Trains played a vital part after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940. Trains were used to move 338,000 exhausted soldiers – many of whom had to be returned to their barracks or to their homes for a spot of leave. Buses would not have been able to cope with the numbers but trains could and their part in the success of the Dunkirk evacuation is often overlooked.
Most of the 338,000 soldiers arrived in Dover Docks – 200,000 men. Some used local buses and get back to their barracks, which were dotted around Kent and Sussex. However, just under 181,000 soldiers were moved further a field using 327 special trains. The second busiest port was Ramsgate and 82 special trains moved just under 43,000 men. These trains were nicknamed ‘Dynamo Specials’ after the codename – Operation Dynamo – given to the operation to remove soldiers from the Dunkirk and the surrounding area. Southern Railway was given the task of moving the men out of Kent and beyond. The company collected together 2,000 coaches to transport the soldiers. Many were Southern Railway’s but carriages were borrowed from other companies such as Great Western, London Midland and Scottish. Southern Railway also borrowed from other rail companies an extra 180 steam trains to pull the carriages.
The logistical problems moving so many men were huge. The evacuation also coincided with Southern Railway having to move 48,000 children as part of the policy of evacuating children from designated danger areas.
Southern Railway was given little time to set out a plan. Much planning was done as and when required. It was decided that as much as was possible London would be avoided. Therefore, the main hubs for Southern Railway outside of Kent were Redhill, Guildford and Reading. The Great Western Railway was also closely involved once troops reached Reading, as it was this company that bordered Southern Railway at Reading. Soldiers traveled to other parts of the country from Reading.
Each train carried around 550 soldiers. Many had not eaten properly for some days and especially while they were stuck in Dunkirk or the surrounding area. It was decided that they should be fed on the trains. If they were fed at Dover or Ramsgate, the fear was that this would seriously delay their moving out of the ports. However, simply feeding the men provided Southern Railway with a major logistical problem. Certain rail stations were designated feeding stations – Headcorn, Tonbridge and Paddock Wood – all in Kent. Each train was given just an eight-minute stop for soldiers to eat and drink – such was the flow of trains. Each train had to pull into a siding as it was decided that ambulance trains had priority over the use of the main lines. Headcorn, Tonbridge and Paddock Wood stations all had suitable arrangements at the stations to accommodate this. Local WVS volunteers were on hand to assist the workers at the feeding stations while some soldiers were also selected to dish out the food. The eight-minute time limit was strictly adhered to but it s generally accepted that this was the first time in days that all the men on the trains got a decent meal.
Given that Southern Railway had such little time to organize itself and work out a plan of action, what it achieved, aided by others, was very impressive. One unknown Army general was heard to say: “I wish the Army could operate with as few written instructions as Southern Railway does in an emergency."