Railways of WWII Part II

Under the Whyte notation for the classification of steam locomotives, 2-8-2 represents the wheel arrangement of two leading wheels on one axle, usually in a leading truck, eight powered and coupled driving wheels on four axles and two trailing wheels on one axle, usually in a trailing truck. This configuration of steam locomotive is most often referred to as a Mikado, frequently shortened to Mike.

At times it was also referred to on some railroads in the United States of America as the McAdoo Mikado and, during the Second World War, the MacArthur.

All the difficulties of overuse that beset the rail network in the First World War were compounded by the bombing raids, notably the initial Blitz, which ran for a year from June 1940 until the invasion of Russia diverted the Luftwaffe, and the flying bomb attacks towards the end of the war in 1944-5. During the Blitz, although industrial centres around Britain such as Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Newcastle were all bombed heavily at various times, the Southern Railway bore the brunt of the attacks, with a third of them aimed at the area it covered. According to the railway historian Ernest Carter, the most bombed station was the East End station of Poplar near the London docks, which endured 1,200 high-explosive bombs, 50,000 incendiary devices and fifty-two rocket attacks, although presumably that vast total includes ordnance which fell on the surrounding area. As a consequence of the Blitz, Londoners flocked to the Underground to protect themselves, and after initially banning people from sleeping there, the government relented and Tube stations became ‘the best shelters of them all’, though they took a few hits, notably at Bank, Balham and Bounds Green, and the worst disaster was caused by a stampede in the station shelter at Bethnal Green.

Given the labour shortages, air raids, extra military traffic and overcrowding, delays on the railways were legion, measured in hours rather than minutes. Trains were initially stopped once the air raid sirens sounded but the authorities realized this caused chaos and put more people at risk, and consequently decided to allow traffic to continue at reduced speeds. It was not so much direct damage from bombs that resulted in delays but the rule which specified that any unexploded ordnance within 400 yards of a railway line resulted in the cessation of all traffic. Interestingly, in 1944, in order for the invasion of France not to be delayed in the face of anticipated heavy enemy attacks, the government relaxed rules about trains passing unexploded bombs so as not to hold up the service but kept this decision secret from the public.

One of the reasons for the small number of accidents caused by bombing was that the air raid warning system in fact worked very well and not many German planes managed to get through unnoticed. There were remarkably few instances of trains being involved in major derailments because of damage to the tracks, although in general the accident rate on the railways rose as a result of the blackout conditions that required, for example, signals to be at just 6 per cent of their normal brightness. Because so little information was given out, the public did not know what was happening on the railways or why particular rules were being enforced, and consequently ‘the railways were subjected to much unfair, unwarranted and unjustifiable opprobrium at the time, both by the public and the press’. The government body which ran the railways, the Railway Executive Committee, was driven to publish a poster with doggerel explaining its dilemma over information that began:

In peace-time railways could explain

When fog or ice held up your train

But now the country’s waging war

To tell you why’s against the law…

The overall burden on the railways proved to be far greater than in the First World War, but this time it was Norfolk, rather than Scotland, where there was most extra traffic, because of the 150 bomber airfields sited there thanks to the county’s proximity to Germany. The Southern Railway was inevitably the most heavily used of the four railway companies as it served the Channel ports, and its heavy density of lines gave flexibility by allowing diversionary routes when lines were damaged or overcrowded. Indeed, one calculation suggests there were no fewer than 136 different ways to reach Dover and Folkestone from the London area on the tracks of the Southern Railway. However, virtually every railway in the country was used in some respect for military purposes and as in the First World War many duplicate routes suddenly became essential supply lines. Most bizarrely, the tiny Romney, Hythe Dymchurch Railway, a thirteen-mile-long railway built in the late 1920s to the tiny 15in gauge on the Kent coast, was requisitioned and fitted with an armoured train 21 sporting anti-tank rifles and machine guns, and was intensively used to carry supplies for the war effort, notably equipment for the pipeline under the ocean (PLUTO) which was vital in keeping the Normandy invasion force functioning until the French ports could be reopened. While a dozen armoured trains patrolled the Channel coast until 1943, after which an invasion was deemed unlikely, at Dover rail-mounted 9.2in guns were regularly hauled to a siding to lob a few shells half-heartedly over the Channel in the forlorn hope of hitting the corresponding German guns near Calais.

Another unusual line in the south-east which saw particularly heavy use, principally for training purposes, was the Longmoor Military Railway in Surrey, originally opened before the First World War and known until 1935 as the Woolmer Instructional Railway. During the First World War it was used to train thousands of railway troops and in 1916 a 60cm railway was installed because of the wider use of such railways on the front. At its peak, it had seventy miles of line and sidings, with, deliberately, a vast array of types of locomotive to offer a varied experience to the trainees. While it continued to be operational throughout the interwar period, usage increased enormously in the run-up to the Second World War. Indeed, the Army built numerous similar railways around the country both for training purposes and to carry ammunition and explosives. The largest was the Bicester Military Railway, and other notable ones included a narrow-gauge railway serving the explosives storehouses at Eastriggs near Carlisle, and the notorious line at the ammunition dump in the Savernake Forest in Wiltshire, where there was a huge explosion in July 1945.

Paradoxically the Germans never targeted the railway network itself in a systematic way believing, perhaps, that this would be ineffective. That view was strengthened by the remarkable recovery in Coventry, the subject of one of the Luftwaffe’s earliest major raids in November 1940. Although the city suffered devastation from an attack by more than 500 bombers, and while railway property suffered no fewer than 122 hits, the lines were operational again within a week, some within two days. According to an analysis of the German bombing campaign against Britain, ‘very few direct attacks were made with the railways as a definite target’, and while indiscriminate bombing raids caused damage, ‘they made no large concentrated attack on a strategical junction or marshalling yard in this country’. One theory, though seemingly unlikely, is that the Germans were reluctant to destroy the railway system as they would need it if they invaded. More likely, they did not have the resources or the ability to target the railway system specifically as it proved remarkably difficult to target a thin line of tracks without a guidance device. The Allies would come up against this problem in the later stages of the war, when attacks on the French rail network did not prevent the Germans bringing in reinforcements to resist the Allied advance after D-Day. As John Westwood concludes: ‘It is significant that the unaimed flying bomb of 1944 was as likely to cause serious railway damage as the aimed bomb of 1940.’ Indeed, by chance, the first V2, the more sophisticated version of the rockets aimed at Britain in the final stages of the war, happened to strike a railway line at Bethnal Green in the East End and several other rockets caused damage to railway property, including one which hit the track in front of a Kent Coast express, resulting in the death of several passengers.

Railways throughout the theatre of conflict were a target for attacks, especially by sabotage. It was a major tactic of the French Resistance, which from early 1943 began to launch daily attacks against the railways to prevent German movements. By the autumn of that year, around twenty acts of sabotage per day were being recorded, seriously hampering the Germans’ ability to move supplies around the country. There were notable examples elsewhere in parts of Europe under occupation by the Germans. In Greece, virtually the whole 1,350-mile railway system was wrecked by sabotage. In November 1942, partisans, with help from British paratroopers, blew up a series of three viaducts on the main Athens-Thessaloniki line, which helped inspire far wider resistance to the German invasion. The most spectacular part of this concerted wave of destruction was to the Gorgopotamus Viaduct as its 70ft spans crashed into the gorge below, but the most troublesome for the Germans proved to be the Asopos Viaduct, which was repaired by forced labour. However, the Polish and Greek labourers had deliberately undermined the foundations, and when the first locomotive was driven over the bridge, its central pier collapsed, ensuring the line was out of action for a further two months. Yugoslavia, which was invaded at the same time as Greece, also saw similar levels of railway sabotage by guerrilla forces and by the end of the war no line in the country was functioning. Even the Jersey islanders got in on the sabotage act, though only on a minor scale. The Jersey railways had been closed during the interwar period, but when the Germans invaded the island they reopened and extended the railways for military use while banning the local populace from travelling on them. The Jersey railways thus became the only part of the British rail network to be taken over by the Germans, and according to a history of the railways in the Second World War, ‘islander involvement was confined to children placing stones on the tracks and inflicting a series of minor derailments that interrupted operations briefly’.

Despite all these attacks, there were no railway accidents on the scale of the three involving troops in the First World War, although there was one tragedy in Italy which was indirectly caused by wartime conditions. On the night of 2 March 1944, a freight train was carrying more than 400 people travelling illegally from Naples to a market town where fresh produce was on sale. The train struggled to climb up a steep incline in a tunnel out of the small Eboli station because of the weight of passengers and stalled, slowly releasing deadly carbon monoxide gas. Nearly all the passengers died, but, as with the enormous First World War disasters, the precise number is unknown because the disaster was kept secret at the time.

While the destruction of railways and rail equipment was a recurring feature of the Second World War, so were the construction of new lines and the expansion of existing ones for strategic purposes. The most impressive achievement was the expansion and refurbishment of the railways of the Arabian Gulf, in Iraq and Iran, which became a vital part of the war effort. In Iraq, the main line through the country had been cut in several places between Basra and Baghdad during the German-backed attempt by the Prime Minister, Rashid Ali, to oust the British. British forces arrived in Basra in May 1941 and Royal Engineers began the task of repairing the line, moving slowly northwards towards Baghdad and then up to Mosul supported by an armoured train. They eventually secured the whole railway, which connected with Turkey and Syria, for the British once more, effectively balking German plans to move further eastwards to reach the oilfields. More important strategically was gaining control of the Trans-Persian (Trans-Iranian) Railway, which had been finally completed by the Shah of Persia just as war broke out. Persia had tried to stay neutral in the war, but the need to guarantee oil supplies in the face of the German advances eastwards on both sides of the Mediterranean led the Allies to occupy the country in August 1941 with little resistance and to install a new leader, the son of the previous Shah, who had been supportive of the Axis (and who in turn would be ousted in 1979 by the Ayatollahs). The 865-mile Trans-Persian Railway was an obvious means to supply the Russian war effort while avoiding the perilous shipping route from the North Sea to Murmansk. With the roads being totally inadequate, the railway through Persia and on to Soviet-controlled Azerbaijan was the only viable alternative option. The line, however, was inadequate for the needs of the Allies and a huge improvement programme was immediately set in motion. Ironically, the only locomotives were of German manufacture but soon both British and American engines were brought to the line, which, along with most of the other rail equipment, had to be transported 15,000 miles across the world around the Cape of Good Hope to reach the Gulf. The very fact that the Allies were prepared to go to so much effort to establish this supply route demonstrated its vital importance. It was not easy. Whole new port facilities had to be installed on the Shatt al Arab waterway and connected to the line by a new extension built over marshes in the full heat of the summer. The Trans-Persian had been one of the most ambitious railway schemes ever built, with a single-track line crossing swathes of desert, then climbing up and through both the Luristan and Elburz mountain ranges to reach a height of 7,000 feet with steep gradients and no fewer than 144 tunnels. New sidings, marshalling yards and, most important, numerous passing places were built with remarkable speed and the water supply, always a problem, greatly improved. Running conditions were virtually unique. On the same trip temperatures in the desert could reach 50°C while on the mountains they could plunge to 20 below freezing. Conditions were so harsh that the tenders of the imported locomotives had to be painted white to prevent the water inside becoming too hot for the engine to function.

Once the supply trains started rolling, they needed protection, especially in the bandit-infested mountain sections, where Indian troops had to be placed on permanent patrol duty and every train had armed guards. While initially the line was operated by the British, with many British drivers, the Americans soon took over, bringing with them diesel engines requisitioned from US railroads. These were more powerful and suitable for the steep sections in tunnels where steam locomotives often struggled to climb, putting the crews at risk of asphyxiation from carbon monoxide fumes. Another hazard was colliding with camels, which derailed at least one steam engine at full speed. The tremendous efforts to create this line of communication proved, however, worthwhile. The capacity of the railway had been just 200 tons per day, but thanks to the improvement it carried 5 million tons through to the Russians in under three years, a 25-fold increase on what would have been possible previously.

Lines were constructed elsewhere in the Middle East and in many parts of Europe during the war, but the most infamous line built in the war was the Burma-Siam railway. Soon after the Japanese captured Malaya and Burma in 1942 they decided to improve communication between the two countries as there were no adequate road or railway links. To build the 300-mile line through mountainous terrain and jungle, the Japanese drew on a labour force amounting to more than 250,000, most of whom were local people press-ganged into work but also including 61,000 British troops captured when the Japanese overran Singapore. The line, which was designed to link the Burmese and Siamese (now Thai) railway networks, was built simultaneously from both ends, Thanbyuzayat in Burma and Nong Pladuk in Siam, and was completed at breakneck speed in just sixteen months at a terrible human cost. The conditions on what became known as the Death Railway were so appalling that disease, starvation rations, lack of sanitation and the brutal behaviour of the Japanese and Korean overseers resulted in more than 100,000 workers perishing, including a quarter of the Allied prisoners. Similar suffering, but on a far smaller scale, occurred on the puppet Vichy government’s short-lived project in 1941-2 to revive the scheme to build a Trans-Sahara railway that was intended to connect Dakar in Senegal with the Mediterranean. Prisoners, mostly foreign nationals who had the bad luck of being stranded in Dakar when the Vichy government took over, were forced to build the first section but the project was thankfully soon abandoned when its sheer unreality became apparent.

The death rate on the Burma railway was particularly high in the final stages of construction as the Japanese were desperate for the line to be completed. Robert Hardie, a doctor who was captured at Singapore and wrote a book about his time as a prisoner, described how even sick men were made to work extremely long hours: ‘They are being worked very hard and very savagely [on the railway] – from 7.30 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. every day. Unfit men just collapse if they are sent up.’ All that on just seven ounces of rice per day, often with no vegetables, let alone meat.

When the line opened in October 1943, it was a vital part of the Japanese line of communication because the Burma front had become a key supply route when the Japanese lost control of the South China Sea. It would not be until the following year that the Allies re-established a foothold in Burma and the capture of the Myitkynia station allowed them to use the railway to advance towards the Japanese. According to Ernest Carter, the lack of roads meant that many cars and lorries were adapted for railway use: ‘As soon as they came on the line, American engineers fitted flanged wheels to a couple of army jeeps and put them at each end of half a dozen wagons to form a push-pull train.’ He even reports that one of the commanders of the British forces, General Francis Festing, was seen to be driving his own jeep along the track ahead of his men. After the war, most of the railway was quickly abandoned as it was in poor condition, though a section of about eighty miles was brought up to standard and remains in use today.

On the other side of the Burmese front, there was much railway activity, too. To counter the threat of the Japanese advancing towards India and possibly through Bengal to the port of Chittagong, the Allies needed to strengthen the supply line to the Chinese, under Chiang Kai-shek, who were fighting with the Allies. The principal supply route from Calcutta was cumbersome and slow, a 600-mile-long railway that had been built to serve the tea plantations of Assam. A standard-gauge railway struck north to Parbatipur on the foothills of the Himalayas, and then a metre-gauge line continued across Eastern Bengal to the banks of the Brahmaputra river, where there was only a ferry to connect with another narrow-gauge railway, which wound up the valley to Dimapur, the supply base in the north-eastern corner of Assam. The Allied forces in China were supplied by an airlift over the Himalayas from airfields close to the north-east end of the railway. According to the historian of the line, John Thomas, ‘the fate of India and to a degree the British Empire depended on this slender line of communication’, which was inevitably slow given that goods had to be manhandled three times between the various modes of transportation.

To speed the flow of goods on the line, 400 British railway troops were brought over in early 1943, followed at the start of 1944 by ten times that number of Americans. By improving the line and building passing loops to accommodate the massive trains of 120 wagons pulled by imported locomotives, the capacity of the railway increased more than tenfold, from just 600 to 7,000 tons per day. Relations between the British, the Americans and the Indians were, however, not always cordial as the Americans tended to view the railway as solely a military operation, whereas the British, intending to stay in India after the war, were keen also to retain it for civilian use, while the Indians tried to insist that the regular ‘mail train’ should take precedence over the military traffic. Cultural differences caused numerous difficulties: ‘An American officer commanding a troop train pulled the communication cord as his train was leaving Sealdah main station in Calcutta because there was no toilet paper on board.’ The Americans tended to commandeer the best coaches for use in sidings as offices for their control staff. Moreover, the military controllers of the line cut corners, resulting in a tenfold increase in accidents with smashed wagons and broken locomotives littering the side of the track. To compound the difficulties, disease severely reduced the effectiveness of the imported railway troops, and there were frequent attacks on the trains from the guerrilla army of the Indian resistance movement. The sabotage was easy but effective. According to Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Mains, an officer who helped protect the railway, ‘the modus operandi was extremely simple and the only tool required was a long handled spanner… The wreckers would merely remove one or more fishplates [the connecting plates holding lengths of rail together], usually on a curve, and the centrifugal force generated by the trains would distort the track and derailment followed.’ Nevertheless, despite all these difficulties, and the fact that a proposed bridge over the Brahmaputra river was never completed, the supply route proved successful, and was essential in the construction of a series of new roads through the mountains to replace the airlifts.

It was not only railway lines that were hastily constructed in the war. Britain, the US and Germany all produced vast quantities of standard locomotives, mostly based on pre-war freight designs. These ‘Austerity’ locomotives were designed in a minimalist style to ensure they were cheap and efficient to build. More than 6,700 of the basic German Kriegslok were produced as they had the advantage of only taking 8,000 man-hours to build, a third of the time that their more sophisticated predecessors required. After the start of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler recognized the need for more locomotives and demanded that 15,000 be constructed, and Hermann Göring decreed that locomotive production should, with the oil industry, have priority over all other armament projects. The US produced nearly 800 locomotives of a type designed by the Corps of Engineers that came to be known as ‘MacArthur’ and these were despatched to several theatres of the war, notably Normandy after the D-Day landings, and also saw service in Africa, India, Burma and even Australia. In Britain, the War Department built and owned over a thousand ‘Austerity’ locos and a clutch of shunting locomotives, many of which were transferred to British Railways in the 1950s, but, as with the German war locomotives, others ended up all over the world.

Hitler liked technology and expended much effort, fruitless as it turned out, on developing the V1 and V2 rockets that were launched towards Britain in the final stages of the war, but he was also obsessed with producing guns that could destroy enemy positions from a great distance. Inevitably, these had to be rail-mounted and in 1941 Germany constructed two enormous 800mm guns intended for use against Gibraltar, but Franco would not allow them to cross Spanish territory. Instead, one was despatched to the Crimea, where it helped to destroy the fortifications of the naval base at Sevastopol, which, as a result, was soon abandoned by the Russians. It was, though, an impractical piece of artillery since it required 1,400 men and two 110-ton cranes to assemble. To spread its huge weight of 1,350 tons, it had to be supported on forty axles, and as with so much ultra-heavy artillery the resources devoted to building it far outweighed its value. It arrived at Sevastopol right at the end of the ten-month siege, required a purpose-built railway network, fired only forty-eight rounds and needed massive amounts of maintenance to keep it operational. Not surprisingly, after this modest record, there is no confirmation that it was ever used again, though there is some evidence of it being fired against the Poles in the Warsaw uprising of 1944.

While railways across the various theatres were, as we have seen, put to intensive use, the preparations for the Normandy landings of D-Day, 6 June 1944, provided the railways with their sternest test. In Britain, these had been going on for several months, hampered by the need to retain a high level of secrecy. Britain’s railways, already overworked, went into overdrive, and a series of tiny stations in the south-west with wonderfully quaint names straight out of The Titfield Thunderbolt like Dinton, Tisbury, Woodbury and Bridstowe, which in normal times barely saw a handful of passengers in a day, suddenly became major rail centres as supplies were stockpiled and US troops despatched to remote corners of the country for training. By March 1944, special trains were already being run and by the beginning of June there had been over 30,000 such services, concentrated in the southern part of Britain. In the month after the start of the landings, Britain’s railways had the busiest period in their history, with 600 extra troop, freight and ambulance trains per day, all concentrated on the Channel ports. The Midland South Western Junction Railway from Cirencester and Swindon to Andover, for example, a single-track line cutting across the Downs, did a heroic job of carrying far more traffic than ever before, like countless other similar railways which had largely fallen into virtual disuse in peacetime.

Once the soldiers reached the other side of the Channel, they had to re-create a railway network almost from scratch. Already the importance of re-establishing railways to support an invasion force had been acknowledged by the Americans, who within two days of landing in Sicily in July 1943 had a team of railway troops beginning work on reconstructing wrecked lines, a pattern that was followed as the Americans progressed up through Italy. The Germans had taken over the French railways, which had been nationalized just before the war, in 1940, having deliberately avoided damaging them during the invasion as they were aware of their future usefulness. After the invasion of France, the railways were operated under German control by French railwaymen and became a centre of resistance since railway workers could travel without suspicion, enabling them to garner information and carry messages. Most famously, messengers were regularly carried in and out of Vichy France, which controlled the southern part of the country, in the tender water tank of the locomotive used to haul the special train of the collaborationist president between Paris and Vichy.

There was much passive resistance, too, as the French railway workers could easily amend paperwork or lose documentation to ensure that freight was sent to the wrong destination. There were all kinds of ways of delaying services. Locomotives were run directly into the pit of a turntable, or allowed to run out of steam, or coal was dumped on the tracks instead of the furnace. It was only in 1943 that the active sabotage mentioned above started being carried out both by Resistance guerrillas and railway workers themselves. In the countryside, trains were easily derailed, while inside railway installations more sophisticated disruption was carried out to disable trains. The Germans took to escorting their key services with armoured trains carrying troops who, like Trotsky’s Red Army, could chase down any members of the Resistance who had stopped the train. The smooth operation of the French railways was further hindered by the despatch of tens of thousands of railway workers to replace German railwaymen sent to the front.

In 1944, as D-Day approached, sabotage and derailments were co-ordinated from London to ensure there was maximum disruption to German efforts to resist the landings. The French railways were systematically bombed while the Resistance was instructed to supplement the destruction. Because of the difficulties of targeting railway installations without destroying the towns adjoining them, bombing was mainly confined to marshalling yards and major junctions while the Resistance was charged with immobilizing the French locomotive stock and destroying vital bridges. This division of tasks not only ensured the thorough wrecking of the railway network, but saved many urban areas, notably large swathes of central Paris surrounding the stations, from being damaged: ‘Instead, a few well-informed, brave railwaymen, supplied with moderate quantities of explosives, were able to paralyse rail traffic in the Paris area.’ The Germans were greatly hampered by this destruction, which continued after D-Day with the Resistance carefully targeting its attacks in order to prevent reinforcements reaching Normandy.

Consequently, when the Allies landed in June 1944, there was effectively no railway system in France and a map of the railways as they were on D-Day shows a series of short lines with no semblance of a network and virtually every river crossing destroyed. In retreating, the Germans were particularly thorough at wrecking any lines that the Resistance and the Allied bombers had left intact, using a device called a router (pronounced as in grouter), a huge hook mounted on a flat wagon and dragged along by a train, ripping up and breaking the middle of the sleepers. It was, in truth, little more than a more powerful version of the devices employed to similar effect in the American Civil War nearly a century previously, but much more effective and quick. More complex parts of the railway, such as junctions and crossovers, were simply blown up.

The Allies, however, needed the railways and a process of reconstruction started as soon as they landed. Within a month, a rail line was in operation from Cherbourg to Carentan, thirty-one miles away, and reconstruction took place so near to the front lines that on occasion the unfortunate railway troops found themselves being shelled by the enemy and had to beat a hasty retreat. River crossings where the bridges had invariably been blown presented the greatest obstacle and temporary structures were quickly strung across the water. On the Seine, for example, a bridge together with a quarter of a mile of new railway was laid in just fourteen days at Le Manoir, near Pont de l’Arche. This temporary line opened on 22 September and was the railway route supplying forces operating in the north for the next two months, even though it could not withstand the weight of locomotives, with the result that wagons had to be propelled over it by hand.

There was no time to install signalling on the reconstructed lines, which meant that the heavy traffic attracted onto them had to be controlled by a primitive system of ‘permissive working’ involving flags and boards, rather like the early railways of the middle of the nineteenth century. Inevitably there were frequent accidents caused by drivers bemused by the system. In order to make up for the lack of sufficient railways, a kind of rail system on rubber tyres was set up to bring supplies rapidly from the Channel ports to the front. Called the Red Ball Express, it involved, at its peak, 6,000 trucks that were given sole access to two routes between Cherbourg and Chartres, principally to carry POL – petrol, oil, lubricants – for the army in eastern France, which had far outrun its supply line. It operated through a strict set of rules: drivers could not exceed 25 mph, no overtaking was allowed and at ten minutes before every hour the entire convoy was to stop for a rest. Broken-down trucks were simply pushed aside to await repair. In other words, the system had all the characteristics, even the name, of a rail service, except that it was operated by trucks. The 165-mile-long Red Ball Express was, for a couple of months, a vital part of the line of communication carrying up to 12,500 tonnes per day, but it became self-defeating as the armies progressed east since the trucks consumed so much fuel themselves. While Red Ball was recognized as a remarkably efficient operation, the massive resources it consumed highlighted the limitations of lorry transport for long-distance haulage. The lack of road capacity and the shortage of lorries ensured rail was still the only viable mode to supply such massive military movements, as an analysis of transport in the Second World War explained: ‘The advance of the armies was thus retarded because only rail transport could provide the needed volume of supply.’ Gradually, as lines were repaired, more freight was transferred to the railways, with banners on the front of the engine proclaiming ‘Toot Sweet’, a corruption of the French tout de suite, in order to ensure they received priority.

The railways played a vital role in the Battle of the Bulge, the last major set-piece confrontation of the war and a clash that turned into one of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front. Fought principally in the Ardennes forests of south-eastern Belgium, it was the last major counter-offensive by the Germans and raged for five weeks as 1944 turned into 1945 with both sides being hamstrung by continuing supply difficulties that were compounded by the severe wintry conditions. The Germans were so short of fuel that anything that could not be transported directly to the front by rail was put on horse-drawn wagons. The Allies had been forced to pause in their advance towards Germany while the railways were repaired and supplies became available from the port of Antwerp, which had been reclaimed by the Allies in November but took a month to become operational. The Germans saw this as an opportunity to counter-attack, using the poor weather as cover since they had all but lost the battle in the air. The Americans, taken by surprise as a result of the Germans’ ban on radio communications, were forced to shift troops around with great haste. Fortunately, there was a railway line available and within forty-eight hours of the attack four divisions of the 3rd Army had been moved across the front into the south flank of the bulge to support General Patton’s counter-offensive. According to the military historian Van Fleet, ‘this feat was achieved against the handicap of heavy snow which had to be cleared by hand shovelling and against enemy air opposition. Ammunition was delivered sometimes right to the guns by rail.’

While the French railways had been wrecked by a combination of the Resistance and Allied aircraft, the Allies had to rely on attacks from the air to destroy the German ones and that showed how difficult it was to wreck railways without the availability of precision-guided munitions. The Germans had, however, the advantage that they had been on a war footing throughout the 1930s and therefore their railway system was far better able to withstand attacks than those of Britain or France. This was made apparent by a post-war visit to Germany by civil defence officers keen to learn the lessons of the conflict, presumably in anticipation of another one. The strict British officialese language in the report, published in 1947, cannot disguise the deep-set jealousy and even awe of the officials at the thoroughness of the German preparations to protect their railways during the war. The report provides, too, an insight into how well the Germans coped with their logistical problems until the concerted efforts of the Allies put the German transport system out of commission. The officers were particularly impressed by ‘the large number of alternative routes available and the generous nature of the facilities provided and the spaciousness of the layouts on running lines at junctions in passenger stations and goods depots and marshalling yards’. In order to recover quickly after an attack, huge stockpiles of materials had been stored around the country. Bridges, retaining walls, signal boxes, stations, and railway offices had all been built to resist bomb damage and the officers noted that many of these were still standing, showing signs that they had withstood attacks. Whereas British railway workers struggled in their goods yards in the dark – and were killed by the score as a result in accidents, ‘the Germans were able to keep lighting at their yards and stations far longer than in the UK because radar gave them better warning of impending attacks’. The German railways, the Deutsche Reichsbahn, were also able to withstand the early Allied bombing attacks because the raids were highly concentrated but did not last long and tended to be switched from area to area after a few nights. Therefore the railways could be suspended for a short time and then trains temporarily diverted to alternative routes. Consequently, ‘a shutdown of services for more than a temporary period of say from 2-3 days was rarely necessary, owing to the existence of so many alternative goods stations and yards’. The one error, admitted by the officers’ German hosts, was that there were not enough triangular junctions – such junctions can continue functioning even if part of them are destroyed – and their conventional junctions proved to be a weak point in the system.

The basic premise on which the German railways operated was that the ‘show must go on’. Train operation was maintained until considerable numbers of enemy aircraft were in the immediate vicinity. Attacks by single aircraft were generally ignored as maintenance of traffic flow was considered to justify the slight risk. Trains in main-line stations were ordered to leave as soon as possible after an attack began as they were less vulnerable on tracks in the open air.

After attacks, huge resources of manpower, including prisoners and forced slave labour, were thrown at the repair work, and all railway personnel were expected to report for immediate duty. At Hamm, for example, which suffered more than 1,300 hits in a raid on the night of 22 April 1944 (inevitably nicknamed the Hamm and Egg run), 6,000 workers were commandeered almost immediately. A through-track was restored within twenty-four hours of the attack and by the end of six weeks, with the workforce increased to nearly 10,000, the yard, which had been specifically targeted in the raid, was working almost to full capacity.

One clever tactic used across Germany throughout the war was to install railway camouflage: fake bomb craters were dug and flimsy artificial bridges were flung across rivers while mounds of earth and debris were left scattered to suggest that repairs had not been carried out. Decoy targets were provided at a number of less important yards and were deliberately lit to attract the bombers away from more significant areas. Another brilliant innovation which helped the speedy recovery of the railways was the mobile signal box. The Germans built 300 of these boxes, which were despatched with great speed on express passenger trains as soon as damage was reported. They resembled ordinary freight wagons and, placed on sleepers, could be set up within just five hours of their arrival.

The post-war visiting British civil defence officers concluded that ‘the German railway was never, as a whole, short of motive power, rolling stock, materials or manpower, until 1943 when the destruction was enormous. Even then in many instances, the shortages were often due to the administrative breakdown and to distributional problems rather than to any lack of material as such.’ The Germans had created vast numbers of spare marshalling yards, so that alternatives could easily be used should one be destroyed, and that was to prove essential in keeping the railways moving once the air attacks intensified. Nor were the railways in the beginning a specific target but rather they were ‘incidental to the main attack’. It was only from April 1944, when the bombing was directed specifically against railway installations as part of the plan to disrupt communications prior to invasion, that the ability of the system to function began to be seriously undermined: ‘The situation became such that no repair organisation could restore working sufficiently so as to enable the German railway to carry that quantity of traffic and to deliver it with the speed necessary to maintain industrial production and a successful army in the field.’

All of this explains one of the mysteries of the war – why it took so much effort to destroy the German communication systems from the air. According to an American analysis of the effect of bombing on Germany’s economy, ‘it took 9,000 aircraft in Operation Clarion to knock out about three quarters of German production of railway trucks between the spring of 1944 and March 1945.’ On the other hand, it required massive diversion of German resources to provide both the air defence and operational staff to keep the railways running. Right at the end of the war, in 1945, the British started using massive ‘Tallboy’ bombs, weighing up to 10 tons, to destroy railway infrastructure such as tunnels and viaducts, and had these been available earlier, the bombing campaign might have taken its toll more quickly.

On the other hand, the transportation system might have done even better, as suggested in a contemporary report by the Daily Telegraph, which in September 1944 highlighted Hitler’s mistake in favouring roads: ‘Up to the present there has been no actual breakdown of the German railway system. But it is very clear that in the last, the crucial, phase of the war, Hitler is suffering the consequences of one of his less spectacular but most important miscalculations. He has at his disposal the finest road system any country ever possessed – but he lacks the petrol to use it.’ Moreover, the motorways had been funded by profits from the German railways, and the Daily Telegraph concluded: ‘If all the gigantic expenditure of money and effort which went into the building of the great trunk roads had been allotted instead to the railways, they would at least have started the war at the highest pitch of efficiency and they might still be highly efficient today.’ Hitler, in other words, might have resisted longer had he focussed more on the railways and less on building roads for which he did not have sufficient vehicles or fuel.

If, as demonstrated above, the efficiency of the railways was key to the German war effort, it was also essential for carrying out the greatest crime of the Second World War, the despatch of millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to the concentration and death camps. Just as war could not have been conducted on such a huge scale without the railways, the sheer number and speed of the deportations would have been quite impossible through road transport alone. The railways not only enabled vastly greater numbers to be transported, but since the victims were locked into freight railway wagons, the Germans needed far less manpower to supervise and transport them, which was a crucial factor in enabling so many people to be carried in a relatively short period of time. Not only did the method of transport save manpower and trucks, but crucially fuel, which was ever in short supply for the German war effort. It was telling that there were bigger arguments within the German leadership over the transport needs required to carry out the policy than there were over its morality.

The first trains, in October 1941, between Germany and Poland (and further east to Riga), were principally to move German Jews out of Germany into ghettos where the previous inhabitants had been eliminated. The despatch of Jews direct to Auschwitz and the other death camps for extermination began in the spring of 1942 and the flow intensified over the next two years and then began to slow after the Allies landed in northern France, although the last recorded train was in March 1945. The deportations were carried out on an industrial scale and in an extremely calculated manner. For the most part, freight wagons were used, though in places where the Germans were keen to maintain the myth that the Jews were simply being ‘resettled in the east’, the victims travelled in third-class carriages. Cruelly, most of the deportees were forced to buy a one-way ticket, with children being charged half fare.

In order to carry out the transportation of the victims, basic calculations had to be made by the railway authorities in order to ensure that the camps received the number of people that could be ‘processed’ – mostly, of course, murdered on arrival. Each freight wagon could accommodate fifty people but they were usually filled with 100 or even 150, with the result that many people died before reaching the camps. No food or water was provided, and only a bucket as a latrine, and since the wagons had no protection from the heat or cold, conditions soon became intolerable whatever the weather conditions outside. In order for the trains to proceed reasonably quickly once they were on the main line, they were limited to fifty-five wagons each. The average journey time was more than four days as the trains were given the least priority and consequently were frequently stabled in sidings for days at a time while freight and troop services were allowed to pass through. The longest journey involved a train of Jews from Corfu, who were transferred to a train on the mainland which then took eighteen days to reach its destination. By the time it reached the camp, there were only corpses on board. The total number of people transported in the trains, as ascertained from the detailed records kept by the German and Polish state railway companies, was about 8 million, packed into 1,600 trains.

The deportations would not have been possible without the co-operation of the various countries’ rail companies, notably the French state railway, SNCF, but also its counterparts in the Netherlands and Belgium, and there were severe recriminations against these companies after the war. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, 200,000 German railway employees alone were involved in the deportations and ‘10,000 to 20,000 were responsible for mass murders but were never prosecuted’.

As this grim crime demonstrates, as with all aspects of its operation, the Deutsche Reichsbahn was nothing if not efficient. Its remarkable ability to survive the Allied onslaught for so long meant that its ultimate collapse was all the more devastating. The redundancy built into the German railways before the war, with much deliberate duplication of facilities, and the priority given to maintaining the coal supply, which was the lifeblood of the system, ensured that the railways had continued functioning far beyond expectations throughout the conflict. Because they had managed to survive so long under such difficult circumstances, when they finally did collapse, virtually the whole system fell apart with frightening speed. The Germans hastened the process by destroying lines in front of the invading forces, notably blowing up all the bridges across the Rhine, with the exception of the Remagen bridge captured in March 1945, which was only partly destroyed, leaving it able to carry wagons, though not locomotives, until it collapsed ten days later. The first replacement bridge over the Rhine at Wessel was completed in ten days and within a month it was carrying nearly fifty trains per day. The destruction of the German railways, nevertheless, was again a handicap to the Allied invaders and slowed their progress on numerous occasions. From beginning to end, therefore, the railways or the lack of them played an important part in the progress of the Second World War. Surprisingly, despite the growing sophistication of aircraft and missiles, the railways would still play a part in several conflicts of the second half of the twentieth century.