New Zealand Railway Troops in the Mediterranean

Gordon Angus Mackinlay

The usage of contingents of British Commonwealth railway troops in the Mediterranean theatre of operations in 1940-43, is a fascinating story.  Unfortunately the UK, Australia and South Africa only record their tasks are part of the Official History’s of the various Corps' of Engineers.
New Zealand was the same, recording in Chapter Nine, of New Zealand Engineers Middle East p.252-279 the story of their Railway Operating Group.
This over the years became more and more unsatisfactory with the dwindling survivors of the Railway Engineers, and a Railway Committee was set up to have a history written and published..
The result was :

JUDD Brendon. The Desert Railway. The New Zealand Railway Group in North Africa and the Middle East during the Second World War. Penguin Books for The Railway Committee, Auckland, 2003. Illustrated card cover, 328p., photographs, maps, index.

Unfortunately with only limited resources, and a then socialist national government with little sympathy to grant funding for such a history, resulted in the book being published in a paperback run of 500 copies, with the Committee bemoaning the fact that it was so small that the maps could not be read property and the photos equally so.

But for all that it is a splendid little book, although expensive, it took the bookshop with whom I deal with in the Greater AUckland area, eleven years to find me a copy, and I consider myself lucky to buy it a NZ$50, but it is in prime condition.

It gives a very good description of the rail operation, track, rolling stock and locomotives.  With all the problems of building, maintaining such.  The one that I found of greatest interest was the problem of water, which of course must be clean potable water for use in steam locomotives.  This was a huge problem as the vast amount of the water used was chlorinated (up to quite high levels) which it directed had to have the steam tubes flushed out every seven days, due to the war conditions it was usually every ten or so days.  But due to the high standard of the British War Department locomotives construction, they coped with this well.   It took an average of 28,000 gallons of strained water to flush the tubes out!  Which water could not be recycled.

At the forward operation areas of the military railway in Egypt, before the El Alamein region, the daily water requirement was 181,000 gallons daily, or 870 tons.  Even though this a huge amount, it paled into insignificance with the amount of petrol that would be needed to provide the logistic lift provided by rail by road transport.  4,500 tons daily taken off the road system, the equivalent of 1,500 standard 3 ton cargo trucks.

Water was literally worth its weight in gold.  The use of potable water from fresh water wells was a dangerous practice, as at any time this water could change from fresh to saline with a very high salt content.

The water problem was only solved with the arrival of US Lend Lease diesel locomotives, not requiring water!!!

All in all a fascinating book, with frequent mention of the ingenuity of railway men in fixing the multitude of problems experienced.  A good read, and equally good information resource, and I will be dropping it off to the book binder to have a hard cover put on it.

Yours,                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Mackinlay   New South Wales

Paul Napier

I'm just reading Paul Malmassari book and was surprised that he attributes the armoured locomotives and flak wagons used on the desert railway to New Zealand.

Paul Napier