The Importance of Railways in World War 2

World War 2 was the deadliest war in history, and also perhaps one of the most well documented. Names like El Alamein, Stalingrad, Normandy, Midway and Barbarossa are common knowledge and with good reason – we should not forget the lives lost, and the brilliant (or misguided) military campaigns waged.

The war saw mechanised violence on an unprecedented scale. Battles featuring hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks, or air raids of 1000 or more aircraft were not uncommon, particularly over Germany. These machines all required vast quantities of material. In a 1000 bomber raid, for example, each aircraft might carry anything up to 4 tonnes of bombs, and would need enough fuel to carry those bombs over more than 1000 miles. Getting all this in place was an uphill battle in itself.

And that would be without mentioning the resources you need to build 1000 bombers, each with 4 engines, which themselves would have several cylinders, hundreds of metres of pipes and miles of cables. The Earth can provide the resources you need, but in order to make them into these marvels of engineering, you first need to get them to a factory.

Which is where the railways come in. You see, in those days, road transport was very limited in terms of capacity. Lorries carried a few tonnes each, if that, and the road network wasn’t as well-established as it is today. In any case, it would be far more energy efficient for these bulk commodities to be transported by rail, and it still is.

So great, now the raw materials are at the factories, ready to be made into war machines for your… war machine. But we’re not quite finished yet because these factories need huge quantities of one other thing – manpower. Workers need to get to work, so you also need trains to transport them, particularly in this era when car ownership is far from universal, and besides, you need petrol for the tanks, aircraft and countless other vehicles actually fighting.

Then the tricky problem of getting war machines to the front line arises, especially when that front line might be hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Using the roads would be far too difficult and costly in fuel, so the only real option was again rail. Thus, the outcome of many campaigns was influenced by the condition of the railways.

For example, during operation Barbarossa, the Germans in Russia struggled in large part because of supply problems. Not only did huge mileages of railways had to be converted from the wider Russian gauge (the gauge is simply the distance between the rails) but rolling stock had to be found – stock that Germany was already short of. This meant a switch to road haulage, but lorries were also in short supply, so many supplies had to come on horses, which were vulnerable to cold and exhaustion.

Conversely, during the Normandy campaign, the Allies could count on mammoth quantities of supplies, brought to the armies assembling in southern England by British railways, which were largely intact. On the other side of the lines, the Germans would find it difficult to reinforce their troops as many French railways had been hammered by Allied air forces or sabotaged by the resistance. Ultimately, therefore, an Allied victory was inevitable.

Frequently, the railways themselves were often in the front lines. Because of their strategic importance (as described above) the railways (particularly junctions, marshalling yards and other large, important installations) were prime targets during the Blitz. Britain’s Railways did a reasonably good job at carrying on during this period, and although services were occasionally suspended, this was not for long; repairs being effected quickly.

Following this, Allied planners, thinking of how best to cripple Germany, came up with the Transport Plan, a plan to concentrate Allied heavy bombers on the German railway network, to prevent their industry from working effectively. Eventually, it was realised that the Germans also repaired their railways quickly, so this plan was largely replaced with the Oil Plan, which unsurprisingly sought to deprive Germany of oil.

This is an aspect of total war that is rarely discussed, but perhaps should be more, if we are to understand the war better. If you have any thoughts on this, or perhaps want to suggest something I’ve overlooked, I would as usual love to hear it in the comments.


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A blog about nuggets of history, technology and sometimes railways. Peculiar.

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