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191 British Railway Operating Company
Royal Engineers


191 British Railway Operating Company served in the India Command, South East Asia, from 1942 to 1945. The company arrived into India in late 1942, settled in, making camp under canvas at Lalmanirhat on the Bengal-Assam border. Lalmanirhat was a railway cantonment with a locomotive power shed depot on the meter gauge railway that ran from Parbatipur in Bengal to Amingoan on the banks of the River Brahmaputra in Assam. There the trains were ferried across the river to Pandu on the south bank and mounted on huge barges fitted with rails. The barges were then strapped to the sides of ancient paddle steamers. The railway continued its journey to the northeast over the mountainous Lumding Hill section, passing by Naga Land, originally the land of the Naga head hunting tribes, then onto Manipur Road station in North Assam. There it dropped off military supplies for the allied forces that were fighting battles at Kohima and Kohima Ridge. Sometimes additional supplies, usually medical, continued the journey to Tinsukia railhead on the Mongolian border with China.

The distance from Parbatipur to Tinsukia was 603 miles. It was single line meter gauge railway all the way with not a single bridge crossing the track for the whole of the journey. A detachment of the company was stationed in Chittagong, across the Bay of Bengal. The Japanese eventually over ran Chittagong.

Early in January 1943 the company moved south, establishing camp in a warehouse on Calcutta docks until suitable more permanent billeting could be found. The unit eventually moved to the outskirts of Alipur and Behala some 6 miles outside of Calcutta, close to the Alipur Spitfire Airdrome. This also was the base for a Catalina flying boat.

I joined the company as a reinforcement along with 15 Sappers with Corporal Ron Lloyd in charge of our draft. We embarked from Liverpool aboard S.S.Volamdam, a peacetime ship, loaned to Britain by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. We arrived in Durban, South Africa 6 days later after a dreadful voyage, surviving a U-boat attack in mid-Atlantic. Three weeks of recuperation in Durban saw us again off to sea. This time aboard the S.S Empire Trooper, a cargo ship captured from the Germans in the early days of the war. This ship was crewed by Indian seaman with British officers in command.

After a three-week sail on the Indian Ocean, crossing the equator into the Arabian Sea, we docked in Bombay harbour at the end of March 1943. From there our draft was dispatched by troop train up into the Western Ghats of India to Deolali - the enormous transit camp, situated on a plateau in the hills. There we stayed under canvas for 3 months. We were informed that no British Railway Operating Company existed in India or the Far East. We were also told we might be transferred to a Pioneer Corps, building the Burma Road. This naturally frightened the life out of us. Eventually we were dispatched to another transit camp at Gaya in central India. After a 3-week stay in Gaya, we entrained again to arrive at Calcutta.

We were the first draft of reinforcements to join 191 Company and were given a royal reception by the officers and non-commissioned officers on our arrival. At last someone wanted us. We were given a good home among about 300 ex-civy street railway men of all grades from all the then four big amalgamated railways in Britain at the time; that is, the L.M.S., the L.N.E.R., the G.W. and Southern Railways. The company had a Football team, of course, and also a dance band. I, being a clarinetist, became one of the band.

When the Burma front was active, detachments of engine men and company signalmen were sent to Santaha on the broad gauge railway in Bengal and also to Lalmanirhat on the borders of Bengal and Assam. I always got sent to Lalmanirhat. From there we took our trains of war supplies forward, living on the train in an old carriage hooked up behind the engine. We also had an all-steel enclosed box van attached to the rear of this carriage that was used to store our rations, along with a primitive oven to cook in, constructed out of an empty biscuit tin.

There were four of us engine men. Two drivers, one of which was me, along with our two fireman. Miles away from base and military duties, all we had to do was to get on with the job to the best of our efforts. This we did. Our troops up front were very dependent on us and we knew it. During the monsoon season when fighting up front had almost come to a stand still, we on detachment were returned back to base to lick us back into military shape and for deployment on other types of engineer work. One project was the construction very small box section landing craft, imported from America on the Lend/Lease Programme.

I was dispatched to a small, uninhabited island in the mouth of the Ganges where an Indian engineering company was constructing large, all steel invasion craft. The object of the exercise was for me to be trained as a ship's pipe fitter. I was only there a few weeks when I was sent back to resume working on the railway.

Like most of the lads in the company, I was in and out of hospital with tropical disease. I also had two fantastic leaves at the Darjeeling Hill station where Kenchinguna Mountain could be viewed, 45 miles away, when the clouds lifted.

In 1945, after the war with Japan ended, the men of the original company went home after serving their allotted 3 years service abroad. I, having been a reinforcement to the company with only 2.5 years overseas service, had to stay behind to complete my 3 years abroad. I was given a good posting to Embarkation H.Q. Hastings, Calcutta, where I was promoted to full Sergeant, working on the docks as a Wharf Sergeant.

On returning back to blighty I was sent back to my old training depot at Longmoor, in Hampshire, this time as a steam locomotive engine driving instructor. There I remained until I was demobilized in late 1946.

Source: This information was provided via the Internet by a non-commissioned officer who served in the unit.