March 2022 Newsletter: Railways still relevant in modern warfare

In researching my forthcoming book on the role of the railways in the reoccupation of northern Europe following D Day, I came across this account of what had happened in the key port of Le Havre just before liberation. The German occupiers came under sustained attack from the Allied bombers and much of the town was left in ruins. A contemporary French account described the situation: ‘During the siege all stores were closed. We can count 5,000 dead during these tragic days. 17,000 were treated in First Aid stations.40, 000 people have lost their homes and two thirds of the city has been destroyed. But the faith of everyone in the reconstruction of Le Havre renews our hope for a beautiful and prosperous city such as many knew before the war’.
Of course, strangely, the bombing came from allies rather than the enemy but the result is the same as what is happening in Ukraine. Being a lucky baby boomer, I had never thought we would be seeing such terrible events unfolding in Europe in my lifetime.
Moreover, despite the far greater sophistication of weaponry, warfare on the ground remains quite similar to the descriptions in my book Engines of War which highlights the role of railways in the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. In a way we are watching a 20th century type conflict because of the fears that escalation would bring about a nuclear war. Oddly, therefore, the nuclear capabilities are preventing a full out conflict – which is good – but making us powerless to do anything about this terrible unprovoked attack – which is bad.
And oddly trains remain relevant for this war, too. The huge Russian convoy stuck outside Kyiv for the past two weeks seems to be suffering from the lack of a railway to carry the tanks and the heavy machinery which can be done far more efficiently on tracks than on roads. The railways, as my forthcoming book will explain, create the best lines of communication for the military and even in the 21st century this may well be the case.
Indeed, early in the conflict it was reported that cyber warriors had managed to slow down the supply of war materièl by hacking into the signalling system. This is a story that has received nothing like the coverage it ought to have done because its implications are enormous. If the Belarus system is vulnerable in this way, so might others and one can ask to what extent have railways across the world – including in the UK – protected themselves against this and prepared contingency plans. I will be writing further on this over the next few weeks but anyone with any thoughts, do email me.
On the home front, my revised book on Crossrail has been published and you can get signed discounted copies from me by emailing The line is still not open but my best guess is that it will open straight after Easter, as it has to shut before that for a final software download. An extract appears in the current issue of Rail magazine and I wrote a piece for the Evening Standard celebrating the virtual completion of what is a fabulous railway.
Sorry I missed out the February newsletter, but it was a particularly busy period and I managed to write various articles including this one for The Guardian and wrote this letter for a lecture at Sunderland University on the original Northern Powerhouse. There’s new Rail columns herehere and here too on my beautiful newly designed website.
Meanwhile I am on a search for an article written by the WW2 American general Emerson Itschner called ‘Reconstruction of W European railroads’  There is virtually no trace of it on the internet and the references to it elsewhere are very vague, with no publisher or publication mentioned. If there is a genius researcher out there, do help me out.
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