Oliver ‘Jack’ Hindon, Boer Hero and Train Wrecker
South African National Museum of Military History
From September 1900 until almost the end of the war, Jack Hindon and his men severely disrupted the British use of the Delagoa Bay Railway Line. However, their activities were curtailed by improvements to the defence of the line from about August 1901 by means of blockhouses, barbed wire and frequent patrols. During this time, a number of trains, bridges, culverts and even the railway track itself fell prey to Hindon and his ingeniously-manufactured special mines. These were made by using Martini-Henry rifles sawn off about four inches (10 cm) in front of and behind the magazine, filing the trigger guard to leave the trigger mechanism exposed, placing the device in a carefully covered up hole under the tracks in such a way that the trigger was in contact with the dynamite and at just the right height to be affected by the weight of the train on the tracks, yet so little exposed that it went unnoticed. All surplus railway stones were carried away in a bag and great care was taken to conceal all traces of the mine. After a train had been immobilised using the mine, Hindon and his men would ride up to it and loot it. Even armoured trains, guarded by British troops, were attacked and often destroyed.
On 23 January 1901 an armoured train carrying Lord Kitchener as a passenger had a very narrow escape when it came under attack from Hindon en route from Pretoria to Middelburg. As the train approached Balmoral Station, signs of the enemy were noticed in the vicinity and special precautions were immediately taken to protect the train. A pilot engine was sent ahead to test the suspected part of the line, but it returned safely and reported that nothing was amiss. Still not convinced, Lord Kitchener gave orders that two heavy-laden trucks were to precede the pilot engine ahead of his train. His order was obeyed and his train followed slowly. The combined weight of the trucks and engine was sufficient to trigger the mine that had been planted on the track and the trucks were blown into the air and the pilot engine derailed. The train wreckers came out of hiding to admire their work, but this time their victims had escaped and they saw Kitchener’s train quietly backing down the line to safety. British reinforcements were rapidly summoned and, after a slight skirmish, during which Hindon and his men succeeded in capturing a number of prisoners, the train wreckers withdrew to safety to await another chance to attack the railway.
As the British began to pay more attention to the defence and protection of the Delagea Bay Line, Captain Hindon was forced to adopt new methods of attack. During the day, more armoured trains were in use and Hindon’s men began to lay their mine’s during the night and watch the results of their efforts from a safe distance during the day. As a rule the British soldier was not much good at following spoor, and for this reason it puzzled Hindon that so many of his mines laid at night were being detected by the British and rendered harmless. It seemed as though the British were capable of following his tracks for distances up to 600 metres in the veld. Then one day, during an early morning reconnaissance, Hindon suddenly understood why the British were havihg such success in following his tracks: they were simply following the marks left in the dew. From then onwards, Hindon made sure that the mines were laid as early in the evening as possible before the air cooled and dew formed on the grass. The British again had little success in tracing his tracks after this discovery.
It became customary for the British to send an armoured train, with the engine located between a few reinforced trucks, ahead of each train. The front truck, normally carrying a few soldiers, would be blown up by the mine, leaving the engine unharmed. After the attack, the engine could be uncoupled from the damaged truck to return safely up the railway with the trucks still on the rails. Captain Hindon and his vigilant Lieutenant Slegtkamp became wise to this scheme and began to let the first armoured train with its load of British soldiers pass safely before they activated the mine to explode under the engine. This method was effective while there remained only a few blockhouses on the Delagoa Bay Line.
On 13 February 1901, Hindon and 200 men successfully destroyed a heavily-laden goods train east of Balmoral. Working in conjunction with Lieutenant Slegtkamp and his men, Hindon poured a devastating flank fire on the British soldiers, who had taken cover in the water furrows on either side of the railway line, eventually forcing them to surrender. Clothing, tobacco, salt, bread, and other articles were taken away in trolleys by Hindon and his men.
On 11 March 1901, Hindon struck again between the Wilge River and Balmoral stations. The mine exploded under the engine and again the British soldiers on the train took cover in the water furrows alongside the track. A twenty-minute exchange of fire took place between the British troops and the wreckers. The high banks afforded the British troops good cover, leaving the Boers with one option: to make a desperate charge under fire. The charge was successful and the Boers reached the water furrows, taking 35 British soldiers and three blacks prisoner. Clothing, blankets, foodstuffs and saddles were looted before the train was set alight.
Several more train attacks followed in the next few months and on 27 June 1901, Hindon successfully planned a crossing of the railway and, to add insult to injury, also destroyed an armoured train which was on its way from Middelburg to assist the British troops in the blockhouses adjacent to the section of the line where the Boers made their crossing.
By July 1901, the Pretoria-Delagoa Bay Railway Line was so well defended by a string of blockhouses, a network of barbed wire joining them, an increased number of armoured trains, and deep trenches dug along both sides of the line, that Hindon decided that further attacks on the line would be futile and he took his men to the Northern Transvaal. Just before the conclusion of the Peace at Vereeniging, in May 1902 Captain Hindon and several of his fellow train wreckers surrendered to the British. They were cleared of all infractions of the laws of war. When Lord Kitchener expressed his doubt that Captain Hindon’s train wrecking tactics could be justifiable under the international rules of war, Hindon defended his actions by responding that, earlier in the war, the British had adopted the same tactics: Firstly in Natal, when General White had ordered bridges and culverts to be destroyed in the vicinity of Ladysmith; later, when British troops had attacked and tried to derail trains on the Pretoria-Pietersburg Railway while Pretoria was being invested; and, finally, when British troops serving with Steinaecker’s Horse destroyed a train on the Delagoa Bay Railway Line near Komatipoort.
Although Hindon was born in Scotland and had served with the British Army as a young man, he was dedicated to the Boer cause from the time of the Jameson Raid in 1895/6 to the end of the Anglo-Boer War in May 1902.
From : South African National Museum of Military History – Vol 12 No 1 – June 2001