WW2 Train Crash

Hush-hush Henstridge

A Second World War Transportation Accident

Henstridge Station. The smallest on the Somerset & Dorset Railway
Henstridge Station. The smallest on the Somerset & Dorset Railway

The chances of a vehicle falling off a road bridge at exactly the same time a train is passing underneath must be one in a million, but this is exactly what happens at Henstridge in 1944.

World War II:  Unidentified group of soldiers with army packs and gear at train station, London, Ontario

 In World War Two railways become an important arm of the Ministry of War. Due to increased war effort, many ‘Special’ trains are also travelling up and down the lines. The trains are not part of the scheduled service, are directed by the Ministry and take precedence over ordinary passenger transport. In the south west region Bath is an important junction bringing in trains from the ‘Big Four’ railways, including the London, Midland and Scottish Railway.[1] These trains can easily be filled with passengers from the Midlands, Nottingham, Manchester and further afield. A joint working arrangement gives LMS locomotives rights to use the Somerset and Dorset Railway.

LMS (London, Midland & Scottish) Railway Map c 1940sAlong this line is Templecombe, a major station, having a both a lower and upper yard, providing an interchange for trains travelling to Exeter–London and Bath–Bournemouth.   The next station is Henstridge, the smallest on the line. [2] It is a busy place, servicing more than 17 through trains per day and more than 12 stopping trains. Pressures of wartime means the little station has to factor in the ‘Specials’ using the line, forcing the regular, time-tabled service into the siding. [3]

The Somerset & Dorset Railway courtesy of The Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust
The Somerset & Dorset Railway courtesy of The Somerset & Dorset Railway Trust

The LMS railway connects with S & D line at Bath Station

By 1944 a combined fighting force exists. The American Army is in Britain. Colonel C O Thrasher, Commander of Southern Base Section, represents most of American GIs (Government Issue) based here. He has under his charge large numbers of U S servicemen who have been arriving since January 1942. [4] Part of 1302nd General Service Engineer Group are stationed in Henstridge staying at Woodhayes House, officers at Cross House and Inwood. They are involved in infrastructure work, building and widening roads, strengthening bridges and creating supply lines in readiness for D-Day in June. Local tasks involve building a second bridge at Lydlinch, strong enough to take massive tank transporters and other heavy vehicles to the Dorset coast.

Lydlinch WW2 BridgeLydlinch WW2 Bridge erected by U S Army in preparation for D-DayLydlinch WW2 Bridge alongside the original stone river bridge

Lydlinch WW2 Bridge erected  in preparation for D-Day

 Monday 13th March 1944 starts as any other normal day for the people of Henstridge: children go to school, people go to work and local businesses are opening up in readiness for their first customers. It is a normal working day too for the crew of the Somerset and Dorset railway.

Reproduced courtesy of Alan Hammond 'Spirit of the Someset and Dorset Railway'
Reproduced courtesy of Alan Hammond ‘Spirit of the Someset and Dorset Railway’

Fireman Ted Paulley 2LDriver Harold Burford 4LReproduced by permission of Alan Hammond

During the morning, driver Harold Buford comes on shift at Bath Station, taking over the LMS engine No. 4523, ready to steam ahead down the Somerset and Dorset line to Bournemouth. His fireman is Ted Paulley. The train is a double headed locomotive pulling 10 carriages crammed full of soldiers and needs assistance from Southern S11 No. 402 which is the lead engine. David Hadfield is driving and his fireman is Reg Gunning. [7] It is regular practice to use two engines along this stretch of the line due to the long climbs further along, particularly up to Coombe Down Tunnel ‘the longest unventilated railway tunnel in Britain.’ [8]

Full steam ahead! There are no planned stops for this train until it reaches its destination of Bournemouth Station. Travelling time from Bath to Bournemouth is about 2 hours taking in other steep gradients (1/50) over the Mendip Hills. The journey levels out south of Evercreech and continues all the way through to Sturminster Newton and beyond.

The route is one experienced driver, Harold and his crew, have travelled numerous times, but this time the engine is unable to ‘maintain steam pressure.’ Soon an unscheduled stop is made at Binegar to take on more water, ready for the next climb over Masbury Summit. [9] Bad weather is also hindering progress but with engines banked high with coal and reaching speeds of up to 50 mph, the locomotives steam along the straight, single line track from Wincanton. Passing through the crossing gates at Horsington and through Templecombe station, over half the journey has gone. The train whistles past Park Lane crossing and makes for Henstridge Station. Coming into view is the railway bridge under which they will soon pass.

It is a busy day for rail and road journeys.

Driving along the A30 are the US Servicemen in charge of a large lorry transporter. Today they are moving equipment. Sitting in the cab, blissfully unaware of the swinging hook on the caterpillar crane behind them, they begin to climb up the hump back bridge above the railway line.

What happens next is catastrophic.

As the train passes under the railway bridge, the vehicle directly above gets into trouble, hits the parapet and crashes through the side of the bridge onto the oncoming train.

‘The lorry trailer falls across the front part of the troop train’, breaks the coupling between the two engines and set them off on an unscheduled, perilous journey of their own. Covered in debris, the lead engine driven by David Hadfield is propelled ‘down the line towards Stalbridge.’ While the strength of the impact causes Harold Burford’s engine to career off the rails into a field alongside the track. It loses its chimney along the way. ‘The force of the collision is so strong it telescopes the leading coach completely wrecking it.’ [10] The three coaches following ‘leave the metals and heel over at an angle,’ and a further two are also smashed by the impact.

Watching the scene unfold was Porter William ‘Peter’ Jackson, standing right at the top of a signal post ‘putting the lamp back…after cleaning it and filling it with paraffin.’ Flying wreckage cracks off the bottom of the column, ‘snapping the signal off like a dry stick with Porter Jackson still up top.’ Clinging on to the tilting signal, he manages to go with it, dropping out in the field and re-activating an old First World War wound in his leg. [11]

There are many casualties, ‘at least six soldiers are killed and many more injured.’ The railway crew, ‘acting in the highest tradition of British Railwaymen’ take care of the safety of their engine and tend to the wellbeing of passengers. [12] Soon the scene is filled with help from ambulance and medical services. [13] Then the Army arrives and takes over, sending the crew off ‘to the Henstridge Station Master’s house for shock treatment which in fact consisted of a ‘good old cup of tea’. [14] Lorries come and take the shaken passengers away to spend the night in the district. [15]

 Railway workers from Templecombe are detailed to clear up the mess; amongst them are Bob Saunders and wagon repairer Clyde Gawler. ‘Several of the wagons had to be cut up and scrapped because they cannot get any heavy lifting gear there. It takes three days and nights to get everything clear.’ [16] Wreckage from the engines is stored in lower yard at Templecombe. The LMS engine 4523 is saved to run another day. [17]

Thanks to members of the Somerset & Dorset Railway community, the story is told. It should be relatively easy to retrace steps and find answers. Not so! Sterile press accounts, attributed to the secrecy attached to D-Day, hinder progress. The obscurity of any real detail, perhaps more readily accepted then, invalidates the ‘convenience of war’ theory 70 years later. If people died, unsatisfactory explanations then, leave un-answered questions now. Was the accident hushed-up? If so, was it a conscious decision, a coincidence or a cover-up?

  • Intrigue surrounds the soldiers involved.
  • Mystery envelopes the vehicle, not named as an US Army vehicle. What part, if any did the hook on the crane play?
  • The number of casualties – a significant difference remains between press reports and other accounts.
  • Vagueness shrouds a ‘Daniel Duffy’. A LMS employee, not mentioned as being on the train but whose death during this period requires an inquest.
  • ‘The Army arrived and took over,’ is this significant?
  • ‘Passengers are taken away in lorries to stay the night in the district?’ Where? Was this ‘official accommodation?’

What do you think?

This is proving to be another exciting and challenging project.
An opportunity to research a past event, known to only a handful of
living witnesses, combined with some real-time detective work to find evidence to verify the story.

The following people have been of great assistance in piecing together this account: Diana Guy, Bet Spiller, Alan Hammond, Bob Saunders, Charlie Brown, Daphne Rowland, Paul Brighten, Peter Clarke, Des Kingsbury, Mike Ware, John Gartell and John Froud. Special thanks go to Keith Barrett and Ian Matthews for displaying patience and good humour when teaching a novice all about the S & D and steam locos!

Copyright Caroline Rowland April 2015

We would be pleased to hear from you:

(a) if you have any information to add to the story and/or any photographs of Henstridge during wartime

(b) to receive proposals for further commissions

You can contact:

Colin Biddiscombe 07855695717

Pat Woods 01963 363259

Email pat.wood58@hotmail.co.uk

Caroline Rowland 01963 371795

Email carolinerowlandww1@gmail.com


[1]      The Big Four Railways, before post-war nationalisation were Southern Railway (SR); London, Midland & Scottish (LMR), London & North East Railway (LNER) and Great Western Railway (GWR)

[2]      Henstridge, Stalbridge, Shillingstone and Sturminster Newton stations opened on 31st August 1863. From the day it opened in 1863 until the day it closed in 1966 Henstridge Station was the smallest on the Somerset and Dorset line.   Robin Atthill ‘The Somerset & Dorset Railway

[3]      Railway timetables from Ian Matthews Collection

[4]      American Enterprise in Europe: The Role of the SOS in the Defeat of Germany by Randolph Leigh, Dwight D Eisenhower.

[5]      Sue Langridge Regimental Museum of The Green Howards and information supplied by Mike Ware

[6]      Rodney Legg ‘Wartime Dorset’ & http://dorset.hampshireairfields.co.uk

[7]      Peter Smith ‘Footplate over the Mendips.’ Thanks to Keith Barrett for the loan of the book

[8]      Railway Magazine online

[9]      ibid Peter Smith

[10]    The Western Gazette 18 March 1944. The ‘incident’ was also reported in The Western Morning News, The Western Daily Press, The Bath Chronicle, The Taunton Courier, The Dundee Journal and the Aberdeen Journal

[11]    Diana Guy nee Jackson, ibid Peter Smith & Mac Hawkins ‘Somerset at War’

[12]    ibid Peter Smith & ibid Mac Hawkins

[13]    Western Daily Press report

[14]    ibid Peter Smith

[15]    Press reports

[16]    Witness account Clyde Gawler in Alan Hammond ‘Stories of the Somerset & Dorset Railway.’

[17]   Witness account Bob Saunders and information from Mike Ware; the engine ran until 1960s.