World War II: Atrocities on the Line

ALTHOUGH THE RAILROADS’ ROLE IN WORLD WAR II was not quite as fundamental as it had been during the World War I (see The Field Railroads of World War I), they were nevertheless a vital part of the logistics of war. With gasoline in short supply and a lack of modernized roads in many conflict areas, the railroads carried troops and supplies far and wide. However, the railroads were also involved in two of the greatest war crimes of the World War II: the Holocaust, which resulted in the deaths of two thirds of all the Jews in Europe at the hands of the Third Reich, and the construction of the Burma (now Myanmar) to Siam (now Thailand) Railway, for which the Japanese used prisoners of war. These two events portray a darker side that is often left untold in railroad histories, but vividly, if hauntingly, demonstrates the power of the railroads and their significance to those who controlled them.

Approximately six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, along with millions more from other groups such as Slavs, Poles, Romanies, communists, and homosexuals. Most of the victims were taken to death camps by train, and the sheer volume and speed of the deportations would not have been possible without intensive use of the railroads. Any other method of transportation would have presented insuperable problems—to have devoted so many trucks to the task would have damaged the Germans’ war effort, and marching victims along roads might have revealed the true horrors of the Nazi’s plans to the wider population.

The first of these trains were used principally to move German Jews to ghettos and ran between Germany and Poland (and then further east to Riga in Latvia). The grim dispatch of Jews and other sections of the population to the concentration and death camps began in the spring of 1942, and the flow intensified over the following two years. These deportations were carried out in a systematic manner on an industrial scale, as part of the “Final Solution” agreed at the notorious Wannsee conference in January 1942. Efficiency was seen as essential and required the active involvement of numerous German government ministries, including the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the Transport Ministry, and the Foreign Office, as well as the corresponding organizations in other allied or occupied states who were required to hand over their citizens. Many railroad workers were involved, too.

The deportations were mostly carried out in freight cars. Some victims, notably those from the Netherlands and Belgium, were transported in third class passenger cars, partly to maintain the subterfuge that they were merely being re-homed. Conditions on the trains were appalling: the freight cars were supposed to be filled with up to 50 people, but in fact, due to a shortage of cars, they sometimes had as many as 150 occupants, which meant standing room only. Trains could carry a maximum of only 55 cars each, as anything longer would travel too slowly. There was no food or water on the journey and only a bucket latrine. The only ventilation was through a barred window and consequently many people suffocated. In the summer, the temperature could be unbearably hot and victims baked, while in the winter the temperature plummeted and victims froze. The trains were given the lowest priority on the railroad network and consequently journeys were often delayed while more important military convoys were allowed through. This meant that the deportees were sometimes held in sidings for days and the average time for journeys, which should have taken a day or so, was four and a half days. The longest journey involved the deportation of Jews from the Greek island of Corfu, who were taken by boat to the Greek mainland and then transferred to a train. The train was held up several times and consequently took 18 days to reach Auschwitz. By then, many of the occupants were already dead. Given the conditions, length of the journey, and the lack of food and water, deaths in transit were common and most trains arrived containing several corpses.


One of the least known but cruelest parts of the deportation process was the fact that the victims were forced to buy tickets for the journey, a full one-way fare for adults, with children being charged half price. This scheme generated an astonishing amount of revenue, calculated at around 240 million Reichmarks (around $201 million). At the peak of the process, there were up to 10 trains per week arriving at the camps. For the Nazis, it was the very efficiency of this mode of transportation that made the extermination of so many people possible. The despatch of trains only began to slow down when the Allies invaded France in the summer of 1944 and the operation ceased entirely as the Third Reich began to fall apart in the spring of 1945. In the 21st century, several railroad companies have apologized for their role in these wartime deportations, including Dutch railways Nederlandse Spoorwegen in 2005 and French SNCF in 2011.

During the Holocaust the railroads conveyed millions to their deadly destinations. Meanwhile, in Asia it was the railroad line itself that was the scene of another war crime. When the Japanese overran Singapore, the main British naval base in Southeast Asia, in February 1942, they captured more than 80,000 British, Indian, and Australian troops. Along with 50,000 existing prisoners, many were sent to work on the construction of the Burma to Siam Railway, which was intended to provide the Japanese with a vital supply line as they advanced westward, toward India.


As there was no adequate existing road or rail links between the two countries and the sea route was vulnerable to attack from Allied ships and submarines, a railroad seemed the obvious solution. To build the 300-mile (483-km) line, which went through harsh mountainous territory and tropical rainforest, the Japanese used forced labor of up to 330,000 men, mostly made up of conscripted locals, but also including more than 60,000 Allied Prisoners of War. The line was started simultaneously from both ends, Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Siam, in June 1942. There was a constant shortage of materials and most of the equipment, including tracks and ties, was brought from dismantled branches of other local railroads. The human cost was, however, appalling and the line became known as the “Death Railway.” Dutch merchant sailor Fred Seiker described his experience as PoW on the railway labor force:

You carried a basket from the digging area to the top of the embankment, emptied it and down again to be filled for your next trip up the hill. Or you carried a stretcher—two bamboo poles pushed through an empty rice sack—one chap at each end, and off you went. Simple really. But in reality this job was far from easy. The slopes of the embankments consisted of loose earth, clambering to the top was a case of sliding and slithering with a weight of earth in attendance. This proved to be very tiring on thigh muscles and painful, often resulting in crippling cramp. You just had to stop, you could not move. Whenever this occurred the Japs were on you with their heavy sticks, and beat the living daylight out of you. Somehow you got going again, if only to escape the blows.

Working hours were typically 7:30am to 10pm and the food rations were just 7oz (200g) of rice per day, often with no vegetables, let alone meat. Robert Hardie, a British doctor who was captured in Singapore, described in diaries published posthumously in the 1980s how the Japanese would line up the sick that he was tending and demand that a dozen of them should be sent to the work camp. He wrote: “One is under constant pressure to provide men to work under this Nipponese system: for certain groups of men are given certain work to do in a certain time. If many go sick in a group, the others have to work all the harder and longer.” Hardie also recounted the repeated refusals of his captors to provide even basic medical supplies, as well as their indifference to the spread of diseases, such as cholera, malaria, and dysentery. The death rate was particularly high in the final months of the railroad’s construction as the Japanese were desperate for the line to be completed.


Despite the weakness of the men due to starvation and disease, their sheer numbers and the pressure from their Japanese guards ensured that the line was completed remarkably quickly, in just 16 months. On October 17, 1943, the two sections of the line met, 11 miles (17km) south of the Three Pagodas Pass at Konkuita in Siam. By this time the death toll was estimated to have reached more than 100,000, a figure that included a quarter of all the Allied prisoners. The railroad immediately became a vital part of the Japanese line of communication after their navy lost control of the South China Sea during the summer of 1942. However, as an essential bridge to the Burmese railroad system was never completed, the supply route still entailed transporting some goods via ferry.


The story of the Burma to Siam Railway reached a wider audience through the 1957 David Lean film The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was based on a book by Pierre Boulle. The story refers to Bridge 277, built over a stretch of river that was then called Mae Klong. The tale is largely fiction, since it shows the bridge ultimately being destroyed by sabotage. In reality, the bridge remained in working condition, despite the men’s attempt to undermine it by mixing the concrete poorly and encouraging termites to use wooden supports as nests. Although the film was criticized as unrealistic and failing to depict accurately the appalling conditions which the men lived and died under, it nevertheless helped to ensure that the memory of this terrible project lasted longer than the line itself. Much of the railroad was damaged during the war and it never fully reopened. A few sections, such as the line between Kanchanabur and Nong Pladuk, did reopen in the 1950s, but most of it was abandoned, submerged under water by the Vajiralongkorn dam, or reclaimed by the jungle. Today a daily tourist train runs along the surviving 130-mile (209-km) section, while other parts have been converted to a walking trail. Three large cemeteries honoring those who lost their lives building the line can be found along the route, along with an Australian-built memorial and museum at Hellfire Pass, and several smaller memorials.


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