allegiences on both sides. This wasn’t a local war in the usual sense of the term, it was a global one with the US, USSR, UK and Cuba involved and a conscious attempt by one side to deny its existence. For all involved the conflict got lost in the ‘bigger’ events of the time – the collapse of communism, the independence of Namibia and the dawning of the ‘New’ South Africa. It is through the account of individuals that the true impact of the war in Angola will be understood and participants of all sides should be encouraged to record their memories of it.

Through one man’s story, so many are remembered – especially those who carry the hidden wounds of war!