Published: 26th May 2015
The United Kingdom and France have just celebrated the 75th anniversary of ‘The miracle of Dunkirk’, the evacuation over several days of 300,000 troops from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France back to the English Channel ports.
But what part did the railways play in this epic event 75 years ago? To start with, the BEF was conveyed under planned arrangements to the Channel Ports for embarkation by train as were nine Ambulance trains out of the 25 such trains that existed at that time. This rail.co.uk report is taken from official publications published at the time.
Thirty four casualty evacuation trains were strategically located near the south coast but were not all required to perform their task. They were however used to evacuate hospitals and what were called ‘Public Assistance institutions’ to safer locations. The rail operation associated with ‘Dynamo’ (the Dunkirk evacuation) as it was called, started at 5pm on Sunday May 26th and by dawn of the 27th, the procession of trains had started.
The BEF was mobilised ready for rail transport from January 1940 and literally thousands of troop trains ran from ports to military camps across the south of England. Official publications published in 1944 said that ‘One railway ran 164 special trains over 24 days’. The railways were stretched in every way in early 1940 as many staff had been called up for service. But when the BEF was mobilised, 40,000 civilians were drafted into the forces and moved by rail from main line stations to selected centres in just 72 hours.
Moving the BEF for embarkation to France involved the Southern Railway running 1100 troop specials carrying 390,000 troops. In addition to these, special ammunition and stores trains also operated. The scene was set then for the unexpected Dunkirk evacuation a few months later when 319,116 troops were evacuated on 620 trains over 16 days. One day alone saw 110 trains operate from the south coast. Another 200 trains operated carrying more evacuees over several days.
The railways evacuated these troops via eight Channel ports using 2,000 carriages pooled by the various railway companies. There was no timetable to run to, the whole operation was directed over the phone and many ordinary services were cancelled along the coast. The GWR provided 40 trains, the LMS 44, the LNER 47 and the Southern 55 trains for the evacuation.
One train every 20 minutes departed Dover with each evacuee being given a bun and a banana reported Mr Steward, the Marine Superintendent there. Dover saw 327 trains, Folkestone 64, Ramsgate 82, Margate 75 plus 21 Ambulance Trains and Sheerness another 21 trains. The peak of rail operations was on June 1st - which was marginally busier than June 4th when 60 vessels berthed at Dover.
Southern Railway Operating Superintendent Mr. Wheeler sent his best operating men to strategic locations with full authority to do whatever was needed to run the trains. An army General was heard to say; “If only the army could operate with as few written instructions as the Southern Railway does!”
Control offices were set up at Dover Marine, Tonbridge, Ashford, Faversham, Chatham and Dartford with Inspectors positioned at key locations to ensure smooth operations. Empty trains were placed at Queenborough, Faversham, Margate and Ramsgate, even Willesden had four such trains waiting to enter the Southern network.
Redhill was the key junction with 80% of all evacuation trains passing through running via all points of the compass. Locomotives were serviced there and labourers had to be brought in from miles away to deal with this work. 300 tons of ashes were disposed of because of the ‘Dynamo’ trains.
When the exhausted evacuees landed, they had to be fed and it was the Royal Army Supply Corps that did the business assisted by many civilians. The first stopping place for food was Headcorn with a staff of three or Paddock Wood for evacuees. A total of 145,000 evacuees were initially looked after by 100 people at these two stations, working 24 hours a day for nine days. The food logistics HQ was set up in a nearby barn and carried across a field and the railway to the Up platform.
Apart from sandwiches, the menu contained jellied veal, sardines, cheese, oranges, apples and traditional railway food in the shape of meat pies, rolls, sausages and hard boiled eggs. Nineteen stoves kept the hot drinks going day and night but one problem was supplying enough cups. When a train was about to depart, a cry of ‘Sling them out’ went up from the platform and it is reported that a shower of tin mugs appeared from the train clattering on the platform. They then to be washed up ready for the next train!
The trains also called at Tonbridge for more refreshments where milk churns kept full of water by platform hosepipes and 60,000 cigarettes were also given away to evacuees. These activities were repeated at Faversham, Redhill and Guildford as trains made their way to London.
The Salvation Army band played to troops at Penge East where soldiers were given chocolate fruit and more cigarettes by the station master’s wife. The band played on seeking donations and enough cash was raised to supply local hospitals with fruit, and yet more tobacco, enough to last for eight weeks!
Payment was not required for food except for one incident at Basingstoke which it was reported was an issue quickly resolved by the Mayor who raised £500 to pay for supplies. The local population baked, cooked and served the troops until all were looked after it was reported.
The railways owned 130 ships in September 1939 and were mainly fast twin-screw turbine steamers built for passengers and mail traffic. The railways also owned and operated coastal cargo ships and out of all these, the Government chartered 92 for the war effort. The last passenger sailing from France was made by railway ship the SS Hantonia from St. Malo carrying passengers and troops which arrived at Southampton on June 17, 1940.
There was one final sailing from Europe to England made by another railway owned ship, the SS Hodder which was from Dunkirk. She arrived there to find no passengers (troops) waiting to be evacuated and was used to tow a disabled Admiralty store vessel back to England laden with petrol and ammunition, perhaps a curious combination!
All in all, the railways in conjunction with the ‘little ships’ save the day for the UK and the free world.