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New Zealand Engineers, Middle East

Railway Operating Group

Railway Operating Group

In spite of the precautions to ensure that no information leaked out regarding the build-up for the Eighth Army attack in October 1942, the New Zealand Railway Operating Group could not help knowing that something big was afoot. For weeks they had been pushing train loads of stores forward to Burg el Arab by day and by night and they had watched the entertaining sight of army transport evacuating native families and their assorted livestock; opinions were divided as to whether this was a precaution against espionage or merely to reduce the fly nuisance.

A highlight of the period was an attempt by Italian commandos, who were landed from a submarine near Burg el Arab, to blow up the line near Hawaira. The only result was a broken rail and the loss of a few thousand gallons of Nile water, for Gurkha troops soon rounded up these rather amateur demolition experts. The Gurkhas patrolled the area for a week or so but there were no more efforts to dislocate the railway system. The operating sappers manning the stations got along very well with the little smiling men from the mountains of North India. Few could speak much English but the two races met on common ground around a draught-board. The Gurkhas won nearly every game.

It has been related that, on 5 November, 2 NZ Division was concentrated to the south of Fuka. At a minute past midnight on the same date, new railway operating instructions came into force, placing the responsibility for the running of traffic as follows:

‘OC 16 NZ Rly Op Coy—Stations from amriya to hammam. The 16 NZ Rly Op Coy will be responsible for the signalling and despatch of all trains at amriya station. Shunting duties at amriya station and depot will be carried out by 16 NZ Rly Op Coy. Two diesel shunting engines are located at amriya depot.

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‘OC 17 NZ Rly Op Coy—Stations hammam to railhead. The 17 NZ Rly Op Coy will be responsible for the signalling and despatch of all trains at hammam station and West thereof. Also for shunting railhead depots.’

Railhead for the moment was at Alamein while Railway Construction Groups worked across the battlefield towards Daba, which became the railhead on the 10th when the first stores train arrived there. The repair gangs had not only to deal with shell and bomb damage but also had to replace sleepers and rails taken from the road bed by both armies for the construction of splinter-proof shelters.

While 2 NZ Division was stacking up at the foot of Halfaya Pass at the Egyptian border (11 November) the construction train was working west of Daba, to which station Major Pearse had shifted 17 Company Headquarters, and from where the Group was operating some American main-line diesel-electric locomotives. The arrival of these was well timed as steam engines were dependent on water and the damage to the water pipelines and reservoirs had not yet been made good. Major Aickin writes:

‘These diesel locos, had been constructed and shipped in such a hurry that there was insufficient time for carrying out the customary service trials. However, although the locomotives were practically nothing more than working blue prints when they reached us, they arrived in the nick of time and served our needs admirably. The NZ engine drivers quickly learned to handle them.’

Railhead was at Matruh on the 13th, when three trains were despatched from Daba to that destination; by the 25th, after relief by 193 Railway Operating Company, RE, 17 Company had manned and was operating from its headquarters at Capuzzo the MisheifaCapuzzoTobruk Road section. On the same day 16 Company, now relieved by 115 (Indian) Railway Operating Company, had settled into its old ‘possie’ at Similla and taken over the SimillaMisheifa section.

When the Company had evacuated Similla it had left behind a very old and battered built-in stove, a most prized possession of the sergeants' mess. The shed that housed the derelict was not worth destroying so it was decided to lend the amenity to the Germans as a going concern. A note was left instructing the new tenants to look after both stove and building until the return of the rightful owners in the near future. The page 398 premises were clean and tidy when the sappers retook possession, but some nasty-minded Jerry had planted a couple of booby traps that had to be removed before the cooks could resume business.

While the water reservoirs at Capuzzo, Misheifa and Similla were being repaired the whole of the running was performed with diesel engines, but a partial changeover to steam loco operation was made on the 28th and three days later (1 December) the diesel-electric locos were worked over the Capuzzo-Tobruk sector, leaving the steam locomotives to operate between Similla and Capuzzo.

The railway system had in fact been recommissioned in accordance with the timing laid down in ‘Movement Plan—Eighth Army Maintenance’. Planning a battle is not solely a matter of deploying brigades, regiments and divisions—they have to be fed, watered and munitioned, and in a desert neither food nor water are easily obtained. With the lengthening line of communications it was of supreme importance that, through the efforts of Indian, South African, Australian, British and New Zealand railway sappers, the line connecting Alexandria with Tobruk was operating within the times set down in the movement plan.

The arrival of the supply trains at Tobruk made it possible to maintain sufficient forces for the reduction of the Agheila position where the enemy was then holding. After 2 NZ Division had made its outflanking march and the enemy had withdrawn beyond Agheila the running of trains became monotonously normal; so normal that, with the interference from the air a thing of the past, a total of 374 trains ran in December conveying 14,762 wagons and 140 coaches. Apart from passenger traffic some 65,000 tons of stores were off-loaded at Tobruk in addition to many thousands of tons at other railheads.

Tripoli was occupied on 23 January 1943 and the opening of the port there took the pressure completely off the Desert Railway; on 21 February, after relief by 115 (Indian) Operating Company, 16 New Zealand Railway Operating Company was back whence it had started in October 1940—at NZ Base Camp, Maadi.

Group Headquarters and 17 Company endured another month of the desert winter with its cold and dust, the nilvisibility running and the usual track washouts. A changeover to diesel-electric locomotives was completed on 8 March when WD Locos 9332 and 9327 hauled the last steam-operated service page 399 (Train No. 5) over the Tobruk Road – CapuzzoMisheifa section. The steam loco depot at Capuzzo closed the same day and coal, oil and wood supplies, together with depot equipment, were despatched to Misheifa. The rail loop at Tobruk docks was finished on 10 March and on the following day a 17 Company diesel crew and brakesman ran the first train over the new extension that finally linked Alexandria with Tobruk. In a way it was a pity that it was not Kiwi construction men who put the finishing touches to the Western Desert Extension.

Operational responsibility for its section was relinquished to 195 Railway Operating Company, RE, by 17 Company on 14 March and by 21 March the company was also back in Maadi, to which place Group Headquarters had preceded it by a couple of days.