The Railways Role in Dunkirk

It was appreciated that once back in England, it was essential to rapidly transport the evacuated troops away from the south-east coast to reception and redistribution centres throughout the country. This would allow units to be rested, re-formed and re-equipped in the most efficient manner. Many of these centres were in close proximity to the British Army's major depots and camps at places such as Aldershot, Tidworth, Warminster, Blandford, Bovington etc.

The only feasible solution to the transport issue was the mobilisation of the railways. However, the improvised nature of the operation, conducted at short notice, was reliant on close liaison and co-operation between the railways, the military and civilian authorities.

A Movement Control function was established at the War Office with overall strategic responsibility for the operation. However, regional control was devolved to Movement Control Points at Redhill, Reading and Salisbury, which controlled all troop and ambulance train traffic. Landing and Distribution Control Centres were established at the ports involved, to organise the loading, dispatch and reporting of trains to the Movement Control Point at Redhill. Each train was allocated a specific code based on the station of departure and a sequence number.

There were two principal routes used from the Kent coast. Trains from Dover and Folkestone were routed west via Ashford and Tonbridge to Redhill. Beyond that point, trains were directed to Aldershot, Salisbury and Reading where the final destination was determined. Trains from Ramsgate, Margate and Sheerness for the most part were routed up the North Kent Coast line via Chatham, Kensington and on to Reading, thus by-passing Redhill. Trains arriving at Aldershot, Reading or Salisbury were reported to the co-ordinators back at Redhill.

Redhill was a key junction on the Dover - Guildford line (with easy access to Aldershot, Woking and Reading stations) and the main Brighton - London line. Redhill was closed to north - south passenger traffic for the duration of Operation Dynamo and east - west passenger services from the 29th May to the 4th June.

Sidings along the routes were cleared to make way for the special trains of requisitioned carriages at Faversham, Margate, Queenborough and Ramsgate. While the bulk of the carriages were Southern Railways (SR) rolling stock, carriages were also requisitioned from GWR, LMS and LNER. However, as far as locomotives were concerned, east of Redhill only SR locomotives and crew were utilised, given their knowledge of that part of the network and the signalling. The key watering points used were Ashford, Tonbridge, Redhill and Faversham. Southern's operating record over this period was outstanding, reporting no accidents, no derailments, no engine failures and no injuries.

During the evacuation, Redhill was a hive of activity as the transit point for 351 troop trains and 26 ambulance trains. Engines were changed, or replenished their reserves of water and coal, fire boxes were cleaned, ash pans emptied and engines were serviced using the facilities located at Redhill and Three Bridges.

Transport of the troops was only part of the requirement. Many of the men had not eaten for a number of days and official refreshment stops were set up at Headcorn, Paddock Wood and Faversham. However, because of the need to keep to a tight schedule, the trains were only permitted to stop for a maximum of 15 minutes. Additional ad hoc feeding stations are known to have been established at Tonbridge, Guildford, Woking, Basingstoke, Salisbury and Redhill.

In total the railway system transported 319,116 troops on 620 trains over the duration of Operation Dynamo and a further 48,000 children were evacuated from south-eastern and east coast towns over this period; around 22,000 from Kent alone.

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