North African railroads

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Jon G.
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Post by Jon G. » 06 Apr 2007 11:30

As an addendum to the above here is a map of Tunisia's railroads anno 1938. Most of the narrow-gauged lines running roughly east-west were built for transporting minerals - iron, lead and above all phosphates - from the Atlas mountains to the coastal ports. That is, lateral movement by rail in Tunisia was much easier than north-south movement along the coast.

Note also that Tunisia's meter-gauged rail lines do not quite extend all the way to the Libyan border. There was a rail-less gap of some ~200 miles from Gabes to Tripoli.

In total, Tunisia had 362 miles of 1435 mm track, mostly located in the north, and 1,074 miles of meter-gauged track.

Image

...map ruthlessly swiped and copied from Benjamin Thomas' article The Railways of French North Africa, from Economic Geography Vol. 29, no. 2.

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Nacht
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The Gap

Post by Nacht » 06 Apr 2007 13:55

Jon,

We have previously talked about the gap from Gabes... to the border of Libya... my little story may have been read by you about the mining operations in the southeast area of Tunisia... but I had for some reason thought the British had eventually completed this segment in their push forward from Libya in the early part of 1943?

It just seems strange that Rommel and his commanders would not have seen a more critical need early for the necessary infrastructure to supply his necessary fuel, tires, spares, ammunition, and equipment via rail across the stretches of Africa that he was involved. It is apparent when on the outskirts of Alexandria that his plans seemed to mention the acquiral of the British rail network to push forward to the Suez. I was trying to find that reference from his field note to quote here. Since I am in France, my references are less extensive. It is just a pleasure to read your materials to help me get a handle on some of the possible reasons for the lack of initial Italian and German planning for use of the rail network and additions that would have supplanted their efforts.

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Bronsky
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Re: The Gap

Post by Bronsky » 06 Apr 2007 15:43

Nacht wrote:We have previously talked about the gap from Gabes... to the border of Libya... (...) but I had for some reason thought the British had eventually completed this segment in their push forward from Libya in the early part of 1943?


This is the first that I've heard of it, as far as I know they didn't, and besides why should they do that?

They had a working railroad for some of the distance, and by the time they moved far from Tripoli the Axis collapse was clearly a matter days or weeks so there was no point in building a rail line.

Nacht wrote:It just seems strange that Rommel and his commanders would not have seen a more critical need early for the necessary infrastructure to supply his necessary fuel, tires, spares, ammunition, and equipment via rail across the stretches of Africa that he was involved.


I suggest re-reading what I wrote at the beginning of this thread, or the references that I provided (this is not to be coy, just trying to keep thread length down by avoiding repetitions). The Axis was really short of various commodities, Germany simply wasn't in a position to play "arsenal of the autocracies" and its allies were economic basket cases. Diverting that kind of resources to North Africa would have amounted to a major strategic commitment, competing directly with Barbarossa. The British could do it because they were richer and had nothing better to do.

Nacht wrote:Since I am in France, my references are less extensive.


8O I resent that! I'm in France and my references are quite extensive :wink: :P

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Nacht
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Location...

Post by Nacht » 06 Apr 2007 19:11

Sorry Bronsky...

I am in Antibes! Just hate seeing the Spring in the south of France! You know that I am being facetious... but I am only here a few months out of the year and trying to lug a bunch of books around is difficult on airplanes now with luggage weight limits reduced!

OK, I do understand about the German position as an 'Aunt Mary' to her sister allies and the need for support or lack of additional help being gained.

Just reviewed some late war maps with the gap in SE Tunisia somewhat shortened... still no connection but you will note the British advance via the Tunisian rail infrastructure during the campaign... in fact, a lot of wartime photographs during the Tunisian campaign appear along the rail lines. It was just a point of conjecture as to why a few Morrocan / French bits of rail equipment could not have been boated around to Benghazi. Even with the limited shipping capabilities at hand someone somewhere should have seen the need for movement of material other that by wasting all of the fuel in truck movement of material.

It just seems that the logistics would have been dealt with from a more typical German autocratic standpoint at the outset of their North African saga. I do understand that they were sucked into the campaigns in Greece and North Africa to prop up their Italian partner and may not have had much time to prepare.They seemed to have had better planning as to "Red Beard" or Barbarossa with the rail needs and the conversion to the wider Russian gauge.

Red flags should have gone up somewhere in HQ as to the need for rapid rail movement.
Last edited by Nacht on 07 Apr 2007 15:53, edited 1 time in total.

Jon G.
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Post by Jon G. » 06 Apr 2007 19:44

Nacht wrote:We have previously talked about the gap from Gabes... to the border of Libya... my little story may have been read by you about the mining operations in the southeast area of Tunisia... but I had for some reason thought the British had eventually completed this segment in their push forward from Libya in the early part of 1943?


No... The largest part of the desert railway was built inside Egypt under relatively peaceful conditions. The British railroad across Egypt should be seen primarily as a logistical tool, not as an effort to improve Libyan and Egyptian infrastructure permanently - so the desert railroad's terminus at any given time would be where the 8th Army needed its supplies. By the time of Crusader, for example, all of the desert railroad was still well inside Egypt, its terminus at Misheifa, due south of Sidi Barrani.

After Montgomery broke through at El Alamein, the railroad engineers were preoccupied with re-opening their rail line for westbound traffic, but as far as I know there were no plans to expand the line any further than Tobruk, the final westwards expansion of the line that was captured by Rommel in his 1942 summer offensive. As the 8th Army recaptured Tobruk, Benghazi and eventually Tripoli, there was no need to expand the rail line, for supplies could be delivered directly to those ports rather than via the Nile Delta and the desert railroad.

There was no grand strategic scheme to connect Egypt with Tunisia by railroad - such a project would have been a giant undertaking with little military importance. The desert railroad was a matter of logistic necessity, not a grand coast-to-coast construction project.

Besides, if the British had decided to construct their desert railroad all the way to Tunis, they would have had to decide on which gauge to use - 1435 mm as in Egypt, 950 mm as the small stretches of Italian railroad in Libya, or 1000 mm as most of the Tunisian rail net.

It just seems strange that Rommel and his commanders would not have seen a more critical need early for the necessary infrastructure to supply his necessary fuel, tires, spares, ammunition, and equipment via rail across the stretches of Africa that he was involved. It is apparent when on the outskirts of Alexandria that his plans seemed to mention the acquiral of the British rail network to push forward to the Suez...


I think that Rommel and other Axis commanders could see the problems posed by the lack of infrastructure in Libya clearly enough - but Rommel to a large degree decided to ignore the constraints caused by the lack of railroads and push east regardless, whereas other Axis commanders recommended that the PAA should not have gone much further east than Benghazi.

There was a whole hatful of reasons why the Italians didn't have the resources to expand Libya's railroad net eastwards to Egypt. Notably, Libya's population was too small, the lack of minerals and other resources didn't justify the construction of a railroad line in peacetime except for military reasons, and Italy's Libyan ports were too small, and the front lines far too fluid to support a massive rail construction project across a vast tract of desert by the time war came about.

After all, the British took more than a year before their rail construction units had made it to the Libyan border; the Italians would only have had some six months to do the same from Tripoli to Egypt with far fewer resources.

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Post by JonS » 06 Apr 2007 23:14

Jon G. wrote:No... The largest part of the desert railway was built inside Egypt under relatively peaceful conditions. The British railroad across Egypt should be seen primarily as a logistical tool, not as an effort to improve Libyan and Egyptian infrastructure permanently - so the desert railroad's terminus at any given time would be where the 8th Army needed its supplies. By the time of Crusader, for example, all of the desert railroad was still well inside Egypt, its terminus at Misheifa, due south of Sidi Barrani.

Recovering old ground - which I know you know well - for completeness: the WDRE eventually got to Belhammed, just short of Tobruk, in about April 1942 (ie, about 6 months after CRUSADER).

... as far as I know there were no plans to expand the line any further than Tobruk, the final westwards expansion of the line that was captured by Rommel in his 1942 summer offensive. ...

There were plans to extend the WDRE to vicinity of Gazala, plans which came to nought with Rommel's May '42 offensive. By Dec '42 when the 8th Army was heading back west at a great rate of knots through that area there wasn't - as you say - much point in putting a great deal of effort into the WDRE. In fact *looks at Judd* the WDRE was all but shut down in early 1943.

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Post by Nacht » 07 Apr 2007 15:17

OK Friends...

Since we are relegated to just a few bits of 'true' German engines and rolling stock then someone might be able to share more on this project... is there more known information to share about the Marmon Herrington rail conversion? Its capture by the Germans and its usage? I do not remember a discussion about it to date... in this thread.

Kuno provided photograph...

Image

Working to put it back on rails...

Image

A slightly damaged photo but of value for confirmation purposes...

Image

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Post by Jon G. » 07 Apr 2007 15:59

Nice pictures. It is implied in the text accompanying picture #1, above, that the conversion to put the South African armoured car on rails was done by the Germans. The town in the background could be Mersah Matruh but I am by no means certain about that. Note how sharp the rail curve in the background of picture #2 is.

You can see part of what looks like a Badoni tractor's cab behind the Marmon-Herrington in picture #3, above.

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Post by Nacht » 08 Apr 2007 06:50

Jon and friends,

This was simply three pics. to possibly gain some knowledge from readers about the use of this little rail conversion by both sides of the conflict... as little appears written about these Marmon Harringtons in rail conversion use...

The three photos that I shared are, of course, in captured service with the DAK. I thought it might spur some comment?

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Re: Location...

Post by Bronsky » 10 Apr 2007 11:58

Nacht wrote:OK, I do understand about the German position as an 'Aunt Mary' to her sister allies and the need for support or lack of additional help being gained.


My point was that the German 'Aunt Mary' wasn't anywhere near as rich, nor as generous, as her British and particularly American counterparts.

Nacht wrote:Just reviewed some late war maps with the gap in SE Tunisia somewhat shortened... still no connection but you will note the British advance via the Tunisian rail infrastructure during the campaign... in fact, a lot of wartime photographs during the Tunisian campaign appear along the rail lines.


1. I'd be interested in these maps, whether they show the railroad having actually expanded, or whether - as I suspect - the "somewhat shortened" refers to the Italian effort to reach the frontier (which might appear as "new track" on some maps, though the rails were lacking).

2. Not sure about what you mean regarding Tunisia. The geography meant that there weren't all that many valleys, so it's only natural that invading armies would follow the RR. Beyond that... ?

Nacht wrote:It was just a point of conjecture as to why a few Morrocan / French bits of rail equipment could not have been boated around to Benghazi.


What I wrote about French rolling stock also applies to other RR supplies:
1. The French didn't have to hand over that equipment under the armistice conditions, and they wouldn't part with it willingly either.
2. French North Africa was a poor region, with little to no surplus and no manufacturing capacity. What stockpiles there were, were in mainland France.
3. The Germans grabbed as much French rolling stock (and rails, and traverses, and everything else) as they could, but the Reichsbahn was itself very short and it enjoyed a higher level of priority than the Italians. When all is said and done, it all comes down to lack of resources and the fact that Barbarossa and the German war economy had a higher priority than North Africa with OKW.
4. Assuming that the Germans would have been willing to pay the political or economic prize asked by the French for some RR equipment from North Africa to be made available (which they weren't), then you run into the imperatives of delay, shipping and Malta that I outlined before.

What you consider better planning for Barbarossa simply reflects higher priority: Barbarossa was better-planned because there were more assets to allocate, and these assets were available because Barbarossa enjoyed top priority. Libya was a secondary theater, so assets were not made available, so planning didn't include them.

Jon G wrote: After Montgomery broke through at El Alamein, the railroad engineers were preoccupied with re-opening their rail line for westbound traffic, but as far as I know there were no plans to expand the line any further than Tobruk, the final westwards expansion of the line that was captured by Rommel in his 1942 summer offensive.


The British seem to have been prepared to continue to extend their line westward from Tobruk though, as you note, the quick capture of Benghazi and later Tripoli caused such plans to be shelved.

Jon G wrote:There was no grand strategic scheme to connect Egypt with Tunisia by railroad - such a project would have been a giant undertaking with little military importance. The desert railroad was a matter of logistic necessity, not a grand coast-to-coast construction project.


Interestingly, the Italians did have such plans, but they were a long-term project the completion of which would likely be postwar. There were discussions about the rail gauge, the reasonable argument being that since this was a huge project they might as well convert their existing network to standard gauge while they were at it, but some engineers demonstrated that this would involve surveying another route for portions of the line, and either the issue was still unresolved when the military situation put paid to such plans, or I forgot the outcome of that particular bureaucratic battle :-)

JonS wrote:Recovering old ground - which I know you know well - for completeness: the WDRE eventually got to Belhammed, just short of Tobruk, in about April 1942 (ie, about 6 months after CRUSADER).


I'm pretty sure I wrote this before, but the British were still laying track until one week before the fall of Tobruk, and they did connect Tobruk itself on December 1, 1942.

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Post by Jon G. » 17 Apr 2007 11:51

Amidst fascinating stuff about laundry facilities in Morocco (apparently quite good) and appreciations about the local newspapers, the small tidbit of information which I posted below about the state of the Moroccan railroads in December 1942 can be found in this operational document about the Tunisian campaign, freely available from the excellent CARL website.

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This document addresses the coal situation in North Africa in late 1942:

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...yes, it's esoteric stuff. But it's also original source, so I find it relevant.

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Thanks... and lost map

Post by Nacht » 18 Apr 2007 17:32

Thanks Jon,

I might be able to add some more G-2 and G-3 information when I return home... received a packet from the Patton Museum Library about rail and logistics.

I am still working in the south of France and forgot to post this late war map that I was referring to earlier... I posted in sideways to allow a larger size print... it shows the rail in Tunisia to Djerba from Gabes but also gives some additional road information... from the Economic Report series that I had shared with you.

Image

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Post by Jon G. » 18 Apr 2007 18:58

That map makes my neck hurt! Possibly you could crop away at the Tropic of Cancer, resize to max. 600 pixels wide and repost..?

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Libyan Map

Post by Nacht » 19 Apr 2007 12:25

Jon,

I posted it sideways on purpose... but can accomodate...

Image

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Post by Jon G. » 19 Apr 2007 12:32

Thanks a lot Nacht, me and my neck are much obliged :)

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