The deadly wartime cargo carried through our towns
- Credit: Archant
WHAT we don’t know, we don’t grieve about, which is why officialdom kept many wartime secrets from the populace. And it certainly was not in the national interest to provide intelligence and information to the enemy, the main reason why sensitive occurrences were hushed-up.
Even now, nearly seven decades since the war ended, surprising new information trickles out occasionally. The passage of time makes some hard to verify.
Recently I featured a series of coincidences that resulted in the revelation “of an ammunition train being derailed on the old M&GN railway line near Potter Heigham in 1943, but there were no official records of this type of extremely dangerous freight being moved around the coast and through Yarmouth and Gorleston.”
Now, Jack Stowers, an 87-year-old ex-railway fireman who made many wartime journeys hereabouts in the cabs of locomotives hauling trucks laden with bombs, assures me: “I can’t recall any derailment.” Nevertheless, there were some alarming incidents.
Andrew Fakes, of Lawn Avenue, Great Yarmouth, 68-year-old president of our local Archaeological Society, has provided me with the following account resulting from his fortuitous meeting with Mr Stowers at a funeral and learning of his long railways career. “I was hoping to find out about fish transport and this topic and several others were discussed but, as an aside, Mr Stowers related to me an incident which must have happened in 1943 or 1944.”
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Jack started work in 1942, soon transferring to Yarmouth Beach Station which was striving to meet the demands of the war effort. He quickly gained promotion to fireman on an M&GN line in a poor state because there had been little or no investment in new equipment and the culture was one of “make do and mend” with string and wire widely used to hold things together.
During the war great quantities of American bombs were landed at Immingham on Humberside and carried to US Air Force bases in East Anglia for the bombing campaign over Europe. Some came by train to South Lynn and down the M&GN line via Melton Constable to Yarmouth, then across the Breydon Viaduct to Lowestoft and onwards to the bomb dump at Earsham, near Bungay, for dispatch to airfields.
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One of the first of these munitions trains on which he was fireman was of 45 trucks.
The engine cab was blacked out with dark sheets so its fire could not be seen from the air, making it very hot on the footplate. Leslie Walsh, the driver, “was a good railway-man, always telling you to examine if the train was complete and if there were any ‘hot boxes’ (wheel bearings overheating).
“The track was uneven and very difficult for loose-coupled trains but nevertheless it seemed everything was going fine as far as Martham, but when I went to get the tablet (a signalling safety device on single tracks) at Ormesby, Les shouted: ‘Are they still coming with the engines?
“There was a lot of smoke beating down and as I peered into the darkness, to my horror we had only two trucks left! I shouted back, ’I don’t think so!’
“We gradually stopped and I went back to the signal box. As I got on to the platform I could see the train slowly approaching.
It nearly got into the station and then started rolling back towards Hemsby. We then waited for sometime while the train see-sawed in the hollow.
“When it came to rest, we went back into the section to couple up. The guard was terrified as he realised he had broken away from the train with an unknown number of trucks, and his handbrake was not equal to the load.
“After a few similar incidents of train breakaways it was decided to reduce the length of bomb trains to 30 trucks, with one train pulling 60 empty trucks back.
“Until almost the end of the war, two bomb trains came through almost every night from Immingham. The bombs did not have detonators but could have been dangerous if attacked. They were covered with tarpaulins.”
Jack Stowers, a Yarmouthian long resident in Lowestoft, remembered some panics when sparks from the engines set light to various things but they were quickly put out. There was also a danger of bearings overheating.
The line worked only16 hours a day normally. Trains operating outside these times were the exception but he never heard of a train crew refusing to man a train during war.
Mr Stowers added. “When the weather was bad so planes could not fly, we stowed the trains in the sidings on Nelson Road in Yarmouth.
“As I lived close to these sidings, it wondered many times on my walk home what would have happened if old Jerry in his many raids on Yarmouth had dropped bombs on these trucks.
“The saviour was, if we couldn’t fly, neither could he!
“Despite two trains loaded with bombs going through Yarmouth and Lowestoft almost every night from the middle of 1943 to the end of the war, nothing untoward happened. “
Intrigued by Jack Stowers’ revelations, Andrew Fakes spoke to his friend, Peter Matthews, of Carter Close, Caister, whose father, Arthur, was signalman in Hemsby until the closure of the M&GN in 1959.
Peter said his father recalled that during the war he was called out in the middle of the night to open the gates for a military train with the police present.
“When the train passed it had no lights on the back. Then came a ‘woosh’ as further trucks passed, also without lights.
“A further ‘woosh’ came more trucks with a guard’s van at the back with correct lights went through.
“That meant the train had uncoupled in two places and was now in three separate sections, so Mr Matthews immediately phoned Ormesby Station with a warning. He said if anything had happened, Hemsby and Ormesby might have been largely blown away.”
Andrew Fakes, who had heard of nothing like this before, investigated further but people knowledgeable about railways confessed that they had never learned of this incident although all felt it was credible.
If any reader has any information about war materials being borne on the M&GN, he is keen to hear it.