“You want to go trainspotting?” exclaimed the Boss when I suggested a visit to the Severn Valley Steam Railway as our Station Core Competency Development day.
And you might also be forgiven for thinking that a visit to this significant shrine to our steam railway heritage has little to with the modern RAF – but you’d be wrong.
You will undoubtedly have seen footage taken from Typhoons, that’s the WWII variety, firing rockets at German steam locomotives with the very impressive explosions of the steam boilers that often resulted and from there it’s only a short step to realise that the railways were a hugely important strategic asset in WWII for both sides. German supply lines were hugely dependent on railways and coal, which was in plentiful supply, unlike petrol for road vehicles. And so it would be after D Day when the Allies would depend heavily on the railways to support the ever lengthening and tenuous lines of communication as the tide of war turned in our favour.
One of the first things we learnt was that there was an enormous effort in building the machinery that would support us on and after D Day. We all know about the Mulberry Harbours but who knew that there was a class of locomotive built specifically to operate on the post D Day European railways. Well there at the Severn Valley Railway stands “Gordon”, a War Department 600 locomotive. “Gordon” stands proudly next to a print of the painting of him by Terence Cuneo. Next to “Gordon” is a unique locomotive, for the spotters it’s a Stanier 8F No 48773, which is a dedicated memorial to the fallen members of the Royal Engineers who gave their lives on or in support of the railways of Europe during the Second World War; it’s one of only a few ‘mobile’ memorials. The Roll of Honour was surprisingly long and sadly many of those listed died when their transport ship was torpedoed in the Channel.
We were proud to be able to lay a wreath on the memorial locomotive in tribute to the fallen. The ceremony was led by Lt Col (Retd) Michael Rees RCT/RLC (now SO1 Diaspora, RAF High Wycombe) who said a few words and laid a poppy wreath on behalf of RAF High Wycombe. We were privileged to be joined by two guides, both of whom having served in the RAF and both unstinting volunteers on the Severn Valley Railway. Malcolm was our principal guide but we were also joined by John Gill, a former Vulcan pilot from 35 Sqn Akrotiri.
We concluded our day with a group photograph in front of “Sir Keith Park”. Sir Keith was Commander of No 11 Group RAF responsible for the defence of London and the South East during the Battle of Britain and his name sits proudly on one of the Southern Railway Battle of Britain Class locomotives. The more astute among you will also know that our very own Hurricane and Spitfire Gate Guardians have name plates donated from Battle of Britain Class locomotives.
For those of you who don’t know about the Severn Valley Railway, it runs between Bridgnorth and Kidderminster, is 16 miles in length and has 8 stations, all staffed by volunteers. The collection includes the Royal Train carriage that had been used extensively by King George Vl during World War II to travel throughout Britain. After the Engine House we steamed behind a Great Western Railway Manor class 7812, Erlestoke Manor to Bridgnorth where we were met by two guides from the locomotive workshops. It’s when these leviathans are split into their component parts that you begin to understand the complexity of their construction and the heavy engineering involved.
The Locomotives we saw:
• 34053: Sir Keith Park: Is an ex Southern Railways R 4.6.2 Pacific Loco which went out of service at Bournemouth in 1966. It was out of service for 47 years before being re-commissioned in 2013 and restored to the Severn Valley Railway.
• 7812 Erlestoke Manor: Is an ex Great Western Railway 4.6.0 class locomotive which spent most of its working life on the Cambrian line in Mid Wales.
• 43106: Ex London Midland & Scottish Ivatt 4 MT 2.6.0: It was the last Ivatt loco on British Railway and was taken out of steam at Lostock Hall, Preston, in the last week of steam in August 1968 and then came straight to the Severn Valley Railway.
• 48773: Ex London Midland & Scottish 8F 2.8.0: Built by the North British Locomotive Company at Queens Park, Glasgow. 48773 was an ex London Midland & Scottish 8233 which served overseas in the War Department before being sold and operated by Persian Railways 41.109. Its War Department number was WD 70307 in 1944 and WD 500 in 1952, where it worked at the Longmoor Military Railway and at Bicester until 1955, when it returned to capital stock as 48773 and was taken out of service at Rose Grove, Burnley, at the end of steam on British Railways, on the 4 August 1968.
• War Department 600 Gordon: Built at the North British Locomotive Company at Hyde Park works, Glasgow, in 1943 for the War Department and served the Army at Longmoor Military Railway until 1969 and then left for the Severn Valley Railway in 1972. Its name came from Gordon of Khartoum. Gordon was a Major General and Royal Engineer and was killed in Khartoum in January 1885. The Army sold the locomotive to the Severn Valley Railway in 2008 for the princely sum of £1.
Before the trip many people were concerned that trains were boring and therefore they would not enjoy the trip, however everyone was soon fascinated with the trains and in particular the military connections involved. Many of the team enjoyed the sensation of putting their heads out of the carriage door windows to feel the steam and the wind in their hair, although many soon experienced the less pleasant sensation of ash in their eyes. One person even said the trip reminded her of her boarding school days. A great day was had by one and all and I’m sure the experience of the Severn Valley Railway has converted many to the joys of steam trains and improved their knowledge of the military use of locomotives.