Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s railways won the war

In the seven decades since the darkest moments of the Second World War it seems every tenebrous corner of the conflict has been laid bare, prodded and examined from every perspective of military and social history.

But there is a story that has hitherto been largely overlooked. It is a tale of quiet heroism, a story of ordinary people who fought, with enormous self-sacrifice, not with tanks and guns, but with elbow grease and determination. It is the story of the British railways and, above all, the extraordinary men and women who kept them running from 1939 to 1945.

Churchill himself certainly did not underestimate their importance to the wartime story when, in 1943, he praised ‘the unwavering courage and constant resourcefulness of railwaymen of all ranks in contributing so largely towards the final victory.’

STV jacket large version
  • 16 MAY 2013

And what a story it is.

The railway system during the Second World War was the lifeline of the nation, replacing vulnerable road transport and merchant shipping. The railways mobilised troops, transported munitions, evacuated children from cities and kept vital food supplies moving where other forms of transport failed. Railwaymen and women performed outstanding acts of heroism. Nearly 400 workers were killed at their posts and another 2,400 injured in the line of duty. Another 3,500 railwaymen and women died in action. The trains themselves played just as vital a role. The famous Flying Scotsman train delivered its passengers to safety after being pounded by German bombers and strafed with gunfire from the air. There were astonishing feats of engineering restoring tracks within hours and bridges and viaducts within days. Trains transported millions to and from work each day and sheltered them on underground platforms at night, a refuge from the bombs above. Without the railways, there would have been no Dunkirk evacuation and no D-Day.

Michael Williams, author of the celebrated book On the Slow Train, has written an important and timely book using original research and over a hundred new personal interviews.

This is their story.

‘A moving chronicle of the heroes in boiler suits’ – Camden New Journal. Follow the link to the original article here.

‘Celebrates triumph over adversity in wartime…Many stories of acts of bravery in this book, which has been thoroughly researched from long-forgotten railway histories, from recorded witnesses and interviews with living elderly survivors, many of them women’ – Daily Mail, May 2013. Follow the link to the original article here.

‘How women saved the day’ – from People’s Friend, August 2013

‘Gripping as a fictional thriller’ – Sunday Express, May 2013. Follow link to original article here.

  • ‘Stirring and inspiring’ – The Scotsman
  • ‘It is the human tales of evacuees, locomotive cleaners, crews, porters and ticket collectors that make this such an enthralling read…Michael Williams has written a book in easy reading graphic style, bring to life the heroics and anecdotes of those he interviewed. His journalistic style makes this a compelling read’ – Sunday Express
  • ‘An elegant evocation of the wartime railways, a facet of Britain’s richly detailed  Home Front story that deserves the prominence this book will help to attain’ – BBC History Magazine
  • ‘Chuffing marvellous’ – Daily Express
  • Books about railway history seem to appear in an almost endless stream, so it’s a real pleasure to find one that not only has something new to say, but tells its story with style and enthusiasm’ – Who Do You think You Are? magazine
  • ‘Vivid, readable and accessible’ – The History Herald
  • ‘Fascinating’ – The Good Book Guide
  • Michael Williams has written a highly readable book and one that is accessible to all’ – Britain at War magazine
  • ‘Comprehensive and compelling’ – Transport commentator Christian Wolmar
  • ‘Hugely enjoyable’ – Professor David Edgerton, Imperial College London
  • ‘A pleasure – tells its story with style and enthusiasm’ – Who Do You think You Are magazine
  • ‘A contribution to social as well as railway history’ – Rail News
  • ‘Brings the quiet heroism of Britain’s wartime railway workers vividly to life – Professor Colin Divall, Professor of Railway Studies, University of York
  • ‘A tale of how ordinary people fought with enormous sacrifice’ – Lancashire Evening Post
  • ‘A good read – original, relevant and entertaining’ – Railway Modeller
  • ‘A compelling easy read, and one that provides an excellent overview of a huge and complex subject’ – Steam Railway
  • ‘Informative, scholarly and highly readable’ – Dads Rock website

You can purchase the audio version at Amazon.