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#VE75 – The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Light Railway and the war effort.

What links Chitty Bang Bang, a Cartoon Dog, and the World’s Smallest Armoured Train?

The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a 15” gauge light railway in Kent.   Fondly known as Kent’s Mainline in Miniature. Originally constructed back in the 1920’s it was the brainchild of Captain J.E.P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski.

Captain Howey was a racing driver millionaire, land owner and former army officer. Count Zborowski was an eminently well-known racing driver famous for owning and racing the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Mercedes. They became friends through their love of racing.

The Count was very keen to build a fully operational 15” gauge railway and Howey was inspired by Zborowski’s vision. Despite a failed attempt to purchase The Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway in The Lake District, the Count went ahead and ordered two Pacific 4-6-2 Locomotives (Green Goddess and Northern Chief). These engines were to be designed by Henry Greenly and built in Colchester by Davey, Paxman and Company. Sadly, before they were delivered Count Zborowski was killed whilst racing at Monza in the Italian Grand Prix. He died on 19th October 1924 at only 29 years of age.

Captain Howey was left with two 15” gauge locomotives and no track to run them on. He commissioned Henry Greenly to help him find a site for his railway and it was Greenly who suggested Romney Marsh.

So it was that the first stage of the railway was finally opened on 16 July 1927 when Hercules (Mountain class 4-8-2 ) hauled the inaugural train from Hythe to New Romney. Captain Jack Howey always held the idea of extending the line and finally in 1928 double tracks carried the trains on to Dungeness via Greatstone forming a fantastic mainline ride of 13½ miles. After its opening people flocked to ride on the smallest mainline railway in the world.

Sadly, the war years took their toll on this railway, but also brought it great honour as you will see later in this text. The line was requisitioned by the War Department and was used extensively to transport materials, goods and personnel during the construction of P.L.U.T.O. (Pipeline Under The Ocean)

Operation P.L.U.T.O. was the construction and laying of an undersea pipeline between England and France. British engineers, oil companies and the British armed forces worked together to construct an undersea pipeline to support Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy during June 1944. P.L.U.T.O. Could also be said to suit the phrase Petroleum Under The Ocean as well as, Pipe Line Under The Ocean.   Either way it spells Pluto the name of the comic dog that featured in early Disney cartoons.

The pipeline concept was originally thought up by Arthur Hartley (Chief engineer with the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company). Allied forces on the European continent required huge amounts of fuel to mobilize their armies. Transporting the oil by tanker was impractical, weather conditions often slowed the supply, and tankers were very vulnerable to attack by German submarines, also a great number of tankers were already utilized for the war in the Pacific.

To solve this supply issue Geoffrey William Lloyd (Secretary for petroleum) met with Admiral Mountbatton (Chief of combined operations) during 1942 and they adopted Hartley’s idea of using adapted submarine telephone cabling to transport oil under the English Channel to Normandy.

Dumbo, another Disney cartoon character was the name given to the laid pipeline that ran across Romney Marsh to Dungeness and from there under the sea to France. On the Marsh where the pipeline crossed water ditches, it ran above ground encased in concrete, this can still be seen in parts today.

As well as playing a fundamental roll in furnishing the Pipe line P.L.U.T.O, during the war years the railway also boasted the World’s smallest armoured train. An armoured train is, as it sounds, an armour-plated loco pulling armoured wagons.

The inaugural locomotive Hercules was converted in 1940 by the Army to form part of the Miniature Armoured Train. The conversion involved fitting the locomotive Hercules with heavy armour plating and then putting her between two converted armour-plated hopper wagons. Normally, on full size railways, each armoured wagon would carry a QF 6 pounder Hotchkiss gun (originally a navel short barrelled quick fire gun), a Vickers machine gun (a solid reliable armour piercing gun) or a Lewis gun (a lighter smaller version of the Vickers).

Of course on the Romney Hythe and Dymchurch the train was too small to carry such large artillery so instead it’s armoured wagons were equipped with two Boys anti-tank machine guns and four old Lewis guns that were later replaced with Bren (light machine guns). The train was manned by the 6th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry and was credited with shooting down a Messerschmitt BF109, a Heinkel HE111 and a Dornier DO17. An honour indeed for a 15” gauge light railway.

Many of the Locomotives now operating on The Romney Hythe and Dymchurch are replicas of full-size engines utilised during the second world war. Indeed, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the battle of Briton in 1990 a replica plywood suit of armour was constructed for Hercules working from old photographs.  One of the armoured wagons was also recreated for the famous armoured train to run on Military Railway Day during September 1990.

In the future I need to delve further into our war history and the locomotives on this smallest of mainline railways. (Images sourced under Creative Commons),_Hythe_and_Dymchurch_Railway