Railways, bridges and the War in north Africa

Engineers and the Armed Forces

During the Second World War, many civilian engineers became members of the Royal Engineers (RE), or after their creation in 1942, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME).

The Royal Engineers were responsible for maintaining the railways, roads, bridges and transport ensuring that supplies were available to the armies.

The Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers were responsible for maintaining and repairing the Army’s equipment.

One such example is Andrew Brodie Henderson.

Andrew Brodie Henderson

Born in 1913, the son of a civil engineer, Andrew Brodie Henderson was educated in Mechanical Sciences and undertook apprenticeships with various locomotive firms before joining the civil engineering firm Livesey and Henderson as a Partner. As his career progressed Henderson became both a Chartered Mechanical and Civil Engineer.

Henderson first joined the IMechE as a student member in 1936, before working his way up the classes of membership becoming a Graduate Member in 1939, an Associate Member in 1940, a Member in 1951 and finally a Fellow in 1968.

Henderson’s Army service

In 1940 Henderson was commissioned into the Royal Engineers where he served in the Middle East. Henderson’s roles related to transportation and he contributed initially to the design and construction of railway bridges before later overseeing railway workshops.

The Middle East theatre of war

An essential role was played by engineers who were stationed in the Middle East theatre of war; a location that encompassed the Mediterranean as well as the Middle East and eastern North Africa.

Colonisation of the region by various European empires had led to some countries such as Egypt being under Allied control with others such as Libya and Ethiopia being under the control of the Axis. As a result, Axis forces greatly outnumbered Allied forces in North Africa.

An attack on the region therefore represented not only an attack on the British empire, but a threat to vital trade links between Britain and India and the Far East not to mention an attack on one source of British oil supplies.

The Middle East, 1942

One of Germany’s strategic aims in relation to the region was to progress from Libya through Egypt (where Britain controlled the Suez Canal) to meet up with forces heading South from the then Soviet Union to gain control of the entire region.


The role of keeping the military moving and physically supplied was of strategic importance in what was often referred to as the desert war.

Supplies such as water were difficult to source naturally in the desert and therefore needed to be transported. Food, fuel, medical supplies, equipment and troops themselves also needed to be moved from point to point.

The desert itself presented other challenges. Engines, equipment and machinery all suffered as a result of the abrasive qualities of sand resulting in frequent breakdowns. The terrain was difficult and the battlefield covered huge distances.

There was, therefore, a significant military advantage to keeping the army moving and well supplied.

It was in achieving this advantage that many engineers became responsible for making improvements to existing railway lines and ensuring the upkeep of locomotives that were used as the primary means of transport large quantities of supplies over large distances among many other roles.

The Suez Canal

The Suez Canal runs for 120 miles between the Mediterranean Sea in the North and the Indian Ocean in the South and represents a significant shortcut for transportation by sea between Europe and Asia. In addition transportation by land across Egypt required crossing the Canal. For this reason, the Canal represented a location of strategic importance for both the Allies and the Axis forces.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Suez Canal was owned by Britain and France and was under British control.

The Suez Canal Railway Bridge

The most notable of Henderson’s bridging projects was the El Ferdan bridge, a railway bridge that crossed the Suez Canal. This bridge was undoubtedly an important aspect of railway development in support of the Allied armies in the Middle East.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the only means of crossing the Suez Canal was by ferry with separate ferry services for road and railway traffic. The need for a railway bridge was clear.

The chosen design was for a double leaf swing bridge carried on two piers and anchored on abutments. The design needed to consider the wishes of both the Suez Canal Company and the Admiralty by having an opening of 67 metres to allow for the passage of marine traffic. Each span was 247 feet long made up of a 117 foot long anchor arm and a 130 foot long cantilever arm.

The turntables were requisitioned from those built for or used on other similar bridges. Each span would be turned using two hand capstans and each span would require six men to turn taking a total time of five minutes to move from one position to the other.

The bridge was entirely hand operated and the procedure to move from one position to the other was as follows; swing the two spans, wedge up the abutments, insert the centre locking pins and use a fishplate to join the rails together at the abutments at each end of the bridge and at the centre point. It would take between 10 and 15 minutes to complete the procedure to move the bridge.

The Suez Canal railway bridge [IMechE Archive LIV/4/2/4]

The bridge was constructed between May 1941 and August 1942 when Henderson was the Bridging Staff Captain working alongside the Deputy Assistant Director of Bridging whose experience was as a structural engineer. Described in the post-build report as “a qualified civil engineer…with considerable experience” Henderson’s role would have been an administrative one that would have involved making the arrangements for the construction of the bridge including logistical arrangements for material and plant as well as providing food, accommodation and other services to the staff and workmen who were completing the construction of the bridge.

The report summarises the role of Henderson and the Deputy Assistant Director as such:

 “it must be emphasised that the presence of experienced civil engineers on the army staff was an important factor in the rapid and successful completion of the bridge.”

Such recognition highlighted the worth of commissioning civilian experts, such as engineers, into the Armed Forces during the Second World War.

An extract from the Bridge Completion report commenting on the role of engineers [IMechE Archive LIV/4/2/4]

75,470 days of work (based on a nine hour working day) were recorded over the course of the project from November 1941 until January 1943.

The Suez Canal railway bridge [IMechE Archive LIV/4/2/4]