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75 years ago, what the railways were doing to counter the Blitz as Flying Scotsman and a Castle took to the skies

Published: 11th November 2015

How the railways geared up for the first real wartime winter

The Battle of Britain was fought above the railways in the skies of England and when this threat was seen off by the famous few, a new threat from the air started.

German bombers started the bombing campaign to bring Britain to its knees and a new army had to get to work to ensure Britain did not succumb to the new threat.

The railways were an absolutely vital weapon and simply had to keep operating to get munitions, military equipment, personnel and fuel to airfields and other military bases.

And obviously the German bombers knew that to stop the railways would be a huge help in defeating Britain. The railway staff were up to the challenge and looks at how the UK railways dealt with the bombardment, a new warfare that had not really affected them in World War 1.

Salvage and recycle for Victory

The Great Western Railway (GWR), along with the other companies, ran a campaign to salvage as much scrap metal as possible and operated some ten ton wagons with a loud and clear message on the side; ‘SALVAGE Save for Victory’.

This was also aimed at staff because like today there was a lot of scrap metal lying around on railway premises and the 100,000 GWR staff were asked to salvage as much material for recycling as possible. These were dubbed ‘The Salvage Corps’ and under local leaders, made sure materials were collected and taken to collection points. These were at larger stations, depots, docks and offices. Items collected included sacks and rags as well as all metals.

The 10 ton salvage vans visited such locations monthly to take away materials and they were fitted with four sections for different categories of recycling.

Working in the dark

Railway operational work was a dangerous activity 75 years ago with many accidents, injuries and fatalities to staff. With the war came the well-known ‘Black-out’ every night. This brought more hazards to staff when shunting, driving or firing locomotives for obvious reasons.

Work on the footplate became more arduous as cab sheets had to be fitted between the engine and tender to stop the glow of the fire at night attracting enemy fighters. This brought suffocating conditions on the engines and intolerable conditions for shed and shunting staff.

The lights went out at stations, sheds and shunting yards when an air raid was thought to be imminent. A master switch was fitted to all such facilities so depots could be plunged into darkness literally at a stroke. Other considerations had to be dealt with such as disposal of glowing ashes and clinker from engines. These had to be instantly dowsed by water to avoid been seen by bombers.

Whitewash in the blackout

As much operational work as possible was switched to daylight hours but of course as winter started, daylight hours were short. But some key parts of depots were whitewashed so that crews could see where to stop, under a coaling tower for example, or over a pit.

It was reckoned at this time that three hours preparation time was needed for a locomotive to enter service. This was reduced as the Blitz started and engines made ready for short notice ‘Government traffic’ as special military services were referred to.

Speed restrictions in the dark

Train speeds were limited if there was an ‘alert on’ so that they could stop in a hurry if needs be. Speeds were limited to just 10mph for freight at night and 15mph in for passenger services. Daylight speed restrictions were 25mph for goods and 15mph for passenger services.

These speeds were eased a few months later but overall speeds were still limited to an overall average of 50mph but a maximum of 60mph was allowed on some sections. The LNER authorised its drivers to go at 75mph if running late so far as the line speed allowed this.

Flying Scotsman takes to the skies and a Castle in the air

The railways had a collective subscription effort to pay for Spitfires and Hurricanes. For example, LNER between August 1940 and the end of 1941 employees raised £11,154 15/7d given to the Minister for Aircraft Production. The Ministry presented the LNER with a commemorative plaque to mark the fund-raising efforts. The two planes were named ‘Flying Scotsman’ and ‘West Riding’ respectively. The latter was shot down near Hazebrouck while escorting Hampden bombers on a raid and the pilot became a prisoner of war.

The other railway companies ran similar schemes and each Spitfire was reckoned to cost £5000.

The Great Western Railway renamed several of their express steam locomotive fleet in recognition of the war effort. For example, ‘Castle’ Class number 5071 was named Spitfire. Trouble is that loco enthusiasts couldn’t really find out about much of this because of war secrecy!

Shipping services

The Atlantic convoys became ever more important bringing supplies to the UK and sending them out to Russia and the railways provided the vital transport of goods to and from ports.

They also moved troops, Naval and Merchant Navy seamen to and from ports and had this part of the supply chain failed, maybe there would have been a different war outcome. It was because of this that many railway posts became reserved occupations and thus staff were not called up.

But a Railway Home Guard was formed just in case and they were trained and carried out many practice drills as well as performing march-pasts to boost moral. A Cinema Coach was also made at Eastleigh Works to go on tour and instruct staff on Home Guard matters.

Electric locomotive completed in the Blitz

The LNER built the first electric locomotive for use between Wath, Sheffield and Manchester but the remainder of the planned fleet was put on hold until after the war.

This line was steeply graded and moved heavy coal traffic and so needed this type of locomotive. The electrification project was announced in December 1937 and used a 1500volt DC overhead line electrical supply system to power its four traction motors.

The fleet was planned to be introduced in 1940 but at the onset of war in September 1939, it was decided to complete the prototype engine only. This was numbered 6701 and was designed to haul 1000 tons of coal and passenger trains at 65mph over the Pennines.

The engine, built by Metropolitan-Vickers at Doncaster, also carried regenerative braking so on the long downhill sections, pumped electricity back into the system and weighed 88 tons. It also had an electrically heated steam boiler for heating passenger trains and back-up batteries to provide some power.

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