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"Cloak and dagger" for railway enthusiasts

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Calthrop

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Have been reading about the “life and times” of the late railway author and artist C. Hamilton Ellis – which included learning of a brief and seemingly rather farcical episode in World War II, in which his railway interest and knowledge were used in an espionage capacity. It seems that in 1940, under cover of being in the employ of the journal Modern Transport , Ellis was dispatched to Switzerland; with the mission of contacting and instructing saboteurs who would – in the event of the then “phony war” becoming more active – disrupt rail traffic between Switzerland and Germany. Accounts of the whole thing, imply that it was a very muddly affair: suggestions that Ellis was unaware of the true nature of his work, and / or that he failed to make contact with his handlers. At all events, his stay in Switzerland was brief: in early summer 1940, Germany moved west, and France fell – Ellis accomplished a nail-bitingly exciting journey back to Britain in the nick of time.

It's occurred to me, following on from the above: that I’ve heard very little about railway enthusiasts’ knowledge of their avocation being used in times of war (“hot” or “cold”), to further the interests of their country, against the enemy. I recall reading in a book on the theme of Britain and France in World War II: the statement that for a long while, the British military were unaware that in France, although road traffic drives on the right, the railway rule is “on the left” (except in Alsace-Lorraine) – information possibly of some significance re rail traffic in German-occupied France, and its disruption. Quite late in the war, it was judged appropriate to bring a key bod in the French Resistance out of France, to Britain: this chap was a railway employee, and gave to the Brits the remarkable tidings that French trains took the left-hand track. This read in just one book – author and title, forgotten – quite possible that the author was, here, spouting bollocks; but assuming his tale was true – plenty of British railfans with a continental bent, could have told the relevant authorities early in the war, about what side French trains ran on !

Would be interested to hear from anyone who knows of instances of railway enthusiasts and their lore, being co-opted in the interests of the defence of their country against hostile nations.
 
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HMS Ark Royal

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I recall that one of the Spitfire pilots on Malta was a railway enthusiast and discovered what the Italians were doing with their troops and weapons trains by the way they were being formed up.

Fairly certain a number of enthusiasts were asked to help out in the photo interpretation department
 

John Webb

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The book "SOE 1940-46" by M R D Foot on the history of the Special Operations Executive has numerous references to railways. It is clear that a number of army officers drew on their continental experiences in WW1 to come up with clear ideas about the best ways to sabotage railway lines, engines and rolling stock. It is also clear from this book that many railway workers were in the Resistance and used their knowledge to good effect.
Nevertheless, there were problems. There were two French sections in SOE because of the friction between the de Gaullists and others; Military Intelligence responsible for spying operations on the continent disliked SOE because SOE's activities stirred up the Germans and in the following manhunts the MI spies could be caught as well as SOE's members.
But quite why Hamilton Ellis was asked to go to Switzerland, I don't know - it doesn't seem to be anything to do with SOE since that wasn't formed until July 1940 and he seems to have gone in the first half of 1940.
 
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Bookd

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Although a diversion from the main topic I am interested in the point 'except in Alsace Lorraine'. Does this still apply now? It would be rather like the ECML running on the left except in Northumberland!
 

edwin_m

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Although a diversion from the main topic I am interested in the point 'except in Alsace Lorraine'. Does this still apply now? It would be rather like the ECML running on the left except in Northumberland!

Yes. In fact I believe the crash of the TGV test train last November was near a flying junction whose purpose was partly to swap the direction of running from (normally) left on the high speed route to right on the classic route.

My grandfather was a lifelong railway enthusiast but although he tried to get a job on the railway in the 1920s he never succeeded. However in WW2 he was organising logistical support by rail for the advance through Italy. Unfortunately he died when I was a toddler so I have no more details on this.
 

Calthrop

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I recall that one of the Spitfire pilots on Malta was a railway enthusiast and discovered what the Italians were doing with their troops and weapons trains by the way they were being formed up.

Fairly certain a number of enthusiasts were asked to help out in the photo interpretation department

"My bolding" -- this would make sense; a pity to waste the potential very considerable expertise.

An aspect of the notoriously frustrating set-up in Communist Eastern Europe in the decades after World War II (wonderful steam action on a huge scale; but enthusiasts who wished to photograph it were suspected of espionage, and given a hard time) -- a one-time boss of mine, with a glancing interest in railway matters, once provided a new perspective on this issue, which we gricers were apt just to dismiss as "Communist barminess". She remarked that in a situation of aggravated hostilities between East and West; military intelligence in this country might indeed tap the information on Eastern Bloc railways, which gricers had come by in their trips there -- and some of it could indeed be of use re doing harm to the enemy's communications. The East's mistrust of railway enthusiasts as potential spies could be seen as actually making a certain amount of sense, in an "even-paranoids-have-enemies" kind of way.

The book "SOE 1940-46" by M R D Foot on the history of the Special Operations Executive has numerous references to railways. It is clear that a number of army officers drew on their continental experiences in WW1 to come up with clear ideas about the best ways to sabotage railway lines, engines and rolling stock. It is also clear from this book that many railway workers were in the Resistance and used their knowledge to good effect.
Nevertheless, there were problems. There were two French sections in SOE because of the friction between the de Gaullists and others; Military Intelligence responsible for spying operations on the continent disliked SOE because SOE's activities stirred up the Germans and in the following manhunts the MI spies could be caught as well as SOE's members.
But quite why Hamilton Ellis was asked to go to Switzerland, I don't know - it doesn't seem to be anything to do with SOE since that wasn't formed until July 1940 and he seems to have gone in the first half of 1940.

The short section from Steamindex which I found on the Net, referring to Ellis's Swiss escapade; suggests that said venture was "orchestrated by the D section of MI6 under Richard Strauss whilst he [I presume that this 'he', means Ellis] was working for Modern Transport ".

Although a diversion from the main topic I am interested in the point 'except in Alsace Lorraine'. Does this still apply now? It would be rather like the ECML running on the left except in Northumberland!

My understanding of the Alsace-Lorraine oddity, is that when Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by France to Germany in the aftermath of the 1870 - 71 Franco-Prussian War, the area's railways were thoroughly "Germanised", including being altered from French left-hand running, to German right-hand ditto. Many new lines in the area were opened under German rule, in the late 19th century.

When Alsace-Lorraine went back to France after World War I, its railways came under French State administration. Those administering the Alsace-Lorraine system actually on the ground, preferred to let practicality trump nationalism, and stick with the right-hand running which they were used to. This was permitted; and Alsace-Lorraine alone out of the French national system, continued to use right-hand running, at least until a few decades ago. To be honest, I'm not sure whether this still obtains today; am not aware of having heard of SNCF switching to left-hand running in A-L.
 

30907

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My understanding of the Alsace-Lorraine oddity, is that when Alsace-Lorraine was ceded by France to Germany in the aftermath of the 1870 - 71 Franco-Prussian War, the area's railways were thoroughly "Germanised", including being altered from French left-hand running, to German right-hand ditto. Many new lines in the area were opened under German rule, in the late 19th century.

When Alsace-Lorraine went back to France after World War I, its railways came under French State administration. Those administering the Alsace-Lorraine system actually on the ground, preferred to let practicality trump nationalism, and stick with the right-hand running which they were used to. This was permitted; and Alsace-Lorraine alone out of the French national system, continued to use right-hand running, at least until a few decades ago. To be honest, I'm not sure whether this still obtains today; am not aware of having heard of SNCF switching to left-hand running in A-L.

Still basically true, though with bi-directional signalling it's not always relevant. There are still a number of "sauts de mouton" where a flyover is used to change from left to right, and they are marked on the latest S and W atlas.
 

Calthrop

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Still basically true, though with bi-directional signalling it's not always relevant. There are still a number of "sauts de mouton" where a flyover is used to change from left to right, and they are marked on the latest S and W atlas.

Thanks. I've always reckoned this "different side running" area, an interesting French railway quirk. Find Alsace-Lorraine a fascinating part of the world in general (to my regret, I've never made it there). Includes among other things, the short preserved narrow-gauge ex-forestry railway at Abreschviller.
 

edwin_m

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At the risk of going off-topic it should be remembered that some countries in eastern Europe had left-hand running on the roads until forced to change by Nazi invaders in WW2. Sweden of course did not change over until the 1960s. Napoleon and Hitler were chiefly responsible for standardisation in this respect...
 

Calthrop

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At the risk of going off-topic it should be remembered that some countries in eastern Europe had left-hand running on the roads until forced to change by Nazi invaders in WW2. Sweden of course did not change over until the 1960s. Napoleon and Hitler were chiefly responsible for standardisation in this respect...

And didn't Sweden have pre-1960s -- just to be thoroughly odd -- driving on the left-hand side of the road, but driver's seat and steering wheel on the left-hand side of the vehicle?

Mention of Napoleon brings to mind an associated thing in this connection -- quoting G.K. Chesterton:

"I knew no harm of Bonaparte, and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchmen, I did not much desire:
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the rolling road an English drunkard made."
--- old post above --- --- new post below ---
The book "SOE 1940-46" by M R D Foot on the history of the Special Operations Executive has numerous references to railways. It is clear that a number of army officers drew on their continental experiences in WW1 to come up with clear ideas about the best ways to sabotage railway lines, engines and rolling stock. It is also clear from this book that many railway workers were in the Resistance and used their knowledge to good effect.

Latching on to this fact – my mind goes to another World War II-related book which I read long ago. I read a lot of people’s books of reminiscences of their part in that conflict; and unfortunately, more often than not, don’t remember – or think to record – title and author: such is the case with this one.

Anyway, author here was a WWII British prisoner-of-war in Germany; the book narrates his POW experiences. I remember little of the whole thing, save for a particular matter mentioned – likely to stick in the mind of a railway enthusiast, and did so for me. The author made various escape attempts (don’t remember whether or not he ultimately succeeded ). In discussing POWs escaping, he claimed to have observed in his years of captivity, that an interestingly high proportion of railway employees at various levels, in WWII Germany, were opposed to the Nazi regime to the point of working actively to undermine it; including using their job-related expertise – up to, at one point, supposedly putting together and running an unofficial special train to convey escaping POWs westward toward potential freedom.

It would be agreeable for such folks as us, to think that the just-described was indeed the case: railway enthusiasts and / or employees would like to consider railway workers in general, as “the salt of the earth”. Realistically though, I have to feel doubtful about these impressions given by the author. Common sense would suggest -- I feel -- that because of assorted factors: “across the board”, only a tiny number of German citizens in WWII, in fact took active steps to resist and hinder Germany’s war effort, in its various aspects – and the heroic few who did so, often suffered terrible consequences. If more rail workers did this, than those in many other occupations – would be, I’d imagine, still an infinitesimal proportion of the whole: and the bod’s told-of “escapers’ special”, frankly feels like a Boys’ Own Paper fantasy from that era. I can’t help reckoning that re all this, the author was either – writing his memoirs in old age, decades after the events – mis-remembering; or consciously spinning falsehoods. On this, I’d love to be proved wrong !
 

ChiefPlanner

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Hamilton - Ellis had a deep appreciation of German Railways from a young age and traveled around to Munich etc to see the Maffei Pacifics etc in the 1920's - his knowledge would have been very useful to Bomber Command I am sure.

Bletchley Park monitored the DR Enigma messages in any case for unusual movements to good effect.

Workers at the Dutch Heineken bottling plant - where 80% of production as forced to go to the German war machine routinely via the "underground" - where the beer went - there were troops.....

DR records (in the informative history) - reported that those railwaymen who did not want to be involved in the movements of special trains to the termination camps were not chosen for disciplinary measures.
 

Calthrop

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DR records (in the informative history) - reported that those railwaymen who did not want to be involved in the movements of special trains to the termination camps were not chosen for disciplinary measures.

I'd incline to doubt whether most of the railway staff concerned, were aware of this at the time -- totalitarian states tend not to inform their populace clearly and truthfully about what is going on; rather, to deliberately use fear and uncertainty as a means of control. I envisage many in Germany, and the Nazi empire as a whole, considering that they had to do as directed, even if they found it repugnant: fearing heaven-knows-what being done to them, and possibly their families too, if they did not comply.
 

Taunton

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There are a good number of accounts in older books whose writers were around at the time. Gerry Fiennes wrote he was visited at Whitemoor Yard by the local RAF who were surprised at their lack of success attacking Hamm marshalling yard in the Ruhr, whereupon Fiennes put them right (ie don't drop a bomb just at the one point where there are 50 parallel tracks).

R E Vincent, an enthusiast and senior railway manager who joined the Army in the ROD and was in Italy, wrote a humorous account in an old Trains Illustrated of how he and his Sergeant took an Italian locomotive and went off on a series of adventures.

The Alsace right-hand running, and why they changed in 1870 but never changed back in 1918, is discussed here in the thread about the recent TGV accident, which happened right in the flyover where the running side changes

http://www.railforums.co.uk/showpost.php?p=2365179&postcount=112
 
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Calthrop

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There are a good number of accounts in older books whose writers were around at the time. Gerry Fiennes wrote he was visited at Whitemoor Yard by the local RAF who were surprised at their lack of success attacking Hamm marshalling yard in the Ruhr, whereupon Fiennes put them right (ie don't drop a bomb just at the one point where there are 50 parallel tracks).

I gather that in WWII, attempts to aerially knock out Hamm marshalling yard, became an ongoing "meme" in Britain -- we were always trying to accomplish that feat. A bit of black-humour verse from that era:

The stationmaster at Hamm
Said, "I vos not der mann dat I am";
So they transferred him for a rest
To the harbour station at Brest.

Which spot in occupied France was the target at the time, of a devastating bombing raid.

R E Vincent, an enthusiast and senior railway manager who joined the Army in the ROD and was in Italy, wrote a humorous account in an old Trains Illustrated of how he and his Sergeant took an Italian locomotive and went off on a series of adventures.

I reckon I might have read same -- article titled The Maestro -- about an escapade in the far south of Italy?

The Alsace right-hand running, and why they changed in 1870 but never changed back in 1918, is discussed here in the thread about the recent TGV accident, which happened right in the flyover where the running side changes

http://www.railforums.co.uk/showpost.php?p=2365179&postcount=112

Thanks -- interesting -- pretty much how I'd understood things. Comes to mind -- post-1918, did Alsace-Lorraine keep German, not French, signalling; as well as right-hand running?

It occurs to one to wonder: do the Alsace-Lorrainers, having spent so long as a "football", get equally sick of Froggy and Jerry, and wish to have their own independent mini-state?
 

Taunton

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I reckon I might have read same -- article titled The Maestro -- about an escapade in the far south of Italy?
Although it's been years since I opened it up, I immediately recognise the title from that nice little story.

Hamilton Ellis wrote articles (non-war experiences) in the same series about aspects of rail travel. It's a shame that some of the old ability to write elegantly and interestingly while remaining rail-accurate seems to have been lost in more modern times.

Bryan Morgan's "Railway Lovers Companion", a compendium from the 1960s, has a series of wartime rail stories gathered together in one section, from the theft by two non-drivers (they called the boiler backhead in the loco cab "the dashboard") of a steam-hauled trainload of petrol from under the noses of the Germans in Greece (destroyed at the end in an air attack) to a distressing account of travel on a prisoner train to Auschwitz.
 

Calthrop

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Re World War II rail stories: one gathers that one of the few potential "upsides" of the in-general nightmare for France, of German domination 1940 -- 1944; was that wartime scarcities of many things, caused "for the duration" prolongation of the life of assorted lesser railways in France, which would otherwise have closed -- and actual reopening for passenger traffic, of a fair number of lines closed in the late 1930s.

W.J.K. Davies writes in his Minor Railways of France, re the 1940 -- 44 era: "[lesser railways, particularly narrow-gauge] provided much-needed transport at the weekends for strained townsfolk going to the country for at least a little relaxation. These trains on [various secondary rail outfits] must, even in the circumstances, have had a certain charm about them and have left some vivid impressions -- 15 or more coaches, packed to the rooftops with temporarily cheerful humanity and its clutter of belongings, dragging along for miles behind an old Pinguely or Corpet-Louvet. There are several amateur films of the time, some available on video, which still conjure up the atmosphere."

I've never seen any of such films, and would love to: as ever, Google would likely yield results, given sufficient interest and persistence.
 

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You know, I have a hazy memory from back in a combined RE / History lesson when i was at school that one train load of jewish prisoners was saved from the camps because the driver, fireman and guard were all enthusiasts and knew exactly what was happening. So they caused several units of German troops to be taken "out of service" by stopping every so many miles and telling the detachment leader they were having an issue with the axles running hot

I'm sure that, in the end, the prisoners ended up working in factories which saved them
 

DarloRich

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An aspect of the notoriously frustrating set-up in Communist Eastern Europe in the decades after World War II (wonderful steam action on a huge scale; but enthusiasts who wished to photograph it were suspected of espionage, and given a hard time) -- a one-time boss of mine, with a glancing interest in railway matters, once provided a new perspective on this issue, which we gricers were apt just to dismiss as "Communist barminess". She remarked that in a situation of aggravated hostilities between East and West; military intelligence in this country might indeed tap the information on Eastern Bloc railways, which gricers had come by in their trips there -- and some of it could indeed be of use re doing harm to the enemy's communications. The East's mistrust of railway enthusiasts as potential spies could be seen as actually making a certain amount of sense, in an "even-paranoids-have-enemies" kind of way.

That isn't outlandish. A friend of my father mine was a journalist who, form time to time, traveled behind the iron curtain in the 1980's to look at new world beating events and occasions that the communists had put together.

On his return he had a standing arrangement to meet a chap from "the Foreign Office" at a pub in central London to have a "chat" about what he saw, who he spoke to, what he experienced or felt and to look at any pictures he may have been allowed to take.

Also, on occasion his normal snapper was replaced by a chap from an "agency" who took many more pictures than his usual photographer ;)
 

Calthrop

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That isn't outlandish. A friend of my father mine was a journalist who, form time to time, traveled behind the iron curtain in the 1980's to look at new world beating events and occasions that the communists had put together.

On his return he had a standing arrangement to meet a chap from "the Foreign Office" at a pub in central London to have a "chat" about what he saw, who he spoke to, what he experienced or felt and to look at any pictures he may have been allowed to take.

Also, on occasion his normal snapper was replaced by a chap from an "agency" who took many more pictures than his usual photographer ;)

Interesting to hear of. We who were attracted to Eastern European steam were so used to our "take" on the spy-mania thing -- i.e. reckoning "that lot are just plain bonkers": we knowing full well that our interest was simply in the steam for its own sake, and that we were not seeking to collect intelligence for our side in the Cold War. We didn't stop to think that the issue was not necessarily and self-evidently quite as black-and-white as that.

It was generally thought odd that Yugoslavia -- not in the Soviet bloc, and regarded as in many ways, an unusually liberal Communist regime -- was the worst country of all for anti-rail-photography paranoia. On reflection, those in charge there would have had various quite legitimate causes for anxiety...
 

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Interesting to hear of. We who were attracted to Eastern European steam were so used to our "take" on the spy-mania thing -- i.e. reckoning "that lot are just plain bonkers": we knowing full well that our interest was simply in the steam for its own sake, and that we were not seeking to collect intelligence for our side in the Cold War. We didn't stop to think that the issue was not necessarily and self-evidently quite as black-and-white as that.

It was generally thought odd that Yugoslavia -- not in the Soviet bloc, and regarded as in many ways, an unusually liberal Communist regime -- was the worst country of all for anti-rail-photography paranoia. On reflection, those in charge there would have had various quite legitimate causes for anxiety...

I only visited the Soviet Union on one occasion, in February 1974 at the time when Solzhenitsyn was being expelled (on the day we arrived in Moscow) so all Westerners were regarded with intense suspicion. Despite this, I had no trouble using my new-fangled Polaroid, including taking pictures of some actors 'on location' in central Moscow filming a Napoleonic-era drama - they were quite happy once I handed over to them some pictures I'd taken, keeping some for myself. Mind you, when we 'strayed' from the hotel one evening and quickly came across some slums, we had the sense both to quickly retrace our steps and not to take photos.
 

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Re World War II rail stories:

A thought on this, didn't the Ian Allan lists of engines date from the early 1940s? While you could see this as a means of keeping boys occupied, weren't there security risks? I would be thinking of American engines being run in on British tracks in preparation for D-Day.
 

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A thought on this, didn't the Ian Allan lists of engines date from the early 1940s? While you could see this as a means of keeping boys occupied, weren't there security risks? I would be thinking of American engines being run in on British tracks in preparation for D-Day.

I thought he only did Southern at first...? Even so, I am sure he would not have wanted to damage the war effort for the sake of adding some engines
 

Calthrop

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A thought on this, didn't the Ian Allan lists of engines date from the early 1940s? While you could see this as a means of keeping boys occupied, weren't there security risks? I would be thinking of American engines being run in on British tracks in preparation for D-Day.

Perhaps I'm being thick; but I wouldn't see that in itself, as being much of a give-away. I'd imagine that hostile interested parties would have attributed it to the USA supplying locos to help out on Britain's overburdened railways. Didn't this very thing happen in truth -- American-built locos (type S160 2-8-0, or a variant thereof?) being dedicated to wartime service specifically in the UK?
 

30907

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I thought he only did Southern at first...? Even so, I am sure he would not have wanted to damage the war effort for the sake of adding some engines

I doubt if he could have got a list of WD/USATC locos even if he had wanted to as that would hAve been classified..

I seem to remember reading that photography was a potentially risky exercise though...
 

Calthrop

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I seem to remember reading that photography was a potentially risky exercise though...

People seem to have engaged in a fair amount of it in WW II Britain, though -- I've certainly seen, over the years, plenty of rail pictures taken in Britain during that era. We Brits being in the main, I feel (not everyone necessarily agrees) fairly nice folk: I don't envisage the imprudent photter "then and there" experiencing worse than being detained and admonished, and likely having his film / camera confiscated. In the light of the later Cold War / Eastern Europe scene, the picture is got of the possibility of some of the more fanatical photographic gricers seeing (at least in theory; and given a "one thing or the other" deal) pretty nasty physical violence, as preferable to the confiscation scenario.
--- old post above --- --- new post below ---
Has just come to mind, a cherished World War II "misunderstood gricing" tale. Reminiscence read, long ago, by the renowned rail photographer P. Ransome-Wallis, who spent much of his service in WWII, in North America. In a spell of free time, he was looking around railroad premises (locoshed? marshalling yard?) IIRC in the New York area, when he was confronted by an angry little fellow in a security-guard position, brandishing a baseball bat, who took him off to be questioned by higher authority on the site. Ransome-Wallis explained himself there, and was allowed to continue with his observations. The security guard, abashed, said to R-W: "Sorry, buddy -- I thought youse was a Jap !"

R-W observed in his written account, long after, that his over-six-feet stature and blue-eyed highly Caucasian appearance, might have given the chap a clue. Still -- in a desperate war, such lowly posts as "civilian railway security guard", are liable to be filled by the less-sharp knives in the drawer; and one feels that overall in this confrontation, the guard was more in the right, than the trespasser.
 
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Taunton

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WD locos didn't appear in IA publications until nationalisation, and the USA locos never appeared at all.

IA books didn't do much original research but just relied on lists obtained from contacts in the CME departments. As the USA locos weren't part of those loco lists they didn't appear.
 
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