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When the South African Army visited Rosh Hanikra

The spectacular Rosh Hanikra cable car, the steepest in the world, takes visitors from the the top of the chalk cliffs to the grottos at the bottom. The Rosh Hanikra promenade and lower cableway station are on land that was reclaimed from the sea by South African railway engineers in 1941/1942. Read how this came about.

The exemplary contribution that South African Jewry has made to the State of Israel, started as far back as Sunday 11 December 1898, with the establishment of the South African Zionist Federation. These facts have been documented over the years and are generally well known. Far less well documented and probably unknown to most, is the infrastructure work carried out in Mandate Palestine by the South African Army, then known as the Union Defence Force (UDF), during the Second World War. While the infrastructure created by the UDF was of strategic importance to the Allied war effort in the Middle East and North Africa, the new State of Israel in 1948 became the beneficiary of the labours of the South Africans.

South African Engineering Corps in the Middle East

During the Second World War the UDF in the Middle East had a number of military formations with very unmilitary designations. These units were part of the South African Engineering Corps (SAEC) with names such as the 40th Railway Construction Company , 41st Harbour Construction Company, the 61st Tunneling Company and the 44th S.A. Water Maintenance Company were all active in Palestine. The SAEC troops in the Middle East fell under the command of the Corps of Royal Engineers, commanded by Brigadier Frederick Kisch, the highest ranking Jew in the British Army and a prominent Zionist leader to boot.

Brigadier Frederick Kisch

Kisch ended the First World War as a highly decorated lieutenant colonel and a member of the British delegation to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Joining the World Zionist Organization in 1922, Kisch became head of its political department where he was later succeeded by Chaim Arlosoroff. He then served as the head of the Zionist Commission for the Jerusalem region between 1923 and 1931. His background as a senior British military officer gave him access to the highest echelons of power in the British Mandate administration. He also had a cordial and effective relationship with Arab leaders such as Sharif Hussein of Mecca and his son Emir Abdullah of Transjordan. Kisch was recalled to active service in 1939, promoted Brigadier and posted as the commanding officer of the Royal Engineers in the Middle East and North Africa. He met an untimely death in April 1943 after stepping on a landmine during the battle of Wadi Akarit in Tunisia. Moshav Kfar Kisch was named in his honour, and keeping the family legacy alive, his grandson, Yoav Kisch, was elected as a Likud Member of Knesset in 2015.

SAR & H Maintenance Group in Palestine

Let us return to the Railway and Harbour Construction Companies, which were manned by employees of the South African Railways and Harbours who had volunteered for military service. The SAR & H Maintenance Group under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Paterson, also an SAR & H employee, was established as an element of the SAEC to carry out specific technical support tasks for the Allied forces in the Middle East. These tasks included the construction and maintenance of rail and road connections, rehabilitation and management of harbours, initially for the Allied forces in Egypt and the Western Desert, and later in Palestine.

Prior to their work in Palestine, the SAR & H Maintenance Group was responsible for the rehabilitation and management of the harbour at Port Tewfik, construction of the first Suez oil pipeline and the establishment and maintenance of numerous water filtration plants in Egypt. Early 1941 had seen a build up of German and Italian (Axis) forces in Libya under feared General Erwin Rommel, considered a serious threat to Egypt, Palestine and Transjordan. The need to have the ability to move men and materiel between Beirut and Egypt became of strategic importance to the Allied defence of British and French interests in North Africa and Middle East. The existing Palestine Railway connected Egypt with Gaza and Lydda (Lod), with branch lines going to Jaffa, Jerusalem and Tulkarm. From Tulkarm further branch lines went to Haifa and Afula, while another branch connected Afula with Acre (Akko). The largest and most efficient port for the unloading of bulk war materiel was Beirut, while the only rail line connecting Tulkarm and Beirut traversed western Syria via Damascus before crossing the mountains to Beirut in the west. This was a slow and totally unsuitable route open to air attacks from German forces, considering that western Syria was at that time controlled by a Vichy French (Nazi) government.

With the strategic needs of paramount importance, Allied Middle East Commander, General Claude Auchinleck petitioned South African Prime Minister General Jan Smuts for assistance in building a direct coastal rail line from Haifa to Beirut. Smuts agreed and gave instructions for the recruitment of additional experienced railway construction engineers from the SAR&H, as well as to establish further military railway construction units. The South African engineers were tasked with constructing the line from Haifa to Beirut, with the engineers having to negotiate the difficult Ras Naqoura (Rosh Hanikra) and Ras Bayada headlands. Australian railway engineers were given responsibility for 85 kms of new line between Beirut and Tripoli in northern Lebanon. Concurrent with this, a New Zealand railway construction company had responsibility for rehabilitation of the line through the Jezreel Valley from Haifa to Daara on the Syrian border, much of it the same route followed by the recently completed rail connection between Haifa and Beit She’an.

Railway Line - Haifa to Beirut

The laying of a new railway track on the level coastal Plain of Asher from Haifa through Acre and Nahariya to Ras Naqoura, did not present any problems for the experienced South African railway engineers. Palestine Rail had earlier laid a narrow gauge (1050mm) line from Haifa to the Na’aman river, a few kilometres south of Acre. The narrow gauge was totally unsuitable for the higher speeds and heavier loads envisaged for the new line. South African engineers came up with the innovative idea of double tracking the existing line, making it a dual purpose narrow and standard (1500mm) gauge line. Existing narrow gauge rolling stock could be used interchangeably on that section of the line with the new standard gauge carriages.

The real work for the South Africans began with the building of a junction where the narrow gauge line ended, which also entailed building a bridge across the Na’aman River to carry the new tracks. No other major engineering work was required during the laying of the track between Acre and Ras Naqoura, which is where the first formidable engineering challenge was to be found. The surveying of a route around the magnificently scenic headland of Ras Naqoura on foot was impossible as the cliffs drop straight into the sea, which meant that the 47th South African Railway Survey Company had to make use of rowing boats and mountain climbing gear to survey a potential route around, over or through the headland. Australian engineers had started working on a French plan to go over the highlands, but this was discounted as being impractical and extremely difficult by the South African survey team, who came up with a novel proposal.

Rosh Hanikra Tunnels

Rather than go over the mountain, they proposed going across the base of the headland by creating a seawall between the two heads of Ras Naqoura with the rail tracks running on the reclaimed land . Two short tunnels, each of which would be about 100 metres in length would have to be cut through the forward apex of the two heads which formed Ras Naqoura, with track laid on the reclaimed land connecting the two tunnels. Once the concrete seawall had been established, the area inside the wall was filled from the top of the cliffs and stabilised to allow for the laying of the tracks connecting the two tunnels. The 47th Railway Construction Company had arrived in Palestine on 8 October 1941 and by mid January 1942 had completed the line between Haifa and the Lebanese border which was just north of Ras Naqoura. The Rosh Hanikra lower cable car station seems to situated on the land reclaimed by the South African Railway engineers, as can be seen by comparing the two photos below, which were taken 70 years apart.

Railway line and tunnel at Ras Naqoura built by the UDF Railway Engineers - 1941

Lower cable Car station Rosh Hanikra 2011

The primary topic of this article is the laying of section of the railway line destined to become part of independent Israel in May 1948. I will however give a brief overview of the work done by the South Africans north of Rosh Hanikra in Lebanon.

Ras Bayada Tunnels

The Ras Bayada headland in Lebanon, north of Ras Naqoura, was a very different proposition, being much longer with higher, more vertical cliffs. Once again, land reclamation from the sea had to be done, but in this case precast concrete blocks had to be dropped into water from the cliffs after which concrete was pumped from the top to fill in the spaces between the blocks. The reclaimed land on which the tracks were laid, being in much deeper water than at Ras Naqoura, was exposed to attack from German submarines operating in the Mediterranean, which added a very dangerous element to the work of the South African railway engineers, who prevailed despite the obstacles.

View of Ras Bayada from the sea

Following the completion of the line to Beirut, the South Africans built a railway marshaling yard in the city, which completed their allotted task. The Australians, while laying the line north of Beirut encountered problems at the Cheka Headlands and called for urgent assistance. They needed two tunnels to pass through the headland, one in the south of about 175 metres and another in the north of about 1.5 kilometres in length. Auchinleck again contacted Smuts who called on the Transvaal Chamber of Mines to enlist qualified and experienced miners for military service. These volunteers were brought together to establish 61 Tunneling Company, South African Engineering Corps. Needless to say these mining experts performed admirably by constructing the two tunnels in record time. Working together with the Survey Company, they successfully tunneled from two opposite sides, which speeded the work up quite considerably. For those readers who might be interested in greater detail, clicking on this link takes you to the detailed history of 61 Tunneling Company and their additional achievements while they were stationed in Lebanon.

70 pages long, don't say I didn't warn you.


The Independence of Israel on 14 May 1948 and the subsequent attack on the fledgling state meant that the railway line had to be closed at the Lebanese border. That country had attacked Israel and was using the route to arm and provision Arab irregular forces. The earlier event known as The Night of the Bridges on 16 - 17 June 1946 saw Palmach forces destroy 11 bridges. The South African built bridge north of Nahariya was amongst those destroyed, which meant that the line from Haifa to the north ended at Nahariya, as it still does. The destruction of the 11 bridges also disrupted the rail connections with the belligerent states of Transjordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, all of whom were supplying Arab irregular forces with funds, arms, ammunition and manpower.

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Extremely interesting, a great read. I had no idea, my education continues!

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