U-534 and the U-Boat Story, Birkenhead

The very first attack by a U-Boat in the Second World War came very early on; in fact, on the very day that Britain declared war on Germany – 3 September 1939.  U-30 fired two torpedoes at the transatlantic passenger ship SS Athenia off the coast of Ireland; its captain, Oberleutnant zur See Fritz-Julius Lemp, claiming afterwards that he believed the ship to be military.  The ship took 14 hours to sink, so thankfully only 117 of the 1,418 on board perished, mostly either when the torpedoes struck or in an unfortunate lifeboat accident; the survivors being rescued by a mixture of Royal Navy destroyers, an American cargo ship, a Norwegian tanker and a Swedish yacht which all responded to the SS Athenia’s distress signal.  The U-Boats were to play a vital role in the war for its entire duration.

Adolf Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945 and, amid power struggles and personality clashes in the fading Nazi leadership, had nominated Groβadmiral Karl Dönitz as his successor in his last will and testament written the previous day.  Dönitz had previously decamped to Plön, in Schleswig-Holstein, in order to maintain some continuity of government – something which was unlikely to be possible in Berlin for very long at all, given the impending arrival of the Red Army and the inevitable splitting of German territory.  The advance of the Allies over following days saw those at Plön flee further north to Flensburg, with their area of jurisdiction contracting accordingly.  Dönitz must have known that time was running out for the Nazis, and concentrated his efforts on ensuring that as many German troops as possible surrendered to the British or Americans rather than the Russians.

U-534 on display in Birkenhead.

Dönitz had held the position of Oberkommando der Marine – head of the German Navy – since 30 January 1943, and consequently held the U-Boat fleet in particular high personal regard.  With the outcome of the war now all but a foregone conclusion, it must have been particularly galling for him to expect to see them fall into the hands of the enemy.  As a result, plans were drawn up under the name “Operation Regenbogen” for the mass scuttling off the fleet.  This order was actually given in the early hours of 5 May 1945, quickly superseded by the order that all German submarines should surrender to the Allies by 08:00 that day.

U-534 was the last U-Boat to have departed Kiel in the dying moments of the war in Europe.  Kapitänleutnant Herbert Nollau, the captain of U-534, which was sitting on the Danish seabed at the time, failed to obey the order to surrender, and along with two other German submarines, sailed north towards Norway.  Fatally, they were intercepted by two RAF B-24 “Liberator” aircraft, which succeeded in sinking U-534 with a depth charge; the other two U-Boats escaped.  Of her 52 crew, all escaped, although 3 of them died in the water.

Inside U-534, which spent 48 years (sunk!) at the bottom of the sea.

U-534 was not the only U-Boat to have made a dash for it in May 1945.  Under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Heinz Schäffer, U-977 was in Norwegian waters, under orders to proceed to Southampton to attack Allied shipping, at the time of Germany’s surrender.  Schäffer also elected to disobey Dönitz’s order, and instead to proceed to Argentina.  After first putting ashore the 16 crewmen who did not wish to go – on Holsnøy Island near Bergen, on 10 May 1945 – U-977 then spent 66 days underwater making its journey, finally surrendering at Mar del Plata on 17 August 1945 – the same location that U-530 had previously surrendered on 10 July 1945.  In addition, U-963 and U-1277 continued without surrendering, both crews scuttling their vessels off neutral Portugal with all hands surviving.

The question is of course posed as to what drove these U-Boats to flee.  Did they not receive the order, or did they have something to hide?  Kapitänleutnant Nollau was a prisoner of war until August 1945, and after the war, worked as a postman.  He committed suicide in 1968, having never spoken about why (or whether) he’d disobeyed Dönitz’s order, where he’d been heading, or why he’d ordered his crew to fire on Allied aircraft after the ceasefire had been declared.  Unlike him, Schäffer did write his memoirs, which were published in English under the title “U-Boat 977”.

One theory which has been aired on a number of occasions (admittedly with minimal evidence to back it up) is that they were conveying Nazi luminaries making a last minute attempt to escape the clutches of the advancing Allies.  The name that has most often been mentioned is that of the head of the SS; Heinrich Himmler. Himmler had been immersed in the aforementioned power struggle, and in his arrogance, had attempted to make secret peace dealings with the Allies in anticipation of his success.  These were published by the Allies and Dönitz had to dismiss him from all posts.  The accepted version of events of what happened next is that Himmler continued “incognito” with the vague destination of neutral Switzerland in mind, was arrested in Bremervörde, and committed suicide by concealed cyanide capsule in British custody in Lüneburg.  The “conspiracy theory” is that Himmler actually made his escape from Schleswig-Holstein in a U-Boat, and the man who was arrested at Bremervörde was in fact a ringer……

Some of the damage sustained by U-534 leading to its sinking in 1945.

What is definitely true, however, is that Nollau’s vessel, U-534, remained at the bottom of the Kattegat for 48 years, being salvaged in 1993 and later transported to north-west England.  It now forms the centrepiece of an exhibition adjacent to Woodside ferry terminal in Birkenhead, the U-Boat Story, where it has been sectioned in order to show visitors the inside of the submarine more clearly.

Entry to the exhibition costs £7.50 for adults and £5.00 for children, although there are some good combination deals available – for £10.00 I was able to get a day ticket for the Mersey Ferries that also included the U-Boat.

Each cross-section of the U-Boat makes it easy to see inside the vessel, and is well labelled and interesting.  Purists may lament the fact that the U-Boat has been cut open, however it certainly enables the telling of the story to be done far more effectively – and, most importantly, it makes the attraction fully accessible.  I really would recommend a visit.

U-534 is one of just four German U-Boats that can be seen and visited around the world.  The other three are: U-505, which was captured by the US Navy off Africa in 1944, and is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Technology; U-995, which saw post-war service in the Norwegian Navy right up to 1971, is now on display at the Laboe naval memorial near Kiel in northern Germany; and U-2540, which has led a remarkable existence.  Still to properly enter service, it was scuttled off Flensburg on 4 May 1945 as Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in north-west Germany.  However, 12 years later, it was raised, refurbished, and joined the post-war Bundesmarine as a research vessel.  It is now on display at the Deutsches Schiffahrtsmuseum in Bremerhaven.


Of course, many more remain beneath the waves, and a good number have been found and explored by divers.  Some may yet be raised – in the mid-2000s it was suggested that U-778, one of those taken for scuttling off Northern Ireland by the Allies under their “Operation Deadlight” in 1945, might be brought back to the surface; it had sunk whilst being towed, so is in far better condition than those that were used for target practice.  However, this plan was dropped by Derry City Council due to the costs involved.  As nobody was on board the scuttled vessels when they went down, they are not classified as war graves, so would theoretically be far more straightforward to obtain permission to raise than those that were sunk in action.

Until such a day as that may happen, though, there remain just the four.  This is an astonishingly small number given that the Germans commissioned approximately 1,250 U-Boats into the Kriegsmarine in the Second World War era – of these, 783 were lost to enemy action, 220 were intentionally scuttled as part of “Operation Regenbogen”, 156 fell into Allied hands at the end of the war (most of which were then also scuttled), 50 were declared missing and 6 were captured in action.  The human cost was much dearer; almost ¾ of the men who served on U-Boats during the war were never to see it end.


By Hovercraft to the Isle of Wight

There is now just one place in Europe where you can travel by commercial hovercraft service – from Southsea to the Isle of Wight – and it’s great!

The Isle of Wight, a highly scenic island separated from the southern England county of Hampshire by the body of water known as the Solent, is a popular tourist destination – particularly in the summer months.  Tourism is crucial to its economy, and its direct value in 2015 was £263 million.  But, obviously, every tourist (and local) needs to cross the water in order to get on and off the island.

Car ferries and, more recently, also fast ferries – owned by the railways for much of the 19th and 20th centuries – ply the routes between Portsmouth, Southampton and Lymington and Ryde, Fishbourne, Cowes and Yarmouth.  A train ferry was trialled between 1882 and 1888 using the Scottish vessel Carrier between St Helens and Langston, however this came to nothing.

“Solent Express” at Southsea, August 2010.

Travel to the island beneath the Solent and through the air above it have both received serious consideration in the past.  A railway tunnel under the Solent was mooted on numerous occasions around the turn of the last century, most recently in the 1920s, but was not encouraged by the Southern Railway which had very recently invested in new ferries and piers.

Commercial air travel to the island dates back to the 1930s.  On 1 May 1934, Railway Air Services in conjunction with Spartan Air Lines Limited began a service from London.  C.F. Dendy-Marshall in his book A History of the Southern Railway (1936) rather quaintly describes:-

Passengers are conveyed from Imperial Airways, adjoining Victoria Station, to Croydon Air Port by motor car, and thence fly to Cowes; the whole journey taking an hour and a half.

This service was short-lived, and was the average holidaymaker was priced well and truly out of the market for it.  By the way, the unusual-sounding (to us) “Croydon Air Port” was London’s primary airport from 1920 until 1959, when it closed.  The airport in Cowes was at Somerton Aerodrome, now part of the BAe Systems radar testing site, and saw its last commercial air services in 1951.

However, you can still fly to the island, in a manner of speaking.  The fastest way from the mainland to the island is in fact to take a flight from Southsea to Ryde – by hovercraft – the only place in Europe where you can travel on one.

Hovertravel operate a service from Southsea to Ryde, with at least one departure per hour for most of the day, but, crucially, the flight time for the 4 ½ mile journey is only  in the region of 10 minutes.  The hovercraft can only take foot passengers.  The standard single fare is £16.50 with a return priced at £21.00, although they frequently offer some useful special deals.  This is slightly more expensive than the ferries, however the benefit is two-fold – firstly, you’re paying for speed, and secondly, it takes you right to the heart of the transport hub of the island at Ryde transport interchange (plus of course, you get a pretty much unique mode of transport!)

On board “Solent Flyer”, December 2016.

The convenience of the hoverport at Ryde is easy to see.  Just a 2-minute walk over the footbridge sees you either on the station platform of the Island Line (the only remaining railway on the island, which runs from Ryde to Shanklin and uses 1930s-vintage former London tube trains) or in the heart of Ryde bus station.  The hoverport at Southsea is slightly less convenient – being located some way out of the town – but this is more than made up for by the Hoverbus service to and from Portsmouth and Southsea, which costs £1.75 each way and connects into and out of each flight.

The Hoverbus at Southsea Hoverport.

To be quite honest, I don’t know why the hovercraft as a method of transport has not been used more widely.  Passenger hovercraft can trace their history back to 1962 when a service was operated between the Wirral and Rhyl.  Three years later, the first service to the Isle of Wight began.  Ryde is a perfect demonstration of where this mode of transport can come into its own.  Whereas ferry services must dock at the end of the ½ mile-long pier, and passengers complete their journey into the island’s largest town on foot, by road or by rail.  The dock cannot be closer to the town as low tide would leave conventional vessels unable to reach it.  This is not a problem, of course, for a hovercraft which can hover over dry land just as well as it can over the water.

1966 saw the commencement of cross-Channel hovercraft services, and in 1968, the first car-carrying hovercraft was built.  This heralded what was surely the heyday of the hovercraft; but in the face of competition from the then-new Channel Tunnel, and the increasing age of their fleet, conventional catamarans were the replacements when the last SR.N4 was withdrawn in 2000.  With that, and relatively little fanfare, hovercraft disappeared from the English Channel.  This left the Southsea to Ryde route as the last remaining hovercraft route in Europe – and, aside from a short-lived trial across the Firth of Forth, it has remained so ever since.

Hovertravel currently have a fleet of three hovercraft – one, the “Freedom 90”, dates from 1990 and will soon be retired, but the other two, “Island Flyer” and “Solent Flyer”, are brand new (dating from 2016), and represent a £10 million investment by Hovertravel.

“Island Flyer” at Ryde, December 2016.

So, this hovercraft service is unique in Europe.  But is its value merely rooted in curiosity, or is it a viable proposition for daily travel to the island?  My answer to that is unequivocally, yes! It is fast, versatile, very smooth and above all very safe.  If you haven’t already tried it, I would really recommend a trip to the Isle of Wight on the hovercraft service.

The Fehmarnsundbrücke, and the Cold War Threat

I recently wrote about the Rødby to Puttgarden train ferry, linking southern Denmark to northern Germany.  This route opened in May 1963 and slashed journey times for both rail and road transport between København and Hamburg.  Yet it was also a lesser-known part of the Cold War story.

The two ferry terminals were built at the points of each country nearest each other, which both happened to be on islands in the Baltic.  One of the consequences of this is that any journey from Denmark to Germany via this route not only necessitates a ride on a ferry – well, for the foreseeable future at least (construction of a fixed link will begin in 2018) – but leapfrogging a number of islands along the way.

Accordingly, the infrastructure that required constructing in 1963 was not confined to the ferry terminals and their associated roads and railways, but also two substantial bridges.  On the Danish side, there was the Frederik IX Bridge linking the islands of Falster and Lolland; on the German side, there was the Fehmarnsundbrücke linking the island of Fehmarn, on which Puttgarden port stands, and the German mainland.


The Fehmarnsundbrücke carries a two-lane road, a single-track railway, and a pedestrian walkway.  It is 963.4m long and is high enough for ships to pass under, and was built as a replacement for the little ferry that used to shuttle from the mainland to Fehmarn.  It was formally opened on 30 April 1963, although when severe weather had caused the suspension of the Fehmarn ferry three months previously, people had been permitted to use it at their own risk.  Its engineers were G. Fischer, T. Jahnke and P. Stein from the firm Gutehoffnungshutte Sterkrade AG based in Oberhausen, with architectural design overseen by Gerd Lohmer.

Lohmer (1909-1981) was a renowned West German architect who specialised in bridges.  In the wake of World War 2, he found gainful employment in bridge design – either on the reconstruction and redesign of bridges damaged in the conflict (e.g. the Nibelungenbrücke in Worms), or on brand new ones (e.g. the Konrad-Adenuer-Brücke in then-capital city Bonn).  In recent years, it has been granted the status of a protected national monument, and is well-loved by locals, who have nicknamed it the “Kleiderbügel” (clothes hanger) due to its distinctive shape, and adopted it as a local symbol.

The story would probably end here, were it not for the complicated and heated political environment which existed at the time of the bridge’s construction.

Photo from Bahnbilder.de by Matthias Mueller (http://www.bahnbilder.de/bild/deutschland~dieselloks~br-218/747468/auch-50-jahre-nach-dem-bau.html)

In 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis had only just passed and the Cold War was still at very real risk of turning “hot”.  The threat of a Soviet invasion of West Germany was one which was taken very seriously.  The area to the east of Fulda – termed the “Fulda Gap” – was generally considered to be the route the Soviets would most likely take if they invaded – as there was little by way of natural barriers to a massive tank attack.  However it was not the only possibility.

Denmark’s stance in the Cold War is a complex but interesting topic.  Breaking a tradition of neutrality, it was a founding member of NATO in 1949, which meant it courted hostility from the Soviet Union who now treated it as an enemy.  Denmark could well have held strategic importance for the Soviets – not least could it have constituted something of a stepping stone to Greenland, from where its nuclear warheads could have reached the USA – but also a way into neutral Sweden – from where Norway, and thence the North Atlantic, would have been feasible targets.  Sweden boasted strong coastal fortifications, intended to defend it from a Soviet attack, therefore an “entrance” via Denmark would have been a clever way for Warsaw Pact forces to circumnavigate them.

Occupation of Denmark would have put West Germany – and from it the rest of Western Europe – within easy reach.  The existence of the newly-constructed train ferry would have made the movement of rail based forces, armaments, supplies, and so on much easier.  Equally, it could have formed a route for Soviet forces that had already conquered West Germany, into Denmark.  In either event, the Fehmarnsundbrücke may have taken on an immense strategic importance.

As a result, the design of the bridge featured six “Sprengschächte” – or “explosive vaults” – beneath the tarmac of the road’s surface.  In the event of an invasion, explosives could be placed into the vaults by soldiers and then detonated remotely (from a military location approximately a mile away), thereby causing significant disruption and delay to the advance.  Fortunately, this was never required.  However, the remnants of the Sprengschächte can still be seen today – in the form of six patches of darker tarmac on the surface of the road, at the mainland end of the bridge.  You can actually see them in very brief passing on my video above – although here is a far more useful photo!

These were by no means the only Sprengschächte that were placed on German roads for this purpose.  Indeed, whole hosts of them existed in the Fulda Gap and were officially maintained up until the early 1990s and the reunification of the two Germanies.  However the fact that these existed within the design of such a famous structure makes them noteworthy indeed.

Today, trains from Hamburg and Lübeck to Puttgarden (most of which continue across to Denmark via the train ferry) as well as high volumes of road traffic, continue to thunder across the bridge, their passengers most likely unaware of what used to lie beneath.

The Rødby to Puttgarden Train Ferry

There are only three remaining passenger train ferries in Europe: one between mainland Italy and the island of Sicily; one from Sassnitz in Germany to Trelleborg in Sweden; and one from Rødby in Denmark to Puttgarden in Germany.

The idea of putting a whole train on board a ferry to cross an expanse of water is one largely confined to the past, at least in Europe.  This is predominantly due to the creation of numerous fixed links, such as the Channel Tunnel between the UK and France or the Øresund bridge between Denmark and Sweden, and also the proliferation of low-cost air travel making the rail routes themselves redundant in a number of cases.

Even the three survivors are under threat.  That between Villa San Giovanni in Italy and Messina on the island of Sicily is mooted to be getting a bridge replacement (although this is a very much on/off affair, most recently being declared “off” for the time being); that between Sassnitz and Trelleborg is an overnight, summer-only operation which has been suggested for closure on a number of occasions; and that across the Fehmarnbelt between Rødby and Puttgarden is being replaced by a fixed link for which the construction contracts have already been signed.


The proposed fixed link across the Fehmarnbelt will take the form of an 18 kilometre long immersed tunnel encompassing a four lane motorway and a double track railway, and will be the world’s longest immersed tunnel upon completion.  It will take 7 minutes to cross from one side of the Fehmarnbelt to the other by rail, and 10 minutes by road – whichever way you look at it, a significant saving on the current 45 minute crossing time by ferry for either mode of transport.  In addition, it will be far less susceptible to weather-related disruption.  The shortened travel time from Hamburg to København is expected to drastically increase traffic between the two cities.

It’s fairly clear that the pros of the fixed link far outweigh the cons, which are largely sentimental.  However, the good news if you’ve yet to visit, is that the construction work has not yet started.  It is due to begin in January 2018 and take 8½ years, so the train ferry would appear to have a good decade left.

I last took a journey on this train ferry in summer 2007, travelling from Denmark to Germany, and I found it very interesting indeed if, indeed, it felt like something of an anachronism even then.

As befitting the nature of Denmark, the journey from København to the port at Rødby is one of numerous islands linked by bridges.  After travelling via Roskilde, Ringsted and Næstved to Vordingborg (all on Sjælland), the train crosses first to Masnedø, then to Falster, and finally to Lolland on whose coast Rødby is situated.

It must be said that the scenery en route is not necessarily fantastic – although I thought that the views of the water from the bridges – in particular the Storstrøm Bridge – were memorable.  Lolland is also known by the nickname “Pancake Island” as a reflection of its flatness, and the railway is as good a way to appreciate this facet of its geography as any!  It is therefore something of a surprise to finally reach Rødby Færge station, its pylons and floodlights reaching higher into the sky than even the turbines of the surrounding wind farms.

Switzerland 07 252.jpg

The ferry connection between Rødby and Puttgarden commenced operation on 14 May 1963 – completing a direct link between København and Hamburg.  This was dubbed the “Vogelfluglinie”, or “bird flight line”, as it roughly follows a common migratory route used by birds.  The route briefly took on international significance in late 2015 during the EU-wide refugee crisis.  Large numbers of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Iraq and Syria, were trying to reach Sweden which was displaying a more welcoming attitude to them than most EU countries.  As a result, the Rødby to Puttgarden ferry and associated railways and motorways ended up being closed on police orders.  Reports described “chaotic scenes” where well over a thousand refugees disembarked from ferries arriving at Rødby, some “disappearing” to evade capture by the police, others attempting to walk up the E47 motorway in the vague direction of Sweden.


Both ports painted a sad picture of emptiness and desolation, and had certainly not only seen better days but had been constructed with the intention of handling much higher volumes of rail traffic than now pass through; indeed international railfreight via this route has ceased.  Rows and rows of overgrown and rusty sidings lay empty in and around the terminal as we edged our way towards the ferry.  Saying that, however, it is clear that the dearth of rail traffic must be more than compensated by the proliferation of lorries and cars, as the intensive ferry shuttle service is clearly supported by something!

The ferries themselves are operated by Scandlines and can carry both cars and trains.  Ferries depart each port at broadly 30-minute intervals, 24 hours a day – however only three in each direction convey trains.  There are four train ferries in the fleet, all dating from 1997 – two under the Danish flag (Prins Richard and Prinsesse Benedikte), and two under the German flag (Schleswig-Holstein and Deutschland).  It was the latter onto which my train rolled.


It’s slightly unnerving to be on a full size train just feet away from lorries and cars, not least for it to cross from land onto a vessel!  The train slowly drew to a stand on the ship’s single railway track within the car deck, and passengers were instructed to disembark and make their way up to the passenger area, mingling with the motorists who had just parked their own vehicles.

The crossing itself was admittedly something of an anti-climax. The Deutschland has all the amenities you would expect from a modern short-distance passenger ferry – shops, restaurants, etc – and the 45 minute journey passed quickly and without incident.  Before long, an announcement was made for train passengers to make their way back to the train, and after docking, the engines were restarted and the train slowly emerged from the darkness of the ferry’s car deck, back onto terra firma and into Puttgarden railway station.


Puttgarden was broadly similar to Rødby, in that it featured relatively nondescript 1963-vintage architecture simultaneously being heavily used and being slowly reclaimed by nature, depending on whether you looked at the rail or road parts of the terminal.  With a harsh wind blowing straight off the Baltic, seagull droppings everywhere (I have never seen so much in one place!), rust and foliage everywhere, it was not a place to remain in for long.  Indeed, it’s kind of the point of Puttgarden that nobody every does stay there for long.  The port complex (as distinct from the tiny village of Puttgarden, some distance to the west, from which it takes its name) exists solely to tranship people, goods and their vehicles from land to sea, and from sea to land, as efficiently as possible.  When the Fehmarnbelt fixed link is finally commissioned, will likely disappear from the map, its purpose negated.


You can’t help but feel that although – again – it will undoubtedly be a step forward when the tape is cut on the Fehmarnbelt tunnel, that it will be sad to see the end of something which has been a thriving, now almost unique, operation which has quietly gone about its business for well over half a century.  If you haven’t yet experienced the train ferry from Denmark to Germany, I would recommend building it into your travel plans before that day arrives.

Miklós Puskás – Hungarian train driver

Something a little different to my usual blog content this time.  Why will all the trains in Hungary be sounding their horns at 14:30 tomorrow?

In a roundabout kind of way, we are lucky to live in a world where the deaths of rail staff and passengers are rare enough to warrant news coverage.  Last year, the EU recorded that only 34 staff and 28 passengers died on the railways of its 26 rail-served countries.  Compare that combined figure of 62 with the 27,996 road deaths recorded in the same area during the same time period (data from World Health Organisation statistics).

That rail as a mode of transport can boast such an enviable safety record is largely thanks to the existence of reliable safety systems and the universal professionalism and diligence of its staff. It is therefore all the more galling when a railwayman loses his life through an accident over which he had absolutely no control.

On Monday 28 November 2016, a heavy freight train consisting of oil tanks was heading south from the Hungarian city of Gyordriven by Miklós Puskás.  As it approached the level crossing at Nyul, a grain lorry drove into the path of the train, and the two collided at speed.  A gallery of 25 photographs appeared quite quickly on the “kisalfold.hu” website, demonstrating the full extent of the damage that was caused to the locomotive in the collision – a warning though, they do make quite distressing viewing.

The locomotive that Driver Puskás was at the controls of – seen whilst still in the UK

Disregarding his own situation, the train’s other driver, who had been travelling in the cab with Driver Puskás administered vital first aid. However, very sadly, Driver Puskás did later succumb to his serious injuries in hospital.

I shall note without further comment that the lorry driver escaped without injury.

Driver Puskás’s locomotive – no.659002 – belonged to Floyd ZRt, a Hungarian private freight operator.  However, it was actually a British export – built in Doncaster in 1982 by and for British Rail – and along with a number other British locomotives, was only exported to Hungary for further use relatively recently.  Anyway – this background info is for a reason! – in the latter days of its life in the UK, no.56115, as it was then known, carried the name “Barry Needham”.

The locomotive’s nameplate in memory of British railwayman Barry Needham.

Barry Needham was himself a dedicated railwayman, who died in the train crash at Great Heck in February 2001, when a Land Rover and trailer left the M62 motorway, landing on railway property in the path of a 125mph express.  The express, on which Mr Needham was travelling, derailed, colliding with an oncoming coal train.  10 people died in the resulting devastation.  There has not been a more serious railway accident in the British Isles since.

Two entirely avoidable accidents which resulted in innocent people losing their lives as a result of road vehicles entering railway property when they should not have done.  The link between the two is admittedly a coincidence indeed.  However, both serve to underline that even with the railways’ fantastic safety record, any interface with roads – and therefore motorists – presents a higher risk.

This is not the fault of level crossings – although, in truth, level crossing risk is pretty high in Hungary compared to elsewhere.  It is worth noting that, last year (again, according to EU statistics), there were only three countries in Europe with more level crossing accident-related deaths, all of which – France, Germany and Poland – have considerably bigger networks.  Level crossings are safe if used correctly.  The Great Heck accident did not even involve one – the Land Rover left the road, broke through a fence and landed on the railway that way; its driver was convicted of causing death by dangerous driving.

I’ve included a video (above) which I recorded in Gyorszabadhegy, Hungary, on a freezing cold morning in January 2015.  It features the locomotive involved in the Nyul accident, hauling the same type of wagons, and I believe the Driver Puskás might actually be the man at the controls.  Coincidentally, Nyul is the next station line down the line, only 5 miles away.  If those tanks are full, the train will weigh somewhere in the region of 2,000 tonnes, and would take some distance to stop.  It certainly couldn’t swerve around an obstacle.  Perhaps food for thought if you have ever been tempted to jump the barriers at a level crossing.

Driver Puskás’s funeral service will commence at 14:30 tomorrow, 23 December (13:30 in the UK) in Dunaújváros, south of Budapest.  At exactly that time, the horns of locomotives all over Hungary will sound for one minute, in tribute to a man who died whilst simply doing his job.  I invite you to take a moment or two of reflection tomorrow afternoon as well.

The Vega-31 shootdown, 27th March 1999

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who was to remain in power until his death in 1980.  Containing six republics and two equally heterogeneous provinces, merely keeping peace between them was a substantial challenge, let alone growing them as a federative unit.  However, Tito “organised the central government to ensure his control but, at the same time, he delegated more authority to the Yugoslav Republics.  All Yugoslavians had educational opportunities, jobs, food, and housing regardless of nationality.  Tito, seen by most as a benevolent dictator, brought peaceful co-existence to the Balkan region, a region historically synonymous with factionalism”1.

Despite the fact that discontent had continued throughout the period, Tito’s passing, however, represented the removal of the “glue” that had held Yugoslavia together for nearly 40 years.  Unrest increased significantly after 1980, in particular that roused by Slobodan Milosevic regarding the province of Kosovo – containing, at the time, a 90% ethnic Albanian population, but considered by ethnic Serbs to be the cradle of their civilisation.  At various points in the 20th century, both have felt persecuted at varying times and with varying justification, and ethnic tensions have consistently run very high indeed.  Civil war erupted in 1998/99, placing tiny Kosovo on the world stage.

In order to try and put the brakes on the escalating catastrophe in Kosovo, international negotiations were held in a chateau in Rambouillet, near Paris, between 6 and 23 February 1999; further talks followed in Paris from 15 to 18 March.  At the end of the second round, the Kosovar Albanians signed NATO’s proposed peace agreement, but the Serbians would not, and the talks broke down.  In fact, the Serbian military and police forces “stepped up the intensity of their operations against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, moving extra troops and modern tanks into the region…Tens of thousands of people began to flee their homes in the face of this systematic offensive”2.  US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke failed to persuade Milosevic to cease the attacks on the Albanians, and on 24 March 1999, NATO launched an air campaign entitled “Operation Allied Force”, with the aim of forcing the hand of the Yugoslavian government to end the persecution of the Kosovar Albanians.

A notable event occurred early on in the air war, on the night of 27 March 1999, when a Lockheed F-117A “Nighthawk” stealth attack aircraft of the United States Air Force – 82-0806 Something Wicked, callsign “Vega-31” – on a bombing raid in the vicinity of Beograd (Belgrade), was shot down by a Serbian surface-to-air missile; the only time that one of these planes was ever downed by an enemy.  The significance of the event is summed up by the Stealth Fighter Association: “the unthinkable had happened.  A super-secret invisible Stealth Fighter had been shot out of the sky”3.  The pilot of that plane was Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko, who miraculously managed to eject from the stricken aircraft and parachute to safety.  He landed just south of the town of Ruma, approximately 40 miles west of Beograd – by yet more good fortune, and clearly assisted by the cover of darkness, his landing was not observed, despite there being some traffic on the surrounding roads.  The enemy were, however, searching for him – as there would be great prestige and propaganda potential in capturing an F-117 pilot – but although they located the wreckage within about 15 minutes, remarkably Zelko remained undetected in the shallow irrigation ditch in which he was hiding.  Zelko later found out that they had “unleashed a giant manhunt…involving Army VJ, police, and villagers in the area.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but much later through study and analysis, I guessed that I was somewhere between one and two miles from the crash site, which is pretty close.  I believe I was well within the most heavily concentrated area of search”3.  Whilst in hiding, Zelko felt shockwaves from further US air attacks on targets very close to his location.  On the ground, he was able to make contact with his Command and Control and relay his position (although he got the impression that there was some suspicion that he may not have been the downed F-117 pilot but in fact a Serbian ambush), however he was able to authenticate himself with some personal information.  He was successfully plucked from enemy territory beneath the noses of the Serbians by a daring helicopter rescue mission approximately 8 hours after landing.  A truly exceptional event and a Combat Search and Rescue triumph.

(As an aside, this was not the first time during the 1990s civil war in Yugoslavia that an American airman had been shot down, then rescued by helicopter.  In June 1995, during the Bosnian War, USAF pilot Scott O’Grady survived for six days near Banja Luka having been shot down by the Bosnian Serbs whilst flying an F-16 “Fighting Falcon”.  However, this incident is arguably more significant, purely because Zelko’s aircraft was previously considered impossible to bring down).

Despite their failure to capture Zelko, the Serbians of course trumpeted their success at shooting the plane down, and it remains a subject of nationalistic pride even today.  It is still common to see Serbian tourist souvenirs, such as T-shirts, on sale bearing the phrase “sorry, we didn’t know it was invisible” and a picture of an F-117.  The salvaged canopy of the crashed plane itself is prominently exhibited in the Aeronautical Museum in Beograd.

As a postscript to this story, it was widely reported in the international press in 2012 that Zoltan Dani, formerly the commander of the Yugoslavian anti-aircraft rocket unit that shot down the F-117, and now the owner of a bakery, had met with Zelko and the two had become genuine friends.  This was made into a documentary, The Second Meeting (dir: Zeljko Mirkovic, 2013) and gives an interesting perspective on the human element of warfare.

Of course, the air combat continued after this encounter, and got increasingly more intense over the next two months.  NATO record that “following diplomatic efforts by Russia and the European Union on 3 June [1999], a Military Technical Agreement was concluded between NATO and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia on 9 June [1999]”, and on the following day, “UN Security Council Resolution 1244 welcomed the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s acceptance of the principles for a political solution, including an immediate end to violence and a rapid withdrawal of its military, police and paramilitary forces and the deployment of an effective international civil and security presence, with substantial NATO participation”4.  As a result, after confirmation that the Yugoslav forces had begun to withdraw from Kosovo, Operation Allied Force was suspended with immediate effect.  It had lasted for 78 days.

The overall success of the operation has been queried.  Some claim that the damage – of all kinds – that it caused far outweighed that which it averted.  Certainly, the 14,000 bombs dropped during the 78 days resulted in a large number of civilian deaths – over 2,000, including 88 children.  One of the most well-known events was in broad daylight at Grdelica, in southern Serbia, on 12 April 1999, when two missiles fired by NATO aircraft struck a passenger train as it was crossing a river bridge, killing 14 and injuring 16.  The bridge was seen as one of many strategic locations targeted from the air; however, the bombing also resulted in the destruction of schools, hospitals, over 40,000 homes, and significant amounts of damage remain visible across the former Yugoslavia nearly 20 years on.

Despite this, it is clear that NATO achieved its stated aim – Milosevic did withdraw his troops from Kosovo, to ultimately be replaced by UNMIK (the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), essentially an international security force created to maintain peace in the province.  The international presence has been reduced since the Kosovan declaration of independence in 2008, but, predictably, the unrest in and around Kosovo persists.

1 Shapiro, Susan G. & Shapiro, Ronald (2004), The Curtain Rises – Oral Histories of the Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Jefferson: McFarland.  ISBN 0-7864-1672-6.

2 NATO (undated), ‘NATO’s role in relation to the conflict in Kosovo’.  http://www.nato.int/kosovo/history.htm  Accessed 00:04 8 September 2016.

3 Stealth Fighter Association (2007), ‘Blast from the Past – Interview with Lt Colonel Dale Zelko, USAF’, Nighthawks magazine, Volume 5, Issue 1, May 2007.

4 NATO (undated), ‘The Kosovo Air Campaign’.  http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49602.htm  Accessed 23:04 14 March 2016.

Naval attack on Scarborough, 16th December 1914

Today, I visited the Yorkshire seaside resort of Scarborough.  An odd thing to do in the middle of December, I agree, but it gave me the opportunity to reflect on a significant and still-controversial event from 102 years ago this week.

Around the turn of the last century, Britain had the largest and most powerful naval force in the world; its “two power standard” ensured that it was at least the equal of the next two strongest navies in the world combined.  After the declaration of the Great War in August 1914, Germany was forced to accept that its Kaiserliche Marine – its Imperial Navy – was simply no match.  Consequently, as the war evolved, they were forced to take to less conventional means when it came to naval warfare – in general, ones which did not pit the two navies head-to-head.

One early tactic of the Germans was to send groups of their warships to less strategic harbours, where they could attack British vessels whilst outnumbered, they could “draw the fire” of the British forces allowing other ships to lay mines in waters further out, and ultimately compel the Royal Navy to alter the disposition of its vessels in order to better defend some of these more unlikely locations.

A raid on Great Yarmouth had occurred in November 1914, but did not cause much damage to the town itself.  An attack further up the east coast on the morning of Wednesday 16th December 1914 was to feature many of the same vessels but, from a German perspective, was to be more successful.

The battlecruisers SMS Derfflinger and SMS Von der Tann were tasked with attacking Scarborough followed by Whitby, whilst SMS Seydlitz, SMS Moltke and the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher headed for Hartlepool, and SMS Kolberg set to work laying a field of 100 mines in the North Sea waters off Flamborough Head.

Scarborough, along with Hartlepool, was attacked as dawn broke at approximately 08:00, with very little warning for the people that lived there. The defenceless town was just beginning its day when 29 minutes of solid bombardment began, seeing a whopping 776 shells launched at it (that’s nearly 26 per minute!).  Initially the people did not recognise the gravity of the situation; as the Scarborough Mercury reported at the time, “numbers of people, in order to obtain a good view of what they thought was a naval battle, took up positions which they afterwards recognised placed them in great peril”.

Ultimately, 18 people died – tragically, 4 of them from the same family – ranging from 65 years old to just 14 months.  Many buildings were damaged; among them, three churches, the castle and the Grand Hotel, as well as two schools – but, luckily, the children had not yet arrived.  Scarborough harbour did not even contain any warships – just four fishing vessels, the coastguard station and the lighthouse constituted the attack’s maritime casualties.

The terrified townspeople took to the roads leading away from the town, and also its railway station, boarding trains to escape to towns and cities further inland.  Remarkably, they were passed in the other direction by daytrippers who had heard news of the attack, and obviously saw the opportunity to see “the war” at first hand as one not to miss.

We might run the risk of judging these people too harshly with the benefit of a century of hindsight.  Even by this stage in the war, very little had been fed back to Britain regarding actual conditions in the trenches – the war was still commonly expected to be over imminently, and the papers were full of propagandistic depictions of naïve young men heading away with smiles on their faces, expecting simply a great adventure with their friends.  Most people had no idea of the horror unfolding on the continent, much less the horror that was to come on the “Home Front” at various times over the next 30 years.

The British propaganda machine reacted to the Scarborough raid immediately; focusing on it much more than the far more effective Hartlepool raid.  This shouldn’t really be surprising – Scarborough saw almost entirely civilian casualties, and numerous deaths of women and children, as well as being a holiday destination familiar to many.  It could be considered to have brought the war to familiar shores for the first time.  Posters implored young men to “Remember Scarborough” and enlist for the armed forces.  In this respect, it could be considered to have been a long-term failure for the Germans, as it was ultimately used to recruit even more people to fight against them, and gave them something tangible to avenge.

All but one of the German vessels involved in the operations of 16th December 1914 survived the war, mostly to be scuttled by their crews at Scapa Flow in 1919.  The exception was SMS Blücher, which was sunk during at Dogger Bank in early 1915.  There, its unfortunate crew were the victims of German ingenuity – the vessel itself was intended by the Germans effectively as a copy of the Invincible-class battlecruisers of the Royal Navy; but whilst Royal Navy ships and crews were engaged in rescuing its crew, a German Zeppelin actually mistook the stricken and doomed SMS Blücher for a British ship and commenced bombing, leading to the withdrawal of the British ships and the needless deaths of hundreds of their own men.  However, that is a story for another time.

Kosovo’s Railway Graveyard

Standing at the erstwhile crossroads of the Yugoslavian railway network, Kosovo Polje – or Fushë Kosovë, to use its Albanian name – is a town approximately five miles west of Pristina, the capital of the disputed state of Kosovo.  It has had a turbulent past riddled with conflict – not least in the last 20 years – but, on a breezy afternoon in September 2015, it cut a peaceful figure.

Fushë Kosovë remains a railway crossroads, but its services are much curtailed from the Yugoslavian heyday – ethnic and political tensions have severed hitherto-vital links and reduced former main lines to branch line status.  As an example, our train was taken as far north as the divided and volatile town of Mitrovica, but the traincrew were not prepared to take it any further up the route towards Lesak, because “if the Serbs see the Albanian writing on the side of the locomotive, they will shoot at us!”  However, more about that another time…

One thing that Fushë Kosovë does retain, however, is a large railway depot.  It is where the entire fleet of the Kosovan railway is based and maintained.

Two Kosovan Railways diesel locomotives at the Fushë Kosovë maintenance depot.

However, the depot itself has another claim to fame.  It has a padlocked compound at its southern end in which approximately 15 locomotives are parked – rusty, faded, battered and derelict.  These actually hold the key to telling us a fair amount about the history of Kosovo since the war of 1998/99.

(Now, what I will say at this point is that, despite the tags, this is not urban exploration in its truest sense.  It’s not especially urban, and I gained full permission to have a wander round with my camera).

Kosovo, as a former territory of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, benefited from being a small cog in the big wheel of a relatively homogeneous Balkan railway network; Jugoslovenske Zeleznice (Yugoslavian Railways).  Rolling stock procurement was done on a “Yugoslavian” scale and therefore you would not have expected to find different types of train in each republic/province.  However, the break-up of the former Yugoslavia has changed this.  It’s just one more way that each republic can cement its independence.

JZ Class 661 diesel locomotive.

However, one thing that has all but disappeared elsewhere is any trace of the JZ logo, or indeed many reminders at all that the constituent parts used to be part of the federation with each other.

The Fushë Kosovë compound is an exception.  Here, the locomotives sit rotting, Kosovan purely by dint of being unserviceable there when the federation collapsed.  Nobody especially wants them, and in a cash-strapped environment, nobody really sees a need to spend any money on them, or more importantly, as their problem to do so.  Some of these locomotives will have not seen use since Yugoslavian days, many have certainly not seen heavy maintenance since then, as the faded painted dates on their bodysides attest.  The majority – if not all – will never pull a train again.

Jugoslovenske Zeleznice.
Jugoslovenske Zeleznice.
A reminder of when Kosovo Polje (Fushë Kosovë) reported to Beograd (Belgrade). Nowadays they are not even in the same country.

Kosovo will be most well-known – certainly to people of my generation – as being the scene of deep-set tension between ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs, and most notably, the attempt of Slobodan Milosevic’s government to brutally suppress the Kosovo Liberation Army’s campaign for independence which erupted into civil war in 1998/99.  Between March and June 1999, our TV screens were full of images of the 78-day NATO bombing campaign – “Operation Allied Force” – carried out with the intention of removing Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo.  Milosevic accepted the terms of an international peace plan, and the UN deployed a security presence in Kosovo, the “United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo” (UNMIK); NATO also deployed peacekeepers – the Kosovo Force (KFOR).  KFOR supported UNMIK’s work, but, as befitted their parentage, there was no chain of command between the two.

KFOR and United Nations (UNMIK) logos on a former French Railways (SNCF) diesel

KFOR were up against a difficult task and it became clear that, dilapidated as they may be, the Kosovan railways would be integral to their operations.  Initially, the British Army (79 Railway Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps) was in charge of railway operations for KFOR.

79 Railway Squadron had been present in West Germany during the Cold War which, had it turned “hot” and escalated into conflict between East and West, would have seen the squadron operate a support network of railway services using Class 216 diesel-hydraulic locomotives (on which the crews had been fully trained).  Sadly, the British Army no longer maintains a railway operating capability – if required in the future, these duties will be carried out by civilians instead.

The Italian Railway Regiment took over in the September, providing 120 specially-trained railwaymen and women, who were veterans of the Bosnian railway rebuilding earlier in the decade and therefore more than able to carry out what was required of them.  They brought their own train, the Rapid Reaction Train, in order to assist, which arrived in the October.

79 Railway Squadron of the Royal Logistic Corps (British Army)

As an aside, this wasn’t the first train to run all the way through to Kosovo.  A remarkable train had operated in September 1999 in connection with the KFOR operations, all the more special as it was a charity endeavour.  What was called the “Train for Life” took three ex-British Rail Class 20 diesel locomotives and their train from London all the way through to Kosovo, arriving in Fushë Kosovë – not without some resistance en route! – on 27 September.  It was conveying 15 carriages of donated clothes, food and medical supplies, as well as educational material and other items to assist with the rebuilding of Kosovo.  Key to this was the train itself.  The three British locomotives then remained in Kosovo for a while, operating trains for KFOR, eventually returning to Britain where they re-entered service on less prestigious duties.


The reconstruction and recommissioning of the railway network in Kosovo continued.  At this point, it’s important to point out that not all the work was done by soldiers – at all points they were assisted by railwaymen who had previously worked for the JZ and gave their labour for free.  In the same way that railwaymen have in divided communities the world over, ethnic Albanian railwaymen worked alongside ethnic Serb railwaymen – the common bond of the railway proving strong.

Piece by piece, the damaged and severed railway lines were brought back into use, predominantly for the transportation of supplies (both of a construction and a humanitarian nature).  As well as assisting in the general rebuilding of Kosovo, this proved great for morale.  A NATO article in 1999 quoted Pejë stationmaster, Muharrem Ukaj, as saying on the event of the first train back to his station after the reopening of the line: “This is a big day.  I am full of feeling, almost about to cry”.  The recommencement of trains was one very forceful sign that life might be returning to normal (whatever “normal” was).


In December 1999, the railways were opened up for the use of civilian passengers – for free; 20,000 people travelled in the first three months.

UNMIK’s mandate was, and is, “to help ensure conditions for a peaceful and normal life for all inhabitants of Kosovo and advance regional stability in the Western Balkans”.  This included the eventual transition of the management of the railways (along with other services) back to civilians.  The operation of the trains remained under the control of KFOR, until it was handed over to UNMIK in March 2001, and then to local civilian management.

Former Deutsche Bundesbahn (West German Railways) diesel shunter – showing its last overhaul was in November 1984 in Munich

One notable thing about Fushë Kosovë, and the Kosovan railways in general, is the remarkable variety of trains that can now be found there.  This can largely be attributed to KFOR.  Only three ex-JZ locomotives were fit to be used for KFOR’s post-war railway operations.  All of the others – which remain in the compound – were simply no prospect for renovation, having stood neglected for too long, or suffered severe mechanical failure or damage in the past (or both!).

It was therefore up to KFOR (and, it transpired, its successors) to source alternative rolling stock to use.  Some of the nations working as part of KFOR came up trumps here.  Locomotives and railcars were donated or borrowed from service in the UK, France, Italy and Germany; although it followed that as these were the ones most easily spared from their “day jobs”, they were generally near to the end of their service lives or already surplus to requirements.  The British and German rolling stock was repatriated for further use,  whereas the French and Italian rolling stock is still at Fushë Kosovë – depressingly, it was used until it broke down and then was unceremoniously parked up amidst the weeds, its purpose served.

Nohab locomotive imported from Norway – still in use until recently

Four Norwegian diesel locomotives were donated to Kosovo as “start-up aid” in 2001.  These, too, are all now out of service. In addition, a fairly extensive amount of Swedish rolling stock was acquired towards the middle of the decade.  The network appears to go through cycles of acquiring another country’s cast-offs, using it until it breaks, then repeat ad nauseam. This may seem wasteful on the face of it, but it makes commercial sense for such a small, cash-strapped organisation to operate in this manner – especially if it can negotiate to acquire the replacement stock as an economic donation.

Kosovo declared their independence from Serbia in February 2008, and although this has not been universally recognised, it certainly did mark a watershed in the evolution of the former Yugoslavia.  “The youngest country in Europe” certainly feels as if it is developing, and although parts of it seem crushingly down-at-heel, its people are on the whole positive, the younger generations multi-lingual and technology-literate with a clear yearning to better both themselves and their environment.


It would be misleading to intimate that Kosovo has been a calm place since the end of the civil war, over 17 years ago.  Violent clashes are frequently seen in response to what might be seen by outsiders as relatively innocuous stimuli.  Some claim that Kosovo is a hotbed of Islamic extremism and recruitment for Isis; although it is considered as one of the most pro-American societies in the world, its citizens still grateful for NATO’s efforts to remove the Serbian oppressors in 1999.  One thing is for certain, Kosovo has changed much for the better since Pristina was a daily fixture on the TV news, but it will continue to develop, and the manner in which it does so remains to be seen.

The majority of these locomotives have remained largely untouched in their compound through numerous conflicts and changes of ideology.  Ultimately, I suspect that they will stay there until such a time as the price of scrap metal picks up.  However, until that time, a small snapshot of both the former Yugoslavia, and the collective effort to help rebuild Kosovo after the civil war, will continue to decay in a padlocked compound in Fushë Kosovë.


Lt Cdr John “Jock” Moffat 1919-2016

Click here to read the article on the Royal Navy website

When the German battleship Bismarck sank the much-loved and vaunted Royal Navy flagship HMS Hood at 06:00 on 24 May 1941, with the heartbreaking loss of 1,415 of her 1,418 souls, it was a national tragedy.  Vengeance was sought against the vessel that had destroyed the ship that had taken on almost mythical connotations amongst the British people.

Just two days later, the Bismarck‘s fate was sealed by a torpedo dropped by a Fairey Swordfish from the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal.  The pilot of that Swordfish sadly passed away yesterday, 11 December 2016, at the age of 97.  That torpedo made the big German battleship unmaneuverable, and she limped around uncontrollably for over 12 hours before her crew scuttled her, by that time under intense fire from four Royal Navy warships which had caught up with the stricken vessel.  (There is, perhaps, a poetic irony to the one of the world’s most modern vessels being incapacitated by a rickety old biplane!).

As part of the story, however, it should also be remembered that over 2,000 of the 2,200 on board the Bismarck perished too; loss of life on both sides on a tragic scale.

Marshal Tito’s Blue Train

For people of my generation, Belgrade (Beograd) was notable from school textbooks as the capital of Yugoslavia, and its burning buildings were sadly a regular sight on the TV news as it was pounded by NATO aerial bombardment.

Nowadays, Beograd is the capital of modern-day Serbia, and its post-war incarnation is beginning to thrive once again.  This brief article is about something lurking within a shed in one of its southern suburbs…

The socialist federation of Yugoslavia was born out of the Second World War under the direction of Marshal Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980), a key figure of the wartime resistance.

From 1947, he used the Blue Train to both travel around and entertain and impress guests; in much the same vein as the British Royal Family’s own private train.  The Blue Train was the epitome of luxury, being essentially a hotel on wheels – it included bathrooms, suites, and copious amounts of leather and wood panelling.  As a feather in the cap and a demonstration of Yugoslavia’s increasing prosperity, virtually every material that went into it was locally sourced.

This special train was greeted rapturously by the locals wherever it passed through.  It was routinely hauled by three dedicated steam locomotives, one of which is now plinthed and on display at the side of Beograd’s main railway station.  As part of the ongoing modernisation of Yugoslavia, these were replaced in 1957 by three West German-built Class 761 diesel-hydraulics, named “Dinara”, “Kozara” and “Sutjeska” in honour of important Second World War battles fought in the Balkans.

The provenance of these showcase locomotives is interesting and reflects the complex political history of mid-20th century Yugoslavia.  Tito’s Communist and (particularly) anti-Nazi pedigree and is established fact; therefore it is entirely natural that a Yugoslavia under his leadership would emerge from the war aligned with Soviet Russia.  However, Tito was less loyal to Stalin than the leaders of the Communist states in Eastern Europe.  He had less reason to be; the Red Army had played a considerably lesser role in the liberation of Yugoslavia from the Nazis than, say, Czechoslovakia or (East) Germany – in fact, much of the credit for it might well be laid at the door of Tito’s own partisans.  Tito’s insistence on pursuing what he saw as Yugoslavia’s own path – whether or not Stalin approved – angered the Soviet leader greatly and resulted in Yugoslavia being expelled from Cominform in June 1948.  Despite relations thawing after Stalin’s death amid Khrushchev’s general policy of “de-Stalinisation”, the rift was never fully healed.

However, far from hamstringing Yugoslavia, it arguably was the making of it.  Yugoslavia was able to pursue a more nationalistic approach to socialism, which led to a notable economic boom, and the fact that it was not aligned with either “East” or “West” meant that it was able to establish trade relations with both sides.  Therefore, whilst its Eastern European neighbours were sourcing locomotives from behind the Iron Curtain, Yugoslavia was able to look further afield.  This middle ground was not, however, always a blessing: it meant that as well as embracing both sides, Yugoslavia needed to maintain defence plans against them both too.  It did, however, mean that the Blue Train saw a wide range of guests, from Gaddafi, Ceaucescu and Brezhnev to Arafat, Mitterand and our very own Queen!

If buying locos manufactured in the Munich suburbs would’ve annoyed Moscow as the Cold War reached its tensest period (and the Hungarian Railways’ purchase of a small fleet of Swedish-built diesels in the early 1960s certainly did; further orders were forbidden and less reliable Soviet-built locomotives “recommended” instead), then the direction of Yugoslavian locomotive procurement through the 1960s would have enraged them.  Almost all of the mainline diesel locomotives bought for use in Yugoslavia were products of the American giant General Motors; built either in North America or under licence in Yugoslavia.  As in their homeland, these proved themselves incredibly reliable over the challenging and often mountainous terrain of many of the Balkan routes, and many are still in service today.

It is also from this source that the next generation of Blue Train locomotives were obtained.  In 1978, the three German locomotives were withdrawn from their special duties.  They now stand rusting away in sidings in Topcider, a southern suburb of Beograd.

The three 1957-vintage Blue Train locomotives at Topcider in 2015 – from Google Street View!

They were replaced by four brand-new General Motors Class 666 diesel-electric locomotives; the first three inheriting the previous battle-inspired names and the fourth having the title “Neretva” bestowed upon it, on the same theme.

However, the GMs’ most notable duty was to be Tito’s final journey.  After a protracted illness, the dictator died on 4 May 1980 in a Ljubljana hospital.  The Blue Train – hauled by 666.003 “Sutjeska” and 666.004 “Neretva” – conveyed his remains, departing Ljubljana at 08:20 the next day and, after a break in Zagreb, arrived in Beograd approximately six hours later.  Tito was buried in the “House of Flowers” there three days later.

Although the Blue Train is seen as “Tito’s”, it continued to operate after his death, conveying the new order of Yugoslavian top brass.  An example of its use was to take Slobodan Milosevic to Kosovo Polje in order for him to give the infamous speech to over a million people at the Gazimestan memorial on 28 June 1989.  This was one of the train’s last uses; its carriages were retired that year.

Quite clearly, this private train would never have been one that the likes of you or I could have travelled on.  However, parallel to the rise of “Ostalgia” in the former East Germany – i.e. a renewed interest and nostalgia for the days of old, both by people who were and were not there – we have seen the emergence of “Yugonostalgia”.  Perhaps it is not surprising that people should hanker after the “good old days” of Tito’s reign.  History has tended to routinely bestow the title of “benevolent dictator” upon him; what is undeniable is that he ensured that the six republics and two provinces that made up Yugoslavia both thrived economically and co-existed reasonably peacefully for the duration of his tenure, whereas the decline and conflict that occurred there in the two decades following his death has left an indelible mark both literally and metaphorically.

To feed on the renewed interest in pre-1980 Yugoslavia, some of the carriages have been retained in working order for private charters and, from 2013, conveyed tourists along the stunningly scenic 300-mile route from Beograd to the Montenegrin sea port of Bar.  Interestingly, this route passes through that country’s capital Podgorica, which was named Titograd for a number of decades when in Yugoslavia (its airport code is still “TGD”, to act as just a small reminder of the pre-1992 world!).  Perhaps surprisingly, given the palatial surroundings of the train and the associated prestige of sharing environs with the ghosts of the world leaders of the past, tickets were available on board this special train from the equivalent of just £129.  It appeared popular, however the severe flooding that affected much of the Balkans in May 2014 severed the railway, and although it reopened fully a year later, it is unclear as to whether the Blue Train has resumed operation.  The excellent “Man in Seat 61” website advises that it has not; Serbian Railways (Železnice Srbije; ZS) do still however advertise it on their website.

Here is a photo of the Blue Train in recent years, complete with one of the 1978-built locomotives

As a footnote, one of the Blue Train locomotives from Tito’s funeral train – 666.003 “Sutjeska” – was returned to operation for ŽS in 2013 – which was an event deemed worthy of the national news! – and so ensured that at least one part of the legacy of a very famous train will continue to grace the iron road for some time to come.