The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 12 No 1 - June 2001

The activities of the South African Engineer Corps in Italy
as recorded by the South African War Artist, L T (Ben)
Burrage during the Second World War (1939-1945)

by Allan Sinclair

Allan Sinclair is the Curator of the Military Art Collection at the South African National Museum of Military History

One of seven officially appointed South African artists of the Second World War, Leslie Thomas (Ben) Burrage (1909-1983) almost always made a point of describing in writing what was being depicted in his paintings and drawings. We are fortunate that these descriptions have been preserved along with the collection of works of art at the South African National Museum of Military History, Saxonwold, Johannesburg, where they are a valuable source of reference for the works themselves.

Burrage's main contribution to the war art scheme was his depiction of the activities of the South African Engineer Corps (SAEC). The following article will serve to highlight the fine record created by Burrage to illustrate the work carried out by the SAEC in Italy. The contemporary and later notes made by the artist are as much a part of the collection as the paintings themselves, as they round off the images created in the works of art.

The South African Engineer Corps in Italy (1943-1945)

The Italian theatre of the Second World War favoured the German defenders more than the Allies, owing mainly to the nature of the Italian topography which the Germans exploited with skill and precision. Amongst other things, every bridge and tunnel on the line of their retreat northwards was demolished. Allied engineering units were therefore very much in demand in maintaining the rate of advance along this destroyed highway system.

The SAEC played a substantial role in the campaign. Their diverse units were in support of both the British 8th Army and the United States 5th Army which, together, formed the Allied 15th Army Group tasked with the liberation of Italy. The units which fell under the General Headquarters were the railway construction, harbour construction and tunnelling companies deployed to repair the damage caused by both German demolitions and Allied bombing; the engineer base workshops supported by a compressed gas depot; the survey companies and a large number of road construction and maintenance companies vital for keeping open the lines of communicatiqn. Other units included a group of field companies in support the 8th Army, a field squadron in support of the 6th South African Armoured Division and various specialised units such as water supply, maintenance and treatment companies, geological survey sections, camouflage and railway or docks operating companies (N Orpen and H Martin. 1982: forward). The motto of the SAEC, ubique, which means 'every where', is extremely appropriate when looking at the Italian Campaign (1 L Keene, ed. 1995 202). In recognition of the SAEC's outstanding achievements during the war, His Majesty King George VI granted the corps the privilege of wearing the nine flamed emblem of the Royal Engineers (Orpen & Martin. 1982: Emblem)

Ben Burrage and the War Art Programme

In November 1943, L T Burrage was appointed as one of seven official South African war artists. Not wanting to repeat the error of not having preserved in any real manner a record of the role played by South Africa during the First World War (1914-1918) the South African Government set up programmes to preserve for posterity the details of the country's participation in the Second World War (1939-1945). One of these programmes was the appointment of official war artists to depict in works of art the activities of the Union Defence Forces (UDF) and related matters (C Kruger. 1990: 48).

Leslie Thomas Burrage (1909-1983)
official South African War Artist
(Photo by courtesy of the SA National Museum of Military History)

Burrage himself originally attested in the SAEC during the early years of the war and he served with the Concealment and Camouflage Section, his role being to illustrate instructional pamphlets and posters on camouflage. His appointment as a war artist took him to the Middle East and Italy where, amongst other things, he recorded some of the activities of the various SAEC units, such as the repair work undertaken in Ancona Harbour. After a period of service back in South Africa, he was officially requested by SAEC Headquarters to return to Italy to record more of the work being carried out by the sapper units there. These included the reconstruction of many bridges and repairs to the damaged Mount Cenis Tunnel between Italy and France (N P C Huntingford. 1981: 5,6).

The paintings and descriptions of the SAEC activities in Italy

As will be seen by studying the seventeen paintings presented below, Burrage's portrayals of the SAEC at work are remarkably realistic and the artist took great pains to record the finest detail. While headings, type of media used and dates have been added for the interest of the reader, the descriptions provided below are in Burrage's own words.

Appennino Tunnel, southern portal

Burrage - Appennino Tunnel, southern portal
(SANMMH Cat No 1072)

Later note by artist, February 1980:
'The restoration of the rail link from Prato to Bologna (approximately 80km) through the Appennines was essential for the successful Allied advance in central Italy, and was the most impressive achievement of the Railways Construction and Tunnelling Companies, SAEC, during the war. The painting shows the repaired southern portal of the 19 km Appennino Tunnel. Above the portal, the massive demolition caused the mountain side to slide down, necessitating considerable shoring against the sideways pressure. The demolition also dammed up the drainage water which flooded the tunnel for some 600 metres to the north. A further complication was that the road bridge on top of the portal had to be kept open throughout the construction work as it carried the main Allied route to the battle area.' (Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1012, SANMMH).

Bitumen mixing plant near the Austrian border

Burrage - Bitumen mixing plant near the Austrian border
(SANMMH Cat No 1028)

Contemporary note by artist:
'25, 27 and 31 Companies which make up the Roads Group, SAEC, have been engaged in constructing and maintaining roads from Cassino right up to Austria. The plant shown here heats crushed stone removes the loose dust which is blown off in a white cloud, and then adds the clean stone to heated bitumen in carefully controlled quantities. The rated capacity of this machine, which is mobile, and so facilitate's operation over a wide area, is a daily output of 200 tons of bitumen pre-mix used for roads surfacing. The bitumen heaters in the foreground were developed by the Roads Group during the campaign in the desert and are known by the nickname, Queen Mary.' (Official World War II Art Catalague, Cat No 1028, SANMMH).

Distilling mustard gas

Burrage, Distilling mustard gas
(SANMMH Cat No 1082)

Contemporary notes by artist:
'23 Anti-gas Laboratory (Field Section) SAEC, has done much valuable and often dangerous work in the realm of chemical warfare. Their numerous tasks have included analysis of new enemy explosives and jet-propulsion fluids, and testing of enemy anti-gas equipment. The illustration shows a staff-sergeant of this unit distilling a mustard gas sample from a shell charging in order to determine the degree of deterioration, the apparatus being set up in a fume cupboard in their laboratory in Rome. A high vacuum pump (right foreground) creates a partial vacuum throughout the apparatus, which lowers the evaporation point of the liquid gas. A series of chemical filters grouped behind the pump prevent any of the deadly fumes from reaching the pump and contaminating the laboratory. The respirator is an added precaution.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1082, SANMMH).

Diver demolishing a sunken wreck
Oil on canvas

Contemporary note by artist:
'The painting was made from notes on colour and atmosphere after a descent (by the artist) in Ancona Harbour (on the Adriatic coast of Italy) on 29 August 1944. It shows a diver of 41 Harbour Construction Company, SAEC, inserting an electric detonator into a ring of plastic explosive he has pressed around the mast of a sunken ship. This was part of an extensive clearing operation undertaken by the sappers in the badly damaged harbour to restore the berthing facilities for Allied shipping.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1083, SANMMH).

Mount Cenis Tunnel, Bardonecchia end
Oil on linen-backed paper

General note applying to a series of seven illustrations completed by the artist:
'The Mount Cenis Tunnel, on the railway line between Turin and Paris, is 12,5 km long and cuts through the Western Alps. The tunnel was demolished at both ends by the Germans, blocked by debris and barbed-wire entanglements, heavily mined and booby trapped, and flooded for over 3 km at the eastern end. This was the SAEC's last final major assignment of the war and 61 and 62 Tunnelling Companies, operating respectively from Bardonecchia at the Italian end and Modane at the French end, were detailed to clear and repair the tunnel. After considerable progress, the South Africans were recalled to South Africa and the task had to be completed by Italian and French contractors.' (N P C Huntingford. 1981:9).

Contemporary note by artist:
'Mount Cenis Tunnel - Bardonecchia end: Although it was possible to climb over the huge heap of fallen rock in the first demolition, the second demolition was a complete blockage. Thus a small exploratory tunnel had to be driven through the top of the second break in order to find out how far it extended. The painting shows German POWs, supervised by South African engineers, excavating this small tunnel. As this was being cut through the demolition itself, great care had to be exercised, as there was considerable danger of the fractured rock falling or caving in. When they finally holed through, the engineers found the demolition to be roughly the same extent as the first one, with about six million gallons of water dammed up behind it.'

Later note by artist, 10 April 1979:
'The work was executed by 61 Tunnelling Company, SAEC.' (Official World War 11 Art Catalogue, Cat No 1169, SANMMH).

Portable cable transporter
Brush and wash

Burrage, Portable cable transporter
(SANMMH Cat No 1207)

Contemporary note by artist:
'This cable-way, designed and constructed by 82 Engineer Base Workshops, SAEC, was used with great effect for ferrying jeeps and 6 pounder guns across narrow gaps during the Italian Campaign. It is designed for rapid erection, and can be operated within an hour and a half of arrival at the scene. Automatic and hand operated brakes on the carrier enable the raising and lowering and return journey to be worked from one winch on the tower on the near bank. The load runs to the far bank by gravity. An unlucky accident caused the death of one of the engineer officers responsible for the development of this device. ' (Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1207, SANMMH).

Rail bridge over the Livenza River
Watercolour highlighted with white on buff paper

Burrage, Rail bridge over the Livenza River
(SANMMH Cat No 1217)

Contemporary note by artist:
'The German locomotive in the foreground fell in the river bed, damming up the water, when the original structure of this bridge at Sacile collapsed. It had to be dragged out of the way before 61 Tunnelling Company, SAEC, who built the bridge shown here, could commence work. Further back a temporary bridge, carrying a deviation line, can be seen. The tapered girder on the right of the drawing is a launching nose, used to support the weight of the bridge proper as it is pushed out over the gap. The nose is then removed and the massive girder is lowered by means of jacks into its final position on the concrete abutments.' (Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1217, SANMMH).

Rail bridge over the Piave River
Watercolour on buff paper

Burrage, Railway bridge over the
Piave River (SANMMH Cat 1218)

Contemporary note by artist:
'This bridge is near Conegliano, also on the main line to north-eastern Italy. Eighteen of the original spans were destroyed by bombing, and many of the piers had to be rebuilt by 38 Railway and 61 Tunnelling companies who handled the repair job. The bridge, 15 000 ft long, spans the Piave, known as the "Sacred River" because it was here that the Austrians were finally held after the breakthrough at Caporetta during the 1914-1918 War. A large memorial, commemorating the event, stands on a nearby hill. Although, at the season the sketch was made, the river is only a broad stretch of dusty stone with perhaps a couple of small streams trickling down, after heavy rains in the mountains to the north or when the snow melts it can become a raging torrent the whole width of the river bed in a few hours.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1218, SANMMH)

Rail bridge over the Tagliamento River
Watercolour on buff paper

Burrage, Rail bridge over the Tagliamento River
(SANMMH, Cat No 1219)

Contemporary note by artist:
'[Thirty-six] odd miles east of the Piave River, near Codriopo, the main line to Austria and Trieste again crosses another very wide river, this time the Tagliamonto. The half-mile long double track bridge has 36 spans, and of these only four remained in place after the heavy Allied bombing. 39 Railway Construction Company and 62 Tunnelling Company, SAEC, who did the repair work, could use only 26 of the original 72 trusses when building a single track line through. Sixteen of the piers and the east abutments had to be reconstructed. When the drawing was made, all but two of the trusses, one of which can be seen being repaired to the left of the bridge, were on the piers, although the one in the foreground, on which shrapnel can be seen, is still out of line. A Bailey pier is being erected under this so that it can be jacked into position. The river in the sketch is a mere trickle but a little over a fortnight later, just after the bridge was finished, it rose to almost the level of the lower part of the trusses.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1219, SANMMH)

Railway bridge at Grizzana

Burrage, Railway bridge at Grizzana
(SANMMH, Cat No 1220)

Contemporary note by artist:
'Also on the Prato - Bologna line is this bridge near Grizzana, 39 Railway Construction Company, SAEC, who effected the repair, put over six UCRB (unit construction railway bridging) spans each 75 ft long. Five of these rest on LSST ('light single story' truss) piers, while the sixth strengthens the original arch on the far side. Men working on one shift here had a narrow escape when one of the stone arches and piers, weakened by the demolition, collapsed soon after they had left. Activity in this area began to draw enemy fire, and so the spans of the new bridge were run into the tunnel shown in the sketch and kept there until the Germans had been driven further north. Then it was run out and launched onto trestle piers, which had survived the shelling with only minor damage.' (Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1220, SANMMH).

Railway bridge over the River Brenta Watercolour 1945

Burrage, Railway bridge over the River Brenta
(SANMMH Cat No 1221)

Contemporary' note by artist:
'Originally a double track through span, carrying the main line to north-eastern Italy, this bridge was found to be completely demolished when the Allies reached the town of Padua. Repair work was carried out by the 40 Railway Construction Company, SAEC. The damaged piers were cut away to foundation level, and wreckage cleared where necessary. New piers and abutments of mass concrete were then constructed to take two spans 90 ft long of UCRB (unit construction railway bridging) and a central 165 ft through truss. Two points of interest attached to the construction of this bridge: it was the first time in this theatre that a through truss of this length had been used as a skew bridge (that is, at an angle to the direction of the piers) or had been launched on rollers. The rollers used were UCRB receiving rollers, designed to take a load of only ten tons - but they stood up to the 80 tons weight of this massive truss, much to the relief of the engineers in charge, and the launching was successfully made.' (Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1221, SANMMH).

Repairing a crater in a quay wall
Watercolour on buff paper

Burrage, Repairing a crater in a quay wall - Ancona Harbour

Contemporary note by artist:
'Repairing a crater in a quay-wall - Ancona harbour. The Germans, using "G" mines, blew huge craters in most of the quay walls in Ancona harbour. In this sketch, sappers of a harbour construction company are filling one of these craters. Divers have cleared the rubble to the foundations and have placed a wooden shutter on the wall face, and the gap behind is being filled with concrete. As soon as this concrete has replaced all the sea water behind the shutter, a front wall will be constructed, the hole behind this filled, and a new surface created on top. The operation shown here is one of 21 similar jobs so far being completed in Ancona harbour by this SAEC company. In the background is a Royal Engineer salvage ship lifting a sunken lighter. Italian pioneers provide labour for the South Africans.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1231, SANMMH).

Road and rail bridges over the Meduna River

Burrage, Road and rail bridges
over the Meduna River
(SANMMH Cat No 1234)

Contemporary note by artist:
'These bridges, carrying the main road and rail routes to north-eastern Italy, Trieste and Austria, were both almost completely demolished by bombing. Corps troops, consisting of 1, 11 and 13 Field Companies and 22 Field Park Company, SAEC, were given the task of repairing them. The road bridge is a Bailey utilising some of the damaged piers of the original bridge for support. It was named 'Jan Smuts Avenue", after the Prime Minister of South Africa. This is also the name of a well-known road in the suburbs of Johannesburg. The rail bridge, not far from completion in the sketch, has been repaired in concrete.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1234, SANMMH).

Road bridge at Exille
Watercolour on buff paper

Burrage, Road bridge at Exille
(SANMMH, Cat No 1235)

Later note by artist, January 1980:
'This double-triple Bailey bridge was built by the South African engineers of 12 Sduadron forming part of 6 Armoured Division. They named it "Ultimate Effort", thinking, mistakenly as it turned out, that it was their last job in Italy. The bridge spans a massive horseshoe shaped demolition on the mountain road above Exille. Exille is a small village to the west of Turin on the route to Bardonecchia clustered around an old fort (centred in the background of the picture) built by Napoleon to defend the French border against possible Italian aggression.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1235, SANMMH).

SA Engineers bridging the Rapido River
Oil on canvas

Burrage, SA Engineers bridging the Rapido River
(SANMMH, Cat No 1258)

Contemporary note by artist:
'This bridge is the first over the Rapido River and it is part of a magnificent feat performed by the SAEC in pushing roads through the devastated area. Here it is seen nearing completion as it appeared the day after Cassino fell before the Allied breakthrough. The ruins of Cassino (the village) can be seen in the background below the mountain on which Cassino monastery was built. This work was carried out under enemy observation from Monte Cairo which necessitated the use of continuous smoke screens.
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1258, SANMMH).

'Springbok Bridge' on the River Po

Burrage, 'Springbok Bridge' on the River Po
(SANMMH, Cat No 1271)

Contemporary note by artist:
'Designed from recce photographs taken from the air while the River Po was still in enemy hands, this bridge was built and tested at Consentico a month before the Po area fell before the advance of the Allies. Constructed of triple-double, reinforced Bailey, it had a continuous length of 1 010 ft, being pinned at one end, floating at the other and running on rollers on all three piers. The spans measure 220 ft, 275 ft, 275 ft, and 220 ft, and it was built by two field companies and one field park company SAEC, using two Italian pioneer companies as labour, in the remarkably short time of eight days. The SAEC officer responsible for the design flew to England to consult with Mr Bailey regarding the special reinforcing needed by exceptionally long spans. It is classified as Class 40; restricted and very careful control is exercised on the spacing of vehicles using it. At the time this drawing was made, heavy rains in the Turin area had raised the river level at Ferara by 17 ft, making the pontoon bridge upstream unusable, and so the Springbok Bridge was carrying both the north and southbound traffic at this busy centre.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1271, SANMMH)

In the workshops, Ancona Harbour

Later note by artist, 30 January 1980:
'A sapper of 41 Harbour Construction Company, SAEC, helped by Italian pioneers, cutting a thread on a 6-inch pipe to be used in the repair of the harbour. Ancona was one of the biggest reconstruction jobs carried out by the company. The sapper is wearing one of the original issue of helmets (of which the possessors became very proud) on which the SAEC flash can be clearly seen.'
(Official World War II Art Catalogue, Cat No 1729, SANMMH)

Burrage, In the workshops, Ancona Harbour
(SANMMH Cat No 1729)


Burrage was clearly proud of his association with the sappers, an association which was to last the rest of his life. After the war he became an active member of the Sappers Association. He was involved with the design of the Hall of Remembrance at Sapperrust near Hartbeespoort Dam and served as editor of SA Sapper, the official magazine of the Association. His death in May 1983 was mourned by many ex-sappers all around the country (SA Sapper, June 1983)

The works shown above, along with those by other war artists in the colledion at the SA National Museum of Military History play an important part in recording and preserving our country's military heritage Ben Burrage's work in particular will always serve as a lasting testament to South African sappers who served in the Second World War


File 920 - Burrage L T, South African National Museum of Military History Archives: Obituary in SA Sapper June 1983
Huntingford, N P C, The World War Two works of Ben Burrage, (South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg: 1981)
Keene, J L (ed), South Africans in World War Two, a pictorial history (Human & Rousseau, Cape Town: 1995)
Kruger, C, South African Images of War, (South African National Museum of Military History Johannesburg: 1990)
Unpublished Official World War II Art Catalogue, South African National Museum of Military History
Orpen, N & Martin, H J, Salute the Sappers, Part II (Sappers Association, Johannesburg: 1982)

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