Friday, 25 January 2013

The Wartime Underground

A one-man shelter for use at railway depots (author's photo)
As most of our British readers at least will know, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Underground system. In November 2010 this blog examined the role played by the Tube in providing shelter for Londoners from Hitler's bombs during the Blitz and beyond. However, with this impressive anniversary of service in mind, perhaps now is a good time to take a look at the other, perhaps lesser known, but equally vital contributions to the war effort played by the London Transport in general and the Tube in particular.

The first major involvement, both by the Underground and by London's familiar red buses and at that time, equally familiar trams and trolleybuses, was to assist in the Herculean task of evacuating over half a million people, mainly schoolchildren but also expecting mothers, the mentally ill, the elderly and infirm, blind persons and long-term hospital patients from the built up areas of London to the safety of the countryside. Whilst the bulk of this task fell upon the main line railways to fulfill, the Metropolitan Line which in those days ran out to Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire certainly played a full part in moving thousands of children away from central London. Even more surprising was the part played by London's buses in this mass movement; the red double deckers undertook journies as far afield as Oxford, Cambridge, Northampton, Eastbourne and Weston super Mare - a far cry from their usual routes.

This massive task over, London's road and rail transport could concentrate on the vital task of moving millions of Londoners to their war work, as well as the more mundane but equally vital role of helping Londoners and later the thousands of visiting servicemen and women to enjoy their much reduced leisure time in the capital. Services, especially in the suburbs, finished much earlier than we are accustomed to today. This was partially due to the blackout; people did not want to get caught away from home in a bombing raid if they could help it. Another reason was that people worked incredibly long hours and simply did not have the time, energy or inclination to go out very often. In central London, things were slightly different, especially slightly later in the war when visiting servicemen of all nationalities flooded into the capital whilst on leave.

Handley Page Halifax Mk III (RAF photo)
Behind the scenes however, the London Underground was involved in the War Effort in ways that people could not imagine. Before the outbreak of war, London Transport was involved in a massive works programme of extending the tube network, some of which was incomplete and had to be placed on hold 'for the duration' as the commonly used phrase of the time went. Some, like the extension of the Central Line eastwards from Liverpool Street to Epping and Hainault, resumed with the coming of peace and are familiar to us today but others, like the planned extensions of the Northern Line to Elstree and Bushey, proved to be stillborn - the freeze on new housing due to the imposition of the Green Belt rendered this scheme obsolete and it was never completed. Much of the infrastructure was already in place and it was part of this abortive extension to the network that was to make a massive impact on the British war effort.

A depot for the extra trains required on the Northern Line extension had already been built on what would today be called a 'green field' site in Aldenham, Hertfordshire and it was here as well as at a new purpose built factory at nearby Leavesden that London Transport's Underground staff were to be involved in a venture completely alien to them - that of aircraft production. Staff were drawn from the various engineering departments - Underground and Road - and they were given inductions at the Handley Page company to get them accustomed to the industry, although as engineers, these people soon understood what was required and in May 1941, the first Halifax bomber built by London Aircraft Productions, as the new company was called, rolled off the production line. Over seven hundred would follow, the last being handed over in April 1945. Looking ahead to peacetime, the jig built production techniques learned by London Transport's engineers in aircraft production would prove vital in the production of the 'RT', London's first standardised, mass produced bus, of which nearly seven thousand were built. Moving ahead even further, the experience gained in working with aluminium was crucial in the design and production of the iconic Routemaster bus and moving further ahead still, the new Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, features an aluminium roof made from salvaged aluminium from a Canadian Halifax bomber, shot down in Belgium in 1944. A fitting memorial not only to the 55,573 Allied airmen lost whilst serving with Bomber Command but also to the men and women of London Aircraft Productions.

Bomber Command Memorial showing the reclaimed roof (author's photo)
Another piece of London Underground land, not then in use but today used regularly by thousands of unknowing passengers, are the tunnels of the Central Line extension between Leytonstone and Gants Hill; nearly five miles of tunnel, which although physically complete on the outbreak of war, had yet to be opened for public use. This subterranean world was to see a remarkable transformation into a improvised, bomb proof factory, managed by the Plessey Company, manufacturing aircraft components. It was an amazing set-up, complete with miniature railway for transporting the components, three stations at Wanstead, Redbridge and Gants Hill for the employees to enter and exit the works, as well as cloakrooms, first aid facilities, a canteen and mess rooms capable of serving sixteen hundred people all being fitted into this confined space.

Apart from these temporary wartime expedients, London Transport's regular bus, train and train overhaul works were adapted for war work. In peacetime, London's underground trains were overhauled at Acton Works but in wartime, in addition to a greatly reduced train overhaul programme, Acton turned it's expertise to all manner of new disciplines, such as overhauling Sherman tanks, constructing bodies for ambulances and breakdown lorries, repairing engines and generators for naval landing craft and converting Sherman tanks to 'Duplex Drive' - i.e. able to operate amphibiously in upto ten feet of water and which proved invaluable during the Normandy landings. Acton also converted tube trains into 'Refreshment Specials' in order to feed the shelterers in the tube and undertook much work in repairing trains damaged by the Blitz, including one carriage that was rebuilt using two undamaged halves of severely damaged carriages being welded together to form a 'new' undamaged unit. Staying on the rails, London's Tram Overhaul Works at Charlton, being situated close to the Woolwich Arsenal, turned it's hand to producing ammunition and parts for guns.

Sherman Duplex Drive Tank (IWM Photo)
Apart from these 'behind the scenes' works, London Transport's staff also played a part in the front line. As a result of the 1938 Munich Crisis, London Transport had formed a Territorial Army Unit - the 84th (London Transport) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment and on the outbreak of hostilities, they rallied to the colours and served with distinction in Norway, North Africa and Italy and formed separate batteries from busmen, tram and trolleybus staff as well as railway and engineering staff. London Transport was truly at war.

London's Underground and it's staff performed a myriad of duties during the Second World War but undoubtedly the happiest duty performed was right at the end of the war, when the buses and tube trains played their full part in bringing the children back home. London Transport was at last able to rebuild and resume it's love/hate affair with Londoners. During the dark wartime years, 22,580 members of staff had served in the Armed Forces, Merchant Navy and Civil Defence, whilst some 245 had been killed by enemy air attacks in London in addition to those killed in action whilst serving with the Forces. 

Published Sources:

A History of London Transport - TC Barker & Michael Robbins, George Allen & Unwin 1974
London Transport at War 1939-1945 - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974
The Shelter of The Tubes - John Gregg, Capital Transport 2001

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