& Going Dutch

This year's 60th anniversary celebrations of D-Day reminded John Payne of a chance 'phone call to his office one afternoon during late May1994. The call was answered by his boss and began a chain of events which would have an unexpected link with the work being undertaken at the Avon Valley Railway - as John explains...

My boss put the phone down ana called over "That was Martin White. He's taking a loco to France for the D-Day commemoration and wants you to go out on 4th June to meet up with him, to drive and look after it."  Major Martin White RE was my former Head of Branch and, having taken early retirement, was planning to take WD 70042 back to Normandy in 1994, having somehow managed to secure sponsorship from the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds.

During my time as a locomotive examiner at the MoD, I'd become aware that one of the oldest locomotives in the fleet - Army 202 (WD 70042) - had connections with the Second World War, having served in Normandy.  I also discovered that, shortly after the D-Day landings, four other diesel locomotives (WD 70029 / 30 / 32 & 33) were landed on modified tank transporters and immediately put to work on the Courseulles-Luc-Caen light railway, just inland from the Normandy coast.  A few days after that a further eleven (WD 70031 and 70039 to 70048) were landed conventionally at Cherbourg, following its reopening in September 1944.

Following the 'phone call, events moved quickly.  The loco was on display at Southsea Common over the May Bank holiday as one of the exhibits at the D-Day 50th Anniversary Historic Military Vehicle Show and arrangements were made to move it to France on Wednesday 1st June.  Unloading took place at an establishment referred to as the 'peat factory' located in a village called Baupte, which also happened to be the end of an approximately 10km long 'preserved' line running out from Carentan known as the 'Train Touristique'.  Following an initial inspection by an SNCF representative, WD 42 was cleared to be towed from Baupte to Carentan to await a full SNCF inspection the following day.  As promised, two SNCF inspectors duly appeared and certificates were issued that would allow the loco to operate, not only over the Carentan - Baupte section of branch line, but over the entire SNCF system - if she could have escaped!

I joined up with the loco and the rest of the party in France on Saturday June 4 and we settled into our accommodation.  The following day was spent giving footplate rides for a distance of probably just under 1km, operating from a temporary wooden platform at the dead end of the disused branch line situated at the north end of Carentan station.  After lunch, operations ceased in order to make way for the single once weekly Sunday afternoon heritage service.

June 6th was the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, and as such treated as a public holiday.  In a day full of parades, bands and celebrations, the opportunity was taken to lay a wreath on the SNCF war memorial at Carentan station in memory of the local railwaymen who lost their lives during World War Two.  The events were rounded off with a monumental Civic/Municipal buffet-style meal washed down with copious quantities of wine.

With John at the controls, WD 42 edges carefully onto the low-loader.

The following days settled into what was to become a well rehearsed routine. We arrived at Carentan each morning to prepare WD 42, before operating a number trips during late morning.  After a stop for lunch their were further trips in the afternoon, all lubricated wilth regular glasses of thick, strong, sweet French coffee an offering from the local bakery.  A true example of working 'Gentleman's hours".

Eventually, of course, celebrations came to an end. With the job done, the loco was transferred to a low loader for her journey back to the UK and we caught the ferry back to Portsmouth.

Going Dutch

After the excitement of the trip to France, any further thoughts of D-Day and these locomotives went no further than contemplating the long term rebuild of the AVR locomotive WD 43 'Grumpy'.  That is until one Sunday at Bitton during September 1999 when I opened a letter bearing a Dutch stamp.  Inside was a desperate plea from the Dutch railway preservation group STIBANS, which had rescued WD 33 from a Belgian coal distribution depot where it had worked as the yard shunting locomotive.  The letter contained a series of photographs showing the loco as it had been modified for use in the coal plant, through to it being stripped to bare frames for the early stages of overhaul.  At this stage STIBANS had encountered serious problems, thank to a combination of the state and age of the diesel engine and a lack of foreign (that is British) parts.  As we had experience of an ex-WD loco of our own, was there any way we could help them to repair the engine?

After costing had been assessed, the AVR Board agreed that the final drive and engine could be repaired in house, and that it would be possible to overhaul the change speed gearbox commercially.  Our costing was agreed by STIBANS and the arrival of the three units was arranged for a Sunday during late January 2000.

When the engine arrived we were finally able to see what a mess it was in.  Having been left standing for so long it had seized on two cylinders due to the ingress of rain water.  There was a hole the size of a small Mars bar through one of the liners and it appeared to have been run on untreated water for so long that the coolant galleries were silted up to less than half their true size.  It was also apparent that the engine had, at some time in its history, been built up from the parts of two engines and, just to maintain the tradition, a third engine was used to provide many of the parts for the rebuild undertaken at Bitton.

Now fast forward through two years of very hard work to the day in February 2003 when the rebuilt engine was finally coaxed into life. Whilst it was running, a mobile phone call was made to Holland to the STIBANS project leader. We held the phone up to the engine with the question, "What do you think of this?".  The reaction from the other end had to be heard to be believed.

As this piece is being written, both the engine and gearbox are complete and waiting to be shipped back to Holland, along with the remains of the former AVR locomotive WD 31 for use as parts for WD 33. Although WD 33 missed the Sixtieth anniversary of D-Day, when it's complete it will be a lasting memorial to a little known aspect of the Normandy landings and the vital, and probably last major role played by Military Railwaymen in armed conflict.  Added to which, its small part in the liberation of France and the Low Countries will be appreciated by the Dutch people - such are the deep and lasting memories of World War Two.

Locomotives Involved:

WD 70031 Army 124 being dismantled for spares to restore WD 70033 and WD 70043.

WD 70043 Army 200 "Grumpy" to be overhauled for use on the AVR.

WD 70033 Former NS165 being overhauled by STIBANS for use in Holland.

WD 70042 Army 202 now on display at the Royal Engineers Museum, Brompton Barracks, Chatham.

Much of the information relating to the D-Day operations contained in this article is taken from "Railways to Victory" published by Middleton Press, which in turn drew its inspiration and much of its information from a booklet of memories intended mainly for those who were involved with the invasion, published privately in 1944 by Lt Col H.M. Dannatt.

At the time of the D-Day invasion Lt Col Dannatt was a young Captain commanding a detachment of 181 Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers (181 ROC RE).

John Payne and John Whitfield make a few last minute adjustments.

Back to Other Articles Menu.

Back to Home.

If you have arrived here via a search engine and/or cannot see a main menu and Semaphore Signal in a frame to the left of this page then CLICK HERE to enter this site via our home page - after all, you never know what you might be missing  ;-).

This page last updated by Tony Wray on 30/12/2004.