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North African railroads

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North African railroads

Postby DrG on 30 Jun 2004 01:35

About the use of railroads, I've found these info here:
When the Germans got back to Benghazi in 1942 they found the railway in Benghazi, which ran a distance of 130km to Barce, in a bad condition and only one diesel locomotive was operating in Benghazi harbour. The line was blocked by destroyed trucks and locomotives but was cleared and was due to start operating on 4 April. But on that day a section of the line near Benina, about 40km from Benghazi, was destroyed and a locomotive damaged by an explosion, the cause of which was not known. The line was not repaired until 6 April, when the first train ran early that morning. Barce station was also cleared and could be used.

In an attack during the night of 7 April on the O.Qu. camp, thought to be possibly an assassination attempt as the Qu.2 camp was completely burned out, another explosion affected about 25km of the line, although the damage was repaired by the following evening. By 14 April the Germans had managed to patch up two locomotives which the British had left behind. Initially the Italians displayed no interest in the railway and German labour was used exclusively to get it working again. On 16 April the first shipment of 140 tons of ammunition was transported, with each train having a capacity of up to 150 tons. In twenty working days during April 1,306 tons of goods and 114 passengers were carried, an average of about 65 tons per day, in spite of the "primitive conditions."

By the beginning of May the two locomotives repaired during April were operating in Benghazi. The Italians handed over a third to the Germans at Tripoli on 3 May, which had to be brought overland to Benghazi on a German deep bed trailer. It set out on 8 May, and when operating it was estimated that the capacity of the railway would be increased by 100 tons per day. The special advantage of the railway was its proximity to Benghazi harbour, so that fewer trucks had to be used to transfer goods from ship to train. But railway personnel were scarce and since the Germans had no trained staff of their own they were compelled to rely on a few Arabs. Trained drivers in particular were needed and O.Qu. Rom was asked to send out at least one platoon of railway engineers immediately, bearing in mind the possibility that the Mersa Matruh-Sollum-Tobruk railway might also be acquired before long.

During June 1942 1638 tons of ammunition, 1744 tons of fuel, 95 tons of provisions, 35 tons of other goods, 986 tons of Italian goods and 638 passengers were carried by the Benghazi-Barce railway. In the three months April, May and June 2578 tons of ammunition, 3649 tons of fuel and 95 tons of provisions were carried.

On 8 July the Benghazi-Barce railway, which no longer possessed great strategical importance, was taken over by an Italian owned private firm.

Because more traffic was coming to Benghazi, on 10 September 1942 the Italians made available all their railway trucks for German transport and by the end of September the narrow gauge line between Benghazi-Barce was being used more than ever before, with a daily performance of 50-60 tons.

When the British captured Benghasi in November 1942, two steam engines and 250 wagons, each with a capacity of seven tons, were captured intact on the narrow gauge railway. The first train ran again on 5 December, clearing supplies from the docks to depots, and it was hoped that another five steam and two diesel engines would also be put into service in the near future.


About the use of the [near]Tobruk-el Alamein railroad after the occupation of Tobruk (21 June 1942), the British were able to withdraw almost the complete rolling stock including their steam locomotives. But after that 30 Italian shunters (small locomotives) and later 8 German locomotives (all diesel-driven) were brought in, full operation was restored on 8 Aug. 1942.
Rail transport capacity between Tobruk, Marsa Matruh and el Daba (near el Alamein) was around 7,000 metric tons/month. Not that much if compared to the about 10,000 trucks with an average load of 2.7 t, but it helped to save fuel.
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Postby Jon G. on 30 Jun 2004 08:22

This is interesting info, DrG. Do you know if any serious attempts were made to expand the rail line in the direction of Tripolis in 1940-1942?

The modest tonnage totals you mention suggest that it must have been a narrow-gauged railroad.

I can remember seeing a picture of a captured Marmon-Herrington armoured car in German service converted to run on tracks. Presumably, this must have been on the rail line from Alamein to Tobruk.
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Postby DrG on 30 Jun 2004 11:30

Shrek wrote:This is interesting info, DrG. Do you know if any serious attempts were made to expand the rail line in the direction of Tripolis in 1940-1942?

There was a tiny railway between Agedabia and ez-Zuetina, at first I thought it was part of a planned railway along the coast, maybe to Tripoli, but I have not found info. Instead, according to this map of 1933, it seems that no railway from Cyrenaica to Tripoli was planned, and that also the railways projected (Soluch-Agedabia and Barce-Cirene-Derna) in that year were almost not built (this might have been caused by the decision of building the cheaper Balbia road).
I can remember seeing a picture of a captured Marmon-Herrington armoured car in German service converted to run on tracks. Presumably, this must have been on the rail line from Alamein to Tobruk.

Or in Cyrenaica. By the way, also the Italian armored car AB 41 was used also on railways, but as far as I know it happened only in the Balkans.
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Postby Jon G. on 28 Jan 2005 09:08

This thread is becoming a classic... I will skip on all your hardware points. Mea culpa confusing the Meteor for the Liberty engine, though my basic point was that the Crusader was, at the very best, a mediocre tank due to its powerplant.

The Argus wrote:...Railways.
As has been indicated with the will a railway could have been built across to Tobruk, for example in the same period two companies of Australian RR engineers built a standard gauge line from where the WI track ended to the Turkish border. Incidentally in doing this they compleated the line from Europe to Cairo, but with the creation of Israel the line has been abandoned for 50 years even if most of the earthworks are still there. The problem of course was finding the will and the Axis just didn't have it.


Another problem was that all the equipment for building a railroad across Libya would have to be sailed in by way of Tripolis and Benghazi, which were totally underdimensioned. Save for possibly some local workers, everything would have to be transported in from Europe. Most North African railroads were narrow-gauged, IIRC that included the line from El Alamein to Tobruk. Even the much denser rail network in French North Africa was narrow-gauged.

I don't buy the argument that rail transport is more vulnrable than road traffic, with the ecconomies of scale its easier to keep a bombed railway working than support the raod traffic it replaces even without bombing. Look at Russia on bothsides. If need be you can even run rail 'convoys' under air escort, one train making the trip is worth ten truck convoys.


Yes, I agree. To put a rail line out of operation you have to bomb it repeatedly and preferably at choke points such as bridges and tunnels - of which there would be very few if any in the desert. Just look at the massive interdiction effort in Normandy to keep the rail lines out of operation.

Fuel
Someone asked that if fuel was such a problem where did they find enough to retreat? The axis were moving back up their supply line, moving through their own depots.


Falling back on your own depots is 'easier' than advancing, but you also need extra fuel and transport to evacuate stores and rear-area personnel. Sometimes stores, particularly British stores, would be left in place by retreating troops, or conversely torched long before it was necessary.

Also, the Germans had perhaps less of a tendency to make big stockpiles of everything, instead preferring a constant pipeline going right back to factory.

...Rommel was the great improviser, he was a jugglers that so long as everything was up in the air he could keep it together. But once he stopped, and lost momentum.... As Alte Mann suggests he had a hazy concept of his own limits, if only because he so rarely found them...


Dazzling tactical brilliance aside, the first time a Panzer Division was brought to an uncompromising halt, it was led by Rommel as IIRC Macksey reminds us.

Just IMHO they were both great Army commanders but not Army Group/Theater commanders. Both were overpromoted and really needed a storong hand to channel their tallents properly.


Well, I don't think either of them would qualify as outright bad commanders, even if Montgomery's handling of the early stage of the Italian campaign was slow, plodding and uninspired.

In terms of personallity, Monty comes across as the least pleasent of the pair, given his decent into arrogance and self promotion...


I think they both had talent there. But it appears to me that they both also had a very good report with their men, and at least Montgomery's moral-building effort up to Alamein was a very conscious effort.
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Postby The Argus on 29 Jan 2005 17:32

Railways
There is nothing wrong with narrow gauge railways, some of the heaviest trains in the world run on a 'narrow gauge.' 3'6" and Meter Gauge are perfectly adaquate for almost anything you can ask of a rail system and are cheaper to build.


British Armoured Car's

Just going on the 11thH's the first mention of Daimlers in their war diary was 4/10/42, when they recieved one from a Yeomanry Reg for training, so if the Yeomanry had sufficent Daimlers to go loaning them out... although the 11th were still on Humbers at the time, Mk.III's. Although at the time of El AL, 7th ArmDiv HQ were useing a Daimler they'd pinched off the 11th as a liasion vehicle... much confusion.

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Postby Jon G. on 30 Jan 2005 00:38

The Argus wrote:Railways
There is nothing wrong with narrow gauge railways, some of the heaviest trains in the world run on a 'narrow gauge.' 3'6" and Meter Gauge are perfectly adaquate for almost anything you can ask of a rail system and are cheaper to build.


Yes, but the railroads of Northern Africa were very light rails - a mere 7000 tons/month for the Tobruk-El Al line per month is absolutely puny compared to what normal-gauged rail lines can handle.

Rommel hoped that the rail line from Tobruk into Egypt could hande 1500 tons a day, a figure that was never even remotely attained.
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Postby Michael Emrys on 30 Jan 2005 03:55

The Argus wrote:Railways
There is nothing wrong with narrow gauge railways, some of the heaviest trains in the world run on a 'narrow gauge.' 3'6" and Meter Gauge are perfectly adaquate for almost anything you can ask of a rail system and are cheaper to build.


Can you run cars on them wide enough to carry tanks and other wide loads? Also, seems to me that when carrying wide or tall heavy loads, they would have to take the curves a lot slower than a wide gauge line would.
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Postby Jon G. on 30 Jan 2005 04:33

That's one point to consider. Axle load of light railroads may have prevented anything as heavy as a tank from being transported on them in the first place.

At least until the Tigers - which needed special preparations before they could be transported by rail - came around, German tanks were built with normal-gauged rail transport in mind.
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Postby The Argus on 30 Jan 2005 18:23

I agree, not all narrow gauges are created equal, what you can do on 2' is nothing compared to the capacity of 3'6" and as Shrek mentions line weight is serious factor, its more important than gauge. But there is no problem putting overwidth loads on narrow gauges, provideing it's within the loading gauge of the railway. Look at any train, they're all wider than their tracks.

The loading gauge defines the dimentions of anything moving on the system, it also sets maximum weights and speeds, trains back then had to slow down on corners anyway, and the posted speed reflected the maximum loading gauge.

I suspect the limits on the African railways were more to do with traffic control, turnarond times and rollingstock than the track though, light rails only limit the axle weight and sometimes the potential speed. Not the total load or the frequency of traffic. A light rail might mean you can only run 40 ton cars instead of 50 toners but hardly stop you from running 3x40s inplace of 2x50's if the cars and locomotive power is available. If the axis railways in NA had bottle necks, I'd bet they were in finding trains to run on them, and then loading/unloading them.

a) The sort of engines suited to such colonial lines in peacetime (unless there was a lot of mineral traffic) would have been far smaller than the lines could have handled.
b) The peacetime rollingstock inventory would have been scaled to suit peacetime traffic, so fallen short of a maximum effort wartime situation.
c) The track would have been laid out with peacetime traffic in mind, so probably short on the extra trackwork that enables higher density operations (turnouts, passing loops, goods yards etc.).
d) a,b and c when combined with the maintainance issues they would have faced and any battle dammage would have also hurt the system baddly.

All these things can be delt with, but they require an infusion of men and material.

I used to play around on a 2' gauge preserved railway, intended for passenger and light rural traffic, we had flats that could have handeled a PzIV - though not a Tiger. A tank is a pretty small thing compared to the average locomotive.


shane

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Quote-
"...but the railroads of Northern Africa were very light rails - a mere 7000 tons/month for the Tobruk-El Al line per month is absolutely puny compared to what normal-gauged rail lines can handle."

I think we need to look at that 7000ton/month in context, before blameing it on the rail. Was there demand for more? Was rolling stock available? Manpower, fuel, labour, how sophistocated was the traffic direction system... There were a lot more factors at play than just the track weight.
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North African railroads

Postby Michael Emrys on 21 Mar 2006 22:01

Split off from this thread: viewtopic.php?t=10886&start=0

Jon G. wrote:...the British-built railroad from Tobruk to Egypt...


Which would have been useful to him only if he had engines and rolling stock to run on it, and if the Luftwaffe had been successful at protecting those from the RAF. It might have been an interesting scenario...

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Postby Jon G. on 22 Mar 2006 02:27

Well, Rommel did capture a bit of the British-built railroad, along with some rolling stock, during his 1942 offensive. It was hoped that the rail line could deliver 1500 tons of supplies a day to Rommel's army at Alamein, but in reality only ~300 tons/day were delivered.

We've discussed the North African rail line before, here:

viewtopic.php?p=631387#631387

The rail line was built by Australian engineer soldiers and ended up going from the Syria's border to Turkey all the way to Tobruk. Quite an accomplishment considering that the rail line was built in wartime. The British had a far better base area to begin with in Egypt than the Axis did in Tripolitania, but they were also far more interested in further improving their infrastructure. The Axis was not willing, or able, to do much about the poor infrastructure of Libya.
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Postby Bronsky on 22 Mar 2006 10:01

Michael Emrys wrote:
Jon G. wrote:...the British-built railroad from Tobruk to Egypt...


Which would have been useful to him only if he had engines and rolling stock to run on it, and if the Luftwaffe had been successful at protecting those from the RAF. It might have been an interesting scenario...


The British-built railroad didn't run to Tobruk initially, and it took the Italians a while to make the connection. The first locomotives unloaded were at Mersa Matruh as a result (railway cars weren't much of a problem, locomotives were) but they were quite inadequate.

Overall, the capacity of the rail line was far lower than when in British hands. Without looking up my notes, I have in mind a figure of 300 tons daily which was more or less the target that the Italians set themselves (Germany wanted more) and eventually reached. RAF attacks are factored into that figure of course. The lower the traffic, the harder it is to interdict it.
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Postby Jon G. on 22 Mar 2006 11:17

It's an aside, but it's also a subject which interests me, so there.

Van Creveld has the railroad capacity as 300 tons/day. The target was 1500 tons/day, but never attained. There were bits and pieces of narrow-gauged rail lines in Cyrenaica, the most important line being one running from Benghazi to Barce. This line ran at maximum capacity in September 1942, when more Axis sea traffic was routed through Benghazi.

The British line, which eventually was expanded up to Tobruk, was a more formidable undertaking and the line had far more capacity on account of being normal-gauged (allowing heavier loads) and more sidings (allowing more trains on the line at a time)

Apparently the real bottleneck in operating either railroad was the total absence of Axis railroad specialists - that meant that Rommel & consorts had to rely on local labour to operate the trains, much as they relied on local labourers as dock workers in Tripolis.
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Postby Bronsky on 22 Mar 2006 17:29

Jon G. wrote:Van Creveld has the railroad capacity as 300 tons/day. The target was 1500 tons/day, but never attained.


The source that I was thinking of was an Italian history. Though I may well have remembered van Creveld's figure instead, that Italian source (generally apologetic) says that the Italians eventually met the target - the Italian, not the German, one.

Jon G. wrote:There were bits and pieces of narrow-gauged rail lines in Cyrenaica, the most important line being one running from Benghazi to Barce. This line ran at maximum capacity in September 1942, when more Axis sea traffic was routed through Benghazi.


Yes, and an extension was projected all the way to Tobruk. The line was surveyed, work started on it, but the same problems held it as had sunk the previous project of linking Tripoli to Tunisia. In the book I'm thinking of, there's that picture of an Italian RR engineer proudly smiling as his train is opening up the new segment of the line, the date being more or less when Rommel was forced to withdraw from El Alamein.

Jon G. wrote:The British line, which eventually was expanded up to Tobruk, was a more formidable undertaking and the line had far more capacity on account of being normal-gauged (allowing heavier loads) and more sidings (allowing more trains on the line at a time)


It depends on how you rate the undertaking. The British line was laid directly on the ground, with no ballast (that area was sand, remember). So from an engineering point of view, that was less formidable than the work done by the Italians in Cyrenaica. From the point of view of resources, obviously it was a greater undertaking.

And yes, the line was eventually expanded up to Tobruk (by the Italians) but by the time the Axis captured it it had stopped near Bir El Suessi, i.e. 10-15 miles from Tobruk (and the problem of the escarpment). I don't remember offhand when the Italians linked Tobruk, but think that it was in August 1942. I am absolutely positive about the British-built line not linking to Tobruk when it was captured, though.

Jon G. wrote:Apparently the real bottleneck in operating either railroad was the total absence of Axis railroad specialists - that meant that Rommel & consorts had to rely on local labour to operate the trains, much as they relied on local labourers as dock workers in Tripolis.


That was one of the many bottlenecks. The most crippling one was lack of rolling stock - the Italians used maneuvering locomotives, quite unsuited to long-haul work, and with a top speed of some 25 (mph ? km/h ? I don't remember). I think I posted more details either here or on the Afrika Korps forum, but I am too lazy to find the posts. Eventually, the Germans sent a handful of real locomotives, while the British had evacuated all of theirs, including the good US-built ones (diesel locos, so no need for water).

The second-most crippling shortage as far as the Libya to Egypt line was concerned, and the single most crippling one as far as extending lines was concerned, was shortage of rails. The Italians had a stock of rails for something like 30km, the Germans had none to spare (they were already plundering their own and the French railroad stocks to support operations in Germany and Russia), and Italy was short of steel so there was no prospect of manufacturing new ones. The British obviously didn't consider finding a few hundred miles' worth of rails a show-stopper. I don't know if the rails were supplied by British or American industry, but as the rail line extension started on the wake of Compass, I suspect that the answer is "both".

EDIT: Jon, could you please move this post when Tigre has finished his series of postings so that it shouldn't break Tigre's sequence ? Otherwise, I'll delete it and repost later.
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Postby Jon G. on 23 Mar 2006 22:23

Hi Bronsky,

I've set out to acquire some promising literature recommended to me by JonS. In the meantime...

Bronsky wrote:The source that I was thinking of was an Italian history. Though I may well have remembered van Creveld's figure instead [300t], that Italian source (generally apologetic) says that the Italians eventually met the target - the Italian, not the German, one.


OK. It would be interesting to know what caused the Germans and the Italians to have such differing expectations to the capacity of the rail line. I suspect even the 300 tons/day figure is too high if it covers traffic from Tobruk to El Alamein. If Rommel had anything just approaching that magnitude of supplies delivered to the frontline for a continuous month (at least, and still allowing for the Italians to link the last stretch to Tobruk), his strategic situation would have been entirely different by late October than it was historically.

Jon G. wrote:There were bits and pieces of narrow-gauged rail lines in Cyrenaica, the most important line being one running from Benghazi to Barce. This line ran at maximum capacity in September 1942, when more Axis sea traffic was routed through Benghazi.


Yes, and an extension was projected all the way to Tobruk. The line was surveyed, work started on it, but the same problems held it as had sunk the previous project of linking Tripoli to Tunisia. In the book I'm thinking of, there's that picture of an Italian RR engineer proudly smiling as his train is opening up the new segment of the line, the date being more or less when Rommel was forced to withdraw from El Alamein.


Do you know why the Italians eventually settled for building the Via Balbia, rather than a rail line? It's of course more resource-demanding to build a rail line than a road, but assuming that you settle for a light, narrow-gauged railroad the difference should not have been that great. The French had a fairly extensive (by comparison) rail net in Tunisia, where building roads and rails is more difficult because of the mountainous terrain.

Jon G. wrote:The British line, which eventually was expanded up to Tobruk, was a more formidable undertaking and the line had far more capacity on account of being normal-gauged (allowing heavier loads) and more sidings (allowing more trains on the line at a time)


It depends on how you rate the undertaking. The British line was laid directly on the ground, with no ballast (that area was sand, remember). So from an engineering point of view, that was less formidable than the work done by the Italians in Cyrenaica. From the point of view of resources, obviously it was a greater undertaking...


OK, but I was taking the entire length of the British railroad in the Middle East into account when I rated it as a 'more formidable undertaking'; laying rails directly on the ground is something you can only get away with in an arid, flat landscape. From the few pictures I've seen it appears that the Italian narrow-gauged line had only light ballast.

Presumably the British line was ballasted where it was needed. I have not yet found out what the axle-load limit was of the two rail lines; normal-gauged rails usually can take heavier axle-loads than narrow-gauged lines, but axle-load is also affected by ballasting.

Jon G. wrote:Apparently the real bottleneck in operating either railroad was the total absence of Axis railroad specialists - that meant that Rommel & consorts had to rely on local labour to operate the trains, much as they relied on local labourers as dock workers in Tripolis.


That was one of the many bottlenecks. The most crippling one was lack of rolling stock - the Italians used maneuvering locomotives, quite unsuited to long-haul work, and with a top speed of some 25 (mph ? km/h ? I don't remember). I think I posted more details either here or on the Afrika Korps forum, but I am too lazy to find the posts. Eventually, the Germans sent a handful of real locomotives, while the British had evacuated all of theirs, including the good US-built ones (diesel locos, so no need for water)...


Well, the difference between engine types tends to blur on lighter railroads. Endurance of the engines would probably be more deciding in capacity of the rail line - you can't run much faster than 25 mph or so on a rail line which is not ballasted (or lightly ballasted) anyway. Incidentally, the German war effort was not really short of railroad locomotives. In another context I recall reading that the Germans could send supply trains to Italy in 1944 and not worry about seeing the train or its engine again. Compared to tanks and airplanes steam locomotives are decidedly low-tech.

The second-most crippling shortage as far as the Libya to Egypt line was concerned, and the single most crippling one as far as extending lines was concerned, was shortage of rails. The Italians had a stock of rails for something like 30km, the Germans had none to spare...The British obviously didn't consider finding a few hundred miles' worth of rails a show-stopper. I don't know if the rails were supplied by British or American industry, but as the rail line extension started on the wake of Compass, I suspect that the answer is "both".


Interesting with the shortage of rails. Obviously rails, sleepers and just about everything else would have to be shipped to Libya, but the British could probably get away with procuring some of the materials they needed locally. Overall, though, it appears that rail lines in North Africa simply weren't much of an Axis priority. If the Germans had devoted anything similar to the Eisenbahntruppen in Libya, I'm sure they would have been able to expand Libya's modest rail net considerably.
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