Published: 8th June 2014
The World’s focus has correctly been on the human cost of D-Day on June 6 1944 recently but just what role did the railways play in the success?
Rail.co.uk has looked at official information published a year after the event by the Southern Railway to show the vital role railways played in the event.
The invasion forces had to be supplied with fuel for the mechanised army divisions and so a Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO) was constructed. It ran from the south coast to Shanklin on the south coast of the Isle of Wight an across 60 miles of the English Channel to France.
Exactly one year after D Day the Southern Railway made public the facts about the 1000 mile long PLUTO project which ran pipelines as far as Germany.
The Southern Railway had 98 miles of this pipeline split into two sections, 72 miles between Walton on Thames to Lydd and the 26 mile section between Paddock Wood to Port Victoria via East Malling, Snodland, Halling, Cuxton and Strood.
The longer section was laid in the summer of 1943 in utmost secrecy over a period of six weeks using 3782 tons of pipes conveyed on 216 carefully selected wagons.
The 72 mile route was laid in six sections using 13 railheads at; Walton, Epsom, Merstham,Godstone, Edenbridge, Hildenborough, Tonbridge, Paddock Wood, Marden, Staplehurst, Tenterden, Appledore and Lydd.
The pipes were in 40 foot lengths and weighed 8.5cwt each and were fabricated in the Birmingham and South Wales areas then transported by rail as priority traffic to the southeast.
Transformers weighing many tons were also required and conveyed by special rail services from Horsham to Dungeness and unloaded using special cranes. Given the closeness of German forces across the Channel, this activity was carried out at night in secrecy protected by specially provided anti-aircraft guns and radio monitoring/listening posts at the pumping stations.
The reports suggest that the workforce on the project assumed that they were laying drainage pipes through the Romney Marshes!
The 26 mile section was laid over a four week period also in the summer of 1943 using pipes between 30 and 50 feet long using five special railheads at Wateringbury, Snodland, Allhallows, Malling and Strood. This part of the +scheme used 77 wagons to deliver the pipes and again, their transportation took priority over normal trains.
On 23rd April 1945 at the railway owned Durnsford Road power station, it was reported that leading Stoker H. Honey heard a rumbling noise in the coal chute that supplied one of the boilers. He investigated the noise and found an unexploded Anti-Aircraft shell then carried it away to a safe area. A bomb disposal squad dealt with the shell and Mr. Honey was awarded £5 for his troubles on May 14th.
All railways have what are known as ‘Control offices’ and their purpose is to ensure trains and the network operate smoothly. In World War two, this obviously was a vital office and to avoid disruption by enemy action, the Southern Railway Control office relocated to natural caves at Deepdene, near Dorking.
These offered protection from three sides and housed the SR telephone exchange for the SR HQ and the associated senior operating HQ staff to ensure trains ran despite bombings. The caves were up to 60 feet below ground and also housed the motive power, Chief Mechanical Engineer’s and Chief Electrical Engineers’ senior teams.
The caves housed large scale rail network maps to enable these staff to re-route trains away from damaged track and structures caused by enemy action.
The Southern Railways’ Southampton Docks was modernised in the years up to the outbreak of WW2 and were claimed to be the largest in the World at the time.
These docks were the hub of the invasion force in 1944 and the Southern Railway had not only to keep them running, but also make sure supply trains ran carrying vital materials.
The famous Mulberry Harbours were built there under codenames of Phoenix, Rhinos, Whales, Bombardons and Spuds. These formed parts of the prefab Mulberry harbours which were floated to the French coast and assembled at Arremanches. These huge constructions were built in Southampton’s dry docks – even being lit at night despite the threat of enemy action.
A ‘Special Port Executive Committee’ was created to oversee all the pre-invasion activity and was made up of people representing the Royal Navy, The US Army, the Embarkation Commandant (British Movement Control) plus various other department’s representatives including the Southern Railways’ Docks and Marine Manager, Mr. H. Short.
Troops had to be billeted nearby ready for D-Day brought in by special troop trains and others operated to bring supplies. Prime Minister Churchill visited just a few days beforehand to inspect the preparations. These also included temporary landing and embarkation berths which allowed damaged ships to return for repairs and to bring back prisoners of war.
These facilities were used for months after the invasion loading tanks and guns onto ships. Temporary train-ferry berths were built so that ambulance trains and other rail vehicles could be moved to mainland Europe.
Well before the end of 1944, a million US troops had passed through Southampton but the final total was over two million. All moved by the railway.