A Train Journey in North Africa

From an early age trains, especially steam trains, have fascinated me as they fascinate men of all ages, even those who were born after the 'steam age'. A train pulled by a large steam locomotive travelling at speed on a main line belching out steam and smoke is an experience not to be missed.

My particular train journey was undertaken in 1943, it was made in North Africa, was cost free, and its destination could not be guaranteed. The seating was plentiful, and so were the potential travellers. The departure point was Algiers and my hoped for destination was Kairouan a town in Tunisia. I did not know whether the town was on a railway, line but I knew that it was a collecting point for any airborne soldiers who had gone astray

On the night of 10th June 1943 the allied forces launched the invasion of Sicily, it was the first occasion on which the British forces made use of glider born infantry. We took off in the early evening from air strips in Tunisia. Of the 140 gliders which took off on the operation 78 landed in the sea and those that did make landfall were spread over an area of several miles. Of the total glider force 300 men were drowned that night. One of the earliest books about this operation was not inaccurately titled Slaughter over Sicily.

I spent that night hanging on to a piece of glider wreckage until, soon after dawn when we were fortunate enough to be spotted by a Greek destroyer and picked up in time for breakfast. At about midday we were transferred to an empty liner that had been used as a troopship during the invasion, four days of luxurious relaxation followed. We were deposited on a spare piece of concrete behind the public lavatories of a cycledrome still wearing the remains of the clothing we were wearing when we set off to invade Sicily. In a short time we were found and transferred to a tented camp on the local race-course. We were clothed and given the necessaries of life such as toothpaste!

Now after that short! introduction I can begin to give an account of my North African train journey.

After a few days those at the Camp were warned of their departure by train the following day to a destination in Tunisia. The party left without me, I had been admitted to one of Algiers three Military Hospitals, with an infection to a cut over my left eye which was a memento of the glider crash. The next morning the Deputy Matron in the full dress of the Q.A.s complete with the distinctive shoulder Cape, plus WWI medals visited me. She paused at the end of my bed turned to the Sister and said 'he looks a mess'. Having welcomed me with those few kind words she continued her perambulation.

The hospital bed was comfortable, the food was good and after the morning ward round convalescent patients were free to go into the City and stay there for as long as they wished. So in the company of a fellow patient I caught the trolley bus into town. The Officers club did not open until noon so there was time for a shave at little cost in a luxurious barbers shop at the Adelphi Hotel, time to glance at the "Army News" and a drink before lunch. The chefs did well with the army rations, eating was a prolonged, and relaxed business. After reporting our return to the hospital I needed a rest!

Once declared fit, patients were transferred to a holding camp a few miles outside Algiers there to await posting to an appropriate unit. Sited on the edge of a lovely beach you could swim, the alternative was not to swim but sit in the shade and quickly to become utterly bored. My airborne companion and I decided to use our initiative and help ourselves on the way. It was not difficult to thumb a lift into town; once there we found the Town Majors' office and explained our need to the Warrant Officer in charge, two places on a train to Souse. His reply was short and precise. We were to be on the railway station platform at 09:00 hrs the following morning with us seven days rations. What about tickets we asked, "Tickets Sir?, there's a war on, just be there with your rations".

My companion was several years my senior and was able to pass on to me skills useful in our situation. Without undue delay we had managed to hitch hike our way back to camp and start our preparations for an early start in the morning. We left camp before reveille each with a black plastic bag containing a weeks rations. Standing at a recommended pick up spot on the Algiers road we were soon trundling along in the back of an uncomfortable 30cwt truck arriving at the station with time to spare. There were both large and small groups of soldiers and airmen. My companion positioned us next to a large RASC Major impeccably turned out in an obviously new uniform. A few minutes later a earnest looking Railway Transport Officer complete with a clipboard under his arm walked purposefully along the platform scanning the waiting would be travellers; he halted in front of our Major, with a smart salute and the words "You are the Train Commandant, Sir". The Major visibly wilted and tried to avoid the appointment but to no avail, he was the senior officer on the railway platform at that moment and the appointment was his! My companion was quick to exploit the situation in the best interests of H.M's Forces, standing stiffly to attention he volunteered his services as "Train Adjutant", his offer was immediately accepted, The RTO nodded approval and quickly moved away; a few minutes later I was Assistant to the Train Adjutant. Within a short time the Major revealed that he was a NAFFI manager.

A short time later with the Commandant and his two Assistants ensconced in the only complete carriage in the train we slowly moved out of Algiers. We had a journey of some 400 miles ahead of us, our destination uncertain and our anticipated time of arrival unknown. The make up of the train might be of interest, the powerful locomotives were of American construction and crewed by U.S. army engineers, the Guards were French and the Railway Movement Officers were British!

The rolling stock was of every kind, shape, size. In its prime it was no doubt well suited to the purpose for which it was originally constructed. All of it was in a state of disrepair, much of it could honestly be described as derelict; former passenger coaches , goods wagons, cattle trucks and vehicles beyond the imagination of even the fattest of 'Fat Controllers'.

In the short time awaiting our start, my companion had instructed me to acquire a clean and empty 5 gallon petrol tin with a strong wire handle, without this essential item of equipment, life would indeed be a hardship. The Technique for using this primitive but war winning piece of equipment, was that once the train was halted a fast running member of the syndicate carrying the tea pot presented it to the train driver with a polite request for a donation of boiling water, making sure the tea was in the can. The signal for both stopping and starting this caravan of military transport was simply one blast on the Engine Whistle. Who had authority to order stops and starts was a secret, and remained such until the end of the journey.

There was no schedule for stops and starts, varying in length from just a few minutes to an hour. Whenever a train was halted there were points of great activity where travellers and local inhabitants bartered non-stop for surplus items of service equipment and private possessions. Those participating were often highly skilled in financial matters, each in possession of seven days rations. From time to time individuals or small groups were accidentally left behind.

The second half of our journey covered a distance of about 100 miles and our arrival came upon us unexpectedly and presented us with a not unwelcome surprise. We halted at the end of the line and there some 200 yards away was the beginning of a different wider gauge railway line. Algeria and Tunisia obviously shared a single line but with two gauges.

There we found a large canvas construction: clearly this was more than a halt, as we soon discovered. Our train was emptied of its passengers and we were ushered into a well equipped overnight transit centre. We could shower, receive first aid, replace damaged clothing, have a drink in the NAFFI or relax in a rudimentary Officers Mess. Each of us was to hand over the unexpired portion of our seven days rations and would receive a fresh issue. The fat Major had disappeared.

Having enjoyed the benefits offered by the Rest Centre I and my companion took a stroll to discover what the morrow had to offer. The rolling stock awaiting us on the next day, was, if anything in a more dilapidated condition than that in which we had travelled from Algiers. Most of the coaches were of the type which hitherto I had only seen featured in American comics, each had a platform at both ends. We sussed out what was on offer and found the only carriage capable of providing anything approaching comfort. Our syndicate had acquired a third member, a another wearer of the red beret, a surgeon of the Medical Corps. After weighing up the pros and cons we decided to deny ourselves a camp bed in the camp and take over the carriage we had chosen immediately and make ourselves comfortable for the night. We quietly transferred our few possessions, the remainder of our seven days rations and of course our tea pot.

Promptly in the morning we returned to a cooked army breakfast of fried spam and dried egg, luxury indeed!

Where were we? There was nothing to tell us in the camp and nobody seemed to have an itinerary. A few years ago I set out discover where we had been, nobody in the archives of the military museum knew. We had several letters from former travellers, none of them agreed and some even suggested that it had never existed my guess is that it was Ouled Ramoun to where the American locomotives were assembled for transfer to the narrow- gauge track.

The terrain through which we now passed was similar to the first part of our journey, but more undulating. There were fewer halts and sadly fewer cups of tea. Our original rations served us well sufficient and varied. Late one afternoon we found ourselves drawing slowly into Sousse Station, at the time our syndicate was heating our tea pot over an open fire on the back platform of our coach.! Carefully putting out the fire we scrambled down on to the platform and out to the Taxi Rank!

Arthur Royall. June 2011

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