Motor transport companies – Sterling work in East Africa

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Motor transport companies – Sterling work in East Africa

Richard Henry, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


This article is the result of an enquiry by a Mr Singh regarding his father’s Second World War (1939-1945) service record. Unfortunately, the DITSONG: National Museum of Military History (DNMMH) does not keep service records but was able to inform Mr Singh that his father was probably in the Indian Malay Corps and he may have been a driver for one of the Motor Transport Companies. He was supplied with a large number of telephone numbers of people at the Archives of the South African National Defence Force. The enquiry prompted an investigation into the actions of the Motor Transport Companies in East Africa.


At the start of the Second World War (1939-1945), the Union of South Africa had a small motor assembly capability. The Ford Motor Company of South Africa was set up in 1923/24. Crates loaded with engines, chassis, mudguards, wheels and electrical components were shipped from Ford of Canada, Windsor, Ontario. These were assembled at the Ford factory in Port Elizabeth. General Motors, not to be outdone (manufacturing Chevrolet vehicles), quickly set up facilities in South Africa in 1926. Both of these companies initially had modest facilities in Port Elizabeth with the Ford assembly line able to manufacture ten cars per day and employing 70 people.

The introduction of the famous Ford V-8 Flathead engine

The very reliable Ford V-8 Flathead engine was introduced in mid-1932. It is considered one of Ford’s most important developments and was mass produced. It was intended for use in large passenger cars and trucks. The simple design with the crankcase and all eight cylinders cast in one engine block, allowed the Ford to be easily upgraded. Early war Ford V-8s had a displacement of 3.6 Litres with 21 bolts holding down the iron cylinder head and could produce 85 horsepower (63 kW) of power. In 1939 Ford produced a new uprated V-8 engine. It had a displacement of 3.8 litres and a power rating of 95 horsepower (71kW). Both the old and new engines were used in military vehicles. The engines generated a lot of heat and required a large capacity radiator system for cooling. If the engine was severely worked, it could lead to overheating and the cracking of the cylinder block.

At the start of the Second World War, both Ford and General Motors had expanded considerably and employed at least 600 white men in their assembly lines. There were many Ford dealerships with attendant workshops in the Union and the new Ford V-8 was a popular car among the public and the military. At the time, the big V-8 was considered powerful but by today’s standards, 63 Kw and 71 Kw are considered too small for entry-level vehicles.

By 1939 standards, the cars and trucks were considered comfortable, easy to drive and solidly built. The bodies were made from thick steel sheets, doors closed with a solid thump and bumpers were steel (plastic was not invented yet). This made the vehicles very heavy. They had direct worm gear steering and the steering was heavy (no power steering). The large steering wheel could easily be ripped from the driver’s hand if the front wheels hit a pothole or rock. Leaf springs were used on all four wheels and the ride was bumpy. Seating consisted of a large bench seat able to seat three adults up front, all bouncing up and down with the vehicle on a bumpy road. Troops in the back of the 3 or 5-ton trucks had an almost certain rocky ride for the duration of the day. Doors and rearview mirrors would rattle as they drove. The upholstery of the seats in the top-of-the-range civilian cars were of genuine leather but military vehicles may have had vinyl covers. The windscreen was large and one was lucky to have a single windscreen wiper which may have to be manually operated from inside the vehicle. Changing gears was state of the art and one did not have to double declutch. Today’s drivers would grate the gears on each gear change. Petrol octane was 68 and the oil used for lubrication was SAE 30. Four hours of driving was very tiring. Compared to modern cars, these vehicles needed a lot more maintenance.

Both Ford and Chevrolet cars and trucks needed tyres to run on. In 1935 Harvey Firestone Jnr purchased 17 650 square metres on the corner of Kempston and Harrower Roads on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth to set up a tyre manufacturing facility. On 14 September 1936, South Africa’s first Firestone tyre rolled off the assembly line. The factory had a capacity of 350 tyres per day employing 150 people. Firestone were to be the major supplier of tyres for the Union Defence Forces (UDF) armoured cars, trucks, light vehicles and cars. A common size in use on armoured vehicles was 9.75 x 18 inch and later 10.00 x 18 inch tyres.

Figure 1: One of the Firestone 10.00 x 18 tyres used on the Armoured Cars. Ref DNMMH.


The Union Defence Force, who realised the importance of mobility, had an urgent need for mechanical transport. Having an adequate supply of not only 3-ton troop carriers but also a variety of up to 80 different types of vehicles ensured the rapid movement of the UDF from one strategic point to another.  Without this transport, the war in East Africa would have dragged on longer.

However, mass production of vehicles in South Africa was unknown during peacetime and during the war, the industry had to gear up to the challenge. To ensure the delivery of thousands of vehicles in a short period, of the type to suit the terrain in East Africa, the Directorate of Mechanical Transport Production, set up a Design Committee. This committee was initially guided by the Prime Minister, General Jan Smuts who wanted a compact 3-ton troop carrier. From General Smuts’s First World War (1914-1918) experience and his knowledge of the conditions of the East African bush, he insisted that all motor transport be as efficient as the horse and saddle-bag mobility of his Boer War commando days. Each vehicle should also have a water tank. Troops could sit on steel benches in the rear and the kit that the troopers were issued with, would be placed in spacious lockers under the same seats but accessed from along the exterior (either side) of the vehicle.

The design of the 3-ton troop carrier was completed in record time. The British Mining Supply Company (Pty) Ltd (BMS) of Jeppe (Johannesburg), mounted the first General Service (GS) body to a Ford chassis in September 1939. The design of the body had evolved with input from Colonel Rose and the proposals made by General Smuts. During the war, BMS manufactured over 3 000 General Service bodies for fitment to the Ford or Chevrolet chassis. On 11 June 1940, the very first convoy of 3 tonners was sent to the Mozambique border to counter the threat of German and Italian nationals who might threaten shipping in the Indian Ocean.

Figure 2: Some of the first trucks produced by The British Mining Supply Company were used in a secretive convoy to Komatipoort on 11 June 1940.

Evidence suggests that Welfit Oddy, a family business started in 1892 and that set up a new plant in 1936 in Port Elizabeth, the hub of motor vehicle manufacturing, became the principal manufacturer for the 3 and 5- ton General Service wagons (troop carriers). Bodies were manufactured and mounted on imported Canadian Ford 3-ton chassis at a rate of 25 a day –  up until the end of August 1940. Once production gremlins were addressed, this figure was increased to about 50 vehicles a day. It is believed that 10 000 of these 3-ton bodies, manufactured from plate steel supplied by ISCOR, were manufactured by Welfit Oddy.

Figure 3: 3-ton GS Wagon bodies under construction at Welfit Oddy. Ref: A record of the organisation of Director War Supplies.


Ford of Canada, situated in Windsor, Ontario (assisted secretly) by Ford of America, stepped up production to assist Great Britain in supplying the British Commonwealth countries with vehicles.  By 1941 Canada was the principal supplier of automotive equipment to the Empire. In that year they manufactured 189 178 military motor transport vehicles, mostly of the 4×2 type. During the Second World War, Ford Motor Company of Canada produced some 335 000 vehicles for the war effort.   Some were cars, others station wagons but also a variety of trucks. A series of trucks were known as CMPs (Canadian Military Pattern).


The Ford Motor Company of South Africa assembled 31 336 trucks, 1 643 cars and station wagons and 18 990 miscellaneous vehicles during the Second World War.


More than eighty different types of vehicles were locally built for the war effort, each with its drinking water tank especially to serve the needs in the dry Southern African terrain. This important feature is still applied to contemporary SANDF vehicles.

There were many types of vehicles produced utilizing either a Ford or Chevrolet rolling chassis with a locally produced body.  Some types were produced in small numbers. Of some types 500 or more were produced:


General Service Wagons on three or five-ton chassis 14 000
Ambulance Cars (various types)  1 100
Troop Carriers (light)  1 100
Platform and Box Body Lorrie:  1 000
Wireless Vans (various types)     900
Light Aid Delivery Vans     600
Staff Cars     560
Water Tank Trailers  2 200
 Sedan Cars  1 700
1 Ton Carrier fitted with Hood Bows  3 700
1 Ton Panel Vans    670
 ¾ Ton Light Delivery Vans  1 369


Figure 4: This is one of the vehicles not listed above, a light van for the showing of movies to the troops: Ref: DNMMH NEAS Photo album.

Figure 5: A variety of trucks manufactured in the Union of South Africa. Ref: Thomson, AG, The Years of Crisis.

The imported chassis and engines were fitted with one of a locally manufactured body mentioned above. The most numerous were the 3-ton General Service Wagons for carrying troops and or general stores and these were mostly manufactured by Welfit Oddy (Port Elizabeth). Many South African engineering and mining firms were involved in manufacturing the other light truck and car bodies. The following firms are known to have manufactured some of the 80 types of bodies made.

Engineering firms

Welfit Oddy (Port Elizabeth).
The British Mining Supply Company (Pty) Ltd (BMS) of Jeppe (Johannesburg).
Carrier Engineering Co Ltd, (Johannesburg).
General Motors, (Port Elizabeth).
Duncan Andrew Engineers, (Johannesburg).
LHL Engineering, (Germiston); manufactured over 1000 vehicle bodies including General Service. Wagons and porté trucks.
Dorman Long (Africa), (Port Elizabeth).
Redfern Brothers, (Port Elizabeth).
Eaton, JK & Sons, (Durban).
Structural & General Engineering, (Durban).
James Brown Limited (Durban); manufactured 560 General Service Wagons and water tankers.
Pioneer Steel Products; manufactured bodies for artillery portés, express wagons, dump trucks, and military buses.
Cooper & Cooper (Johannesburg); manufactured general purpose lorries.

Figure 6: A 5-ton GS Wagon constructed by BMS. Ref: Thomson, AG, The Years of Crisis.

Gold mines

Randfontein Estates Gold Mine (West Rand).
East Rand Proprietary Mine Limited (Germiston).
Crown Mines Limited (Johannesburg)East Geduld Mines, (East Rand)
Springs Mines (Springs).
Nigel Gold Mines.

Railways and harbours

The South African Railways & Harbours workshops in Johannesburg, Germiston, Pretoria, Cape Town and Uitenhage.

How did the overland route begin?

As early as 21 May 1940, the Quartermaster-General of the UDF had instructed the Assistant Director of Transport, Lt Col CS Potgieter to investigate and prepare a convoy of 45 vehicles to be railed from Pretoria to Broken Hill in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), a distance of 2 100 km. From Northern Rhodesia, the convoy was to drive the 2 600 km overland to Nairobi. Potgieter was to map the route and identify camping areas and sites for petrol depots. On 7 June 1940 the overland convoy, commanded by five officers and driven by 127 other ranks of the 2 Reserve Motor Transport Company, (SA Quartermaster Service), left Broken Hill and arrived at Nairobi about two weeks later.

Figure 7: Broken Hill Railway Station, Northern Rhodesia, the end of the line.

A similar size convoy had already been shipped from Durban to Mombasa and then driven by road to Nairobi. Shipping space at this time in the war was scarce and the fear of ships being attacked by submarines resulted in the bulk of the vehicles being moved overland to East Africa.

Of the 15 000 vehicles sent to East Africa, 13 000 were railed and then driven overland.

The units

Many of the drivers responsible for the arduous 2 600 km by dirt track from Broken Hill to Nairobi, were men of the Non-European Army Service.

Figure 8: Kenya, c. 1948. Ref Pinterest.

During the Second World War some 123 000 Black, Coloured and Indian troops served in the Non-European Army Service (NEAS), which included the Cape Corps (CC), Indian and Malay Corps (IMC) and the Native Military Corps (NMC). They represented more than 37% of the total number of South Africans in the Union Defence Force (UDF). Not all the men were trained as drivers. The NEAS were used as non-combatant personnel and also served as stretcher-bearers, hospital orderlies, guards, clerks, cooks, waiters, artisans and labourers to units in the field. Despite the hardships endured by NEAS troops, they provided loyal service throughout the war in East Africa, North Africa and Italy.

By the end of 1940, there were twenty-nine South African transport companies operating in East Africa, with another four companies that joined them early in 1941. At first, all the drivers were white but with the shortage of drivers and the pressure of repeated convoy operations without a break, NEAS units joined the convoys. Early in September the first Cape Corps and Indian Malay Corps men were drawing vehicles from Broken Hill to Nairobi.

The Indian Malay Corps

Figure 9: The Indian Malay Corps headdress badge. Ref DNMMH.

The Indian Service Corps was formed on 26 June 1940 under the command of Lieutenant–Colonel G. A. Morris. Barracks and corps headquarters were set up at ‘Y’ Compound, Crown Mines Ltd in Johannesburg. Membership was limited to South African Indians who were then trained as stretcher-bearers, hygiene personnel and motor transport drivers.

By September 1940 South African Indian and Malay Corps men were driving vehicles from Broken Hill overland to Nairobi. At first, these inexperienced drivers suffered a fair amount of broken suspension springs and mechanical failure but this was soon rectified.

On 19 December 1940, the unit’s name was changed to the Indian and Malay Corps as it was decided to include numerous Cape Malays who voluntarily enlisted. From January 1941, Coloured recruits were admitted and the IMC became virtually identical to the Cape Corps. In the field, both units were regarded as one and on 13 October 1942, the IMC of 17 000 men was amalgamated with the Cape Corps (23 000 men) and became known as the Cape Corps with a combined strength of 40 000 men.

Figure 10: Replacing a broken leaf spring on the rear of a Ford 3-ton General Service Wagon (troop carrier). Ref: DNNMH

Some of the companies were responsible for driving the vehicles from Nairobi to the front lines and returning vehicles which needed repairs, to workshops in Nairobi. Other companies were used to run supplies. By the end of October 1940, 70-80 trucks a day were arriving in Nairobi and the number increased to 100 trucks a day by mid-January 1941.

Typical of the transport units arriving in East Africa was ‘G’ (later 127th) Motor Transport Company, Cape Corps, which entrained at Kimberley on 9 October for Broken Hill, where they collected 212 Ford three-tonners and one-tonners. With no spares available, they brought all the vehicles, barring one, safely to Nairobi. Within a few days, they were travelling through the East African country with their proper war establishment of vehicles – 137 three-ton Fords, seven one-tonners and three sedans. On arrival at Londiani, the ‘Q’ Service Corps camp, they joined up with ‘A’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies of the Cape Corps and started a night-driving routine.

Several South African motor transport companies served in East Africa:
The ten companies, numbered 1-10 South African Reserve Motor Transport Companies (SARMT) of the South African Quartermaster Service Corps, were staffed by white personnel.

The twelve Motor Transport Companies of the Cape Corps were named from
‘A’ up to and including ‘L’ Motor Transport Company. These companies were joined by three additional companies – ‘M’, ‘N’ and ‘O’ totalling fifteen companies. They were eventually named numbers 121 to 135.

The South African Indian and Malay Corps supplied ten motor transport companies. They were named the 1-10 Motor Transport Company, the SA Indian and the Malay Corps.

The Johannesburg-Broken Hill route

The rail route from Johannesburg to Broken Hill (now Kabwe) went via:

De Aar, Kimberley, Vryburg, Mafeking, Gaborone, Bulawayo, Wankie, Victoria Fall, Livingstone, Kalomo, Choma, Monze, Mazabuka, Kafue, Lusaka, and on to Broken Hill. Here the vehicles were off-loaded and placed in a vehicle park awaiting drivers.

From Broken Hill (Kabwe) the great north road to Nairobi went to Chewefwe, a distance of 165km. From here they drove to Kanona, (160km) and onto Mpika (190km) where a petrol and supply dump was situated, guarded by Northern Rhodesian troops. After resting, servicing and refilling the vehicles at Mpika, the vehicles were driven to Chinsali – a distance of 193 km. From here they had a long stretch of 232 km to Tundumo on the border between Northern Rhodesia and Tanganyika. The next supply dump was at Mbeya – a distance of only 116 km. After resting and essential vehicle maintenance, the convoys set off for Halali River (153 km) and on to Iringa (225 km). From Iringa, a fair-sized town remained a long stretch of 260 km to Dodoma. Then onto to Babati (270 km) and Arusha (170 km). Passing present-day Moshi and with the towering Mount Kilimanjaro on their right, they drove across the Kenyan border onto Kajiado (220 km). The last day of their overland trail was the last 94 km section to Nairobi.

Figure 11: A convoy of light trucks on a good sand road, halts for stragglers to catch up. Ref DNMMH.

Sometimes the road was in a very poor condition and the men used the alternative road between Mpika and Tundumo, going via Kasama (205 km), Abercorn Fork Road (167 km) and on to Tundumo (187 km). If this route was selected, it added an extra 135km to the journey.

Private Utham Singh, 1st Indian motor transport company

Each person who drove a truck along this route had their own experiences but they would have been similar to the story of Private Singh.

Utham Singh born on 6 March 1918, left his home in Pietermaritzburg, Natal at age 22 and travelled to Durban and joined the Union Defence Forces(UDF). He enlisted on Tuesday 13 August 1940 and chose to serve as a driver. He was allocated to “A” Company of the 1st Motor Transport Unit. He was issued with a ‘dog tag’ with his new regimental number 10487 and his religion as Hindu stamped into the tag – to be worn around his neck. His brother, Dwarina Singh of 80 Beatrice Street Durban was listed as his next of kin, an essential detail in case of an emergency.
After a few days, he and his fellow recruits were railed to Johannesburg. They were then moved to ‘Y’ Barracks at Crown Gold Mine in the South West of Johannesburg city centre. Basic training consisted of marching, saluting, induction into military life, discipline, uniformness and field cooking.

For those who had chosen to be drivers, there was basic instruction on the type of trucks available, with special reference to the 3–ton General Service Wagon. This was followed by instruction on the various components and the workings of the trucks. Correct maintenance and first and last parade drills were strongly stressed.

Figure 12: Drivers are instructed on convoy drills. Ref DNMMH NEAS album.

Once the basic training was completed, they were introduced to the basics of driving a truck. These were new skills for many of the recruits. First ‘driving’ was done by walking along a laid-out route and following the road safety signs. Then the recruits were instructed on the art of smooth gear change using wooden mock-up replicas of a steering wheel, gear lever, and foot pedals. Then on to the driving of the actual truck, first on a flat open area, followed by progressively more challenging routes and gradients.

Figure 13: Driver training with mock-up equipment. Ref: DNMMH NEAS Album.

More intensive maintenance training included greasing and lubrication, oil changes, and replacing fan belts and water jacket pipes concluded their driver training.

Figure 14: Drivers became competent on even difficult routes Ref: DNMMH NEAS Album

Singh left the close by Milner Park Station on 3 September 1940 for the arduous 2 600 km cross-country trip. It was an exciting time for the young man. The train followed the route (mentioned above) until reaching the destination at Broken Hill (arriving on 7/8 September 1940).

There, all the drivers detrained and the trucks were unloaded from the train. New orders were given regarding the speed of the convoy (about 15-20 miles per hour (24-32 km/h) additional driving guidance and the expected road conditions. The correct spacing between trucks, driving in dusty conditions and procedures in case of an emergency were again stressed. The convoy leading truck was appointed and the Tail End Charlie at the rear of the convoy was identified. No wireless communication between trucks existed. The convoy leader would decide on the short halts for resting and explain the general control of the convoy.

Everyone then did First Parade on the vehicles. They were going to be driving for eight to ten hours every day over sand roads in poor conditions and tracks through the bush for the next twelve days. They could expect unexpected large holes in the road, the crossing of wild animals in the road, snakes dropping from overhead trees, civilians and especially small children running alongside the road as they passed. Their greatest danger would be tiredness and falling asleep at the wheel (these trucks had no power steering and the driver had to hold on to the wheel and steer the heavy truck).

Each day would start with the drivers checking the condition of their vehicles, tyres, axles, suspension, and oil levels, filling up with 68 octane petrol (if available) and ensuring the radiator and cooling system were filled. Any adjustments or lubrication was also done. Breakfast was prepared over an open fire. Convoy instructions were given again emphasising any known dangerous areas and possible berating of any driver not keeping up or following instructions.

Figure 15: Drivers after completing the morning First Parade await the command to ‘mount up’. Ref: DNMMH NEAS Album.

After ten hours of tiring driving, the convoy would eventually reach the designated overnight spot. Even though the men were dead tired they first had to complete the last parade where their trucks were again thoroughly checked. Any defects or faults had to be fixed before they relaxed or went to bed, irrespective of what time they may have arrived at the overnight halt.

Sleeping remained in the bush with a tarpaulin or piece of canvas as a ‘tent’. Personal hygiene consisted of using some water from the vehicle water tank and filling a mess tin as a bowl. Supper consisted of the supplied tinned food – cooked over an open fire. Elementary guarding arrangements were made at night to ensure the safety of the trucks. Less sleep again for the drivers. This routine was the same for the twelve days of the overland trip.

Utham Singh arrived in Nairobi on 20 September 1940, tired but proud of his achievement. The men of this convoy drove their trucks for the South African 1st Division soldiers, East Africa, carrying troops and all types of supplies. After a while, all the drivers were sent to Mombasa where they embarked on a ship the SS Westerland on 16 December 1940 bound for Durban. They arrived in Durban the end of 1940.

From Durban, they were railed to Johannesburg and resided at the camp at Crown Mines. After further training the now experienced men, again entrained at Milner Park Station on 24 February 1941 on the second convoy duty arriving via the same train trip at Broken Hill on 28 February. Now knowing what to expect and probably having acquired some of the necessary equipment needed to make the trip a little more comfortable (such as mosquito netting or insect face netting), they again set off as before. Again they drove in a convoy consisting of mostly 3-ton Ford trucks over the same road to Nairobi arriving on 2 March 1941.
Here the drivers continued general driving duties in East Africa for the South Africa 1st Infantry Division. On 12 August 1941 Utham was admitted to № 3 General Hospital (in Nyeri, Kenya) suffering from a gastric ulcer. After five and a half weeks in hospital, he was discharged on 19 September to continue with general driving duties.

The UDF East African Campaign concluded with the final defeat of the Italian forces at the end of 1941. The drivers were still responsible to move men and supplies after the fighting stopped.

Although this article focuses on the East African Campaign, a brief history of Private Singh adds some personal touch to life during the war.

In mid-March 1942, Utham and men from his unit travelled the 500 km from Nairobi to the Kenyan port of Mombasa and boarded a ship on 17/18 March bound for the port of Suez, Egypt, arriving on 21 March 1941. On 5 April 1942, he was assigned to 101 Reserve Motor Transport Company to drive trucks for the 2 Cameron Highlanders (British 8 Army). He returned to his South African 101 Reserve Motor Transport Company on 21 May. On 9 August 1942, he was again admitted to a hospital in Cairo Egypt, for the same gastric ulcer complaint.

On 16 October 1942, after the war in North Africa was in effect over, he was placed on a list of men who would be returning to South Africa. He left the Port of Suez, Egypt on a ship bound for Durban on 24 March 1943. On Arrival in Durban, he was transferred to an Indian unit in Durban. He left this unit on 15 April 1943 and was granted 30 days’ leave. On 15 May he was transferred to the Cape Corps Transit camp in Ladysmith and became a member of the Cape Corps. Between 19 July and 26 July 1943 he was granted a further seven days’ leave. He left the Cape Corps on 30 July and was transferred back to the Indian Battalion in Durban. He left the Union Defence Forces (Honourable Discharge) on 3 September 1943 to return to civilian life.


The query about Utham Singh’s service record inevitably resulted in investigating several aspects of the war effort, especially the motorised units that travelled from South Africa to Nairobi, the military strategies applied to create a logistical route supplying forces in central and northern Africa and the almost unknown aspect of the appointment of non-white persons as drivers to execute the various sorties supplying vehicles to armed forces north of the South African borders. .


Archival material
Service Record Singh, U Private Indian Malay Corps: SANDF Archives, May 2022.

Museum documents
Henry, RD (compiler) File: Ford Trucks Unpublished
Henry, RD (compiler) Query: Answer to Mr E Dreyer re motor transport companies 2009

Museum photographs
Non- European Army Service (NEAS) photographic album.

Museum displays
East African and Abyssinian Campaigns 1940/41

Director General War Supplies – A record of the Organisation of the Director-General War Supplies 1939 -1943 and the Director-General of Supplies 1943 – 1945 and Director General Supplies 1945.
Johnson, R.H. Early Motoring in South Africa. Cape Town: Struik, 1975.
Thomson, A.G. The Years of Crisis. Johannesburg: South African Federation of Engineering and Metallurgical Associations, 1946.




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