British Railways at war


If you travel to south Wales by train roughly ten miles north of Bristol you will plunge into darkness and enter the Severn Tunnel. Seven kilometres later, you will emerge into the light and over the border into Wales. The tunnel was built by the Great Western Railway between 1873 and 1886 and was, for many years, the UK’s longest mainline railway tunnel.

I had never travelled through the tunnel, so I decided to look it up on Wikipedia and see if there was anything interesting in its construction or history. Doing so, I came across this:

“During World War II, a Great Western Railway passenger train was pursued by a German aircraft along the main line to Wales. Reaching speeds estimated at 90 mph (140 km/h), well above the wartime restrictions in place, the train successfully escaped into the tunnel and stopped beneath the river until the driver judged that the danger had passed. The train was struck by several bullets during the chase but there were no serious injuries.”

Severn Tunnel at Caldicot By mattbuck (category) (Own work by mattbuck.) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This story seemed to be confirmed in a report from the South Wales Argus celebrating the 125th anniversary of the tunnel. It also got me thinking about the role British Railways played during the Second World War.

The railways played a key role in both the First and Second World Wars, but this article focuses on their role in the latter conflict. Troop transportation and munition production would have ground to a halt without regular and intensive use of the railway network. The railways were also instrumental to the evacuation of children from the danger of bomb-targeted urban areas. According to the National Railway Museum:

“During a weekend in September 1939 over 1,300,000 children in over 3,000 special trains were evacuated from the cities to the countryside.”

The railways were also vital to removing evacuated British troops from Dover after the retreat over the English Channel from Dunkirk. Such a massive effort required centralised control and direction. During the 1920s, the railways had already been consolidated (or ‘grouped’) from an uneconomically viable patchwork of companies into the Big Four: the London, Midland and Scottish Railway (LMS), the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), Southern Railway (SR) and the Great Western Railway (GWR). This made further centralisation much easier when war came.

Almost immediately following the outbreak of war, control of the railways was passed to the Railway Executive Committee. For the first time, the term ‘British Railways’ was officially sanctioned and used. The Railway Executive Committee also had control of the extensive advertising hoardings and information posters at stations and used them to hammer home messages on air raid protection, reduced and emergency services and urging people to avoid unnecessary or leisure travel.

All clear for the guns on British Railways

The railways were soon dressed for war, with station names blacked out to confuse the enemy in case of invasion, a network-wide blackout and fixing wire mesh to train windows to limit the damage from flying glass following bomb explosions. Timetables were radically altered to prioritise war work and the public were repeatedly asked to consider “is your journey really necessary?” People were urged to ‘keep ‘em moving’ by travelling less, travelling lighter or by staggering their journeys.

By the end of the Second World War, the British Railway network was completely worn out but, unlike continental railways, was sufficiently undamaged to allow it to be patched up rather than radically replaced or overhauled. According to a calculation by the Central Statistical Office during the period 1938–1953 the railways suffered a net disinvestment of £440 million (around £11 billion in 2005 prices)

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