Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won the War – Michael Williams

Many years ago a former locomotive fireman reminisced to me about wartime duties transporting newly arrived American troops from Liverpool docks.

Just before the train was due to depart from the Riverside station, driver and fireman would discover a pressing matter, requiring the attention of both of them, at the farthest point from the locomotive. Before setting off they would make sure that they were as scruffy as possible, with suitably war weary expressions. By the time they resumed the footplate they were laden with chocolate, nylons for their womenfolk and other expressions of American bounty.

So there could be a pleasant side to being a railwayman during the “dark days”. On the other hand, the work was often long and dirty before war came. During hostilities the length of shifts frequently increased and there was the addition of sometimes great danger for the men and women who kept the railways running and played their part in winning the Second World War.

In Steaming to Victory Michael Williams has used his journalistic skills to write a vivid account of this aspect of the Home Front. He appears to have done this by carrying out his own interviews and using previously published accounts, rather than delving into the archives.

There were many railway heroes and the book does an excellent job of paying tribute to some of them, who thereby represent all their colleagues. For example, the author takes us to York on the night of 28/29 April 1942, when the railway station was badly hit in a Luftwaffe attack.

“By an unlucky coincidence the 22.15 King’s Cross to Edinburgh Night Scotsman had just pulled into Platform 9 on its way north as further incendiary bombs came tumbling from the sky,” writes Michael Williams. “The middle five coaches of the train were set ablaze and the passengers speedily evacuated. A naval party heading for Hexham aboard the train put their own lives at risk to join in fighting the fires, which by now were raging through the station.

“The undamaged coaches were quickly uncoupled, Driver Stevens of Gateshead [engine shed] putting himself at great personal risk as he got down on the tracks to unscrew the heavy steel couplings. It wasn’t certain whether the track was too badly damaged to pull the two remaining sections of the train out of the station, but there was no time for a debate. It was decided to take the risk of a derailment, which fortunately did not happen. Meanwhile, on the platforms the railway staff were at full stretch – kicking incendiaries onto the tracks and tending casualties from the train. There was such a demand for water that the pressure in the hydrants dropped and the firefighters had to choose which blazes to deal with.”

In the desperate circumstances the five burning coaches had to be left to carry on burning. There were many such events on Britain’s railways, but the trains kept running and the staff kept turning up for work.

Williams also deals with women working on the wartime railways and stresses the major contribution they made, as well as the sometimes bullying or dismissive way in which they were treated. William Allen, General Secretary of ASLEF, rejected the idea of women on the footplate. The author, with justification, castigates the reasoning as “nonsense”.

Then there was the NUR publication that ran a cartoon showing a broken down train with a female guard. A railwayman enquires if she is going to protect her train, railway speak for placing warnings in the rear, and is told, “N-N-Not likely. I w-want someone to protect me.”

Michael Williams has written a highly readable book and one that is accessible to all. You do not need to know the jargon of railways to follow him. When he strays into military affairs, he makes mistakes. For example, the first British serviceman to die in action was not a Royal Navy man on 9 December 1939. The RAF was in action, and taking casualties, very shortly after the declaration of war.

Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.

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