Jon G. wrote: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.
The planned capacity was 600 tons daily. This was based on the characteristics of the infrastructure, and was not unreasonable - the British managed 2000 when they recaptured it. The Italians announced a lower figure because they were the ones supplying the rolling stock to operate the line, and they knew that they couldn't meet that requirement.
Jon G. wrote: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.
He was receiving that amount of supply, the problem was that it wasn't nearly enough.
Jon G. wrote: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.
A rail line is far more expensive as an up front investment, and you only break even if you have a large amount of traffic to carry on it. There was practically no traffic between Tripoli and Tobruk, for which busses and ships were quite sufficient. The bulk of the population - and of the traffic - was around Tripoli which is were the largest (at least, for Libya !) concentration of tracks was.
There are major differences in engineering between building a rail-road and building a regular road, the former requires wider curves and less steep gradients as well as being more difficult to build.
The French rail network in Tunisia was only "extensive" in comparison to the nearly non-existent Libyan one. But then, France was richer than Italy, Tunisia was much more developped than Libya and had a higher population density (an important factor in making transport networks profitable) and, last but not least, the French had mineral resources to carry between Tunisian mines and ports, which is why a place like Gabès was better from a logistical point of view than Tripoli: far more tonnage transited through it in peacetime.
Jon G. wrote: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.
It depends on where you look. Italian lines in Libya were uniformly narrow-gauged but the local conditions were very different. Generally speaking, terrain was less favorable as on the Alexandria to Tobruk area, requiring more engineering work.
In terms of formidable undertakings, I don't know how much rail line the British built in the Middle East during the war, outside of Egypt which I know about and of Persia which was mostly a US-resourced effort. Palestine and Syria already had a rail net prewar, which the British forces inherited (or captured in the case of Lebanon-Syria).
Jon G. wrote: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.
1. The Alexandria to Tobruk line was normal-gauged, and it did not *need* ballast. Doing without ballast meant that the line would become unusable (or require major repairs) more quickly, which the British didn't really care about. The point is that local conditions allowed the British to build that way, and it didn't limit traffic.
2. The Italian locomotives had a max speed of 25 km/h (not mph, I checked), and since endurance is measured in running time, that did play a part. For example, Tobruk to El Daba was about 500km, or 20 hours at top speed, not counting the stops. Also, as I wrote, these were not normal locomotives, they were "maneuver locomotives" (I don't know the proper term in English), i.e. their normal job was pulling railroad cars out of the way and putting trains together within the perimeter of a station, not
running 20 hours non-stop, let alone making 500km trips. As a result, availability was low: the Italians sent 40 machines, 8 were sunk en route, another 5 were used for spare parts, leaving 27 of which 9 were permanently undergoing refit or repairs.
3. I don't share your optimism regarding German rolling stock and particularly locomotives. The Germans managed to make do by using the extensive stocks of the Reichsbahn, as well as plundering rolling stock from their richer neighbors (particularly France, but Belgium and Holland were also juicy targets). They were very clear that they had no significant amounts to spare for their allies. In August, to expedite the transport of DAK tanks from Libya to the front, three (yes, 3) German locomotives arrived in Tobruk, one (1) being 3-axle and 360CV and the other two being 2-axle and 200CV ones. Of course, compared to the 65CV Italian Badonis, they were a powerful addition to the overall Axis locomotive capacity. The British had been using 1-4-0 Steiner 8F steam locomotives, replaced in May by some US-built 65DE14 Whitcomb de la Rodelle locomotives. Perhaps that train buffs can supply the figures for engine power of these models, I may have looked it up but right now I'm looking at the set of notes I took when translating that Italian source.
Just because the Germans were willing to sacrifice (probably captured Italian) locomotives in 1944 doesn't mean that they had rolling stock to spare.
Jon G. wrote: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.
Rail was the greatest shortage. There seems to have been enough rails for 60km in Italy (these were shipped to Libya at some point), and that was it. After that, if the Italians wanted to build more rail, they had to dismantle existing lines - which was a less than 100% effective process as some lines were still usable where they were, but would become unusable when dismantled and put on another track. At some point, during the studies (work had also been started, involving engineering resources and 2,500 Libyan workers) for the Tripoli to Tunis and later Tripoli to Benghazi rail lines, in addition to the 60km of rails there were some 65,000 traverses shipped from Italy (i.e. not enough). The Italians looked at the possibility of using eucalyptus wood to make traverses. The Germans offered enough traverses for 100km of track, but only long enough if the line was at a 0.95m gauge. (i.e. narrow-gauge as in the rest of Libya, French narrow-gauge in Tunisia was 1m, Egyptian railroad was standard gauge i.e. 1.435m). They must have captured the traverses somewhere, possibly Yugoslavia ?
For example, by the end of July 1942, on the Bir Suesi to Tobruk segment, 11,200m had been built and the remaining 12,000 were waiting for rails (they were unloaded in Tobruk shortly afterward). The British-built line was maintained from captured - and quite plentiful, by Axis standards - British stocks.