Operation Dynamo; not just small ships…the Southern Railway played its part

This weekend sees a number of events taking place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27 May and 4 June 1940. The Dunkirk evacuation, code named Operation Dynamo, was decided upon when large numbers of British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army. The event is renown for the use of a flotilla of 800 small ships used to assist in the ferrying of some 338,226 soldiers to safety.

southern-railway-coat-of-arms-1923-1948The Southern Railway played very much an unsung role in Operation Dynamo, as once back on English shores the soldiers that did not require immediate hospitalisation or were already based at local South Eastern England barracks were dispersed across England away from the main reception ports of Margate, Ramsgate, Folkestone, Dover, and Newhaven. During the nine period of Operation Dynamo the Southern Railway laid on and coordinated an amazing number of special trains comprising of : 327 from Dover, 82 from Ramsgate, 75 from Margate 64 from Folkestone and also 21 ambulance trains.
These trains, known as ‘Dynamo Specials’ moved 180,982 troops, many of these services were routed via  Redhill, Guildford and Reading, in order to bypass the capital and avoid congestion. Where possible during this period the Southern Railway maintained its usual passenger services with the except of some ‘omnibus replacement services’ to free the most heavily utilised routes between Guildford, Redhill and Tonbridge. Not only was coordination required of the departing trains but also the routing of the return empty stock workings and the necessary prepared engines required to keep the transportation of soldiers as quick and efficient as possible.

The Southern Railway mustered at very short notice nearly 2000 additional carriages, many borrowed from other railway companies including 47 complete rakes from the LNER, 44 from the LMS and 40 from the GWR.  Also 180 engines and crews were required from across the network, to operate these services.

To avoid delay at Dover and Ramsgate it was decided that the soldiers, many of whom had not eaten properly for days, would be fed on the trains. Just simply feeding the men provided Southern Railway with a major logistical problem,  therefore certain rail stations were designated feeding stations. These stations included Headcorn, Tonbridge and Paddock Wood Although the Royal Army Service Corps were primarily responsible many local Women’s Voluntary Service members were involved to provide food and drink, much of which was also donated or paid for with monies rasied from the local communities. Due to the number of trains involved only an eight-minute stop for soldiers to be provide with food and drink that bearing in mind this could have been 550 per train, was again an impressive feat.  Trains often had to pull into a siding at these food stops to ensure that any ambulance trains had priority over the use of the main lines.

Given that Southern Railway had practically no time to organise and plan such an activity, what it achieved without the use of modern day communication systems was very impressive; improvisation and word of mouth were the order of the day. One unknown Army general was famously heard to say: “I wish the Army could operate with as few written instructions as Southern Railway does in an emergency.”

The Southern Railway, as well as coping with troops from Dunkirk, was also evacuating no less than 48,000 school children from the coastal areas due to fear of a German invasion. It should not go unmentioned that a number of the Southern Railway’s shipping fleet and crew, varying from cross channel passenger vessels, Isle of Wight ferries and cargo vessels were actively involved out on the channel itself,  with a number being either badly damaged or lost to enemy action.

We should also pause to remember the 68,000 of our soldiers whom didn’t make it home safely from this particular French campaign.

R3302 1940 Dunkirk train pack
R3302 1940 Dunkirk train pack

The efforts of the Southern Railway has not gone unnoticed by Hornby who are planning to release this year their R3302 ‘1940 return from Dunkirk’ train pack;  comprising of a ex LSWR Drummond 700 class No. 325 and 3 coach Maunsell low window set No. 447. Unfortunately it does not look like it they have managed to release it to specifically coincide with the actual commemoration weekend but at least the intent is there.

I hope this post goes just a little way to remember and honour the part that the Southern Railway played in the overall success of Operation Dynamo out of what was a defeat in military terms in Flanders.


10 thoughts on “Operation Dynamo; not just small ships…the Southern Railway played its part

    1. Totally agree!

      Cannot imagine the current railway being able manage such an operation although of course our network does carry huge passenger volumes each day.

      Folkestone Harbour is now in a sad way following its closure.

  1. Dear Graham

    Fascinating, as always. A Naval colleague of mine is researching the Dunkirk period and I raised the query of SR trains going north and west. The Reading connection to the GWR was not opened until 25/26 May 1941, and Oxford GWR to the LMS 8 May 1940. So at this time, a tortuous route through the lower goods yards at Reading and only a siding connection at Oxford existed. Although a wish to avoid London under bombing threat, Addison Road must have been an incredible spectacle as the majority of cross country services must have passed through there. The catering must have been a sight to see.

    Yours, Sincerely


    Lt Cdr Eur Ing

    John R. Wesley


    Managing Director,

    Isambard Projects Limited

  2. Good day; a very interesting post, many thanks. My parents never mentioned this yet I think my father was among those rescued.

    On another subject, I wonder if you received my earlier enquiry regarding Golden Arrow paraphernalia for a OO scale West Country class locomotive. I am looking for the side arrows, smokebox door roundel, and flags. Do you know please where I might find some?

    Roger Marler 318 21 Avenue SW, suite #2 Calgary AB Canada T2S 0G8 marlersmusings.blogspot.com

    Date: Fri, 22 May 2015 07:15:25 +0000 To: sirroger@live.com

  3. Remembering the tens of thousands of British soldiers left to five years in PoW camps (one of them from my family) has sad overtones. For political reasons, many French soldiers came across too but were subsequently given the opportunity to return to France . . . and many did so, de Gaulle notwithstanding.
    There would be plenty of unsung heros and heroines all over the country who would have fed and watered the returning troops, the total effort must have been immense and far-reaching.

  4. Good that these momentous events are remembered and celebrated.
    As far as the Hornby 700 set is concerned, is my understanding correct that the Maunsel coaches in this livery will only be available as part of this set and not separately.?

    1. Hi Barry

      At this moment in time these specific coaches will only be available as part of a set howvever keep an eye on some retailers as they often will split sets.

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