Historical Background

The Breakdown Crane in the Second World War

Anticipating a major conflict in Europe, UK Government bodies and the railways were working together long before the outbreak of the Second World War, investigating ways to reduce the impact of bombing raids on the running of our vital railways.  The heavy breakdown crane was a crucial element of the strategies that they developed to keep the country mobile during the conflict…

The Treaty of Versailles in June 1919 which finally brought peace to Europe after the Great War placed severe restrictions upon the vanquished German nation to limit re-armament, especially to prevent any build-up of the German Navy after the war.  There were however fewer restrictions on the build-up of air power since this was at the time a new and under-appreciated technology.  The result of this was that, as tensions in Europe increased in the 1930s and the probability of a second major European war increased, the railways became preoccupied with the consequences of air-raid damage.

The importance of the railway network in times of war had been amply demonstrated during the 1914-18 conflict, and it was appreciated that in a second conflict the railways would play an even more important role.

As early as 1937 the general managers of the major railways in Britain had started lobbying the Ministry of Transport concerning the railways’ concerns in the event of war, and a Railway Technical Committee (RTC) was appointed in that year to report upon the measures which should be taken to protect the lines and to keep traffic moving in the event of war.  The Home Office and the Ministry of Transport, as well as the major railway companies, were represented on the RTC.  The committee had a very wide remit, but through the use of many sub-committees, one of which was specifically tasked with air-raid precautions, it handled that remit with commendable efficiency and submitted its many proposals in June 1938.

The committee considered that the provision of additional crane power was vital if clearance and reconstruction work after air raids was to be undertaken quickly, and recommended that 24 additional cranes of not less than 35 tons capacity should be ordered, without delay, for allocation amongst the mainline railway companies and LPTB (London Passenger Transport Board).  The cost of these cranes was estimated at £240,000.  The committee recommended that, as far as practicable, there should be a general pool of all breakdown equipment among the companies for the duration of hostilities.  These proposals were approved and towards the end of 1938 a grant of £4 million was paid specifically to allow the implementation of air-raid precautions, although in the event only 12 breakdown cranes were ordered, costing a total of £156,720.

Following consultation with the crane manufacturers, the specifications called for a 45-ton crane built to an axle-loading and structure envelope conforming to the British Composite Loading Gauge, and thus able to travel anywhere in Britain.  This effectively mandated the use of Stokes-type relieving bogies.  Six cranes were ordered from each of Cowans Sheldon and Ransomes & Rapier,  the R & R order book recording the customer as “British Railways”.  Both companies produced cranes based upon their latest designs.

All twelve cranes were delivered in 1940, the Cowans Sheldons from January onwards and the Ransomes & Rapiers in August.  Although all twelve were notionally ‘pooled’, two Ransomes & Rapier cranes were allocated to the SR, four to the GWR, and all six Cowans Sheldon cranes to the LNER.  The LMS had recently uprated five cranes from 36 to 50 tons and another two from 36 to 40 tons and as a result it was not considered necessary to provide that company with any new cranes.


1940 Ransomes & Rapier 45-ton crane 1560S. This, the very first of the R&R wartime emergency breakdown cranes, was unfortunately scrapped in 2010

Operation of the railways came under the Emergency Powers of the Defence of the Realm Act upon the outbreak of war, and the Railway Executive Committee was appointed to take over the operation on behalf of the Government.

Various cranes were very swiftly called up for military use.  Notable amongst these were three of the new 45-ton cranes (the two SR cranes and the LNER King’s Cross crane) which were summoned, with crews, to the Martin Mill Military Railway in Kent as and when required.  This railway was built to erect and service some 9.5” calibre guns plus two gigantic 14” calibre cross-channel guns known as “Winnie” and “Pooh” and three cranes were needed to handle the two largest guns (which were spare battleship guns) since their weight was such that it required one crane to lift the muzzle and two in tandem to lift the breech end of the barrel. The two 1931-built Craven 50-ton cranes and at least one of the Southern's 36-ton Ransomes & Rapier cranes are also known to have been used at Martin Mill.

In 1941 two of the LNER’s new Cowans Sheldon cranes, those allocated to King’s Cross and Gorton, were requisitioned by the War Department for shipping overseas to support military railway operations in the Middle East, specifically in Persia (now Iran) where the ex-Gorton one survives in storage/preservation at Tehran station.  The LNER was contracted to convert them to oil firing, fit air brakes and dismantle them for shipping, and they were sent overseas in March 1942.  The Ministry of Supply immediately ordered two replacement cranes from Ransomes & Rapier for the LNER and these were delivered in 1943.

The railways were a prime target for bombing by the German air force during the war, with depots, permanent way and trains each suffering assault.  Even if a targeted train was missed, the track could be damaged and cause a derailment.  This all put a considerable strain on an already busy breakdown crane service, and the difficulties were made worse by the loss of skilled staff through enemy action and conscription.  To exacerbate matters, it was necessary for as much as possible of the breakdown work to be carried out in the daytime because it was close to impossible to work on a dark night without lighting the accident scene and thus becoming susceptible to attack by enemy aircraft.  To reduce the risk of damage to the cranes from enemy air offensives, many of them were stabled away from their normal depots during the hours of darkness.

The difficulties of operating under wartime conditions, with blackout and staff shortages to be contended with, and at the same time a vast increase in the tonnage of traffic to be moved, much of it of a very hazardous nature, inevitably resulted in an increase in accidents and incidents, and placed exceptional demands upon all the railway staff and particularly the breakdown crews.

In addition to the cranes built for use by the railways of Britain during the war, both Ransomes & Rapier and Cowans Sheldon built cranes for the military.  Ransomes & Rapier built six, each of 45-tons capacity, and Cowans Sheldon built ten, comprising eight of 45-tons and two of 30-tons, all of which were supplied directly to the War Department or the Ministry of Supply.

In June 1944 the SR ordered a further Ransomes & Rapier 45-tonner for Exmouth Junction to replace the 20-ton Stothert & Pitt which was unable to handle the Merchant Navy class.  The introduction of this class of loco would have justified a heavier crane even in peacetime but the increased chance of the need for recovery during the hostilities may have influenced the timing of the order.  However the crane wasn't built until 1945, with delivery in the November of that year by which time the war had ended.


Exmouth Junction's 1945-built Ransomes & Rapier 45-ton crane 1580S (later DS1580), preserved at the Mid-Hants Railway

1580S engine

Left-hand engine of 1580S

The crane for Exmouth Junction noted above was the last crane built by Ransomes & Rapier for the mainline railways of this country, though they continued to export until 1958.  The very last crane built by Ransomes & Rapier for domestic use was a 45-ton crane built for the Ministry of Supply in 1946 for the ranges at Shoeburyness.  With the exception of an order for a 36-ton crane placed on Cowans Sheldon by the LNER in 1948 (this crane uprated to 45-tons in about 1972), no more breakdown cranes were purchased for home railways, from any maker, until November 1959 when Cowans Sheldon benefited from a large order by British Railways as will be described later in this history.