Home Page

27497 Warrant Officer Class I
JOHN SIM GRANT
South African Engineer Corps

by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
2002. All Rights Reserved.

1. INTRODUCTION

Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were extracted from the soldier’s service papers obtained from the Department of Defence of the Union of South Africa in Johannesburg.

2. EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY INFORMATION

John Sim Grant was born at Roodepoort in the Witwatersrand section of the Transvaal in South Africa on the 26th of February 1903. Roodepoort, located about 12 miles west of Johannesburg, was founded in 1886 as a gold mining camp and eventually developed into a residential community and municipality in the gold mining region of South Africa in 1904, just shortly after the birth of John Sim Grant [1].

As a young man he lived at 154 Doran Street in the Belgravia section of Johannesburg and worked as a Drill Sharpener and Blacksmith at the Crown Mines. It is highly probable that his father also was employed at the Crown Mines. The Crown Mines, established in 1886 at the time of the first discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, was the world richest gold mine [2]. It was located on a plateau overlooking the town of Johannesburg, which had built up after the discovery of gold.

3. PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

The following is a description of John Sim Grant at the time he enlisted in the Union Defence Force of South Africa 1940:

Age:

37 years and 7 months.

Height:

5 feet 7 inches.

Weight:

148 pounds.

Complexion:

Fair.

Eyes:

Grey.

Hair:

Brown.

Chest Measurement:

32 inches.

Medical Category:

A1[3]

Nationality:

British South African.

The following is a description of John Sim Grant at the time he was discharged from the South African Engineer Corps in 1945:

Age:

43 years.

Height:

5 feet 8 inches.

Complexion:

Medium.

Eyes:

Grey.

Hair:

Dark brown.

Marks or Scars:

None.

Medical Category:

A1.

4. ENLISTMENT AND TRAINING

John Sim Grant enlisted at Johannesburg as a Private in the 2nd Battalion of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, Union Defence Force on the 6th of August 1940. At the time he enlisted he indicated that he was not a member of the military or naval service and that he had never been convicted by civil court. He did indicate that he had previously served in the Witwatersrand Rifles and that he had been discharged from that regiment in 1926.

After swearing the Oath of Attestation as a volunteer in the Union Defence Force, Grant was issued Regimental Number 27497 and was given six days to put his civilian affairs in order before joining his unit.

5. ASSIGNMENTS AND CAMPAIGN SERVICE

Private Grant reported for duty with the 2nd Battalion, Transvaal Scottish on the 12th of August 1940. On the 21st of November 1940 the 2nd Transvaal Scottish replaced the 1st Pretoria Highlanders in the 6th South African Infantry Brigade in Pietermaritzburg. Grant served with the 2nd Transvaal Scottish in Pietermaritzburg until the 29th of January 1941 when he received orders to join the 41st Harbour Construction Company, South African Engineer Corps (SAEC) [4]. Before he could report for duty with the 41st Harbour Construction Company, Grant’s orders were changed, literally overnight. On the following day he was transferred to the 40th Railway Construction Company, SAEC as a Blacksmith. His rank was also changed from Private to Sapper at this time.

The 40th Railway Construction Company formed part of the Railway Construction and Maintenance Group (No. 1 Railway Engineering Battalion)[5] of the Railway and Harbour Brigade. The Group consisted of the following units:

38th Railway Construction Company (mobilized on 27 September 1940)

39th Railway Construction Company (mobilized on 25 November 1940)

40th Railway Construction Company (mobilized on 29 January 1941)

41st Harbour Construction Company (mobilized on 13 November 1940)

Although the Railway and Harbour Brigade had its own training centre at Mapleton, about 33 kilometers outside of Johannesburg on the railway line to Natal, these companies moved into camp at the Engineer Training Center at Sonderwater. The companies left the Railway and Harbour Brigade to become part of the South African Engineer Corps [6].

The Railway Construction Companies were actually heavy general construction companies that could undertake many types of projects in addition to specialized railway construction work. They were manned and equipped to lay track, construct earthwork embankments for railways, construct bridges and tunnels, and clear obstacles and mines. As will be noted later in this narrative, Grant’s company undertook all of these tasks and more, including road and harbour work as well as Bailey bridge construction.

Except for 10 days of leave started on the 21st of February 1941, Grant served at the Engineer Training Center at Sonderwater continuously until the 5th of June 1941. By that date he had already been promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer Class II. On the 6th of June 1941 he and his company embarked at Durban for active service in the Middle East.

The men of the 40th Railway Construction Company, under the command of Major A.M. Steel, SAEC, disembarked at Suez, Egypt on the 23rd of June 1941. The company immediately began work on earthworks for the El Kantara-El Shatt railway line. By September of 1941 the company was located on the east bank of the Suez Canal at Kubri where it worked on completing the earthworks of the desert railway line between El Kantara East and Suez East [7].

On the 20th of October 1941 the 40th Railway Construction Company moved northward by road from Suez in Egypt to Az Zib in Palestine. The company’s camp was located on open ground at Az Zib, near enough to Haifa so that acetylene gas for welding could be drawn from a compressed gas depot located in that town [8].

In January of 1942 the company worked on the 30-kilometer stretch of railroad line from Acre to Ras Bayada. The mean temperature in the area of construction operations ranged from 60 degrees in winter to over 80 degrees in the autumn. There is very little rain in this region between May and October and moderate rainfall between October and April. However, in December and January there are sometimes torrential downpours. Such heavy rains affected the work of the 40th Railway Construction Company in January of 1942 and the Sappers soon found themselves working with the heavy black clay soils [9] of the plains area, soils that were very sticky with rain. These soils were difficult to excavate, load and move with any efficiency. Placement and compaction of the heavy clay soils also caused great difficulties in the construction of embankments. These overly wet or saturated continued to pump and rut under weight of compaction equipment or other types of construction equipment, thus making the work of the company extremely difficult.

The company worked at Ras Nakoura where two short tunnels of 109 meters and 76 meters were required. Due to the soft, but stable condition of the native soils, no special equipment was needed by the company to excavate these tunnels except wet jackhammers. On the concrete portals of these two tunnels the company left its mark by engraving "40th Coy. S.A.E.C., 1942." [10]

By June of 1942 the 40th Railway Construction Company had worked its way up into Syria and then received orders to move back to Egypt. On the 20th of July 1942 the company departed from Palestine and arrived in Amiriya on the following day [11].

Grant’s company worked at Amiriya in the Western Desert with the British 8th Army for about four months. Grant was admitted to hospital of August of 1942 for a period of 13 days, after which he was returned to his company. On the 9th of November 1942 the 40th Railway Construction Company, then commanded by Major W.A. Shepherd, SAEC, moved to Qena, Egypt [12]. By the 15th of November the company was working on the maintenance of the railway line section between El Daba and Mersa Matruh and in December of 1942 a section of the company entered Tripoli [13].

Major A.M. Steel, SAEC again took command of the 40th Railway Construction Company in January of 1943, about the time that it entered Tripoli on the first day of the town’s occupation. The company helped with clearing the area before getting down to railway work. This clearing work involved the restoration of a demolished railway bridge over what had been a narrow, shallow entrance near the southern end of the Spanish Mole. In a few days the bridge and railway line were restored with one end on an old abutment and the other on a newly constructed abutment [14].

As soon as the repair of locomotives in Tripoli was sufficiently advanced, the 40th Railway Construction Company worked on laying a siding along the seafront in Tripoli for a distance of one kilometer. Material had to be brought in from 19 kilometers away to make these repairs. This siding, which was completed on the 18th of February, served as a wharf. The line to Gheran junction, where the railway branched down to Garian, also was restored by the company [15].

The 40th Railway Construction Company continued railway repairs and improvements in the Tripoli area throughout February and March of 1943. By the 27th of February the company had restored the railway line to Zuara and by the 30th of March the widening of the gauge of the Gheran Junction – Zuara line had been completed. During this period the company also maintained the lines in the Zuara harbour and depot areas and the sections of railway line from Taguira on the eastern route through Tripoli and Gheran to Azizia in the south [16].

With their work at Tripoli finished, the men of the 40th Railway Construction Company moved to Sfax, a seaport city in eastern Tunisia, on the 17th of April 1943. At their new location the men immediately began working on the restoration of two demolished bridges between Sousse and Enfidaville [17].

Grant, who was by this time a Temporary Warrant Officer Class I, was transferred from the 40th Railway Construction Company to the Railway and Transport Base Depot on the 10th of July 1943. He was then placed on the X4 List, or SAEC General List, in preparation for his return to South Africa on home leave. Grant boarded a ship in Egypt on the 12th of July and disembarked at Durban, South Africa on the 7th of August 1943. He was immediately taken on the strength of the Base Depot at Durban.

Grant was authorized 30 days leave beginning on the 10th of August 1943 and on the 1st of September he was awarded the Africa Star [18]. On the 10th of September, upon reporting back from leave, Grant was posted to the Railways and Harbours Brigade at Mapleton and on the following day he was assigned to the Railways and Harbours Docks Operating Company. He remained with this unit for only a short time and on the 29th of September 1943 he was transferred to the Railway and Transport Depot and then on to Hay Paddock Camp at Pietermaritzburg on the 10th of October 1943.

After two and a half months of leave and home service, Grant was ordered back to active service. He boarded SS Onduna at Durban on the 19th of October 1943 and sailed again for Egypt, disembarking at Suez on the 6th of November. Upon disembarkation he was temporarily posted to the 39th Railway Construction Company, SAEC. On the 11th of November 1943 he was reassigned back to his old unit, the 40th Railway Construction Company, although he remained attached for duty to the 39th Company.

The 39th Railway Construction Company, commanded by Major W.A. Shepherd, moved to Amiriya on the 13th of November 1943 and sailed from Alexandria, Egypt for Italy on the 19th of November. Grant arrived in Italy on the following day and on the 22nd of November 1943 he rejoined the 40th Railway Construction Company.

Grant’s company was split between Taranto "A" transit camp, Modugno and the docks while they were unloading their stores and equipment. The company was soon assigned to work on the maintenance and reconstruction of the Adriatic railways and ports. On the 2nd of December 1943, Major A.S. Robinson, SAEC replaced Major Steel as O.C. of the 40th Railway Construction Company. Major Robinson conducted a reconnaissance along the Adriatic coast up to the River Sangro to estimate the work to be done to repair a damaged railway bridge. The company reached Torino di Sangro on the 10th of December 1943 and sent out a reconnaissance party north to the next railway station at Fossacesia. Workshops were established near Torino di Sangro, the demolished track north of the Sangro bridge was cleared and the local forest area was examined for heavy timbers [19].

Work continued for the company along the Adriatic coastline into 1944. On the 13th of January 1944 the London Gazette published a Mention in Despatches for Warrant Officer Class I John Sim Grant. This recognition was for his service during the period from October 1942 to February 1943 while he was serving in North Africa [20].

The work performed by Grant and the men of the 40th Railway Construction Company during the first half of 1944 consisted of railway, tunnel and bridge work. In early May the company replaced six Bailey bridge spans over the Biferno River south of Termoli, reconstructed the Vasto tunnel and then disassembled the Bailey bridge at Biferno and transported it to Fossacesia. By the 11th of June 1944 the company had moved through Rome to Santa Severa, 60 miles north of the city. There for the first time the company was placed under American command. The company reached Palidoro, some 5 kilometers from the coast on the 14th of June and from there the sections were dispersed along an allocated 80 kilometers of track to be repaired [21]. Major Robinson’s headquarters were located at Santa Severa railway station.

Work was undertaken by men of the 40th Railway Construction Company on repairing damaged tracks on the line to Civitavecchia and Marccarese during June and July of 1944. Following completion of work on the Civitavecchia line the company began work on the station at Orte and on bridge repair just beyond the Orte station. The company also constructed a crossover and filled in demolished arches over the little Torrente Cardona beyond Narni and began the complicated reconstruction of the Tiber River bridge [22].

The 40th Railway Construction Company moved to Fabriano on the 27th of July 1944, although part of the company was still busy many kilometers back at Terni. Railway, tunnel and bridge repairs continued through August and September of 1944 and by the end of September the company was still at Fabriano looking after the track from there to Jesi. In October the company worked on the long Cesano viaduct close to the sea north of Senigallia and in November the unit moved to work on the Prato-Bologna line while it continued working on the Naples-Rome route. In November of 1944, Major Robinson was awarded the M.B.E. for his fine work in commanding the 40th Railway Construction Company in Italy [23].

Throughout the spring of 1945 the 40th Railway Construction Company continued various tasks of repairing track and bridges and was involved with work on the Great Apennine Tunnel as well. In April of 1945 the company worked bridge and track repairs in the area of Grizzana station. On the 15th of April 1945 the Allied forces began an attack in the Monte Sole-Caprara-Abelle area, the very same area of operations of the company. Grant’s unit was not only under enemy artillery fire at this time, but it also was harassed by fragments from friendly fire as well [24].

By the 19th of April 1945 the company had moved to the vicinity of Vado to examine the Vado railway viaduct and then cleared the vicinity of mines by the 20th. In order to reach Vado the company had repaired the track between Grizzana and Vado. The company had reconstructed the Cova tunnel, repaired a bridge just south of Vado station and had cleared the wreckage of locomotives and rolling stock from the station yard where the main line and two loops had to be constructed. On the 1st of June 1945 a test train ran over the viaduct and into Vado station. Grant’s company had been engaged on this mammoth task for 40 days [25].

The Germans had surrendered on the 8th of May 1945 and on the 14th of May, during an inspection tour, General Mark Clark had spoken appreciatively of the work done by the South African Railway Construction Engineers and decorated seven of its members with the U.S. Bronze Star. The men of the 40th Railway Construction Company so honored included Lieutenant V.C. Barnes and Corporal A.E. Evans.

Although the war was over, the 40th Railway Construction Company still had much work ahead of it. The South African Railway Construction Engineers were assigned numerous reconstruction tasks. Following their work at Vado the men of the 40th Company were assigned to the Mestre-Padua-Vicenza railway line where they had to repair demolished bridges over the Brenta, Tesina and Brentella Rivers. For this project the company was assigned personnel of the Italian State Railway and contract workers to assist with the construction of the bridges.

Grant worked on these bridge construction projects until the 24th of July 1945 when his time came for repatriation to South Africa. He was transferred to the "X4" (Repatriation) List and at the same time he was awarded the Africa Service Medal for his services during the North African campaign with the British Eighth Army [26]. He proceeded to Rome for repatriation and then departed Italy on the 11th of September and returned to Egypt. On the 17th of September 1945 he embarked at Suez for South Africa and was struck off the "X4" List.

Grant’s discharge from the Army was authorized on the 19th of September 1945 while he was en route to South Africa. He disembarked at Durban on the 1st October 1945 where he was taken on the strength of the Base Depot. On the 31st of October 1945 he was transferred to the Dispersal Depot at Hector Norris Park in Johannesburg and he was subsequently discharged on the 21st of November.

6. PROMOTIONS AND CONDUCT

a. Promotions: John Sim Grant received the following promotions during his time in service:

  1. Date of Promotion or Appointment

    Rank or Position

    6 August 1940

    Private, 2nd Transvaal Scottish

    30 January 1941

    Sapper, SAEC

    17 February 1941

    Lance Corporal, SAEC

    10 March 1941

    Corporal, SAEC

    1 April 1941

    Sergeant, SAEC

    1 May 1941

    Warrant Officer Class II

    1 March 1942

    Temporary Warrant Officer Class I

    Grant’s rapid promotion from Private (Sapper) to Warrant Officer Class II in less than a year can be attributed to a number of things. First of all he was almost 38 years old at the time he enlisted and had had prior service with the Witwatersrand Rifles. He may have even been a junior non-commissioned officer when he was discharged from that regiment in 1926 [27]. Secondly, his trade skills as an experienced Blacksmith, coupled with his previous military experience, may have made him a prime candidate for promotion to non-commissioned officer rank for his newly formed company. It is very likely that the new company needed a senior non-commissioned officer to supervise the company workshops.

b. Conduct: The only mention of Warrant Officer Grant’s conduct found in his service papers is at the time of this discharge. He was noted to be a "sober" individual whose character and efficiency were "exemplary."

7. QUALIFICATIONS

John Sim Grant earned the following qualifications during his time in service.

Date

Qualification

30 January 1941

Blacksmith: On transfer to the South African Engineer Corps

1 Jun 1943

Artisan Blacksmith

8. MEDICAL INFORMATION

The following medical information was taken from John Sim Grant’s service records during his time in service:

Location

Date of
Admission

Ailment

Period of Hospitalization
or Treatment

Johannesburg, South Africa

6 Aug 1940

Medical examination upon enlistment

Medical Category A1

Amiriya,
Egypt

11 Aug 1942

Unknown

Discharged from hospital on 24 August 1942

Johannesburg, South Africa

Nov 1945

Medical examination upon discharge

Medical Category A1

9. MARRIAGE AND PERSONAL INFORMATION

Grant was married prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. He and his wife, Iris Amelia, and their three children lived at 154 Doran Street in the Belgravia section of Johannesburg. The Grant’s children were 15 years, 11 years and 4 years old at the time of his enlistment in the Army in 1940. The 11-year old and the 4-year old were named Desmond and James, respectively. The name of the oldest child is illegible in Grant’s service papers. The members of the Grant family were Methodists.

10. DISCHARGE

John Sim Grant was discharged from the Army at Hector Norris Park, Johannesburg on the 21st of November 1945 as a result of the partial demobilization of the South African Army following the end of the war. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:

Location

Period of Service

Home

6 August 1940 – 5 June 1941

Egypt

6 June 1941 – 1 November 1941

Palestine

2 November 1941 – 20 July 1942

Egypt

21 July 1942 – 6 August 1943

Home

7 August 1943 – 18 October 1943

Egypt

19 October 1943 – 18 November 1943

Italy

19 November 1943 – 10 September 1945

Egypt

11 September 1945 – 30 September 1945

Home

1 October 1945 – 21 November 1945

Location

Period of Service

Home Service

1 year and 58 days

Service Abroad

4 years and 48 days

Total Service

5 years and 106 days

At the time of his discharge Grant received his Identity Book No. 032981 and a civilian clothing allowance of 30/0/0. His trade was listed as Blacksmith and his education level was noted to be Standard VII. Grant indicated that his intended place of residence after discharge was 154 Doran Street, Belgravia, Johannesburg..

11. POST SERVICE LIFE

Little is known of Grant’s life after his discharge from the Army. It is probable that Grant returned to his work at Crown Mines or in some similar capacity as a Blacksmith. On the 21st of November 1952 he was issued the medals for his service in the Second World War. These medals consisted of the following:

1939-45 Star [28]

Africa Star with 8th Army bar

Italy Star [29]

War Medal with Mention In Despatches Oak Leaf [30]

Africa Service Medal

At the time that the medals were issued to him, Grant was residing at 30 Magnolia Road, Primrose Hill, Germiston, Transvaal. Germiston is located approximately 9 miles east of Johannesburg in the heart of gold mining country. It became the site of the world’s largest gold refinery. Grant’s residence in Germiston lends credence to the assumption that he returned to some line of work involving the mining of gold after his discharge.

REFERENCES

Books

1. ORPEN, N. and MARTIN, H.J. Salute the Sappers: South African Forces in World War II. Volume VIII- Part 1. Sappers Association, Johannesburg, 1981.

2. ORPEN, N. and MARTIN, H.J. Salute the Sappers: South African Forces in World War II. Volume VIII- Part 2. Sappers Association, Johannesburg, 1982.

3. MERRIAM-WEBSTER. Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Springfield, 1997.

Soldiers Papers

1. Attestation Papers (D.D. 88 B.). Attestation in the Volunteer Units of the Union Defence Force.

2. Record of Service.

3. Description of Soldier (D.D. 293).

4. Record of Service and Particulars on Discharge (Form DGD 15[A]).

5. Application for Campaign Medals (1939 Onwards) (Form D.D. 873.).

ENDNOTES

[1] Roodepoort was the scene of the surrender of physician and statesman Dr. Leander Starr Jameson to the Boers in 1896 after the ill-fated incursion known as Jameson’s Raid.

[2] The Crown Mines ceased production in 1975.

[3] Medical Category A1 indicated that the man was fit for despatching overseas, as regards physical and mental health, and training.

[4] This transfer to the SAEC was probably brought about by Grant’s civilian trade as a Blacksmith and Drill Sharpener. Trade skills such as these were always in demand in the engineer units of the British and Commonwealth armies.

[5] No. 1 Railway Engineering Battalion had been formed on the 10th of September 1940.

[6] ORPEN & MARTIN, Part 1, p. 30.

[7] Ibid., pp. 209 and 304.

[8] Ibid., p. 305.

[9] The use of the term "heavy" in describing the clay is not meant to refer to weight, but rather to the plasticity of the soil. Highly plastic clays are known as "heavy" or "fat" clays, whereas low plasticity clays are known as "lean" clays.

[10] ORPEN & MARTIN, Part 1, p. 308.

[11] Ibid., p. 372.

[12] ORPEN & MARTIN, Part 2, p. 12.

[13] Ibid., pp. 12 and 33.

[14] Ibid., pp. 33-34.

[15] Ibid., p. 34.

[16] Ibid., p. 36.

[17] Ibid., p. 52.

[18] See Qualifications for the Africa Star.

[19] ORPEN & MARTIN, Part 2, pp. 146-147.

[20] As an Artisan Blacksmith, Grant probably was assigned to the company workshop where he manufactured fittings needed for company projects and made repair parts for the company’s equipment.

[21] ORPEN & MARTIN, Part 2, pp. 182-183.

[22] Ibid., pp. 183-186.

[23] Ibid., pp. 272-276.

[24] Ibid., p. 295.

[25] Ibid., p. 327.

[26] See Qualifications for the Africa Service Medal.

[27] He would have been too young to have served in the Great War of 1914-1918. He could have enlisted in the Witwatersrand Rifles at the age of 18 in 1921. With five years of service before he was discharged, he may have been promoted to Lance Corporal or perhaps even Corporal.

[28] See Qualifications for the 1939-45 Star.

[29] See Qualifications for the Italy Star.

[30] See Qualifications for the War Medal.