The Southern Railway was one the ‘Big Four’ private companies running the railways in Britain during the Second World War. Under the direction of the Ministry of (War) Transport, the Southern became a vital part in Britain’s military supply chain. The Southern also maintained a civilian passenger service, continuing to run trains during blackouts and despite incurring heavy bomb damaged.
The Southern Railway had been involved with film making since the late 1930s. The Southern Railway Film Unit (SRFU) was established around the early 1940s. The SRFU films provide coverage of several important aspects of the home front in rare detail.
The following excerpts have been edited to give an impression of the varied content in this collection. They were all filmed by cameramen of the SRFU.
In anticipation of London being targeted by German bombing raids Southern Railway began transporting evacuees to safer areas in the South West of England in 1939. The SRFU were able to record the evacuation of children and hospital patients from several stations around the capital, including Waterloo, Wimbledon and Victoria.
Here, evacuees are shown being assisted by policeman and Civilian Evacuation Officers, from the London County Council, on to trains at Waterloo, 14 December 1939.
Return from Dunkirk
The Southern Railway played a vital role in the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940. Southern trains transported troops back inland from England’s South Coast. A small fleet of Southern Railway vessels were also used in the evacuation from France.
In this clip, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), recently returned from Dunkirk, are seen celebrating their safe return at Redhill Station on 1 June 1940. The BEF, German Prisoners Of War (POWs) and French troops are seen amongst a crowded harbour side at Dover on 2 June 1940. And finally, French troops are gathered on the platform at Margate Station 4 June 1940.
New Zealanders at Waterloo
Allied troops from around the globe passed through or were billeted in Britain during the war. Many would have travelled through London and the South East on Southern Railway services. SRFU cameramen captured troops from Canada, New Zealand, the USA and France in Southern Railway carriages or at stations used by Southern locomotives.
This footage shows New Zealanders from the 2nd Expeditionary Force arriving at Waterloo Station, London, 24 June 1940.
Bomb damage at Waterloo
As a main source of supply and troop mobilisation, the railways were often targeted during German bombing raids. The Southern Railway films capture some of the devastation inflicted on the tracks, at stations, railway bridges and surrounding areas. Such damage could have a major impact on the war effort, so men and resources were directed towards restoring the rail network as a priority.
This film shows how temporary repairs allowed locomotives to continue using the severely damaged Hill Street Bridge, over Pocock Street in South London in December 1940. It also shows a large bomb crater outside the Memorial Arch entrance of Waterloo Station. A second bomb crater reveals how the transport network continued to operate below the surface, in spite of the devastation above ground on 5 – 9 December 1940. Finally, a railway bridge over Southwark Street, South London, is shown damaged beyond use on19 April 1941.
Home Guard of the Southern Railway
The Southern Railway tried to ensure their staff were prepared to deal with the aftermath of bombing raids by training them in Air Raid Precaution (APR) skills such as first aid and fire-watch duties. They also established a dedicated Home Guard to undertake patrol duties at vulnerable locations and operate anti-aircraft guns.
In this clip, the Southern Railway Home Guard undertake aircraft recognition training before running practice drills on a Bofors anti-aircraft gun, overseen by a British Army Sergeant from the Royal Artillery at Lancing Carriage Works in West Sussex on 22 November 1944.
Southampton’s dockyards in preparation for D-Day
The Southern Railway owned a dockyard at Southampton prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. It was used extensively to ship large quantities of military freight and personnel over the course of the conflict and was especially busy around the time of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe.
From D-Day to VE Day, over two and a half million British and American service personnel passed through the dockyards at Southampton. Some of this activity and the build-up to D-Day was captured on film by SRFU cameraman.
This clip shows activity around the Southern Railway docks in the build-up to D-Day. Large numbers of Landing Craft can be seen moored in preparation for the invasion on 30 March 1944. The second part of the sequence features an event to mark the “One Millionth Yank” to disembark from Southampton, followed by American troops loading onto troops ships, months after the D-Day landings on 25 October 1944.