Rail 986: The unsung railway heroes of WW2

Time for a summer diversion away from the hubbub of rail chaos and government indecision, to which I will doubtless soon return. It is timely, too, as we have just passed the 79th anniversary of D Day (on June 6th) and I have just finished my book on the role of the railway in the run up to the invasion and, mostly, the subsequent sweep through France, Belgium and Holland to Germany.

I rarely indulge in writing about my books in this column because it is somewhat cheeky but I am making an exception because the book I have just completed is a major departure from my other work and, though I say it myself, breaks new ground in understanding the role of the railways in the Second World War. And it is all about railways.

In the run up to D Day, a combination of the French Resistance and Allied bombers targeted the French rail network to prevent the Germans using it to bring forward reinforcements rapidly. Therefore, by the time the Allied forces started arriving in France, the rail system was no longer a network. Connections had been breached in some many places, either through sabotage or carpet bombing of major towns that it was taking days for German soldiers to reach the front line. Meanwhile, within a few days of the first landings, railways in captured territory near the coast were being rebuilt. Special companies of Royal Engineers and Railway Operating Battalions of American forces were hard at work restoring a line that ran parallel to the coast. In particular, Cherbourg, at the top of the Cotentin peninsula and a key port, was quickly recaptured as it was to become the key port for both men and supplies.

After a month of intense fighting with the Allies being largely confined to a small area near the coast, they managed to break out and moving through northern France. That is when the railways started coming into their own. The rapid movement eastward required huge logistical support and there was only one way to deliver – by rail. The story at the heart of my book best illustrates this. General George Patton, a man who was always in a hurry, managed to cover far more territory than expected as the Germans retreated. His troops had reached Le Mans, a key railway junction nearly 200 miles south east of Cherbourg. His aim was to get to Paris as quickly as possible. In order to continue the advance and achieve this, he needed ammunition and fuel, and with insufficient road transport available, a railway route had to be found for the 30 trains – each carrying 1,000 tonnes mainly of fuel – to get to Le Mans within a few days.

The main line, through Laval, was blocked as two major bridges which would require weeks to repair were down. Instead, Colonel Emerson Itschner, who was the engineer in charge of the project, flew over the area and worked out an alternative route using minor lines that were less damaged. However, the task of rebuilding this 135 mile-long railway between Avranches, at the foot of the Cotentin peninsula, and Le Mans required the services of 10,000 men who achieved the task within the deadline of three days despite enemy attacks, difficulties of obtaining supplies and the constant risk presented by mines. The drivers of the trains who were unfamiliar with both the locomotives they were operating and the route often could only go at walking pace, using signals provided by men with lighters and torches. When the first train arrived at Le Mans, the local stationmaster could not believe that the officer in charge was telling the truth about where they had come from because he thought the line was impassable and tried to stop the train from being unloaded. It was soon sorted out!

This was only the first of many stories about how the railways were the key component of the supply chain feeding and fuelling the advancing allied armies. The sheer statistics are compelling. Two thirds of the three million tons of supplies that passed through Cherbourg were carried forward by rail. Some 1,000 US and 1,000 UK locomotives were shipped over, along with 20,000 freight wagons, in order to replace stock destroyed in the conflict or stole by the Germans. At least 50,000 men, both UK and US soldiers, worked on repairing the lines often under the most difficult conditions imaginable. The Americans created no fewer than 50 railway operating battalions, each linked to a particular railroad company, to run what became, for a time, Europe’s biggest railway network, controlled by the military with the principal purpose of furthering the war effort. More than 1,200 Bailey Bridges, a system developed by the British but also used by the Americans, were constructed, principally for use by the railways.

There were amazing acts of heroism, with several instance of courageous railwaymen splitting up burning trains under fire in order to save them from the conflagration. When the Germans counterattacked in what became known as the Battle of the Bulge, railway workers had to retreat under fire, only to then set up railheads as close as possible to the front line as that was always crucial in order to reduce distances covered by the far less efficient road transport.

There were, too, disasters, and crime. The worst rail disaster of World War Two was the very little reported accident at St Valery en Caux, on the Normandy Coast when in January 1945 a troop train carrying 2,000 passengers smashed into the station at an estimated 50mph as its brakes had proved inadequate for the long incline leading to the station. The death toll was 89 with more than twice tha number of injured, and yet due to wartime reporting restrictions, the disaster was shrouded in secrecy.

Then there was the darker side of this history. One of the US railway battalions was at the centre of a vast black market operation involving theft from trains that were deliberately stopped at specified sections of the track in order to allow large scale theft. It led to the imprisonment of dozens of men who, according to the authorities, had undermined the war effort and consequently they were given prison sentences of 30 or 40 years.

This is the exception as nearly all the stories reflect well on the railways and those who repaired and operated them. The most astonishing aspect of the story, however, is how little has been written about this incredibly important aspect of the successful recapture of Europe from the Nazi yoke. In the numerous well-known accounts of D Day and its aftermath railways get barely a mention. The story of the railwaymen and their achievements has never been told in a book or film, yet the tales about the alternative, the road based Red Ball Express, are legion.

My book, The Liberation Line seeks to redress that and will be published in the spring to mark the 80th anniversary of D Day. As a Royal Engineers General, Mungo Melvin who has been helping with the draft put it, ‘this is the last untold story of the Normandy Invasion’.


Avanti going backwards again


The Nobody Gives A Damn railway strikes again. Or at least Avanti does. The lack of coordination between the Government’s core policy of levelling up and its oversight of Avanti, the troubled train operator, has become all too apparent with the train company’s latest mishap – or perhaps misdeed. Local politicians in North Wales are incensed by Avanti’s decision to cut back on four services daily between the area and London precisely at a time when demand from visiting tourists is high.

Avanti has slipped out the fact that it is cutting four daily trains between North Wales and London, just as, according to local Conservative MP David Jones (Clwyd West), Avanti’s service had begun to improve. Avanti has responded to Jones suggesting that the services chosen to be ‘temporarily’ withdrawn till early September are lightly loaded and therefore will have the least impact. The cuts were necessary, according to Avanti MD Andy Mellors, to ensure ‘a more reliable service for customers’, the same excuse which has been given several times by the company when cutting back on services. He added that cancellations had been dramatically reduced with a mere 1.5 services not been operated. However, this fails to address the point that these cuts send the wrong message about an area that is already patchily served by the railway and whose economy needs every possible help.

In the interests of fairness, however, here is a bit of good news that shows that NGAD is not the only railway story. I travelled on the Greater Anglia Stadler trains recently and that is a step change improvement from any other regional services. The trains are quiet, smooth, have fab aircon, accelerate rapidly and the seats, while not wonderful, are at least better than on other new trains. And it’s not just me. Reader Bill Gysin reckons ‘the improvement that GA have delivered with the new stock should be a lesson to other TOCs countrywide.  The trains themselves are superb – particularly the bi-modes with their clever and effective generator cars.  So much better a design than sticking part-time diesel engines under the floor’.  The new Merseyside stock, also Stadler, which I saw during production, are similarly excellent and the story of the success of this small Swiss company which has taken on and beaten the big boys, having grown from 18 employees in 1989 to 13,000 today is a remarkable one.







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