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The Luftwaffe Comes to York

The Baedeker raid on York and links to the history of the LNER. . . . . .

Wreckage At York

Air raid damage at York Station, 30th April 1942.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It’s April in York and the city has been remembering the so called ‘Baedeker raid’ on the night of April 28/29th, 1942, 80 years ago, which killed 92 people and injured many more. If you know your railway history you will know that some of the bombs dropped on the station and the engine sheds destroying and damaging locomotives. One casualty was A4 Pacific 4469 ‘Sir Ralph Wedgwood’, damaged beyond repair. 4469 had been known as ‘Gadwall’ but was renamed before the war in honour of the retiring Chief Officer of the LNER who had been knighted in 1924.

Wedgwood had been in at the start of the LNER following grouping in 1923. It was he and his colleagues who had been instrumental in appointing Gresley as Chief Mechanical Engineer and in determining exactly who would work where on the new railway’s network. In a letter to A Kaye in October 1922 he wrote ‘London is very much the more convenient location for headquarters, but York would probably make for the greater efficiency and popularity of the railway.’ So, York’s place in the history of Britain’s railways was confirmed. The top brass went to the former GCR station at Marylebone. It seemed a good choice, avoiding the busy termini at Liverpool Street, and Kings Cross with its ‘African village’ on its concourse but, for some, it was all too quiet and genteel. ‘Marylebone …. Is a pleasant spot, no station is so full of bird song’ wrote a Father Knox in the Evening Standard in 1926. Later, the LNER Chairman, Sir Ronald Matthews, was to complain that he ‘was distracted by the bleating of tethered goats’ coming from the parcels enclosure on the concourse.

Alderman Hatfield with Housing Minister inspecting damage 1945 (c) CYC Imagine York

The choice of Gresley had been an interesting one. The author and historian Michael Bonavia in his book on the history of the LNER worked his way through the runners and riders before concluding that only Robinson (GCR) or Raven (GNR) were worthy alternatives but both considerably older than Gresley. So, Nigel Gresley it was. Can you imagine that opening meeting with Gresley? ‘Well, Mr Gresley, at the last count you will have 7,383 steam locomotives, 4,863 with tenders and ten different wheel arrangements, and 2,520 tank engines with 18 different wheel arrangements.’ (Anyone care to list them all from memory today?) The authors Casserley and Johnson worked out that this amounted to 249 different classes, although the exact total is problematic – after all, what exactly constitutes a class of locomotives?

The 1923 grouping was a necessary rationalisation of railways though it didn’t work out so well for Wedgwood, Matthews, Gresley and the rest. An impecunious railway from the start, there was little money for wholesale rationalisation of locomotive stock and new builds in the LNER – and then, of course, there was the decline of traditional industries served by the LNER, and a serious economic depression.

Today you can stare at the faces of these men and read their biographies both in books and courtesy of Google. Perhaps, like me, you have the impression of well dressed businessmen with plenty of other interests but bound up with the tangled history of a railway company. You might know the names, of course, from that practice of naming some of the A4 Pacifics after them, at the expense of ducks like the Gadwall. In a recent article by the historian Tim Graves, the author discusses the relationship between some of them and their counterparts in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Professional visits were made to each other’s country throughout the thirties, a time of anxiety and conflicting emotions – to appease Hitler or oppose him? According to Graves, Sir Josiah Stamp, Chairman of the LMSR, was of the former inclination and led several visits to Germany. Gresley, though, stayed out of it. Perhaps he would have concluded he’d made the right decision after that Baedeker Raid but, then, he didn’t get that far, dying in 1941, ‘in harness’.

Towards the end of the war, some form of nationalisation of railways was in the offing, promoted by, amongst others, Sir Cyril Hurcombe, later Lord Hurcombe and a Britannia class Pacific (70001). Sir Charles Newton of the LNER (A4 class 60005) tried to head off the plan by proposing ‘selling track and other structures to the state, and using a landlord and tenant arrangement, (and be) then granted a lease to operate train services as payment of rental on transferred assets.’ Sound familiar?

The labour government of 1945 would have none of it, nationalising the railways from 1948. The shareholders of the LNER were not amused and, at their last AGM, voted against a package of £63,000 compensation to the Chair and Directors.

Interesting subject history. It tends to weave intricate patterns around what happened and when, who did what and why? But it’s easy to disappear into the books and the researches of others and forget the very human side of history, such as that dreadful night 80 years ago when the Luftwaffe visited York.


John Swanwick

If you can find it, a good read on the early years of the LNER is Michael Bonavia’s book ‘The History of the LNER, Part 1, The First Years 1923 – 33’, published in 1982.

You can read more about Sir Ralph here

and something of that Luftwaffe raid here

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[F02A, FO2B]

Princess Royal inspects the Guildhall 1942

The Guildhall ablaze 1942 (c) CYC Imagine York

Domestic bomb damage 1940 (c) CYC Imagine York

Bar Convent 1942 (c) CYC Imagine York

York-station 1942 bombing platforms-1-2-3-after-raid

Plaque at Grade 2* listed #York Station to commemorate William Milner and Robert Smith who died 80 years ago in the Baedeker Raid on the city

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Frank Paterson
Frank Paterson
May 03, 2022

On Friday 29th April 2022, 80 years later the Lord Mayor of York unveiled a plaque which commemorates the heroism of the two railway employees who were killed in the station bombing. The project was initiated by York Civic Trust the event was organised and sponsored by LNER.

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