A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

the Australian bridge of Tripoli

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 27, 2009

The weather turned unexpectedly hot here in New York this past weekend: yesterday the high was around 90F.

The summer weather reminded me of Lebanon – not Beirut’s soggy heat, but the dry heat further north towards Tripoli. And that in turn reminded me of a day-trip that H and I had taken last June, to see the Rachid Karame International Exhibition Center. We took the highway up, but the older sea roads home – partly for the ambience, and partly for the chance to see the tank graveyard and a mystery bridge.

The bridge itself is not a mystery: its a small, stone bridge that can fit the usual one-and-one-half cars. The mystery came from the marker carved midway across. Here it is on the fly:

bridge-through-car

And here it is in close-up:

bridge-closeup

The left-hand side says “1942” in Arabic; the right-hand side in Roman script. And the words on the banner say: “Australian Commonwealth Military Forces”.

I did know, vaguely, that British-led Allied forces were the ones that took Syria and Lebanon back from the Axis sometime in 1942. (And I do know that it was British pressure that forced the French to grant Syria and Lebanon de jure independence in 1943, and to make that de facto in 1946.) But I had no idea what else the troops had been up to while stationed here – and nor did H. Hence the mystery.

I’ve found one book that discusses the building of the Australian bridge: an out-of-print book written by a man named Lawrence FitzGerald, Lebanon to Labuan: A story of mapping by the Australian Survey Corps, World War II (1939 to 1945). As you know, collecting out-of-date books on Lebanon is a hobby of mine – and I was tempted to buy a copy of FitzGerald’s book. But at $40, its too rich for my cheap tastes :).

The Australians must have put their time in Lebanon to very good use, because when I tried to search for information about this bridge, another bridge appeared. A site for the “Australian War Memorial” maintains an online collection of period photos, showing Australian efforts in various locales. One shows the construction of another Australian bridge: a bridge for the Lebanese railroad, crossing Nahr Ibrahim somewhere between Jounieh and Jbeil.

The site describes the bridge as in “Tripoli, Syria” – which will alternately amuse, irritate, or horrify you, depending on your socio-political views. Here’s what it says:

TRIPOLI, SYRIA. 1942-06-09. BUILDING A BRIDGE TO CARRY THE RAILWAY BEING CONSTRUCTED BY AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY CONSTRUCTION COMPANIES FROM BEIRUT TO TRIPOLI, PART OF THE LAST LINK IN THE CAIRO-LONDON CROSS- CONTINENTAL RAIL PROJECT. SAPPERS OF THE 3RD AUSTRALIAN RAILWAY CONSTRUCTION COMPANY ARE SINKING THE CAISSON FOR THE CENTRAL PIER OF A TWO-SPAN BRIDGE ACROSS THE SWIFTLY FLOWING NAHR IBRAHIM NEAR ITS OUTLET TO THE SEA. A DIVER WAS EMPLOYED IN THE SINKING OF THIS CAISSON WHICH WAS SUNK TO A DEPTH OF 20 FEET BELOW WATER LEVEL. THE BRIDGE WILL CONSIST OF TWO SPANS OF 70 FEET AND 100 FEET. IN THE BACKGROUND THE MOUNTAINS OF LEBANON AND THE STONE HOUSES, TYPICAL OF THE AREA.

Initially, I thought that this must be the same bridge – but if you look at the photo on the AWM site and compare it to “my” Australian bridge, they don’t seem to be the same. “My” bridge was inland, and nestled in amongst the foliage, while this one appears very exposed. And – while I’m no bridge expert – my understanding is that railroad bridges and car bridges are somewhat different in width and overall appearance.

But perhaps the Aussies built “my” bridge while working in the area on the broader railroad project – since both took place in 1942.

Here’s a bit more information on the railroad, taken from a book titled Middle East Railways and written by the Boutros Boutros-Ghali’an Hugh Hughes, and posted on Al Mashriq:

The most interesting event in this area however was the decision to construct a standard gauge link between Haifa and the railways of Syria. This meant that stores and equipment could be moved quickly, without transhipment problems due to change of gauge, from depots in Egypt and Palestine right up to the Turkish border – and beyond if necessary. Moreover it would also provide a through connection with Iraq. In the event Turkey maintained its neutrality and refused permission for British military stores to pass indiscriminately over its section of the Aleppo-Mosul railway. Nevertheless locomotives were transferred to and from Iraq by this route, and the line from Haifa was also used to move ex-Middle East engines to Turkey after purchase by that country. The first proposal was for a line from Haifa to Rayak but a 1941 reconnaissance revealed construction difficulties that would have taken far too long to overcome. So instead it was decided to blast a route along the coast connecting Haifa with Beirut and Tripoli; this involved some very difficult work negotiating the steep cliffs where the various headlands met the sea. From Haifa to Beirut the construction was carried out by South African engineers and it is interesting to note that a temporary 1.05m gauge line was in use in April 1942 on the 14 miles between Damour Bridge and Beirut so that narrow gauge facilities at the latter place could be used for supplying materials. In June the South Africans were transferred elsewhere and the finishing touches were added by two New Zealand RE companies. Regular military traffic started on 24th August 1942, including three passenger services per week.

From Beirut to Tripoli construction was by Australian Royal Engineers, except for the difficult Chekka tunnel which was built by a tunnelling company recruited from South African miners for this special job. By July 1942 the 14 miles from Chekka Cement Works to Tripoli were already in use but the whole line from Beirut was not completed until 18th December; two days later General Alexander presided at the official opening ceremony for the Azzib-Tripoli railway (the PR were operating the Haifa-Azzib section). Some idea of the character of this line can be gleaned from the fact that when on one occasion some trucks became derailed near Sidon thus holding up 15 following trains with important supplies, the action taken was to bring along a travelling crane and tip all the offending stock over the edge into the sea.

Kheireddine and my other history buff readers, do you know anything more about this bridge?

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6 Responses to “the Australian bridge of Tripoli”

  1. Pat said

    I am almost sure I have seen the exact same sign on another “Australian” railway bridge in Amchit but my memory is probably playing tricks on me, I’ll try to check it out on the weekend.

    Oh and just to be a non serious Numerals Nazi, that’s 1942 in Arabic Numerals on the right side and Indic Numerals on the left. If it were in Roman it would have said MCMXLII ;-p

  2. Hunh. Well, as an American I concede that my knowledge of geography is inherently weak. Let me ask H where the bridge is – perhaps I have mis-remembered its northerly-ness and we are talking about the same bridge after all. (Or perhaps the Aussies used the same design for all their 1942 bridges.)

    You are quite right about the numbers. I was trying to avoid confusing people by talking about “Arabic numbers” and “Arabic numerals” – hence I used “Roman script”. But now I see that I may have confused people who think that “Roman numerals” are used in “Roman script”. oh well 🙂

  3. Pat said

    It probably not the same bridge… I don’tremember there were any rocks on either sides, but I haven’t been there since the 90’s. It’s just that the sign on the bridge always struck me as odd when I was a kid.

    Don’t worry I was not really serious about the roman/arabic/indi thingy 🙂

  4. anonymous leb said

    I went back to the other bridge with the same sign (and indeed it was the exact same inscription) but there is an army base near by and after a 30 minutes interrogation then concluded I was not allowed to take any pictures of the bridge 😦

    So I wandered around and eventually I found your bridge too 🙂

    It is about 25 miles north of Beirut, 20 miles south of Tripoli.

    Here is it geotagged on flickr.

  5. oldtimeLebanonlover said

    There are the same signs on 2 different Railway Bridges in jounieh , very close to the sea …
    My father told me there was the same sign for the Railway bridge in Nahr el kaleb , but the same bridge was recovered of Beton and was made as a road for cars …

  6. OT Lebanon Lover, thank you for your comment! I’m not familiar with those bridges, but it does sound like the Australians were quite busy during their time in Lebanon. I’m putting them on my ‘things to see’ list for my summer travels!

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