The Friends of the
National Railway Museum

South of England Group
Vice Presidents: Richard Hardy; Sir William McAlpine Bt, FRSE, FCIT, FRSA

Last Update

Talk Synopsis

25 May 2009

Railways at War
Shaun Houldridg, NRM
10 November 2008

Sixteen members were present on 10th November as Alan Gosling introduced Shaun Houldridge from the NRM, our speaker for the evening. We were also pleased to welcome into the audience Kitty Chisholm, from the Board of Trustees of the NMSI.
Shaun's talk concentrated on the first years of World War II, but he started much earlier, noting that although the Duke of Wellington is credited with recognising that railways had a role in transferring troops in times of war, it was actually General Napier who identified this possibility in 1839. The Crimea War used railways to a limited extent, but it was the Boer War that really used it for strategic purposes, even using armoured cars.
By the late 1930s, there was no doubt about their strategic importance. The armed forces were operating their own rail services at docks, army camps and even airforce stations. The Emergency Defence Act of 1939 brought all civil railways under government control.
Operation ”Pied Piper• followed quickly, evacuating children, women and older people from London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool. All children were tagged with railway luggage tags and had a small case containing half a loaf, some dried milk and sweets. The plan was to evacuate 4 million people, but it only achieved around 1.5 million. A second evacuation came in May 1940.
During the Dunkirk campaign, the railways moved troops away from the ports. Eight days of special train movements were needed without any prior knowledge. This involved 620 extra trains for 300,000 troops, using carriages from all over the system.
In summer 1942, US troops were carried from arrival ports at a rate of 5000 trains a month.
The war didn't just affect the national system. The RHDR introduced an armoured train, manned by volunteers from their own works. In 1942 the whole area, including the RHDR, was taken over as part of the PLUTO programme.
Meanwhile UK factories were busy with war products. These required not just goods trains but also workmans' trains, with special tickets. In 1942, 400 million passenger journeys were made using these tickets. Passenger restrictions were in force, cheap tickets were withdrawn and leisure travel was discouraged. Even so 10,000 million more passenger-mile journeys were made than pre-war!
At the start of 1943 there were only 20,000 women working on the railways, by the end of the war this had risen to 105,000 out of a total workforce of nearly 1 million.
In the locomotive works, austerity was the name of the game, resulting in designs such as the Q1, and the expansion of mixed traffic designs such as the LMS Black 5 and LNER V2. These locos achieved some amazing feats - a V2 pulled a 850 ton, 26 coach, troop train from Peterborough to London. However, the Black 5 was by far the most numerous of the mixed-traffic type. Meanwhile the shortage of manpower led to the simplification of maintenance and was the justification for the removal of the streamlining from the Princess Coronation class and the wheel covers from the A4s.
The war produced many heroes. In 1943 railway workers received 1 George Cross, 28 George Medals, 72 British Empire Medals, and 124 commendations. It just shows the contribution the railway, and its workers, made during the war.

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