Information on railroad building in wartime

Discussions on the economic history of the nations taking part in WW2, from the recovery after the depression until the economy at war.
charwo
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Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by charwo » 05 Sep 2020 05:57

When people talk about logistics in WW2. and how the Germans were very bad at it, my question always is: why didn't they devote more resources to railroad building? The first thing I do in a World War 2 scenario, almost always Civ 2 scenario because I don't know a better strategic game (and don't say Hearts of Iron, because that series is terrible), is to build as many engineer units as I can and build a railway from Tripoli to Tobruk, after taking Malta. Now it is 1,400 kilometers assuming you go through Bengazi, and you should, but the Japanese built a 415-kilometer railway in 15 months under the most hellish conditions possible within the earth's habitable zone, and that included 600 bridges and 8 long span ones. Lybia OTOH is almost all flat and way easier to transport supplies to, even with Malta still in play.

And so too with the invasion of the USSR, the idea of driving the logistics is absurd, and to some degree, it seems like the German High Command didn't quite realize that the Russian rail system was on a different gauge.

So what are the costs and resources involved in building a rail line in this period when effectively money is little object? Cause you know, regime survival. It just doesn't seem very hard to build railroads expect fo the bridges. Finding ANYTHING about wartime railroad construction is difficult.

I'm hoping to get an understanding of what the costs are the limits of track laying so I can understand the possibilities.

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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by EwenS » 05 Sep 2020 09:32

The Italians did begin building a railway east from Tripoli in 1941 but never got very far. As far as I can see most of the materials, with the exception of rock for ballasting the track, would have had to be imported from mainland Italy. Steel rails, wooden sleepers, all the labour (not much of a native population in the desert), and all the rolling stock. Not to mention the additional troops needed to control and administer it all. This would simply have added to the problems of securing enough shipping to support the forces already there. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Libya_Railways

There is frankly no comparison with the Burma railroad. The Japanese had vast amounts of slave labour immediately to hand, both POW (60,000) and native (estimates up to 200,000 natives) being employed which they were prepared to work to death. Most of the materials, the timber for sleepers and those bridges, came from the jungle they were cutting through. Other materials such as more sleepers and the rails were robbed from other parts of railway systems in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies.

As for taking Malta, that in itself would have been a significant challenge for the Axis, and after Crete not one Hitler had much time for. This study of Italian plans in 1942 might interest you.
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/1003811.pdf

As for rail building in the USSR, you have many of the same problems.

I suppose the biggest issue is how to build a railway fast enough to support your advance into the vastness of the Russian Steppe, with all the logistic needs that entails, while still having enough logistic capacity to support the forces you have moving forward.

Again there is no comparison with Burma. In that case the Japanese were building through conquered territory at a time when their front line, that the railway was to support, was stable along the Indian border. Their attempted invasion of India didn’t begin until several months after completion of the Burma railway, which itself only formed a shortcut between Bangkok and Rangoon to save on shipping.

charwo
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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by charwo » 05 Sep 2020 22:01

No comparison? I don't see these differences as anything but trivial, in fact, it makes Italy or Germany building in Lybiua easier. Lybia easily has a million people in 1940, which isn't a lot, but corvee labor can be just as effective as working to death slave labor. and with Malta taken out the supply line is much much shorter. It's not like Italy is bereft of forests and woodworkers. You have to take Malta to increase the shipping volume, but tonnage is easy to replace and maintain than oil stocks.

I'm profoundly uninterested in what Axis leadership did do, this is about understanding what they could have done. Hitler was stupid for shelving the airborne ops after Crete. Men are there to die, hat's the price you pay. Only counterfactual assessment makes history useful, all else is worldbuilding.

ANd into Russia, you're thinking in terms of Barbarossa must be won or the Germans will lose. Not if you plan properly. I'm talking about rebuilding the rail system for a long war or elastic defense, backhanding the Red army into a ho. I understand why the rail system was neglected in Russia, everything was a gamble on a short war, and gambling on a short war is the stupidest thing you can do in war.

And as far as Burma goes, it was as conquered as German-occupied Russia, so the comparison is not only there, they are in many ways the same thing: an active front with many collaborators, a brutal occupier, and extreme vulnerability to both weather and irregular warfare

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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 09 Sep 2020 00:41

charwo wrote:
05 Sep 2020 05:57
When people talk about logistics in WW2. and how the Germans were very bad at it, my question always is: why didn't they devote more resources to railroad building? ...
The short answer is they did not see it as necessary. Their strategy was to destroy the Red Army in the first 60 to 90 days, thus triggering a collapse of the Soviet government and its support. That had worked against six other nations in three campaigns in the previous year. So, it was expected to work again. The last minute experience in the Balkans and events in Lybia validated this. A highly trained army acting out high tempo operations was clearly proven as a unbeatable tool.

As for the rest of it; I'd recommend researching the numbers of what was available to the Germans for material, equipment, and skilled labor. Corralling X thousands of laborers is useless if you don't have the appropriate engineers and technicians. There was a effort to provide all that out of the Reichs pool and what could be confiscated from the occupied nations. How much more could be taken before crippling the German economy is a open question. Maybe a lot, maybe they were at that limit?

The US and Britain did prepare a solid railway rebuild plan for western Europe. The flaw in the plan was Eisenhowers armies drove the Germans out o France & Belgium 5-6 months faster than expected. Guess they were stupid not foreseeing the feared Wehrmacht would collapse & flee in less than 90 days. Anyway with those preparations the Allied railway units with eager French help completed basic emergency work on the Franco Belgian railways in roughly 5-6 months. That overlapped the start of longer term repair or upgrade work. A comparison of that effort & the kilometers of track put back into wartime service might be made with the kilometers of railway restoration needed in the USSR.

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TheMarcksPlan
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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 13 Sep 2020 02:54

charwo wrote:And so too with the invasion of the USSR, the idea of driving the logistics is absurd, and to some degree, it seems like the German High Command didn't quite realize that the Russian rail system was on a different gauge.
This is a very common misconception - that Germans did not adequately prepare/anticipate rail gauge remediation. In fact they re-gauged at >20km/day, fast enough to reach Moscow in a couple months. The problem wasn't the gauge of railways but their quality. The Germans skipped over things like establishing watering stations, adequate sidings for unloading, warming sheds, and signalling infrastructure. German-gauged trains were reaching the front line depots within a week or two of the advancing armies but, because of the skipped-over stuff, not enough trains could use the tracks at once. See https://www.hgwdavie.com/blog/2018/3/9/ ... r-19411945
So what are the costs and resources involved in building a rail line in this period when effectively money is little object? Cause you know, regime survival. It just doesn't seem very hard to build railroads expect fo the bridges. Finding ANYTHING about wartime railroad construction is difficult.
Money matters as a proxy for resources - labor, steel, etc. Efficient pricing of resources breaks down a bit during war but on the whole money is a good measure of the resource tradeoffs countries face during war.

The linked paper discusses the "Otto Program" - a massive German buildup of rail resources in Poland ahead of Barbarossa. This involved 30,000 workers (over a year) and 300,000 tons of steel. In manpower and steel terms that's ~1% of Germany's steel and ~0.1% of its labor force.

The author of the article (H.G.W. Davie) has opined that Barbarossa needed a "Second Otto" behind the advancing forces. IMO a Second Otto resourced as well as the first would have been more than sufficient to support the Ostheer deep into Russia: Otto created capacity for 400 trains/day to the Polish border, the Ostheer would have been richly supplied had 100 trains/day reached the forward depots. The distance for Second Otto is longer but the track density much less than the first. Given the steel and labor needed for First Otto, it's difficult to imagine Second Otto requiring even 1% of Germany's military budget.

IMJ the comparison of Otto with post-June '41 rail investments has important historical implications:

1. The notion that Germany ignored logistics cannot be upheld. Otto was perhaps the biggest rail project undertaken by any country during WW2.

2. Given that the Germans didn't ignore logistics, their failure adequately to supply Barbarossa must have a different explanation. IMJ it lies in the strategic concept of a short war: A large but manageable expenditure on "Second Otto" is unjustified if the SU is assumed to collapse within a few months.

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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 13 Sep 2020 03:02

Carl Schwamberger wrote:As for the rest of it; I'd recommend researching the numbers of what was available to the Germans for material, equipment, and skilled labor. Corralling X thousands of laborers is useless if you don't have the appropriate engineers and technicians. There was a effort to provide all that out of the Reichs pool and what could be confiscated from the occupied nations. How much more could be taken before crippling the German economy is a open question. Maybe a lot, maybe they were at that limit?
Books like this one provide a lot of the basic answers: https://www.amazon.com/Most-Valuable-As ... 0807825743

As Mierzejewski discusses, Germany did not begin to draw significantly on its domestic and occupied railway personnel for the East until well after Barbarossa began. In 1942-43 they corrected many of these problems and by Kursk the railways were running well despite much greater partisan attacks.

There really can't be any doubt, IMO, that Ostheer could have had better rail support in '41. Just the mid-'42 levels would have been a drastic improvement.

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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 13 Sep 2020 03:53

TheMarcksPlan wrote:
13 Sep 2020 03:02
...

Books like this one provide a lot of the basic answers: https://www.amazon.com/Most-Valuable-As ... 0807825743 ...
Read it. Put it back on the shelf unconvinced. Actually the numbers suggest there could have been a lot more done. But, to get there requires a coherent long range plan that considers the situation as it actually was & not in the light of nazi perception in 1939 or earlier.

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Re: Information on railroad building in wartime

Post by TheMarcksPlan » 13 Sep 2020 04:10

Carl Schwamberger wrote:Actually the numbers suggest there could have been a lot more done. But, to get there requires a coherent long range plan that considers the situation as it actually was & not in the light of nazi perception in 1939 or earlier.
I don't see how pre-'39 perceptions are relevant. Germany executed Otto in '40-'41, long-range plan or no. Had they kept the Otto workforce and kept it moving eastwards with the Ostheer, there's no reason not to believe they could have significantly upgraded Ostheer's '41 rail logistics.

As for the book, which parts do you doubt? You concede that the numbers show more could have been done (more recruitment from France and Belgium as done later, more requisition of rolling stock as done later). Nothing in the book goes beyond analysis of what happened to explicit analysis of what could have happened in an ATL '41.

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