Why March rail yards are legendary

HOW remarkable that Whitemoor railway marshalling yards in March escaped destruction in World War Two. Britain was fighting for survival against a blitz never equalled since anywhere in the world.

Vast numbers of enemy bombers and fighters attacked our air fields and cities. On a single day 170 sorties tried to bomb Britain into submission, one target being Birmingham. The rail system there was pulverised. To get there the enemy flew close to Whitemoor. The yards could have easily been wiped out.

At Whitemoor, home of the most modern marshalling yards in Europe, fuel, food, munitions, army tanks and all kinds of military equipment was sorted and dispatched. Astonishingly, the yards could accommodate 17,273 wagons. The complex was served by a large engine shed, 31B. Unbelievably, German expertise helped!

German reconnaissance aircraft dropped flares and their crews knew exactly what was going on. My bedroom lit up on those occasions. They took photos of the yards which worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Immense, vital tonnages passed through them. Now and then, Hienkel and Dornier aircraft flew above March. One fired on the streets in broad daylight.

They navigated above rivers and railway lines. On odd occasions, bombs fell on the decoy yard at Stags’ Holt which was switched on when sirens sounded. Bombs fell on Norwood Road, killing five, including a London refugee and injuring several. The enemy bombed approach lines to Whitemoor and machine gunned several crossings, but for the most part thankful yet oddly the yards were spared. Before the war Britain had little experience of bi-directional rail marshalling. Germany excelled in this technique and German firms designed much of the systems at Whitemoor and provided braking equipment. This earned Whitemoor a state-of-the-art reputation. Material was found to have a Swastika carved on it! It must have brought March a slice of luck! Control equipment and retarders were manufactured in Germany and built into the Whitemoor system where speed was the essence. German involvement at Whitemoor may have been a reason the Nazi’s were reluctant to destroy the system.

The yards were vitally important to the nation’s continued survival. Immediately after the war they were the largest in Europe and for a brief spell in 1945 were said to be the largest in the world beating American railyards. More than 2000 personnel were employed at Whitemoor, a huge following for March. Drivers, firemen and guests received extra rations of cheese and docky (food) bags were manufactured at March principally, for railway men.

A former German prisoner of war who flew above March in the 300-bomber raid on Coventry told me it was confidently expected Britain would be invaded and Whitemoor would be valuable to the invaders. I know March was mentioned on German radio for propaganda purposes. Whitemoor and March’s rail men and women contributed magnificently to the war effort and the little Fen town justly claimed world fame. The blitz spirit existed in the Fens throughout the war. What was achieved at Whitemoor and March is legendary.