The Eritrean Railway was enhanced to support the war between
Italy and Ethiopia. Some construction or reconstruction was
performed in the 1930s as depicted from pictures shown on Eritrean
It also was used by the British in their war against
the Italians. Comments about the war and the Ropeway are contained
on the Ropeway Page.
Photo courtesy of Eritrean Multimedia
Dave Engstrom* recently re-read most of "Eritrea 1941" by
A.J Barker, a book he picked up in Rome in 1968 on his way back from Asmara.
Itís basically an account of the British campaign against the Italians
in Eritrea, but it did mention the railway in a few places. The book is
an Italian translation (published by Baldini & Castoldi, Milano 1968)
of the original English version. The indented paragraphs below are Dave's
re-translations back into English of excerpts from Barkerís book.
The other material is Dave's comments or summary of the situation.
The British did have a fairly extensive rail system in
the Sudan which they used for logistical purposes. The system was apparently
a network of narrow-gauge, single line tracks dating from the 1890s. Dave
has read somewhere they were built to support Kitchenerís campaign against
the Mahdi. An important line for the British ran from Port Sudan inland
to Haiya, where it split in two. From Haiya, one line went further inland
to Atbara and then down to Khartoum and places beyond; the second line
from Haiya went almost due South to Kassala, then on to Gedaref and other
points, including Sennar, from where it looped back up to Khartoum.
Because of severe shortages, the Brits were hard pressed
to supply their Sudanese outposts:
For a major saving in the field of transport in general,
the boilers of coastal steamers and steam locomotives were stoked with
charcoal briquettes and cotton seeds.
About three weeks after Italy declared war on June 10, 1940,
the Italians took Kassala, on July 4. But it appears for some reason they
had placed a limit of 40 km or so on their incursions into the Sudan, and
they never really threatened the Sudanese rail line.
This greatly helped Platt: the loss of Kassala and the
resulting interruption of the rail trunk between Haiya, Kassala, Gedaref
and Sennar, which continued from there to Khartoum, was already serious
enough in that it obliged reinforcements and supplies to pass through Atbara
and Khartoum. The loss of Atbara would have been a grave disaster; that
of Sennar would not have allowed the use of the Southern rail trunk.
In preparing for their offensive, the British shipped troops
and materiel to Port Sudan through the Suez. Because of a change in orders,
the crews of a tank squadron arrived after their vehicles.
When it was finally possible to reunite the crews and
the heavy tanks, before sending them to the front lines it was necessary
to effect modifications to the rail flat cars. Transport of the heavy vehicles
to the front by truck certainly could not be considered. No one, however,
knew what modifications had to made to the flat cars until the day the
tanks arrived in the Sudan. (To the credit of the personnel of Sudan Railways
the modifications were perfect: the rail cars that transported these enormous
armored monsters operated without incident.)
On January 19, 1941, the British retook Kassala and on February
1-2, 1941, they captured Agordat and Barentu.
The victory at Barentu was as decisive as that of Agordat,
and the conquest of the little town opened a magnificent route between
the British railhead at Kassala and Agordat.
During this period, the Italian forces withdrew to Keren
and the surrounding hills. On February 1 their commander ordered the blockage
of the road and rail line to Agordat about 8 km outside Keren. But it appears
that for some reason they didnít think of blowing up the rail tunnels on
the Agordat-Keren line - there were at least two such tunnels, located
only a few kilometers outside their defensive perimeter and the blockage
point. Dave surmised that the Italians believed the main British assault
would be more or less along the coast, from Port Sudan toward Massawa.
On February 3, the British forces began the battle of
Keren, but were unable to penetrate the Italian defenses.
Because of the failure, the British had to crank up their
logistical operations and prepare for a more difficult campaign against
Keren. In regard to the railhead at Kassala, Barker says:
Far and away the most important place, from a strategic
viewpoint, for the preparations for the approaching offensive was the railhead
at Kassala, a magnificent objective for General Pinnaís bomber crews. However,
and it seems strange, during the month of February Kassala was subjected
to only one enemy incursion, and so traffic to and from the city continued
uninterrupted at a pace not hoped for by even the most optimistic members
of the British staff.
Later in the book, speaking of the logistical miracles accomplished
by the British staff, Barker says "the rail line was extended about 70
kilometers beyond Kassasla." Presumably this was toward Eritrea, which
would mean the British rail line reached Teseney. [see Rob
Dickinson's map where it is marked as Tessenai. The Eritrean
Railway went 37 km past Agordat to Biscia].Barker didnít show it on his
sketch map of Western Sudan and Eritrea.
In regard to the line in Eritrea:
Able to rely only on their own resources, Plattís administrative
staff was forced to recognize that to be able to launch another offensive
against Keren, the only solution consisted of a massive exploitation of
available vehicles as well as the recently conquered railway, which linked
Agordat to Keren, as soon as it could be put in operation.
Nothing was overlooked to ensure that the railway captured
from the Italians functioned as it should. Foreseeing that during retreat
the enemy would remove or destroy the rolling stock (cars, locomotives,
etc), Plattís staff had thought of procuring diesel locomotives and cars
whose trucks, used in the Sudan, had been substituted with ones adapted
to the gauge used in Eritrea. As foreseen (sic), it was learned that the
enemy had left behind a considerable number of usable freight cars, with
which, when two diesel locomotives were brought from Atbara, it was possible
to organize rail convoys, each of which consisted of three fully loaded
cars (the maximum allowed) capable of reaching the bluffs of Keren. In
place of the locomotives, 3/4 ton trucks were also used, arranged
with the wheels astride the tracks, capable of towing a single fully loaded
flat car to the front line.
Speaking specifically of the hill over the rail tunnel closest
to the front line, and in reference to the first attack on February 3,
The attempt to open a breach in the defenses around
Keren had failed, but the ledge over the rail tunnel, Cameron Ridge,
would prove to be of enormous importance, even if its conquest required
the sacrifice of many lives.
The railway was also used for night-time transport of
materiel and supplies destined for Cameron Ridge, employing a single
flat car carrying three or four men which arrived at the entrance of the
tunnel under the hill. Once unloaded, the cars descended freewheeling,
pulled by their own weight, while their often dangerous speed was controlled,
for better or worse, by men operating the hand brake. On the return trips,
the wounded were loaded on the cars, which spared them the suffering of
being transported by stretcher, particularly difficult along the steep
mountain paths. The life of these stretcher bearers was less dangerous
and tiring, and many human lives were thus saved.
On March 15, 1941, the British resumed the attack on Keren.
Twelve days later, on March 27, they took the city. After the loss of Keren,
which was characterized as the end of Italian East Africa, things went
very fast in Eritrea Ė the British were in Asmara 4 days later on April
1 and in Massawa by April 11. Although it was another month until the capture
of the Duke díAosta and a sizable Italian force at Amba Alagi, the real
end was Keren.
Apart from the indirect reference, above, to the British
having to put the Agordat-Keren line back into operation, the only real
reference to what must have been significant damage to the rail line was
the following, which occurred during the fighting at Keren:
The Wellesleys that bombed the rail line leading to
Asmara struck a train loaded with munitions destined for the front, and
the din of the explosion added to the infernal sounds of the guns at Keren
and the surrounding area.
It sounds as if for the most part the rail line got through
it all in relatively good condition. Though Dave and I don't understand
why the Italian forces didnít obliterate the tunnels. The one under Cameron
Ridge, mentioned above, turned out to be a real key to the British being
able to seize some important hills, nicknamed Rail Bumps and Railway Ridge,
which in turn led to the capture of other crucial ground. Barker tells
the following little story:
To convert the rail tunnel into an approach route to
Bumps and Railway Ridge, the Indian units of Beresford-Peirseís
sappers had begun to remove the trucks loaded with rocks with which the
Italians had blocked the road, and by the morning of March 24 a gap had
been opened. Because it was feared that the far end of the of the tunnel
might be covered by an enemy machine gun, such an approach route could
be very dangerous, but for once Lady Luck smiled on the attackers. The
Italians were convinced that any attack coming from that direction would
be effected by direct ascent of the gorge, and they had therefore excluded
the possibility of using the tunnel, an undertaking considered mad. Just
as it was thought to be by the Englishmen who were going through the tunnel.
The night of March 24, a patrol of officers advanced stealthily in the
tunnel and exited it following the rail line to make sure the Italians
werenít aware of the clearing work. The situation, however, appeared quiet
and, as a result, the first and important preparatory phase of the operation
could be considered perfectly successful.
During the previous day, the Highland Light Infantry
and the Baluchis had entered the tunnel. The HLI who had
to launch the attack had arrived in the morning and had passed the rest
of the day in the cool air of the tunnel trying to kill time chatting and
singing. Rees, who was with them, was afraid the noise made by the soldiers
could be heard by the Italians, and he went up to the tunnel exit for a
look around. His justifiable fears quickly vanished; the noise didnít reach
the entrance and outside everything appeared quiet. Consequently, around
0300, after swallowing the last drops of tea and rum, the two companies
of HLI set off on tip toe and 15 minutes later reached the tunnel
entrance. There followed a moment of high drama; when the enemy opened
fire, the troops had orders to scatter to the right and left of the rail
line. The intelligence on the Italian defenses was so vague it could not
be ruled out that on leaving the tunnel they would be welcomed by a rain
of bullets and hand grenades. Everything, however, went perfectly; the
met no opposition; the surprise was complete.
*I converted Dave's commentary to the third person to avoid confusion with
it being me talking. I have present the material pretty close to
Dave's words. I will do this with anyone's submissions unless I just
use a short quote. I concur with editorial comments that Dave has
made. Dave was not able to find information on the line from Kassala
to Tessenai. I have linked
to a map that shows it.