A Railwayman's War - Chapter 8
The true story of railway life, and what it was really like to be a small part of a big system
By Derek Welch
Ray still remembers his first trip to London. Standing on the footplate watching the bridges fly past, and that first look at the massive entrance of St Pancras station itself. So many rails that it was impossible to pick out the individual routes, signal gantries everywhere.
“How do you know which platform we’re going into?” asked Ray.
“Easy,” said his driver, “you see the signal we’re going past?” Ray nodded. “Well, look below it and you’ll see that a plate with a number on it has slid out. That’s the platform we are going to end up at.”
“Clever,” Ray thought, secretly relieved that it had not turned out to be a silly question. He was to learn that many things that he asked, although the questions may have appeared silly, had answers which revealed whole chapters of knowledge.
The normal routine for journeys to St Pancras was that once arrived, the train would be uncoupled from the engine and another engine would come from the siding, where it had been waiting, and would then be coupled to the other end of the coaches. After about an hour or so, during which time the cleaners would descend upon the train like locusts, the new engine, with coaches, would depart for places far and distant.
The original engine would now move out to the parking sidings and await the arrival of the train that they would leave with. These sidings were situated next to some large and ominous, gasometers. Indeed, Ray once asked a driver, “What happens if a bomb hits them?”
The driver, in his turn, answered with the type of calmness that only comes to someone that has only half of the facts, and no idea of the REAL reason. ”Oh, don’t worry about them. They’ve got water in the bottom.”
This was obviously true, because one had indeed suffered a direct hit and London still existed.
The odd hour coupled to the new train whilst waiting for departure time was spent on the engine. Another rule that took no notice of the war stated that at no time must an unrelieved crew leave the footplate. They could leave one at a time, but not together. This may be illustrated by an episode one afternoon in Cricklewood sidings. Ray and driver Bill had put some empty coaches, from St Pancras, into a siding. They had taken them through the washer. This was like a giant car wash, with revolving, vertical brushes. They had to put the engine away in the loco, and to do this they had to run on a line that cut across all the main lines. They were waiting at the signal for a clear path when Ray noticed people running. A steam locomotive is a very noisy contraption and the one they were on, a Stanier 2.6.4. number 2511, was no exception.
“What’s up mate?” Bill asked of one chap, busily engaged in fleeing for his life.
“Buzz bomb,” was all the chap shouted, as he ran past.
The noise of the engine easily drowned out air raid sirens. Bill climbed down from the engine, grinned at Ray and said, “Look after her mate,” and then ran toward the vast underground shelter.
‘Thanks a bunch’ thought Ray.
The day was overcast, and although he could not see anything, it was not too long before he could hear the unmistakable throb of a V1. He looked at the sky.
Then, silence. The bomb had run out of fuel and was now falling. Ray scanned the sky with greater care, one side of the engine and then the other. He spotted it. It was through the cloud and banking to its left, marking a large, half circle.
It dropped below the roof tops of the nearest buildings, and seconds later a huge, yellow cloud erupted. The ground shook and a quantity of debris flew into the air. As Ray watched, the wind blew some curtains from the cloud. He watched them – they seemed to fly for miles. As it turned out, the bomb had landed in Mora Road, Cricklewood. It caused massive damage and cost four people their lives.
Eventually the driver returned. He got back onto the engine and said to Ray, “That was a close one mate!”
Ray just looked at him. “Yes,” was all he trusted himself to say out loud. But inside he thought, ‘You cowardly @x*!@*!’
The V1 was known as either a ‘buzz bomb’, because of the noise that its pulse jets made, or it was called a ‘doodlebug’. It was technically a very sophisticated weapon, flying some fifteen hundred miles at over six hundred miles an hour. What made this remarkable was the fact that it did not have a pilot. It relied on its inner machinery to land within a mile or two of its target.
The target that day was, most likely, the Smiths instrument works that was in the area. When these weapons first appeared, they caused more than a little confusion. Ray was standing on Cricklewood station when one exploded a distance away. A porter came up to him and gleefully exclaimed, “We’re doing well today. That’s six planes our lads have shot down this morning.”
The immediate area around St Pancras station was badly scarred by bomb damage. On the odd occasions that Ray and his driver had to wait an hour or two for their train home, after being relieved, they would take a walk around. The devastation, the bomb sites and the strange looks on the people’s faces were disturbing to say the least.
One summer afternoon, they were sitting in platform two. Suddenly, a terrific explosion shook the whole station. Ray could hear pieces of something raining down. He knew it was not glass; the roof had been blown away a long time before. It had been a V2 rocket. These were designed to carry the atomic warheads that the German scientists were trying to perfect. On a clear day, they, or their white trails, could be seen arcing up to an incredible height of many miles, and then down to the city below. The re-entry into the atmosphere caused them to heat up to such an extent, that they sometimes blew up in mid air.
It was just such a technical design flaw that saved Ray that day. Later, in a siding, Ray spotted a piece of shrapnel on the ground. He retrieved it. It was still warm. He still has it.
Even in wartime, then, the railways operated a policy of ‘RULES IS RULES’. The crews, always on their engines, EVEN IN AN AIR RAID, were often the only people in the whole of the vast station complex. One rule that DID take notice of the enemy said that in case of invasion, crews were to take off the regulator operating handle and throw it away. This would undoubtedly stop the invading army in its tracks.
Nobody was ever told, officially, about anything that happened during, or even after, the war. ‘Careless talk costs lives’ was the usual brick wall that often sheltered the inept from their just deserts. So it was the grapevine that provided the answer one day, when a complete road disappeared in one, tremendous explosion. A bomber had crashed, with full bomb load. Word got around that it had been an English aircraft. The faceless ones never confirmed or denied just what had massacred the good people of Hendon that day.
The crews developed their little ways, as did most of the country’s citizens, of predicting what was about to happen, and how long they had got before it did. Going out of St Pancras, on the left, was a triangle shaped hole in the elevated track layout that went down to ground level. This was formed by the bridges carrying diverging lines. From this natural lair rose a barrage balloon. This was usually taken to herald another air raid. Passengers who witnessed ‘the balloon going up’ were not surprised when their train just ‘SEEMED’ to go a little faster.
St Pancras always has been a bustling place; in wartime the bustle took on an urgency that was filled with purpose. The feeling was heightened by the uniforms of fighting men. These represented all services and most nations. In a very short time, a man’s country of origin could be known at a glance.
Ray had been, this day, to the mess and was returning with a can of tea. On his way back to the engine, he spotted a fracas. When he got closer he saw a Canadian soldier fighting with two redcaps (allied military police). The fight wandered over two or three platforms; two more redcaps joined the fray. Still the Canadian stood, unbowed. Finally, two gigantic snowdrops (US military police) lent their support and the soldier was frog-marched away. As they went by him, Ray saw the Canadian had a shoulder badge that read ‘NOVA SCOTIA’.
St Pancras was also a convenient place to talk with other crews and catch up on all sorts of gossip. During one such conversation a driver said to Ray and his driver, “You remember that load of yanks that were taking the rise out of your engine?”
Ray’s mind went back a few days. He had been on a Stanier 2.6.2., waiting in platform 3, when half, or so it seemed, of the US army had come onto the next platform.
“Hey, buddy, what do you expect to do with this little thing?” was but one of the remarks.
“In the States, we put the coffee pot on the stove,” was another.
“Yes, I remember very well,” answered Ray’s driver.
“Well,” said the first, “I opened it up a bit on the way up. Everything might be bigger over there, but they didn’t half sound quiet when they got off.” They all laughed. “One even said, ‘Gee whiz, how does it go so fast?’!”
This type of ribbing was endured. Often servicemen had said to crews, “Blow this for a lark, it’s safer at the front than in London.” At such times Ray would just smile and remember crews killed when their engines disappeared into bomb craters, the faces of the people, doodlebugs, the V2 rocket tail section that landed in the Caledonian Road, Maple’s big furniture store in Kentish Town, that one morning was just a gutted shell.
Ray would just smile, but he couldn’t help remembering. London was not the only place to feel the horror of enemy bombing. Luton, having many large factories, was raided on many occasions. The Vauxhall and Skefco plants were favoured targets.
A form of defence was employed that Ray has not, since, heard of as being employed anywhere else. Luton stands, more or less, in a natural depression. Pots were placed at strategic points around the town and were set alight whenever enemy planes were said to be heading their way. The thick, black smoke that came from them, and soon filled the town, was supposed to thwart the foe. The Luftwaffe’s views are not recorded. The rail crews’, however, are. As these views were expressed, mainly, in an anglo- saxon dialect, it is not wise to pursue the matter further.
One night, Ray and his driver, Fred, were on the footplate of the ten pm, all stations to St Albans. They were coming to the small, single platform of Napsbury station. Fred, being a driver of many years experience, had closed the regulator and was allowing the train to coast.
Modern stations have numerous safety features: electronic alarms, large signs that tell the driver the exact point that he must stop – ‘four car stop’, ‘eight car stop’ etc. The only way that drivers had then of telling them the exact spot to halt was intimate route knowledge. Stop the engine with the cab just past the footbridge, or by the toilet door. Counting the number of platform lamps was a favourite. Unfortunately, the blackout regulations put paid to this method. A good reference point in daytime was to stop the train with the guard’s van by the goods and trolleys that the station staff would gather for loading. At midnight, with no lights, these were often missed.
At this station, a small shunting signal (this was about two feet high and had on its top a white disc the size of a dinner plate) was Fred’s marker. At the signal, he would apply his brakes and bring the train safely to a gentle halt in the right place.
Suddenly, Fred turned to Ray and said in a tone of mild curiosity, “Are we in the station yet?”
“In it,” said Ray, puzzled, “we’re nearly through it.”
Fred stopped the train rather sharply. The first two carriages had indeed gone past the platform. While the station master, who was also porter, shunter and everything else, grumbled loudly about having to cart all the freight half way down the platform, Ray and Fred each said a silent ‘thank you’ that nobody had wanted to get off of the train.
As soon as a train stops, things happen. People get off without a second thought, freight is moved both on and off. No one ever thinks that the train may move again without warning. So it is for this reason that, in the days before central locking systems, when a train overran, it NEVER reversed.
The blackout also caused a lot of people to injure themselves when they stepped out of the wrong side of a coach, and found that the platform was not there. To give an idea of the height involved, it is rather like stepping off of the top of a wardrobe. It was not only at stations that this happened. Passengers that had been dozing, awoke thinking the train had stopped at their station. Mostly they were correct. Sometimes, however, they were wrong, the train had only stopped at a signal.
When they got to St Albans, the guard wanted to know what had occurred. “What the hell went on at Napsbury then?”
Fred calmly said, “Sorry, I missed my marker.”
The guard turned on Ray. “Well, you should’ve stopped him then.”
Even if the guard was supposed to be in charge of the train, rather like the captain of a ship, Ray was not taking this lying down. “How was I to know that he was going to keep running?”
“Well,” said the guard, his bluster dying a little, “you should’ve shouted WHOA.”
Ray thought it wisest not to pass an opinion on that particular solution.