A lovely review of the new edition of Steaming to Victory on Suzi Feay’s Book Bag. It’s one of the top online websites. Here’s what it says:
‘Soon after the end of the First World War, the British railways entered what is generally regarded as their golden age, with the heyday of the ‘Big Four’ companies, the LNER (London and North Eastern), LMS (London, Midlands and Scottish), GWR (Great Western) and Southern Railways. By 1939 they were beginning to lose their virtual monopoly of land-based transport to lorries, buses and coaches. Nevertheless, as war became increasingly inevitable, they played a vital part in the preparation to keep the country moving, keeping industry and the war effort supplied, helping in the evacuation of Dunkirk, or as their press office put it in a pamphlet of 1943, ‘tackling the biggest job in transport history’.
Michael Williams has written a scrupulously researched study of just what a significant contribution the network made to British victory. The sacrifice was considerable; almost 400 railwaymen and women were killed and another 2,400 injured in the course of their duties. The ‘phoney war’ of the first few months from September 1939, which lulled many people into a sense of false security, allowed the railways to make adequate preparations for a situation which the more far-sighted could see ahead. They equipped buildings with blast-proof concrete roofs in the event of air attacks, turned complete trains into hospital trains, and moved locomotives away from their depots in the east of the country in the event of invasion to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy.
Nevertheless, they still had to maintain their primary role of making sure the country did not come to a standstill, notwithstanding the inevitable damage from enemy action. The bombing of cities from 1940 onwards wrought havoc on the lines as well as causing a large number of casualties. In May 1941 Kings Cross station was almost demolished by 40 tons of exploding TNT and St Pancras, one of the major goods stations, suffered a direct hit, yet it only closed for six days until it was running at full capacity again. Underground stations also offered shelter to the beleaguered population, especially the spacious new one at Bethnal Green – though it was to become the scene of the war’s worst civilian disaster in March 1943, when 173 people perished in a panic on the stairs as they tried to reach safety one evening after hearing the air raid siren.
The book comes alive through several eyewitness accounts the author obtained from people who saw what happened at first-hand, whether they were drivers, cleaners, crews, porters, ticket collectors or evacuees. One of the greatest acts of bravery on the tracks was when the crew of a burning munitions train saved the market town of Soham, Cambridgeshire, from what might have been total destruction. A train bound for an air base in East Anglia in the run-up to D-Day in June 1944 carrying several hundred tons of explosives caught fire, and catastrophe was averted by a quick-thinking driver and fireman who decoupled the burning wagon and hauled it away from the rest of the train. The wagon exploded, killing the driver and hurling the fireman 200 yards, but the other 50 wagons were unscathed. The station was obliterated and 700 houses were damaged in what was the biggest single blast in wartime Britain, but it could have been far worse. And the flow of military traffic did not stop with victory on the Normandy beaches, which as noted at the time was the first major seaborne invasion in history powered by trains as well as seamen and soldiers. During the next few weeks, 160 trains were required to take the first German prisoners of war to camps throughout Britain.
Even the coming of peace just under a year later did not result in a holiday for the railwaymen; the trains were ‘essential in peace, essential in war, and essential on Victory Days’. While the end was within sight, Winston Churchill paid a well-merited tribute to the railways, ‘the arteries of the nation’, for their major contribution to British success in the war. Yet nothing could disguise the fact that by 1945 the network was exhausted. Workshops had been largely redeployed to make tanks, aircraft and arms, to the extent that only basic maintenance and emergency works were carried out. Rebuilding on a major scale in a victorious but virtually bankrupt nation began three years later with the nationalisation of British Railways.
A postscript takes the story up to the present day, pointing out that continental railways, such as the French, had an easier choice to make when it came to investing in new state-of-the-art technology to rebuild sleek electric trains running at 200 mph as their infrastructure had been shattered and they had the advantage of being able to start from scratch. While on the subject of trains and Europe, the author muses that it is tempting to wonder what Churchill would have made of the fact that in the 21st century large sections of Britain’s network are run by the Germans.
This book is not just a comprehensive history of British railways during the war, or a collection of hard fact and statistics. It also vividly portrays the human element, the feats of endurance and courage, the men and women who between them played a vital part, the unsung heroes of the system. If the story has ever been told before, I doubt if it has been portrayed as vividly as in these pages.’
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