Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won the War

Ashley Jackson enjoys an exploration of the key role that Britain's railway network played in the Second World War


Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Michael Williams
Publisher: Preface
Price (RRP): £25


Steaming to Victory is the story of how Britain’s rail network, its engines and rolling stock, and the thousands of railway workers who operated it, contributed to the war effort from 1939 to 1945. With the onset of the Second World War the days of liner-like elegance and Pullman glamour, and of speed contests between Mallard and the Flying Scotsman, passed into history. The interwar golden age ended as the state took over and military mass movement became the order of the day. Austerity paint replaced stylish liveries, speed reductions caused delays in blacked-out and ever-more crowded carriages, and rail travel became fraught with danger. Comprising 20,000 miles of track and 20,000 locomotives, railways were crucial in keeping Britain serviced and connected, as petrol shortages made road haulage and road travel almost prohibitively expensive.

The railways were vital to the lives and the livelihoods of the British people in a period of total war. They allowed Britain to become a place d’armes able to repel German invasion and then project Allied power deep into Nazi-dominated Europe. Hundreds of thousands of US, British, Canadian and French troops were shunted around the country, as well as thousands of military vehicles.

Apart from the dramatic events following Dunkirk and the arrival of North Americans troops, the railways played a key role in military movements and the marshalling of resources ahead of D-Day. Between 1942 and 1944, for instance, 600 special trains carried 300,000 bombs to US Air Force bases. Thousands of special services evacuated millions of children from cities threatened by the Luftwaffe, and ambulance trains and armoured trains were set to work along the line. Deep underground, a disused station, Down Street, was refurbished to provide an indestructible railway HQ in London. Dummy marshalling yards were built to deceive German pilots seeking to disrupt Britain’s strategic transport infrastructure. A special Railway Home Guard was formed and 4,000 men and women served in the railway fire service.

Steaming to Victory is smoothly written and interspersed with quotes from interviewees. This allows Williams to provide the human touch, documenting countless acts of bravery and gallantry and the simple performance of duty that enabled the railways to make a prosaic but indispensable contribution to Britain’s success in the war. It is a little clichéd in places, as the high and low points of Britain’s (over-) familiar war story are mapped on to the railway – 70 pages of tales of the rails in the Blitz, for instance. Williams does, however, make full use of the numerous excellent accounts of the wartime railways, some commissioned by the rail companies themselves.

Modestly, he acknowledges that the end product is not an “academic or scholarly” history. What he has successfully crafted is an elegant evocation of the wartime railways, a facet of Britain’s richly detailed ‘home front’ story that deserves the prominence that this book will help it to attain.


Ashley Jackson is the author of The British Empire: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2013)