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The 'Other' Railway


The STEPSISTER Movement from the Middle East, designed to stem the Nippon Tide in South East Asia in early 1942, included the Australian 2/6 Field Company RAE. A few weeks after landing at Tg. Priok, Java, on 18th February, these sappers found themselves guests of Nippon for more than the next 3½ years and 25% did not return home.

By the war's end the Company had been scattered all over the Far East with representatives on all the best (or worst) of the Nippon projects. The most notoriously noteworthy of these schemes seems to have been the Burma - Thailand Railway, but only a few months ago a plaintive cry appeared in the regimental association journal (see below) to the effect that nobody had heard of the Sumatra Railway upon which at least one of the company's sappers had worked.

As OC of the Company in the Java Campaign I have, rather belatedly, been working on the POW part of the unit's history and I must confess that this Sumatra Railway was certainly news to me. I had heard of a Nip plan to cut a canal across the Kra Isthmus but knew nothing of the Sumatra job. Our representative had mentioned that there were about 150 Australians, some British troops and American seamen as well as Hollanders on the task.

Since this mention of the other railway, I have been trying to get further information about its location and other details without success. Then the Christmas issue of 'The Forum' came up with a note by Mr H Neumann of Amsterdam about a reunion of POWs who had been on the Pakenbaroe Railway job in Sumatra. This was the clue which I had been seeking and now Mr Neumann has provided me with details that follow and for which I am indebted. It is hoped that these may serve to bring to light some of those British troops who had worked on the Sumatra Line apart from the two already known. These are both 'reverends', one being David Copley, formerly RN and Eric Johns of Lincoln.

‍ ‍Working Party at Palembang, Sumatra

Under the Netherlands administration, a railway had existed from PADANG on the west coast of Sumatra to a railhead at Moeara, about 80km to the north-east as the crow flies. The line itself was much longer as it wound through the mountain ranges. It seems that there was a fair quality of black coal to be had in this area among other produce. Towards the north-east across the eastern mountain slopes and the flatter terrain along the east coast lay the up river port of Pakenbaroe.

From here, down the Siak River, a regular shipping service plied to Singapore. A plan to build an extension of the railway between Moeara and Pakanbaroe had been devised back in 1920 to provide a connection between Padang and Singapore faster than the long sea routes around the north or south tips of the island. A better quality of coal existed in the area between the two points so that such a railway would benefit the transport of the mines output. Now, whereas the Nippon plan to revive the Burma - Thailand link obviously had some strategic value to their attack on India, it is not clear why they literally dug up the Sumatra project. With all oil available from Borneo and South Sumatra, it would seem that the coal was not the answer. However, militarily, it could have provided better facilities for troop movement in the event of expected Allied attack on West Sumatra as early as 1944. Logistical support from Singapore and the mainland would have only a short sea passage to the up river port, thus lessening the danger of Allied submarine attention which, at that time, was making a great nuisance of itself to the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Cause. So on 25th May 1944 work started on the line from the Pakenbaroe end. The line headed roughly southward and slightly west as it neared the Equator with large bridges across the Kampar Right and Kampar Left Rivers.

Many of the POWs had been brought from Java by sea up the west coast to the port for Padang at Emmerhaven. Thence by rail to a point from whence a motor road led across the island to Pakenbaroe. Others came from Singapore and Medan up the Siak River in an old ferry boat, the 'Elizabeth', known as the White Ship. Some 1,450 POWs were lost at sea by submarine action on the west coast route and a further 176 were lost similarly between Medan and Pakenbaroe. A total of 6,593 POWs were used in addition to native labour. Included were a number of Norwegian seamen who had been torpedoed by a German submarine in the area. Some 513 POWs died on the line. Rails and locomotives were sent from the east coast of Sumatra at Medan; also Java and Malaya.

The total length of the work was 220 km with another large bridge near the Moeara end. Work only started here in March 1945 since it appeared that things were going too slowly from the other end and a deadline had to be met. From Moeara the line crossed the Indragiri or Koeatan River, thence along the river valley eastward turning northward about 70km out to the construction coming south from Pakenbaroe. Actually this part had already turned west along the Koeatan valley so that the point of join-up was only 50 km from Moeara. The camps, about 14 including terminals, were numbered from Pakenbaroe. Camp 7A near Lipatkain was almost on the Equator and here the Nips had erected a post to signify the location.

Our sapper from the 2/6th says that he crossed the Equator twice a day to carry sleepers, rails, great jungle logs - all the various past-times known so well to us on the Burma-Thailand line - the high embankment work, the deep cuttings, the bridges all done by hand using only the roughest of tools. As in Burma and Thailand the quality of construction was low with POWs efforts to sabotage the work helped out by white ants suitably encouraged. The food and conditions generally were the same as for the earlier job; the brutalities, the bashings and even the occasional 'funny'; the millions of lice, bugs, malaria, dysentery, beriberi, the lot. Our sapper reports a remarkable cure for malaria. He had been suffering from malaria for some time with its usual regularity, then copped beriberi whereupon the malaria stopped and he had no further attacks - not a cure to be recommended perhaps. The only possible difference between the two railways could have been the absence of bombing and machine gun attacks. My two informants did not mention at all such attentions by the Allied air forces which were such a feature of life up north.

The Sumatra line was under construction apparently to the end. In fact, the official opening date has been given as 15th August 1945. Our 2/6th sapper says that the Nips belted them along for another two weeks despite rumours about cessation of hostilities. Finally this sapper's Camp CO warned the Nips that if they did not stop they would be in serious trouble when caught up with. "Next morning" writes the sapper, "when we woke up they had all gone. One of the chaps could drive the old steam left behind and we loaded the sick and piled into the truck and headed for base camp." This camp speedily became full of the sick and dying. By this time our man had become very sick with 'the runs and scurvy'. "Another couple of days they'd have buried me I think. In the meantime Lady Mountbatten managed to get there where I was lying on the floor with a potato bag and nothing underneath because I couldn't stop running and she knelt beside me and talked for about five minutes." Mr Neumann also mentions a similar occurrence. That Lady Edwina…… words fail me.

Apart from the bombing there seems nothing that can make this Railway in any way less than the Burma-Thailand job and maybe it is high time that an equitable recognition be given to our fellow railwaymen of Sumatra.


The point may now arise as to the importance of the SUMATRA RAILWAY relative to the other Nip POW projects. It seems that the Burma - Thailand task leads the field in any competition that there may be in this respect. No other Nip schemes appear to have gained the notorious fame of the BT job. Now from what I have just learned, it is time that we give some suitable 'status' to the Sumatra Railway

My sapper has more or less hinted that he and his mates on that task seem to be forgotten by history if, indeed, they were ever mentioned. Perhaps there may be others of the FEPOW organisation who were on the Sumatra line apart from the Rev. Johns. Compared with the BT line, there were only 6,600 POWs on the job; Dutch, Australian, some English, Americans, even Norwegians; the latter seemed to have been merchant seamen who had fallen foul of the German submarine operations in those waters.

Yours sincerely L J ROBERTSON 4755