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Riding in Style
Menominee, MI: C&NW and/or Milwaukee Depot
Detroit, MI: 1942 Davison Freeway
During World War II a vital role was played by the Army’s railway operating units in theatres of war in the Middle East and Europe. A sapper in the Royal Engineers, Vic Cripps, shared his recollections via Paul Joyce in the November 2000 edition of BackTrack magazine. 
The featured image is one carried in the BackTrack article and shows two WD 2-8-0 locomotives passing in the gentler foot hills of the Iranian mountains.
Vic Cripps spent time in the early 1940s in Iran. His memories of that time are related in the journal by Paul Joyce.  After being ordered to Malaya and Singapore and a long sea journey, he arrived off the coast of Singapore just as the island was falling to the Japanese in February 1942. His orders were changed and he was sent to Ceylon before being transferred to Iran. His roles while in Iran centred on the Trans-Persian Railway, later the Trans-Iranian Railway. The railway was operated by the Royal Engineers alongside local staff.
“The Persian system was operated by two Railway Operating Companies. The northern section from Derood to Tehran was in the hands of Vic’s, … the 153rd, whilst southwards to the Gulf was by the 190th. Both their respective lines were then further broken down into four working sections. A Sergeant Major was based at each of the latter, whilst the Staff Sergeant would oversee the whole of the areas.” (p644)
Vic was based at Qum and remembered a fine commanding officer who had been a railway controller in pre-war times, Colonel Brash. He says that as the Sergeants were all ex-railway men, “familiarity was the norm, first names, not titles of rank, being used when solving a problem.” (p644)
Paul Joyce continues:
“The ground troops were the 10th Indian Division, which had a mixture of Sikhs and Gurkhas within its ranks. This was to be one of the first Colonial Divisions to have Indian officers in command. Most trains would have eight of these Indian soldiers with their rifles riding on them as guards, mainly to keep the Kurds at bay.
The accommodation at Qum was purpose-built in the local traditional way. A large hole was dug into which soil, straw and water were added, then thoroughly mixed. The ‘gunge’ was then slopped between wooden planks and left to dry, before being cut into blocks. The roofs were of wooden slats covered in mud and when the snow came, natives had the job of sweeping them before the weight became too great for the structure to stand. Qum had a locomotive depot and so when working trains forwards a new locomotive would come onto the train. Most workings were to Ahwaz, which necessitated staying overnight in the primitive shack-like building provided for that purpose. There were no canteens, so crews took 24 hours-worth of rations with them. Their only help would be a friendly call to awaken, one hour before they were due to go back on duty.” (p644) The picture below shows a typical billet in Iran in 1942. The primitive roof is clearly visible. (p644)
“The Trans-Persian locomotives consisted of some powerful 54,400lb Beyer Garratt 4-8-2+2-8-4s for working the northern section from Tehran to the Caspian Sea. Also supplied by Beyer, Peacock were some 2-8-0s, while added to these were 77 Swedish and German 2-8-0, 2-10-0 and 2-8-2 locomotives. Unfortunately by the time the British Army had arrived most were unserviceable, having been thrashed to pieces. With no engineering background, so to speak, the Persians had never been able to maintain and overhaul them properly. The British troops at Tehran came into contact with one serviceable Beyer Garratt; based at Tehran shed, it was, for most of the unit, their first experience with one of these large complicated engines. Just like a Midland Compound, to the uninitiated, a driver was never too sure whether it was in forward or reverse gear when he opened the regulator. At least once, Vic recalled rumours of part of this long locomotive with some of its wheels hanging over a wrongly-set turntable!” (p644)
Vic remembered dramatic scenery, high mountain ranges with deep ravines, a ruling grade of 1 in 67 and substantial structures. He particularly noted two sections of the line both of 10 miles in length: “the first had eighteen tunnels, constituting 41% of its length, whilst the second had twenty, equalling 50%. At one point the line was lifted 157ft by a spiral of two loops, both 2 miles in length, which at one point were 328 yards apart in a straight line but in railway terms were ten times that distance.” (p645)
One surprising comment relates to the availability of water. Vic remembers there being no problems accessing good clean water. In previous articles in this series about Iran, I have noted a concern expressed about using steam on the route. The lack of easily available water supplies was considered to be a significant factor in the decision to use diesel power on the line after US forces took over the management of the line from the British Army.
Paul Joyce recounts Vic’s memories: “Water for the engines was never a problem, fortunately. Most of the mountains towering high above the line were per manently covered in snow and everywhere were streams descending with pure water, as there was no vegetation this high up. At frequent intervals some streams were culverted with concrete sides and diverted to pass adjacent to the track. Alongside were stationed Merryweather pumps; it was just a case of putting the basket (the large filter at the end of the hose) into the water, inserting the output hose into the tender tank, then firing the pump and just waiting while a couple of thousand gallons were taken on.” (p645)
Vic also commented that the steam engines being oil-fired made his job as a fireman on some of the strenuous climbs so much easier, even more so on the descents, although the WD Stanier locomotive benefited from a small amount of steam in the cylinders on a descent so to avoid knocking echoing around the valleys! Vic could not remember any of the locomotives having been coal-fired when first in the country.
One of Vic’s surprises was the large number of Polish troops carried southwards on the line having escaped the German advance across Poland, only to be detained by the Russians. Eventually they joined Polish units active with British forces in the North African Campaign.
Good quality British open wagons were used for a lot of the traffic and suffered undertaking such arduous journeys in rakes that were not continuously braked. Their lifespan was as a result relatively short.
The standard freight locomotives were WD Staniier 8F 2-8-0s. 50 were supplied from stock by the LMS, others were supplied new by the North British Locomotive Company and Beyer, Peacock and Company. In all, 143 of these locomotives served in Iran. The bulk of these locos arrived in 1942.
In addition to the WD 2-8-0s, Vic remembered firing a number of fine German engines. He also remembered a number of problems with the Kurds sabotaging locomotives. Sabotage could include placing oil on the rails of the mainline, or splitting air brake pipes. On one occasion when Kurds slit a train’s air pipes, “all seemed well to the crew as they departed northwards. Unfortunately the line entered a series of sharp curves … and as the train started to snake around the bends, so the pipes opened up, causing the train to block the single running line.” (p646)
During its time in Iran, the 153rd Railway Operating Company did not lose a single man to enemy action, disease was the greatest threat. “Such were the dangers of infections that Vic’s pay book recorded 30 preventative injections!” (p646)
As we discovered in earlier articles in this series about the railways of Iran, the United States of America replaced the British on the southern section of the line. As a result, Vic was transferred out of country and then prepared to join the campaign in the South of Europe.
This article first appeared on rogerfarnworth.com
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