North African railroads

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Michael Emrys
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Post by Michael Emrys » 24 Mar 2006 01:47

Jon G. wrote: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.
If it was Rommel or anyone on his immediate staff who produced the higher figure, I would expect that the process was, "I need x-amount/day in order to carry out my plans. Therefore, you logistics types better come up with it or be deluged by an unceasing torrent of complaints."
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.
The French had been well established in NA from the beginning of the century with—at least in Algeria and Tunisia—large thriving colonies. It made a great deal of economic sense during that time to build a rail net connecting Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It essentially paid for itself. AIUI, the rail line from Benghazi to Barce was mostly a commuter line carrying weekenders out of Benghazi to the beach, though presumably it carried some farm produce in the opposite direction as well.


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'...[/quote]

East of Sinai that rail net would have been inherited from the Turks at the conclusion of the First World War. Whatever was in Egypt and Sudan would have been abuilding since before the end of the previous century. Probably only the mileage west of Cairo would have been new.

; 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.
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.
I guess that is just one more reflection of the importance that the German High Command attached to this theater. Rommel's orders were to drive the British out of Cyrenaica and then stand on the defensive. They must have felt that the existing logistics set-up was adequate for that. If they had been really intent from the first on driving the Allies out of of the Middle East, they would have done that—along with many other things—differently.

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Post by David W » 24 Mar 2006 08:52

There is a very good thread on this topic on the D.A.K Forum.

I'm not sure if this forum's rules allow me to post a link, but you should be able to find it quite easily.
Google toolbars at the ready, as some of it is in German!

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Post by Bronsky » 24 Mar 2006 10:49

Jon G. wrote: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.
The rail line from Alexandria to Mersa Matruh (294.4km) was decided upon in late 1935. The first 74km were opened to traffic on January 17, 1936 with the remaining following suit three months later. That part of the line was a normal one, i.e. properly ballasted and with normal infrastructure.

During the war, it was extended to Sidi Barani, which it reached in December, 1941. That extension was built without ballast, taking advantage of the sandy & rocky ground underneath. There were traverses but no supporting "plates" (this is my tentative translation from the Italian, given that I'm no RR specialist and in particular I don't know the specific terms in English). It reached a point 1 mile south-east of Bir Suesi (near El Adem, i.e. roughly 10km south of Tobruk) on the 12th of June, 1942. Tobruk fell to the Axis on the 20th.

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Post by Bronsky » 24 Mar 2006 11:33

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.

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Post by redcoat » 24 Mar 2006 13:22

="Bronsky]
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.
Excellent post :)

For your future info
This type of train is called in English a 'Shunter'.
In railway operations, "shunting" involves the process of sorting items of rolling stock. The American equivalent is "switching".

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Post by Bronsky » 24 Mar 2006 13:39

Thanks. So it's a shunter locomotive ? Would Americans call it a switcher locomotive ?

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Post by Jon G. » 24 Mar 2006 14:36

Some ruthless snippage to follow...
Bronsky wrote: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...
OK, so presumably the Libyan ports' capacity was part of the 600 ton calculation? That makes the comparison with what colud be hauled the other way less useful. I don't have van Creveld within reach just now, but I wonder where he got the 1,500 tons/day from.

I certainly take your point that it's un-economical to build a railroad through a very thinly populated countryside. My point was more alluding to building a rail line across Libya as preparation for war, not as a project measured in economic terms.
...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)...
Yes, Persia was a US effort, but the British also devoted considerable resources to building rail lines in the Middle East, also during the war. Here's a rather humourous write-up about the activities of the NZ railway units in East Africa. The rail line from Haïfa to Tripolis in Syria wasn't captured, it was newly-built by Australian engineer soldiers after the British conquest of the French Levant. Details can be found here (pdf link)

[Thanks JonS for pointing me to these excellent links!]
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.
That's of course the overriding factor. But a rail line without ballast will not be able to carry as heavy loads in each individual rail car as a properly ballasted line, and trains will have to go more slowly.
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.... 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.
Yes, but my point in turn was that if the Italians had sent engines capable of doing much more than 25 km/h, they likely would have had to impose a speed limit of 25 km/h, perhaps slightly more, due to the condition of the track. We're not exactly talking TGV trains here.
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...Just because the Germans were willing to sacrifice (probably captured Italian) locomotives in 1944 doesn't mean that they had rolling stock to spare...
Admittedly my comment about train engines in abundance was out of context, but a February 1944 intelligence assessment by the Allied Mediterranean Air Forces stated that after the Germans stopped making up trains in Italy, destroying whatever trains went there was bound to be a fruitless endeavour because the Germans were able to 'afford to send into Italy each day the number of locomotives required to haul the 15 trains of military supplies to the front, and discard each locomotive at the end of the haul'. As part of the preparations for Husky southern Italy's rail yards had been thoroughly bombed in accordance with Prof. Zuckerman's recommendations, but 'only' 5,000 rail cars had been destroyed out of some 2,000,000 available to the German war effort.


Thanks for the info on the Axis shortage of rails. It's very interesting.

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Post by Jon G. » 24 Mar 2006 14:55

David W wrote:There is a very good thread on this topic on the D.A.K Forum.

I'm not sure if this forum's rules allow me to post a link, but you should be able to find it quite easily.
Google toolbars at the ready, as some of it is in German!
David, it's certainly OK with this forum's rules to post a link to another forum. As long as a link is on topic and properly sourced, anything from the public domain goes.

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Post by Bronsky » 24 Mar 2006 15:35

Jon G. wrote:OK, so presumably the Libyan ports' capacity was part of the 600 ton calculation?
No, 600 tons daily was the target for the rail line to El Daba.

(snip links, thanks)
Jon G. wrote:Yes, but my point in turn was that if the Italians had sent engines capable of doing much more than 25 km/h, they likely would have had to impose a speed limit of 25 km/h, perhaps slightly more, due to the condition of the track. We're not exactly talking TGV trains here.
If the average speed goes from 25km/h to 25mph, the rail capacity goes up by 60% and we're well short of TGV speeds.

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Post by Jon G. » 24 Mar 2006 20:12

Bronsky wrote:Thanks. So it's a shunter locomotive ? Would Americans call it a switcher locomotive ?
Not to split hairs, but I believe British nomenclature has it as a shunting locomotive. The American variant is known as a switching locomotive, whereas the diesel-electric hybrids that were coming into service during WW2 were known as 'road switchers' - i.e. they were basically enlarged switching locomotives, used for line duty. Locomotives of the latter type were used in Persia, for example.

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Post by Jon G. » 03 Apr 2006 17:57

As something for the engine buffs, here's a side view of a locomotive used on the British desert railroad:

Image

This is quite a substantial engine, its axle-load similar to a standard mainline locomotive and certainly stronger and heavier than the petty little engines on the Italian railroads in Libya.

Scan is very kindly provided to me by JonS; it's originally from Brendon Judd: The Desert Railway: The New Zealand Railway Group in North Africa and the Middle East During the Second World War.

Edit: resized picture for all you IE users :)
Last edited by Jon G. on 03 Apr 2006 19:31, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Bronsky » 03 Apr 2006 18:06

Thanks for the picture, is the book any good ? Sounds interesting unless it's an Ambrose-like book.

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Post by Michael Emrys » 03 Apr 2006 19:02

Jon, if you like, I can reduce the size of that scan so that we do not have to side-scroll.

8O :)

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Post by Jon G. » 05 Apr 2006 17:31

Bronsky wrote:Thanks for the picture, is the book any good ? Sounds interesting unless it's an Ambrose-like book.
Hi Bronsky, I am ordering the book through a NZ book outlet via Abebooks, your friendly AHF sponsor :). I've lost all faith in Amazon's ability to deliver anything more esoteric than the works of J. K. Rowling after they put my last three orders in a row on the indefinite back order back burner.

Given the distance, it will be a while until I get it, but I'll post more here when I have the book. The scans by my NZ namesake were certainly teaser enough for me :)

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Post by Bronsky » 05 Apr 2006 19:50

Jon G. wrote:The scans by my NZ namesake were certainly teaser enough for me :)
My sales resistance has gone up in direct proportion to the ground pressure exerted by my bookshelves, which means it is fairly high at the moment, all the more so as I recently ordered a batch of books and am still looking for a way to store those that have recently exited my "to read" pile.

To get back on topic, I checked up the Italian source that I had mentioned earlier. FYI, it is "L'Italia è Piccola ? - Storia dei Trasporti Italiani, volume 41 - Terre d'Oltremare, volume sesto" by Francesco Ogliari, Cavallotti Editori, Milano 1981.

This is a very pro-Italian source, mostly narrative but with lots of interesting bits. I would have liked more statistics even at the cost of less anecdotes, but there you go. One Italian RR company was ordered to make the detailed survey necessary as early as June 1942. (p.2072).

Then, the source says (p.2110):
Alla fine del luglio 1942 per il tronco Bir Suesi-Tobruk sono armati circa 11.200 metri di nuova linea mentre sono approntati per l'armamento altri 12.000 metri di raccordi e piani caricatori
...which I translate as "at the end of July 1942 for the Bir Suesi to Tobruk segment, nearly 11.2 km of new lines were laid while another 12km of links and loading plans were ready" (actually, I find that my ability to translate this into English is far less than optimal as I don't know the correct RR terms).

Then there are various mentions of a convoy arriving on August 4 in Tobruk with, among other things, the German locomotives that I mentioned in a previous post. So I assumed that Tobruk had finally been linked to El Adem in the meantime (there are other instances of the narrative skipping over details like that). Additionally, the narrative went on (p.2114)
Il primo treno che viene licenziato da Tobruk ogni mattina, alle prime luci dell'alba, porta il n°1 e quello in senso contrario, da El Daba, il n°2. (...)
...which means "the first train that is authorized from Tobruk every morning, at first light, is numbered 1 and the one in the other direction, from El Daba, carries the number 2". The text carries on with the fact that as the transit lasted more than 24 hours there were two "number 1" trains and how the Italians went around that difficulty, etc.

Anyway, between that and other mentions of stuff arriving to the front by rail "from Tobruk", I had assumed that the rail link had been completed. But in fact looking up my notes I found that there was no precise such indication, and being a little wary of Ogliari's apologetic (if interesting and well-written) footwork, I decided to re-read the relevant sections of the book. And I found the following, in a passage relating to the evacuation of the railroad technicians and equipment following El Alamein (p.2186):
All'alba del 7 novembre 1942, l'ultimo treno da Marsa Matruh trainato da un solo locomotore, perché gli altri tre sono andati fuori uso lungo il viaggio, giunge a Tobruk dove la linea ferroviaria finisce a dieci cholometri dalla città
This means: "At dawn on 7 November 1942, the last train from Mersa Matruh, pulled by a single locomotive, because the other three had run out along the way [the train had started out with 7 "War Department" captured rail cars, pulled by 4 small Italian locomotives, and rescued plenty of fugitives along the way] reaches Tobruk ... where the rail line ends 10 kilometers from the city".

So it seems that the junction was never fully completed after all, and that the 7 miles gap identified in late July was in fact permanent. I have no idea how the locomotives unloaded in Tobruk reached the "Tobruk to El Daba" rail line, as this looks like a heavy load to carry and I'm positive that the convoy unloaded in Tobruk.

EDIT: added page number for the last bit

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