Michael Williams

Steaming to Victory and Winston Churchill at the NRM

February 2, 2015 Blog


I was honoured this weekend to have my memories and pictures included in an exhibition featuring Winston Churchill’s restored funeral train at the National Railway Museum. Here’s an article I wrote for the Daily Mail, which includes some of the transcript that’s included in the exhibition, which will be open until the end of 2015:


It was one of those seemingly indelible moments of childhood etched on the memory with an enduring clarity that will shine for ever through the years.


Yet there couldn’t have been a greyer and gloomier winter’s day than January 30 1965, when I – a schoolboy not long out of short trousers – accompanied my father to watch the funeral cortège of Sir Winston Churchill pass along the Strand on its sombre journey from the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall to the funeral at St Paul’s.


Shivering, I craned my neck to get a glimpse through the crowd as the winter mists swirled around Big Ben and Westminster Abbey in a London whose demeanour had not yet brightened from the frown of the postwar era.


I brandished my Box Brownie camera to take blurry pictures of the coffin on its gun carriage, draped with the Union flag. It mattered not that they were shot with old-fashioned black-and-white film, since the world was monochrome anyway.


Snap! Snap! My pictures of the crowds lining the Strand, thronging every balcony and window, did not reflect the bright new universe heralded by the Beatles. Instead they were defined by drab gabardine raincoats and homburg hats – the lingering uniform of austerity.


Yet for me – though already a junior member of the brash new youth culture – it seemed vital to share a moment with a generation now passing. My father, a quiet man, who had taken part in the Allied invasion of Italy, rarely talked about the war. Yet I knew how much the Great War Leader had meant to him.


My grandfather, whose leg had been holed by a shell while serving as a cavalryman in the First World War, kept a revered bust of Churchill on the mantelpiece, between whose plaster lips he would place a miniature cheroot as a tribute every birthday.


Like many schoolboys of my generation, I was part of the national legion of trainspotters – and after the preocession had passed, I raced over Waterloo Bridge to get a glimpse of the funeral train. There it was simmering at the end of the platform – the luxurious Pullman carriages, with burnished umber and cream paintwork, awaiting the arrival of their distinguished passengers – and the humble baggage van that was to transport the most important cargo of its life.


I dashed aboard the first suburban service to Clapham Junction, where I could get a clear view of the train on its way from Waterloo to Handborough in Oxfordshire. From the station there, Churchill’s body would be taken for burial in the parish churchyard at Bladon, close to the family home at Blenheim, where he had been born 90 years earlier.


At Clapham the gleaming green “Battle of Britain” class locomotive No. 34051 Winston Churchill emerged at speed out of the gloom. The train’s headcode discs had been cleverly set in a formation denoting Churchill’s trademark V-for-Victory sign, and the locomotive’s brasswork sparkled, even on that sombre afternoon, from all the elbow grease applied at Battersea’s Nine Elms depot.


Here was something truly special – one of the grandest express steam locomotives of the day, bearing the name of the world’s greatest Englishman. Hundreds lined the platforms to pay silent respect.


As she leaned into the curve, heading westwards into the fading light, leaving just a wisp of smoke trailing under the Clapham footbridge, there was a heady fusion of emotions. Somehow Churchill’s wartime victory and the role of the railways in it seemed magically linked for a moment – at least in the mind of an imaginative schoolboy.


Meanwhile, we trainspotters thronging the platform edges had a little Churchill secret of our own. A popular story was doing the rounds that Churchill had chosen Waterloo as the departure point for his last journey so as deliberately to humiliate his old rival General de Gaulle.


Towards the end of his life, it was said that the great man summoned an official to plan his state funeral and tapped on the map at Waterloo, saying: “If I outlive de Gaulle there is not a problem. But if he is still alive, I want him to be part of the group that greets my body at Waterloo.”


How embarrassing for the French leader to have to turn up at a station named after the site of one of his country’s greatest defeats in battle.


It is true that Waterloo doesn’t normally run services to Oxfordshire – this was the job of the Western Region at Paddington. But we railfans, who had studied our locospotters’ books, knew better. In these last years of steam on the main line in the mid-1960s, Paddington no longer had crews with the knowledge to drive a Southern Region engine like Winston Churchill. So Waterloo it had to be – purely for operational reasons.


But it was a good yarn even so. And oddly enough, although de Gaulle was among the world leaders present at the funeral service in St Paul’s, no one knows whether he ever saw the coffin off at the station. And we probably never shall…


Michael Williams’s book ‘Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s railways won the war’ is published by Arrow. His memories are included in an exhibition ‘Churchill’s Final Journey’, featuring the restored funeral train at the National Railway Museum in York, opening on January 30




February 2, 2015 Blog

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