Railways of WWII Part I

A Deutsche Reichsbahn BR 52 locomotive at work during war time.

The period between the two wars marked the true beginning of the motorized age. While before the First World War the ownership of automobiles had been confined to a small affluent minority and the railways still carried the bulk of freight even for short journeys, by the outbreak of the Second World War this had changed completely. Cars were commonplace and the lorry had become the transport of choice for many kinds of freight carriage. Coupled with the development of air transport, the railways were expected to play a much lesser role in the Second World War than in the First World War. The growing competition from air and road had restricted railway investment during the interwar years in all the combatant nations. While there had been improvements to signalling and rolling stock, many of the world’s railways, largely built in the nineteenth century, were in desperate need of modernization and refurbishment, but little had been forthcoming because of the expectation that the car and the lorry would be the key to meeting future transport needs.

This assumption neglected a crucial advantage that railways had over motor transport – they used coal, still in most countries in plentiful supply even after the conflict broke out, while oil, frequently dependent on shipping, would become scarce. Neither Germany nor Britain had oil, and even the US was not self-sufficient, and therefore railways regained their place as the key mode of transport during the war precisely because they used old technology, still mostly based on coal, and had not been modernized. Fortunately, for the most part the railways were still serviceable and the networks still dense as the days of widespread closures would not start until after the Second World War.

Their role was, though, not the same as in the First World War. The Second World War was not a railway war in the way that the conflicts of the previous three quarters of a century had been because of the existence of the alternatives to rail transport and the development of more sophisticated weaponry. It was far more mobile as entrenched positions were now too vulnerable from the air and tanks to be sustained for long periods. Even when positions became fixed, railways were no longer needed to bring supplies right to the front, as trucks could do the job over short distances. Artillery was self-propelling or could be towed, reducing the need to carry it on trains. Nevertheless, the role of the railways remained central to the logistical needs of the combatants, because they were still unrivalled for the transport of heavy loads and for journeys of, say, more than 200 miles. Railways were still the workhorses, often unsung, of the logistics of war and where no lines were available, or as in Russia were insufficient, supply bottlenecks invariably developed. Roads had greatly improved in the quarter of a century since the First World War, but away from the main routes were still primitive. There were no motorways apart from the German Autobahnen, and even main highways were easily blocked by marching troops, as the Germans found to their cost when invading Russia. Cars and lorries now provided much of the basic transport needs for shorter trips, but to a large extent they replaced the horse rather than the railway. The railways were, therefore, again a crucial aspect of the conflict and their role, while often unappreciated, can hardly be overestimated. Even many of the fortresses of the Maginot Line, the series of concrete fortifications that were designed to protect France against German invasion, were supplied from depots up to thirty-five miles behind the line by 60cm railways, which went right into the larger ones.

As in the First World War, there was a long build-up during which the expectation of a conflict grew. German resentment about the settlement at the end of the First World War had led to Hitler’s rise to power and the country’s rearmament. Once Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, war appeared inevitable despite Neville Chamberlain’s infamous trip to Munich, and arrangements for a likely conflict began to be made across Europe. While there was no equivalent of the Schlieffen Plan, there had been considerable logistical preparation on both sides in the 1930s. In Britain, the railways were not in a particularly good shape as competition from motor transport had begun to erode their market, while they were still required by government regulation to provide a universal service to all, which was expensive and often unremunerative. There had been insufficient investment in the interwar period and the railways had belatedly started a campaign for a ‘square deal’ just before the war in an effort to be relieved of their ‘common carrier’ obligations, which required them to transport any goods offered to them, from small parcels to lifeboats and circuses. Preparations for war had started as early as 1937 with, in that British way, the establishment of a committee to examine what protection and precautions were needed for the railway in the event of a war. Grants were made by the government to the Big Four railway companies, which had been created in the aftermath of the First World War, and London Transport to build up supplies of material to permit rapid repairs, to improve telegraph equipment, to develop lighting systems that could not be seen by aircraft and, interestingly, for preparations to move all four company headquarters out of London. Lighting was a particular obsession of the war planners and tests were even carried out early in 1939 to investigate whether it was possible to continue running services under blackout conditions. In 1938, work started on a public evacuation plan from the cities which was completed just two months before the outbreak of war. The scheme, which envisaged running 4,000 special trains, involved not only moving thousands of vulnerable people out of the cities, but also Britain’s cultural heritage in the British Museum, the Tate and other buildings was to be conveyed to a remote destination in Wales, where the artefacts were to be housed in specially adapted disused mines.

As in 1914, it was envisaged that a government committee consisting of senior railway managers would take over the railways as soon as war broke out. Again, the British railways excelled in the early stages of the war when they were called upon to deal with the expected huge increase in demand. On the very day that war was announced, 3 September 1939, huge numbers of people flocked to the railways – foreigners anxious to get home, holidaymakers cutting short their vacations, colonial civil servants heading for ships from Liverpool to get back to their postings. This was quickly followed by the evacuation of 1.3 million children and other vulnerable people out of London and a number of big cities. Ambulance trains which had been fitted out during the build-up to war were now used to ferry hospital patients from London and other major cities to safer locations. The first contingent of the British Expeditionary Force, 158,000 strong, was despatched to France over the next few weeks with a minimum of fuss. This time, realizing that there would be greatly increased demands on the railway, about half the normal train service was cancelled but again there was a great reluctance on the part of the British people to obey the injunctions not to travel. The pinnacle of the British railways’ efforts in the early stages of the war was the unexpected task of having to cope with the rapid influx of 338,000 evacuees, many of whom were injured, from Dunkirk in May 1940. Virtually the whole of the Southern Railway network was reorganized to cope with the arrivals, with, for example, one line being devoted solely to stabling rolling stock in readiness to pick up the passengers.

The Dunkirk debacle was the nearest the war got to the British mainland, which meant that again the railways were not involved in front-line combat but on the Continent they played their now traditional role as the core of the logistics of war, a function which Hitler had fatally failed to grasp. Hitler was a car fanatic who understood their technology and how the engines worked, and had consequently focussed his country’s transport infrastructure effort on the Autobahnen, the world’s first motorways, rather than on building up the capacity of the railways. That was understandable given that it was very much in keeping with the Zeitgeist as railways were seen as an old-fashioned technology and the National Socialist emphasis on modernization naturally led them to embrace motor cars. The National Socialists did build innovatory diesel trains like the streamlined 100 mph Fliegende Hamburger (‘Flying Hamburger’), but it was the Volkswagen Beetle and the white Autobahnen which were their showpieces.

This emphasis on rubber rather than steel tyres would severely constrain Germany’s war effort. Worse, Hitler compounded the error by focussing on the roads rather than on the vehicles which were needed to run on them. Yet it was the railways which kept the German economy functioning. According to a study of the German economy before and during the war, ‘the dependence on transportation was multifaceted and self-reinforcing. It was the very heart of the Reich’s military might.’ And it was the railways which were at the heart of the system, as they carried 90 per cent of the coal that was the basis of the nation’s industrial output and 75 per cent of all freight.

One surprising aspect of the German Army in 1939 was the limited extent to which it was motorized. The British had dispensed with the horse apart from ceremonial duties, but the Germans surprisingly had made less progress in converting their army to motor vehicles. This was partly because of Hitler’s lack of attention to detail, which meant he focussed on the more sexy hardware like tanks and aeroplanes, but was also a result of the German motor industry’s inability to meet army requirements. According to van Creveld, ‘of 103 divisions available on the eve of the war, just 16… were fully motorised and thus to some extent independent of the railways’. The rest of the army marched on foot while their supplies were, for the most part, carried in horse-drawn wagons as lorries could not cope with the demands of the army and, in any case, there were not enough of them. In the technological conditions of 1939, an astonishing ‘1,600 lorries would be required to equal the capacity of just one double-track railway line’. Worse, trucks use up vast amounts of road space and require more fuel and people than an equivalent railway, greatly elongating the army’s ‘train’, which meant that in relation to payload, ‘the railway maintained its superiority at distances of over 200 miles…however great the effort, there was little chance that motor vehicles would relieve, much less replace, trains as Germany’s main form of transportation in the foreseeable future.’

Hitler’s focus on motorizing his army and his failure to see it through left the railways suffering from comparative neglect, with the result that there were fewer locomotives and wagons available in 1939 than there had been at the outbreak of the First World War. To a large extent, the marching German armies depended on scavenging trucks from the local populace – a move that increased antagonism towards the invaders – and, equally unpopular, even from their own civilians.

While the German invasions of Poland, and France and the Low Countries in 1939 and 1940 respectively, were astonishing victories, they exposed weaknesses in the Army’s logistics. German advances were characterized by having two sections, a small rapid motorized advance party which quickly took over vast swathes of territory but lost contact with its supply line, and a much larger, slower-moving rear. This tactic was fine in these early assaults since they were successfully concluded rapidly enough not to require reinforcements and the prolonged maintenance of supply lines. In Poland, the destruction of the railways by the retreating Poles had been so complete that it was only the rapid surrender of their army that prevented a logistical bottleneck for the Germans, who lost about half their trucks to the atrocious roads on which they were wholly reliant. By January 1940, the supply organization at Army HQ (OKH) was forced to resort to horse-drawn transport to make up the shortfall in available trucks. In France, the logistical failings did not escape Hitler’s notice since they contributed to the decision of the Germans not to press home their advantage in their sweep through northern France. The armoured spearheads speeding over the Meuse towards Paris progressed faster than expected and, as the railways had all been destroyed by the French, lost contact with their supply lines, leaving a gap between the two flanks. Hitler called a halt to allow for the supply lines to be re-established, which is why the British Expeditionary Force was able to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk, an event which contributed much to the Allies’ morale. Although the sabotaged railways were reinstated as soon as possible, there were too few Eisenbahntruppen to carry out the work quickly enough or to work the lines efficiently. There were frantic calls to requisition ‘all the lorries of Germany’ but by the time they arrived the Dunkirk beaches had been cleared. Again, as in Poland, had the French not crumbled so quickly, the split between the two parts of the army could have been exploited by the Allies and the Germans would have been forced to stop and consolidate.

It was the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941 where the logistical failings were to be cruelly exposed. In truth, however, Operation Barbarossa, the name given to the massive plan to invade Russia, was always doomed to suffer the same fate as all previous attempts to overcome the Great Bear. The Germans decided on a rather muddled three-pronged attack on a vast 1,400-mile front aimed respectively at Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg, then Petrograd), Moscow and Kiev, involving more than 3 million men, five times the number that Napoleon had at his disposal, and the largest invading army raised in the history of warfare. The basic orders for the operation, which van Creveld calls ‘a rambling and confused document’, provided for an advance to the line Dvina-Smolensk-Dnieper, respectively 600, 700 and 900 miles away from the point of departure. Yet, each army group only had one railway line to supply it during the advance, with motorized transport expected to do the rest. It was simply impossible because of the massive shortfall of motorized transport. Not only was the fleet of trucks a ramshackle collection of vehicles of 2,000 different types largely purloined from occupied countries, but to replace rail with road movements to reach Moscow would have required ‘at least ten times the number of vehicles actually available’. Operation Barbarossa was overwhelmed by the logic of its supply constraints and its failure changed the course of the war.

There was, therefore, no alternative to using Russia’s sparse railway network and that was fraught with difficulties. Locomotives with boilers that kept functioning in the arctic conditions would have to be produced and track relaid because of the change in gauge between Germany and Russia. In other words, as Len Deighton puts it, ‘the speed of the advance would be limited to the speed at which a new railway could be built’.

The plan for the German advance was therefore drawn up in the light of these logistical constraints. To be successful Russia had to be conquered before winter and to achieve that a series of optimistic assumptions were made by the German HQ. It was to be the apogee of the blitzkrieg method of warfare, the strategy that combined tanks, infantry and air power in a single overwhelming attack concentrating tremendous force at points of weakness in order to overcome the enemy quickly. The plan for Barbarossa envisaged the rapid motorized units of all three army groups speeding 300 miles into Russia and then pausing while new railways were built and supply depots created to prepare for the final assault further east. To this end, remarkably, the Eisenbahntruppen, charged with repairing and converting the railway, were sent ahead as part of the advance party, even before the territory where they were expected to work was properly secured. This contradicted normal military practice. As van Creveld puts it, ‘instead of the logistic apparatus following in the wake of operations, it was supposed to precede them, a procedure probably unique in the annals of modern war’. Such expediencies were a measure of the desperation of the Germans, who grasped that the successful invasion of Russia depended entirely on their ability to supply their armies. And they couldn’t. The attack was launched on 22 June, rather later than seemed wise given the short Russian summer. Military historians argue about whether the start had been fatally delayed by Hitler’s last-minute decision to invade the Balkans to get the Italians off the hook in Greece, where they were being beaten by a poorly equipped Greek army, or whether he always intended to begin the invasion on the longest day of the year. Initially, the Germans met only feeble resistance from the shell-shocked Russians, allowing the fast advance units to reach their targets within days. However, the unmetalled roads proved to be even worse than expected, and deteriorated in the face of unusually heavy rainfall during the first week of July. A quarter of vehicles had failed within three weeks of the start of the campaign. On the railways, the difference in gauge meant the invaders were heavily reliant on using captured rolling stock but the Russians took away the best locomotives and destroyed the rest, leaving only a few wagons and coaches behind.

Not surprisingly, the Eisenbahntruppen could not cope with the scale of their task and were beset by a host of difficulties. Undermanned and lacking requisite skills, they failed to carry out conversions and repairs thoroughly, tending only to provide the tracks without installing such vital equipment as platforms, workshops and engine sheds. They were forced to travel by road but were not given the priority they needed because the officers of the combat regiments did not understand the importance of their task. Changing the gauge was a slow and cumbersome job and proved to be the major obstacle for the efficiency of the lines of communication. While captured wagons could be adapted to standard gauge, it was impossible to convert locomotives and therefore, effectively, the Germans were always having to contend with two separate railway systems. At the point of change of gauge, which was advanced into Russia as quickly as possible and therefore had to be moved frequently, huge bottlenecks built up, at times delaying loads for two or three days.

Railways tend to have their own particular characteristics and the Russians had built theirs with lighter rails and fewer sleepers, with the result that the lines, even once converted, could not cope with the more modern but heavier German locomotives which were used on the sections where the gauge had been changed. German engines struggled in the winter, too, as they had not been built to withstand the extreme temperatures. Unlike the Russian engines, their pipework was external and in the harsh climate of the Russian steppe, far colder than anything ever experienced in Germany, the pipes quickly froze and burst, putting the locomotives out of action.

Shortages of fuel, both coal and petrol, were a perennial problem. Russian coal was inferior and therefore needed to be mixed with some imported fuel in order to power the German locomotives. To compound the supply difficulties, Russian petrol had such a low octane value that it was unusable for German vehicles. Even the horses were of the wrong kind. To pull their heavy wagons, the German army relied on strong draught horses, which proved unsuited to the cold conditions and required enormous quantities of forage. Amazingly, in order to ensure supplies could be carried, half the infantry divisions were equipped with small hand carts, Panje wagons, which meant the world’s most modern army was dependent on a transport method familiar to Christ.

Each of the three German armies was accompanied by two armoured trains. The Wehrmacht had been rather unenthusiastic about armoured trains, especially after their failure during the invasion of Poland, where attempts to use them to spearhead attacks on key railway crossings over rivers were stymied when the Poles simply blew up the bridges. The Poles themselves deployed five armoured trains, which proved effective in several encounters with German Panzer (armoured) units, but three of them were destroyed by the Luftwaffe, demonstrating their vulnerability to air attack. Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht decided that they would be useful in the initial stages of Barbarossa to seize railway bridges and then, after conversion to the wider Russian gauge, to protect the long stretches of railway line from attacks by partisans, which as the Germans advanced deeper into Russia increased in both severity and effectiveness. The Germans used not only their own armoured trains but several captured from the Soviet forces, who had started the war with a far bigger fleet but lost many in the early battles of Barbarossa. Some of the trains used by the Germans were even protected with armoured cars, mostly French Panhards, converted to rail use and sent out in front of the train to reconnoitre the line and draw any fire.

Of the three armies that invaded Russia in theory the northern group led by Field Marshal von Leeb, which headed towards Leningrad, had the easiest task as it only needed to cover a distance of 500 miles from East Prussia. And at first, helped by the good road and railway network in the Baltics, which had been prosperous independent states before their occupation by the Soviets in 1940, progress was remarkable, with the motorized units covering 200 miles in just five days. However, as the convoy headed north-east, the forests became denser and the roads fewer, and the supply trucks became entangled with the huge infantry columns marching ahead of them. Soon airlifts had to be organized to keep the forward troops supplied and although by 10 July the leading armoured troops led by General Max Reinhardt were within eighty miles of Leningrad, and were in the process of overwhelming the outer defence line of the city, launching an all-out attack proved impossible because the infantry was strung out over the Baltics and the tanks could not operate in the heavily wooded terrain. This was typical of many similar offensives in the Second World War in which the attacking armoured forces ran ahead of their logistical support that then failed because it was predominately road-based. By then the Eisenbahntruppen had converted 300 miles of railway but the railhead was still well behind the front and in any case the line was in such poor condition that it could only accommodate one train per day. The armoured troops therefore had to wait for supplies to arrive by road and for the transport situation to improve, and consequently the opportunity to take Leningrad swiftly was lost. Moreover, Russian resistance stiffened with numerous partisan attacks on German supply lines, making life difficult for the invaders, and in August heavy rain turned the roads into quagmires. By September, Hitler, recognizing that Leningrad could not be taken quickly, ordered the withdrawal of the Panzer tank unit, Panzergruppe 4, to join the assault on Moscow, leaving the Luftwaffe with the impossible task of trying to take the city. Van Creveld concludes that the strategy of the attack was fatally flawed at the outset: ‘It seems certain that Army Group North’s best chance for capturing Leningrad came around the middle of July, when Reinhardt’s corps had penetrated to within eighty miles of the city. At this time, however, supply difficulties ruled out any immediate resumption of the offensive.’ By the time any attack was possible, the citizens of Leningrad had built a series of fortifications, including anti-tank ditches, trenches and reinforced concrete emplacements that proved all but impenetrable during the siege, which lasted two and a half years and became one of the most deadly in human history.

The middle group, aimed at Moscow and led by Field Marshal von Bock, was by far the strongest force. While initially its supply difficulties were the least pronounced of the three army groups because it straddled the main Warsaw-Moscow railway that remained undamaged, they were to play a crucial role in the army’s failure to reach Moscow. Indeed, the progress of the central army group was initially even more impressive than that of its counterpart to the north. The strategy was to create a series of pincer movements with Smolensk, about halfway to Moscow, as the target for the first stage of operations, but the usual difficulties of roads being blocked by streams of infantry and of insufficient railway capacity soon became apparent. There was a shortage of petrol exacerbated by the higher consumption of lorries on the atrocious roads and of spares, especially tyres, whereas on the railways there were the customary bottlenecks at the gauge changeover points. However, by and large there was reasonable progress until the Germans attempted to build up a supply base for the final attack on Moscow. Then it became clear that there was insufficient capacity to launch the assault on the Russian capital. Bock needed thirty trains per day to build up stocks whereas, at best, he was getting eighteen. Just as in the north, Hitler then changed the game plan, diverting resources – a tank unit, Panzergruppe 3 – to the south, along with 5,000 tons of lorry capacity, to ensure that Kiev could be taken. It was a terrible mistake. While Ukraine was important in terms of resources – wheat, coal and oil – Moscow was the centre of the nation’s communications and had the Germans been able to block it off, the Russians would no longer have been able to use the rail lines to transport troops between the north and south.

With the help of the extra panzers, Kiev soon fell but then another mistake resulted in the move eastwards being undertaken too hastily. Already the south group, which had been charged with taking Kiev and then crossing the Dnieper to capture the coalfields of Donetz and invading the Crimea, had been beset by wet weather that knocked out half its motor transport. Progress was also slowed by fiercer resistance from Russian partisans than faced by the other two groups. Once Kiev had been encircled, the eastward move resumed on 1 October but it was greatly hampered by the destruction of the bridges over the Dnieper, which forced supplies to be shipped across the river. The Germans took over sections of the Russian railways but they were in a poor state and during October barely a quarter of scheduled trains arrived at the two easternmost railheads. Chaos on the Polish railways further back on the line of communication added to the supply difficulties. Therefore, the decision to resume the offensive proved premature as, without any effective railway support, there was no hope of reaching the Donetz Basin with its mineral riches before winter set in. Although the Germans captured Rostov in late November, their supply lines were overextended and they subsequently lost the town, the first time the German advance had been successfully repelled.

The attack by the centre group on Moscow finally began on 2 October after the Panzer division returned from Kiev, but it was too little, too late. One unit reached the suburbs, but the Germans’ strength fell far short of the numbers needed to take the capital. There was a final hopeless attack on 1 December, which had no chance of success because of the lack of resources. The Red Army, which had the advantage of ski troops, counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back sixty miles by January, not only removing the immediate threat to their capital but, even more importantly in terms of morale, achieving their first large-scale success over the invading forces.

By the winter, therefore, all three prongs of the German advance were at a standstill far short of their objectives, and with little likelihood of achieving them. The Germans had to adapt to a war of attrition, for which they were not prepared, and which ultimately would be their undoing. As van Creveld concludes, ‘the German invasion of the Soviet Union was the largest military operation of all time, and the logistic problems involved of an order of magnitude that staggers the imagination’.9 Yet, although the means at the disposal of the Wehrmacht were modest, the Germans came closer to their aims than might have been expected, which van Creveld attributes ‘less to the excellence of the preparations than to the determination of troops and commanders to give their all’, making do with whatever means were made available to them. Indeed, during the initial phase of the attack, the supply shortages were greatly alleviated by the armies living off the land in the traditional manner, but once the frost set in, the conditions not only made transportation more difficult but the required level of supplies increased greatly. The most notorious failing was the lack of provision for winter coats and other cold-weather equipment for the troops advancing on Moscow, which resulted in thousands of men, fighting in their summer gear, freezing to death in the cold. There is much debate among historians as to whether this equipment was available or not, but van Creveld is convinced this is irrelevant because there were no means to deliver it: ‘The railroads, hopelessly inadequate to prepare the offensive on Moscow and to sustain it after it had started, were in no state to tackle the additional task of bringing up winter equipment.’

Ultimately, the Russian invasion was a step too far for the Germans, who even with everything in their favour and better preparation would probably not have succeeded simply because of the size of the task – the territory to be captured was some twenty times the size of the area conquered in western Europe and yet the German army deployed only 10 per cent more men and 30 per cent more tanks. Hitler’s dithering and his changes in strategy, and the dogged resistance of the Russians, often using guerrilla tactics, undermined the advance further and made failure inevitable, but supply delays played a vital, if not decisive, role. The German supply lines were simply extended beyond their natural limit, as the optimism of the HQ generals who had prepared the assault came up against the reality of the Russian steppe. The effect of the logistical shortfalls was not just practical but extended to the morale of the troops. Arguments between different sections of the military over the need for transport led the Luftwaffe to protect their supply trains with machine-gun-toting guards ready to fire not at Russian partisans but at German troops keen to get hold of their equipment.

Throughout the campaign, the Red Army troops retained the advantages of fighting on their own territory, which had proved crucial to all defending armies since the start of the railway age. Cleverly, rather than building up huge supply dumps that risked being captured by the enemy, the Russian Army supplied its troops directly from trains at railway stations, a task which required a level of flexibility and operational experience of the particular lines that would never have been available to an invading force. The Russians had, too, ensured that they retained most of their rolling stock by transporting it eastwards in anticipation of the German attack, with the result that the railways still in their control enjoyed a surfeit of locomotives and wagons. According to Westwood, ‘by 1943, the Russian railway mileage had decreased by forty per cent, but the locomotive stock by only fifteen per cent’.

Stalin, unlike Hitler, had long recognized the value of the railways and thanks to an extensive programme of investment in the interwar period the Russian system was in a much better state than at the onset of the previous war. While Hitler had been counting on the Russian system breaking down under the strain of retreating troops, it held up remarkably well. Indeed, the smooth running of the Russian railways was instrumental in allowing the rapid wholesale transfer of much of the nation’s industry during the early days of the war from threatened western areas to the remote east, an evacuation conducted so efficiently that even frequent bombardment was unable to disrupt it. At times traffic was so great that signalling systems were ignored and trains simply followed one another down the track almost nose to tail.

Russian railwaymen were effectively conscripted as martial law was imposed on the railway system and those who failed in their jobs were liable to find themselves in front of a firing squad – but then so was anyone else. Later in the war, however, Stalin, grateful for the railway workers’ efforts, created a series of special medals for railway workers, including one for ‘Distinguished Railway Clerk’, presumably for issuing tickets to war widows while under fire. The Russians laid a staggering 4,500 miles of new track during the war, including a section of line that supplied the defenders at Stalingrad. The railways were crucial, too, to the defence of both Leningrad and Moscow. When all the railway lines to Leningrad were cut off by September 1941 – the Finns blocked communications from the north as they were fighting with the Germans – the ‘death’ road across the frozen Lake Ladoga, so called because of the dangers of using it, became the last lifeline to the beleaguered city and was supplied from trains. Towards the end of the siege a railway was built across the ice, like on Lake Baikal in the Russo-Japanese War, but since the territory around the south of the lake was soon regained by the Russians, it was never actually used.

In Moscow, a circular line had been built around the city just before the war connecting the existing lines stretching fan-like out of the city and this proved vital in maintaining links between different parts of the country after the Germans cut off most of the main lines. When the Red Army went on the offensive, the Russian railway troops regauged thousands of miles of line – indeed some sections of track were regauged numerous times as territory was won and lost – including parts of the Polish and German rail networks. Indeed, Stalin travelled to the Potsdam peace conference in a Russian train.

The need for effective railways during the invasion was made all the greater because of that great barrier to smooth transport, mud, whose impact on the outcome of the war cannot be underestimated. Not only was it a frequent obstacle on the roads, but at times it even prevented tanks from moving. Undoubtedly, better roads would have improved the supply situation but not solved it. As Deighton suggests, ‘the virtual absence of paved roads meant that mud was an obstacle on a scale never encountered in Western Europe’. Only more railways with greater capacity could have tipped the balance, something that was not within Hitler’s ability to change. Each of the three army groups stalled after initial advances as they waited for the infantry to catch up, allowing the Russians to regroup or even counter-attack. Even if Hitler, as some of his generals recommended, had decided to focus all his forces on one target, Moscow, the lack of logistical capacity, especially railways, would have saved the city from invasion.

The failure to complete the invasion before the winter of 1941-2 set in proved to be the turning point of the war. There would be big battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk, and the siege of Leningrad would continue, but essentially the German advance was checked along a vast but not entirely stable front that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and when the war of movement resumed, it was a westward push by the Red Army rather than any continued advance by the Germans.

The last-ditch attack on Moscow coincided with another turning point, as it took place a few days before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 7 December 1941, which propelled the US into the war. America was quickly put on a war footing and despite the fact that the country had embraced the automobile age more firmly than any other, the railroads were at the heart of their transportation system, carrying virtually all war traffic, both goods and personnel. During the Second World War, the American railroads carried 90 per cent of military freight and 97 per cent of all organized military passenger movements. In other words, railways were still very much the dominant form of transport. The President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was well aware of this and within days of Pearl Harbor created the Office of Defense Transportation to co-ordinate all transport facilities and war traffic. This time the US railroads were determined not to suffer the humiliation of being taken over, as had happened in the First World War, and responded by complying with all the federal government’s demands. Such co-operation was essential as the railroads were in a state of decline owing to the Depression and competition from motor transport. Compared with 1916, the railroad companies’ rolling stock had been reduced by a third, although, on the positive side, locomotives were more powerful than a quarter of a century before and the surviving network was in better shape thanks to improved signalling and maintenance. With petrol and, particularly, rubber for tyres in short supply, the railroads were the only form of long-distance transport available.

During the four years of American involvement in the Second World War, the railroads carried 44 million troops in 114,000 special trains, twice the monthly average during the First World War. More freight, too, was carried than in the previous war and the railways also had to cope with a huge influx of civilian passengers, with the result that 1944 was the all-time record for the railroads with almost a billion passenger journeys. Yet, thanks to much better co-ordination by the railroads and the fact that both Pacific and Atlantic seaports were used, there were none of the bottlenecks which had forced the government to take over the railroads in the First World War. All this was made possible by the more efficient use of the system facilitated by co-operation rather than competition and, according to a military analyst, because the railroad companies had adhered to Haupt’s rules of wartime railway operation: ‘There was a general observance of the vital doctrine “no car shall be loaded without positive assurance that it can and will be promptly unloaded at destination”.’ Not surprisingly, the railroad companies enjoyed a boom in profits thanks to this extra traffic, but after 1945 they reverted to the cut-throat competition which had characterized their pre-war behaviour and soon found themselves back in the financial mire. They did, though, get a big thank-you from the military. General Brehon Somervell, the commander of the US Army Service Forces, later wrote about the vital role of the railroads: ‘The American railroads can take the greatest pride in their contribution to our victory. Without that contribution the war would have been prolonged for many months and even our ultimate success would have been jeopardized. The prolongation of the war would have meant the loss of thousands of additional lives…’

In Britain, after the excitement of the early evacuations and Dunkirk the railways settled down to a pattern of overuse that had typified their performance in the First World War. This time, however, matters were made worse because, right from the outset, the peacetime passenger train service was cut back in order to prioritize military movements and frequent air attacks on the rail network disrupted operations even further. The reduction in services meant that the remaining ones were overcrowded as, despite the injunctions not to travel, there was a desperate desire to do so and there was little alternative to rail given the strictness of the petrol rationing system. Travelling on the railways during the war was an increasingly grim experience owing to the delays and overcrowding, and there was not even any recourse to luxury for the more affluent as first class was soon abolished to allow for better use of the available space, followed towards the end of the war by the cessation of all restaurant car services. The latter had, in any case, been losing money during blackouts as an official report delicately explained: ‘It was also discovered on the restoration of the lighting after the termination of the warning that certain passengers found it convenient to leave the dining cars during such periods and thus relieve the dining car attendant of the necessity of making out their bills.’ Nor was it only the price of meals that was lost. The Blitz spirit did not preclude the odd bit of pilfering and the London, Midland & Scottish had to change the lighting system on its Glasgow trains because the cost of maintenance was soaring as a result of the theft of bulbs at the rate of 50,000 per year. Passengers were distinctly unruly in other ways, too, frequently lifting up the blackout blinds for a view out of the window, despite the dangers from air attack. The government’s propaganda machine created an irritating priggish cartoon character called Billy Brown, who featured in several poster campaigns with horrible homilies, such as, in an effort to stop people removing the netting from railway windows:

I trust you’ll pardon my correction,

That stuff is there for your protection

Graffiti artists frequently added the lines:

Thank you for your information

but I can’t see the bloody station

Oddly, at other times, the public was so incensed about lights showing on railways that misguided vigilante groups threatened to remove signalling equipment from the lineside, prompting the authorities to issue a warning for them not to do so because of the potential dire consequences. Despite the deprivations of war, the authorities did find time to make sure that passengers on the Royal Train did not suffer inconvenience as train drivers were instructed, in the event of an air raid, to ensure that they stopped with ‘care being taken to see that the train is not suddenly brought to a stand’ so that there were no royal bumps.

The British railways were, as in the First World War, hampered by labour shortages. This time, unlike in 1914, the government had made the railways a ‘reserved occupation’ but nevertheless 60,000 railwaymen still signed up, many to join the railway regiments which were vital in repairing and maintaining lines that were essential for supplying the Army. In the First World War, there had been much debate and hesitation over employing women, who hitherto had rarely worked in the railways, but eventually more than 33,000 were taken on to fill a variety of jobs ranging from ticket collection to guard duty, though they were banned from driving trains and kept out of supervisory and managerial jobs. This time there was no debate about filling the gaps left by the men, and women were recruited in far greater numbers, with more than 100,000 employed by 1943, a sixth of the workforce.

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