Monday, 9 May 2016

Armoured Train Wreck

The blog has been quiet for a little while as I’ve been out of the country with Mrs T. We got back early last week, but there were tasks to be done, lawns to be mowed and a job to go to so no chance to sit down at the key board.

We’ve been in Cuba on a tour, visiting the western half of the island and covering the areas haunted by Hemingway. Like a lot of Europeans we thought we’d get in the trip “before the Americans arrive”. This wasn’t expected to be a military history tour de force and whilst I picked up some items for the hat shelf I didn’t and don’t intend to plunge into the Wars of Independence or the Revolutionary War.

However, like most wargamers, I’m partial to an armoured train. Consequently I got moderately excited when I saw that our itinerary included a trip to Santa Clara to visit the Armoured Train monument.

The attack on the armoured train in Santa Clara effectively marked the end of the war against Castro’s revolutionaries for Batista and his forces. It was undertaken by troops under the command of Che Guevara although he wasn’t there personally. You can argue round the houses about whether he masterminded the victory or whether it was one of his subordinates. However, it happened on his watch and if it had gone wrong he’d have taken the blame, so I guess he gets the credit too.

The story goes like this. Batista sets up an armoured train and mans it with 400 of his best troops (they always say things like this; why would he have put 400 useless troops in it?). It is protected by .50 cal MGs and anti-aircraft gun, presumably deployed in ground attack mode, in best “AK47 Republic” style. This wonder weapon would give the forces strategic movement, protection and the power to intimidate the local population and the lightly armed revolutionaries.

Like many of these grandiose plans that have the air of the last roll of the dice it didn’t have the desired effect. Guevara’s forces derailed it with a bulldozer then chucked bundles of grenades underneath it to disable it further. In the event that this tactic failed they had a locomotive packed with explosives they were going to run into it.

As it turned out the initial plan worked and the 400 men in the train surrendered to 13 revolutionaries. Or 25, depending on who you believe. I'm going with the 20 or so, as their names were listed in one of the cars:-

The memorial to the attack in Santa Clara is worth a visit if you’re ever there. It is strikingly Cuban in its execution, combining Revolutionary triumphalism and artistic interpretation.

On approaching the site the first thing you see is the big yellow bulldozer, mounted on a concrete plinth. It looked to me at the time to be one of the best preserved pieces of industrial equipment anywhere on the island. It certainly looked freshly painted, which is more than you can say for a number of things on the island.

The memorial is next to the railway line and consists of a number of box cars and a flat bed. The actual engine itself isn’t there, - presumably too valuable a piece of equipment to leave lying around. Our guide, who was otherwise very good, was unable to tell us where the locomotive is. The guide books are fairly sniffy about the location of the memorial because it is next to a railway line and a busy road, however seeing as that’s where it all happened that’s where the memorial needs to be. 

The whole thing is dominated by a white concrete structure which is an artistic representation of an explosion. One of the box cars has an art gallery in it. Very Cuban.

The Green Markers highlight the bullet holes 
As far as I can make out it was more of a mobile command post with bodyguards than an armoured train as most of us would understand it. It had a number of drawbacks. First up, the floor is made of wood, hence the effectiveness of throwing grenades or molotovs underneath it.

One of the troop cars. Note the wooden planking floor.
Secondly the defensive armour isn’t something to trust your life too. It consists of two steel/iron sheets with an infill of wet sand to stop spalling inside the cars. 

Thirdly there don’t seem to be any firing ports. You have to slide open the doors in order to fire. Finally the flat bed with the AA guns on it doesn’t have folding sides so you can’t depress the barrels to fire at targets on the ground.

I suspect I’m being unfair, but you wouldn’t get me inside it.

So it really is no surprise that the occupants took the first opportunity to surrender when the whole thing feel off the track.

The whole thing is commemorated on the reverse of the Three Convertible Cuban Peso Banknote.

 Yes, the Cubans have a three denomination note. It was introduced so they'd have a note to put Che on.

After all, the man was a hero.


  1. Bien Hecho! So, is the world view that Americans will spoil Cuba?

    1. Not necessarily. I think it is more that they'll overwhelm the place and that it'll be improved to cope with them, eventually.

      Cuba can barely cope with the 3 million visitors it gets now. The Cuban Tourist board doesn't advertise because the country can't cope.

      Currently Cuba is great because it is unique. Parts are very beautiful but aren't perfect. The people are lovely but a bit too laid back. The Hotels look great but function in a slightly erratic way. You could fix all of those problems but then it won't be Cuba any more. It'll be a theme park.

  2. I enjoyed the GMT game on the revolution, Cuba Libre. It works for up to four players, though I'm not familiar enough with the detail of the history to comment on hoe accurate it might be.

    1. I've not played that. I think there's some mileage in the Revolutionary War and the US's involvement as they backed both sides at one point.

  3. Is it just me, or is this a real life example of Death Star syndrome? You build a big, expensive super-weapon that-will-make-all-quake-in-terror, put your best troops and kit in it, only for it to get derailed by some hick farm boy who leaves his bulldozer on the tracks. (I may have paraphrased history just a little).

    So now we know where George Lucas got his idea!

    1. I think it was more desperation than anything else. The whole train was rubbish and the troops really didn't want to fight.

      I think the armour etc was more about raising the morale of the troops than cowering the enemy.

      And Guevara's men by that point were hardened revolutionaries, not hick farm boys. They had a plan, and a back up plan too (which is more than the Rebel Alliance had).

      But otherwise, yes, exactly like the Death Star.

      If the Death Star was made out of cardboard and manned by idiots.

  4. An excellent review Graham, thanks for sharing.

    Regards, Chris

    1. It's a long way to go and look at 4 or 5 box cars. Lucky they have cocktails too.