British Railways in World War II by Michael Foley

Published in November 2021, this book from publishers Pen & Sword offers a history of Britain’s railways during the Second World War, focusing as much on the memories of those involved as on actual wartime railway operations.

Written by Michael Foley, this hardcover book measures approximately 235cm x 159cm and has 240 pages and 104 black and white illustrations. It has a published price of £25.00, but at the time of writing it can be had from Amazon for £18.61.

With an introduction, 11 chapters and two appendices, this book describes the events of the war in chronological order.

Chapters 1 and 2 give a brief overview of the role played by military railways in wartime, going back to the Crimean and Boer wars, and of British railways before the Second World War.

Chapters 3-9 take a chronological approach, with each chapter focusing on a particular year from 1939-1945. the final chapter, unnumbered but titled “Afterword” and subtitled “Heritage Railways”, refers to the links that some of today’s preserved railways have with the events of World War II, although the selection of railways mentioned seems rather random.

Rather than focusing solely on World War II, the book begins by examining the role played by military railways in wartime, going all the way back to the Crimean and Boer Wars. Although interesting in their own right, they add nothing to the workings of British railways during the Second World War.

Of particular interest are the reproductions of posters that appeared across the country during the war, informing the public of how the railroads played their part. I was intrigued by how these often referred to ‘British Railways’, years before the term became synonymous with British Railways.

Taken as a whole, it is a fascinating account of the important role the railways played in the defense of Britain. It is as much a story of hardships and difficulties that both the public and the railway workers have gone through, as well as the difficulties of operating the railways themselves.

The book includes several photos of war memorials, like the one on the left below at Manchester Piccadilly. On the right, a scene that would please soldiers returning from Dunkirk; it is one of the few photographs of the railroads during the war.

Credit: Rail Advent.

Here we see one of the posters included in the book. Although this was issued by the Railways Executive Committee, it refers to “British Railways” years before the company was founded.

British Railways in World War II 88-89
Credit: Rail Advent.

As is currently happening in Ukraine, British railways during World War II were the main targets of enemy bombing, as seen on the left page. On the right, an American locomotive being unloaded on a Normandy beach.

British Railways in World War II 170-171
Credit: Rail Advent.

The author has also chosen to write about a selection of incidents which, although interesting in themselves, do not contribute to the history of the operation of British railways during the war.

In some cases, the engine type listings and production figures detract from the narrative, and some sections appear to be repeated, particularly the wartime roles of women and the context of austerity locomotives.

The selection of photos is disappointing. While wartime photography was difficult, there are very few photos showing railways during the war years. Of the 104 illustrations, many of them are war memorials or war posters, with only 20 photos of railroads during the war.

My main impression of the book was that in what could have been a useful volume, there are too many errors that should have been picked up during the proofreading stage. Here are a few: multiple instances of GWS for GWR; lacks information on some captions like a photo of damage to a London train station, when it is clearly Paddington station with a GWR pannier tank in the photo and a well known view of the girder bridge that straddles the lines just outside Paddington Station; and a photo of David Blake standing in front of a Crewe-built LMS Ivatt locomotive, but the photo is of a Doncaster-built LNER Ivatt Atlantic and there is no reference in the text to who David Blake was.

We would like to thank Pen & Sword for providing RailAdvent with a copy of the book for review.

The article

British Railways in World War II

ADVANTAGES

  • Personal stories provide interesting information about the war
  • Interesting selection of war posters
  • Well designed cover

THE INCONVENIENTS

  • Lots of mistakes that should have been picked up during proofreading
  • Wrong selection of photos

Breakdown of reviews

  • Presentation/Layout
  • Technical informations
  • Value for money

About Jun Quentin

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