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May 2024

Many with an awareness of the events of D-Day 1944 have a knowledge of the movement of the soldiers from their camps, through marshalling areas, to the points of embarkation. But for this month’s blog I want to take a step further back and look at the movement of men and materiel into the concentration areas. In the 1940s mass movement on land of goods or people could only be achieved by the railways. In a rural area like Cornwall using the railways to prepare for D-Day meant not only concentrated planning of movements and timetables but also the construction of the infrastructure that would serve the purpose. While the draconian cuts of the 1960s mean that little of that infrastructure survives as most of our Cornish rail network then disappeared, the fact that it was constructed at all is testament to the scale of preparations and the sheer determination of that wartime generation to achieve victory against all the evils of Nazi Germany.


Helston Station Goods Yard with wagons of potatoes for the Sausage Camps May 1944

By the 1930’s the county’s railways were in the hands of the Great Western Railway and the Southern Railway. The GWR ran the mainline to Penzance and the many branch lines to places like Helston or coastal towns like St Ives, Newquay, Perranporth, Fowey, Looe and Falmouth. The SR ran the line into Bude from Halwill Junction and into Padstow via Launceston, Wadebridge and the North Cornwall Railway and to Callington from their Plymouth-Okehampton line.


The earliest changes occurred on the 1834 Bodmin – Wadebridge branch line starting in 1939 which was upgraded including concrete sleepers to provide an alternative route if the Royal Albert Bridge should be bombed. The route, including 4 reversals, was used for trains to Exeter during the Plymouth Blitz with its damage to lines & stations there and also for the heavy troop trains, hospital trains and ammunition trains.


First US locomotive presented to the GWR at Paddington Station, Friday 11th December 1942

It was on Thursday 1st October 1942 planning started on the US Army Ammunition Depots at Fowey and Launceston utilising various railheads to supply them. The War Office later changed the American names to reflect their geographical locations to Liskeard and Beaworthy. On Friday 11th December the GWR hosted the first of the United States locomotives to enter service formally when it was handed over at a ceremony at Paddington. The GWR were eventually to be allocated 175.


In February 1943 attention turned back to the Bodmin – Wadebridge railway and the line up to Launceston. The US Signal Corps assisted the Southern Railway by putting in a telephone control scheme. They ran 30 pair mile wires, 757 arms were cut in or changed, 28 new poles were erected and 137 new guy stays were put up.

On Friday 16th July 1943 the ammunition depot O-655 was activated. This stored ammunition for D-Day in the fields adjoining the A390 between Dobwalls/Minions and Lostwithiel/Bodmin and utilising the Boconnoc Estate for more dangerous explosives. There were a number of railheads for this Depot such as Doublebois, Liskeard, Lostwithiel and Bodmin Road Stations. The HQ was in Luxtowe House, Liskeard.




Doublebois War Sidings: Headshunt is seen on the right in this view of the station in 1947

An ‘up’ goods loop was opened on the main line at Tremabe, just over a mile east of Doublebois. A flat roofed signal box was constructed at Tremabe to deal with the loop. Both box and loop were removed in 1952. The War Department sidings to the east of Doublebois station also opened in July 1943. A fan of 4 sidings with a headshunt had been constructed. They remained in use until January 1968 when Doublebois signal box closed. At Liskeard station a large Nissen hut was put up near the connecting line to the Looe branch to act as the offices for the Liskeard railhead. This survived into the 1990s. At Lostwithiel an additional siding was laid in the goods yard to handle ammunition. This survived until the goods yard was dismantled a couple of years ago. At Par, the siding east of the station was made into a loop in 1943 to facilitate the movement of traffic.


On Friday 3rd September 1943 the Launceston/Beaworthy US Army Ammunition Depot known as O-666 was activated storing the ammunition in the fields adjoining the roads north of the town with Egloskerry and Bridgerule & Whitstone stations providing two of the 8 railheads in the designated area. Tower Hill was another where two sidings and a road were built behind the goods yard. The HQ was at Winsford Towers at Beaworthy in Devon. The new sidings and marshalling yard at Halwill were not finished until 26th September.




The Launceston GWR - SR link line seen in 1947

Launceston was served by both the Great Western and Southern railways coming into the town in the Kensey valley below the castle. Both had their own lines and separate stations. The GWR line arrived from Marsh Mills via Tavistock and Lydford, the SR from Okehampton via Halwill. During May 1943 a link line between the two lines was constructed allowing the ease of movement of troop and ammunition trains.


In the week Thursday 2nd to Wednesday 8th December 1943 the daily average for freight wagons unloaded at Liskeard for Ammunition Depot O-655 was 61 freight wagons. The daily average for freight wagons unloaded at Beaworthy for Ammunition Depot O-666 was 31 freight wagons. The 64th Ordnance Ammunition Battalion were based at Beaworthy, the 639 and the 648 Ordnance Ammunition Companies were based at Doublebois with the 4001 Quartermaster Truck Company based in Liskeard. All of these were units of black soldiers, usually with white officers.




Nancegollan 4566 on a train for Gwinear Road with the war sidings seen behind the signal box

Four War Department sidings were constructed at Nancegollan on the Helston branch line during 1943. This was to supply the embarkation hard being constructed on the Helford River at Trebah and the sausage camps that would be used just prior to embarkation for the many exercises leading up to D-Day itself. A wooden hut was constructed in the yard at Nancegollan raised on blocks. This survived for a few years after the branch line closed. Where the Helston Branch joined the main line at Gwinear Road the siding loops that had been built during the First World War were added to bringing the number up to eight with three of them accessible from the east as well as the usual west facing access towards the level crossing and station.


The US Army established Railway Transport Offices at Bodmin with a phone number Bodmin 293. There was one at Launceston (Tel: Launceston 5392), Liskeard (Tel: Liskeard 363), one at Fowey, another at Doublebois and one at Lostwithiel. There was also one at Newquay which dealt with personnel and goods arriving or departing through RAF St Mawgan which was a USAAF base.




Grampound Road War Dept siding seen on 11 July 1961

A War Department siding was built west of the bridge on the up line at Grampound Road to service US troops in the vicinity. These were the black units of 375 Engineer General Service Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Companies D, E and F, and 3198, 3199, 3225 and 3227 Quartermaster Service Companies.


The 310 Quartermaster Railhead Company was at St Austell and the 556 and 557 Quartermaster Railhead Companies were at Carclew. While the Carclew Estate may seem a strange location for a rail company they were responsible for the US Navy ammunition storage facility at the Old Treluswell Brewery having constructed a wooden platform and ramp next to the Falmouth branch line as it passed the brewery site.


The main ammunition depot in Cornwall for the US Navy was at Bugle. On Sunday 13th February 1944 Warrant Gunner J Landis, USN, took over the new ammunition depot at Bugle chosen for its rail sidings and main line services. The china clay dries at Carn Merry, Halivet, Rock and Wheal Henry were used. Two of the dries still stand although the layout of sidings has been reconfigured at the large Imerys Rocks site. There were 23 men working in the depot with an additional 21 guards provided as D-Day approached. These were all billeted in the village of Bugle. The US Army RTO, stationed at Fowey, wrote all out-going waybills and tagged all out-going trucks. This depot supplied all the American ships that left from Cornish ports or embarkation hards with their ammunition for D-Day.


As well as the ammunition trains arriving in a steady stream, other freight trains brought a myriad of supplies to equip and feed the Americans in Cornwall. For example, fields at the bottom of Tremoddrett Road in the village of Roche were the depot for the steel matting used as walkways, hard-standings and roadways in the tented N-H sausage camp that ran through clay country. All of this arrived by flat wagons unloaded at the little goods yard at Roche Station. In May 1944 train loads of potatoes were unloaded for the O-D sausage camp to feed the 2,800 men ready to embark at Trebah. In May 1944 the Big Four railway companies were dealing with 500 extra trains a day across England in preparation for D-Day.




Eisenhower's Alive Train Bayonet Coach with the Armoured Plating Shutters closed

Many of the infantry battalions that came to Cornwall during 1943 and 1944 arrived on large troop trains. There were also the special trains that served high-ranking officers. These were known by the railway staff as “ghost trains” as they were given priority with normal services or other military trains pulled off into passing loops to allow them to speed through. One such train was the special train used by General Eisenhower. It was requested for use of the Commander of Chief by Lt Gen Lee, Deputy Commander of US forces in the ETO who oversaw the Services of Supply. This train, codenamed Alive was mainly constructed at Swindon from existing GWR stock with one coach, Bayonet, coming from the LNER sleeper stock fitted out as Eisenhower’s personal carriage and with armoured plated shutters over the windows which were operated electronically from within the coach. The train consisted of a GWR 601 Brake Van (Third), the LNER 1592 Bayonet coach, two GWR sleeping cars (9093, 9079), a GWR saloon (9364) used as a conference room, a GWR restaurant car (673), a Third coach (574), another GWR Brake Van (Third, 1647), a GWR Utility Van (121) for steam heat and electricity and two GWR covered carriage trucks (483, 485) which were used to transport Eisenhower’s Packard Staff Car and a jeep. Captain Craig Cannon was in charge of the train crew, while an Englishman, Sergeant Albert Phillips was Eisenhower’s private assistant on his coach. It is believed the train made several excursions into Cornwall and another to Plymouth. Eisenhower arrived by train in Bodmin for top secret D-Day planning conferences held at Glynn House (see my March blog).


On Wednesday 12th April a special train from London to Par brought a large number of high-ranking officers to watch Operation Splint at Pentewan. This was the dress rehearsal for casualty evacuation for D-Day. It involved 200 “casualties” being processed through a field hospital, transported to the beach and loaded aboard DUKWs and landing craft and being taken out to the waiting ships under the watchful eye of Lt Gen Lee who had flown into St Mawgan to see the exercise. The train’s passengers included from the US Army: Col JA Rogers, Col RG Walker, Col JK Davis, Col AL Gorby, Col C Spruitt, Col ET Hurley, Col G Brenn, Col CF Caffey; from the US Navy: Capt EH Cushing, Capt WE Walsh, Capt Goff, Capt GB Dowling; and the British contingent was Vice Admiral Sir Sheldon Dudley, Director General RN Medical Service, Maj Gen Sir Percy Tomlinson, in charge of the Army Medical Corps and a physician to HM King George VI, Lt Gen Sir Alex Hood, Maj Gen CS Napier, Royal Artillery, Surgeon Captain Hole, Royal Navy. The guests adjourned afterwards to the Fowey Hotel for a critique and refreshment. The exercise was considered a great success and was credited with saving lives on D-Day. For a more detailed look at Operation Splint check out last month’s blog.


From Tuesday 2nd May 1944 passenger services were suspended on the Lostwithiel – Fowey branch line. This was to allow the loading of ammunition at Fowey Docks for the US 29th Division based in Cornwall who landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day. From D-Day to the end of June 22 coasters were filled at Fowey with ammunition for American forces in Normandy. That was 13,828 DWT.




At Wadebridge Station evacuees from Surrey arrive in June 1944

Just as the D-Day embarkation was underway Cornwall’s railways had to cope with an influx of evacuation trains starting on Friday 2nd June. Evacuee trains again brought children to Cornwall (as they had in 1939, 1940 and 1941). One train brought children from Epsom and Ewell to Wadebridge station so they could escape the V1 rockets – the Doodlebugs – that were expected to fall on London and the south-east. Another brought evacuees to Bodmin. Much of Cornwall was a restricted zone due to the embarkation for D-Day so the towns that could take the evacuees were limited.


Everyone seems to think that the Americans were here and then on D-Day they were all gone. That is a myth. It took over a month to empty Cornwall of all the troops that were stationed here. For example, on Sunday 2nd July 1944 special military trains took the 134th Infantry Regiment to their marshalling areas for embarkation for the Normandy shore. The first train was loaded at Penzance leaving at 0800 hours, picked up at Marazion, Hayle and Camborne and took the American troops to Plymouth arriving at 1130 hours. A second left Camborne at 0945 hours to take troops as far as Truro where they were then trucked to the Embarkation hards on the River Fal and Helford River. A third left Hayle at 1030 hours arriving at Truro at 1145 hours. Another left Hayle at 1100 hours for Plymouth. Another left Penzance at 1130 hours. Another in the afternoon left Hayle at 1500 hours arriving in Plymouth two hours later. The following day an embarkation train left Marazion at 1020 hours with American troops from the Praa Sands area arriving in Plymouth at 1445 hours.


So hopefully this survey through 1943 and 1944 across the county gives you some idea of the scale of operations for D-Day just on the railways. Cornwall’s railwaymen and women, from the humble station porter to the locomotive driver, can be rightly proud of the fantastic contribution they made to the success of Operation Overlord, though I would doubt they get a mention at most of the D-Day 80 commemorations next month.


There are various events happening across Cornwall during the first week of June. I am speaking at several. Whatever you do, make sure you attend at least one commemoration in honour of those who made the ultimate sacrifice to secure the victory that means we can live in peace and freedom today. That’s the least they deserve. Until next month, take care, and be proud of our wartime history.

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