The Railways of Ryedale in World War II

Those of you who enjoy ‘Heartbeat’ may be interested that the programme is shot in the village of Goathland on the North Yorkshire Moors between Whitby and Pickering. During WWII part of these beautiful moors was considered ideal for tank warfare training. The area north of Helmsley was used by several Armoured Divisions including units from Canada (who also had their countrymen based at the Wombleton aerodrome.)

The tanks, people and their equipment was transported by train, with the 30th Armoured brigade moved from the Goathland-Grosmont area near Whitby to Pickering and then on to Helmsley. The Grosmont to Pickering railway line is now a top tourist attraction, the North Yorkshire Moors railway and has featured in some of the Harry Potter movies and other TV and film sequences. It travels along Newtondale, a classic U shaped valley shaped by a glacier in the distant past and is an area I knew well, frequently riding my ponies alongside the rail line and admiring the beautiful scenery.

Patrick Howat has written an excellent history of the railways of Ryedale and the Vale of Mowbray which connected with the Pickering to Whitby line in my home town of Pickering.

pickering station

Thanks to for this image of Pickering Station in 1949.

The Army’s own records explain how the movement of tanks was carried out.

“The move consisted of five Armoured Fighting Vehicle trains from Grosmont to Helmsley and three personnel and baggage trains from Whitby to Helmsley. The move was a difficult one from a railway point of view as a considerable portion of the line between Grosmont and Helmsley is single line. Warflat train 9T47 was used and the move was worked as a shuttle system; the stock of the first train returned to Grosmont to be used as the third train, that of the second train for the fourth train and so on.”

“To enable the loading of as many trains as possible to take place during the hours of darkness, the scheduled terminal times were reduced to the barest minimum, just one hour. It was found this time was quite sufficient for the detrainment of a small train at a station with an end loading dock. The railway arrangements throughout were admirable.”

The Helmsley Station Master recalled they had tank trains every week, two or sometimes three, and at least 3000 tanks passed through the station. “On a tank train there were nine warflats, a store wagon, a guard’s van and one coach for the tank crews. They used to go up to Kirkcudbright for waterproofing for landing in enemy territory from the sea.”

He recalled they were mainly Sherman and Cromwell tanks, the latter being slightly wider than the wagon so had to be positioned very accurately so that four of five inches stuck out at each side, no more. Loading was in the evening and in the long dark of winter soldiers would stand on either side of the wagon and smoke a cigarette…. the glow was all the driver had to guide him as he loaded the tank.

As the tanks were loaded and unloaded they had to be driven along the full length of the train. One inexperienced driver ended up with his tank falling off, one track still on the wagon, the other on the ground. They tried to put sleepers underneath to retrieve the tank but didn’t work and it was an old County Council Road Foremen who told the Army Major what should be done to rescue the tank and it worked!

The weigh-bridge was fenced off to prevent it being damaged by the heavy tanks but the first one drove straight through the fence and the rest followed the tanks, much to the frustration of the girls who worked in the weighbridge office who had to put up with all the noise!

Ammunition and Stores

These came and went out through many of the local stations… there was a Royal Canadian Air Force base at Wombleton as well and the Armoured Tank units in the area. At Amotherby a Mobilisation Ordnance Depot was built in the village, and later became a Northern Command Supply Depot with food for the local camps.

Ammunition was dispersed into the countryside with hundreds of small dumps of the un-fused ammo spread in small dumps along country roads, behind hedges and in the woodlands; sometimes they were stacks covered by a tarpaulin or located in small Nissan huts…. no doubt the thinking was that lots of small stashes were saver than one large one should it be bombed.

To help with loading and unloading, the railway made special provisions. At Gilling a special siding was installed and at Slingsby a large concrete apron was laid alongside an existing siding, parallel to the main line.

Fred Wright of Slingsby recalled that sometimes a hundred wagons would come in a day. Two or three hundred soldiers unloaded them and took the contents for storage in the woods of Castle Howard estate. “One day when the ammunition train was in we were in the house and a man put his head in the window and said “Hold your hats on, one of the wagons is on fire!” Fred asked if he should get under the table and was told it wouldn’t make any difference as “it’ll just blow everything up.” Fred remembered “We got a bucket and everything we could think of and they came into our back yard and passed water from one man to the next until the fire was out.”

The Station Master at Ampleforth was George Kettlewell who recalled they received a lot of petrol in the yard which used to smell unpleasant. About half an hour before the first train was due a 2nd Lieutenant, a Sergeant and a Private arrived from Movement Control, telling the Station Master that, as he was not used to much traffic, they had come to show him what to do. The Army lads didn’t know how to release the points and only 8 wagons could get into the yard and the engine had to go out again for the next eight. The Army boys didn’t have a clue and eventually asked George what to do, but as he said, “you’ve already told me you’ve come to show me how it’s done.” The engine driver was fed up and went to the 2nd Lieutenant and said “Look there’s your car across there. Bloody well get into it and clear off”. From then on the railway men were left to get on with the job swiftly and efficiently!

Mill Lanel crossing Mill Lane Pickering

These two photographs are postcards of the Mill Lane Crossing, Pickering. Just south of here was the intersection of the Scarborough to Helmsley line with the Pickering to Malton line


Movement of Personnel

For large troop movements there were special trains but weekly leave was catered for by the usual scheduled services, with Helmsley and Kirbymoorside being particularly busy. Often men returned to camp on the early mail train from York to Pickering then picked up the 6.45 Monday morning train to Kirby and Helmsley. The railway staff recalled it was chaos off the first train from Pickering with most of the soldiers jumping off the train, over the fence and away…. tickets presented were often cigarette cards or tram tickets. Eventually this was reported to the Orderly Room and the next Monday morning saw the arrival of four Military Police who made the men line up and go through the correct ticket checking place.

Often despatch riders would arrive with tickets for men going on leave, all written out by hand to Alne where they would change to go to Scotland. This aroused suspicions especially when return tickets were coming from Edinburgh and many other places. It was discovered that the men had been buying the cheap tickets for Alne, rubbed out the word Alne and changed it for all sorts of other places. These tickets were then sold on to other soldiers for a profit. Local return tickets to nearby station Gilling were also carefully altered to read Gillingham in Kent! One man was caught and faced Court Martial for the offence.

Gilling was the only location where the steam engines could obtain their essential water, so it was a busy place with the additional tank and troop trains as well as the scheduled traffic. One of the local clerks recalled the water for the Gilling tank came from a reservoir up the hill at Yearsley, the same as the source for the local village. The thirsty engines would suck the tank dry and so cause an acute water shortage in the village. This was solved on Mondays when 2 men would come from York to pump water into the tank from the adjacent beck (stream) so the traditional Monday washing day could proceed as usual in all the villages’ dwellings.

Enemy Action

From September 1943 until November 1945 the Railway Company put on a Saturday “recreational” train to take troops to and from Scarborough for some R & R. They left Scarborough on Saturday at 23.00 hours, dropped off the men at Kirbymoorside and Helmsley and the train then returned to York in the early hours of Sunday morning. On 4th March 1945 the empty train stopped in Gilling to pick up Tom Inman a relief signalman to take him to Pilmoor. The train set off for Coxwold at 01.20 when the driver saw “a plane coming towards the line from an easterly direction and burst of gunfire heard; shortly afterwards a second burst was heard.” The train stopped at the next signal box where the driver reported he had been machine gunned. Tom Inman was found dead in his seat, he was the only person apart from the crew who was onboard.

On several occasions the line was damaged by bombs and even crashed aircraft. Craters were made on the tracks in 1941. Bombs exploded near the line between Harome and Helmsley in July 1943 but the trains were up and running within a few hours. In February 1944 a bomber crashed on the line between Sunbeck and Husthwaite Gate….it was a Royal Canadian Air Force bomber returning to Wombleton aerodrome.


On Wednesday, 17th December 1944 the crew of the Lancaster bomber shown in the above photograph were tasked with a night-time training “Bullseye” flight, a common training flight for crews at the Heavy Conversion Units such as Wombleton. On taking off from Wombleton at around 18.20hrs the aircraft failed to gain enough height to see it clear the first hill in its path beyond Nunnington. It hit telegraph wires to the south of Nunnington church and the aircraft came to ground shortly after at 18.23hrs close to Caulkleys Bank top. The pilot reported the aircraft had lost power on take-off and that control had been lost. It was later found that the aircraft’s undercarriage had not been raised prior to the crash and this would have caused the aircraft problems in climbing away. The aircraft was totally wrecked although two engines may have been salvaged with Cat.B damage recorded and re-used. Two airmen sustained injuries which were classed as serious and the other five on board escaped without injury. The full crew list is not yet known, although two names are listed below.

The crash investigation found that the pilot had not locked the throttles in place and the reason for power being lost was because they had slipped back on take-off reducing power. The flaps were also thought to have been raised just after take-off, possibly by mistaking the cockpit lever for that of the undercarriage lever, given the wheels were still down when the crash occurred this seems likely. The undercarriage lever on the Halifax was next to the flaps lever and this was a common mistake to make. Blame was put on the pilot and flight engineer for this and their log books were endorsed. The aircraft had been in service with 434 Squadron before it was issue to 1666 HCU.

Pilot – F/O J A Crane RCAF. Uninjured. Navigator – F/O A L Fieldhouse RCAF. Injured. Rest of crew – Names unknown. F/O Crane had a total of 218 hours flying to his name when this incident occurred but with only seventeen hours of these being on the Halifax type.


In July 1941 a passenger train fell into a bomb crater east of Coxwold… no one had heard the explosion, the wires were still intact so the first train of the morning was sent as usual from Gilling. The train derailed and a passenger ran to Coxwold for help. The driver was Jack Catling, the fireman Jim Martindale and the guard Joe Hanson. No one was injured, the driver because he was a small man and could squeeze out of the engine cab window, the guard because he was not in his usual place, in the parcels van which concertina-ed, he’d chosen to ride at the rear. Passengers all walked to Coxwold and another train picked them up.

After this incident, if aircraft were heard in the night, a trolley was sent to check the line before services commenced for the day.

Richard Boddy recalled one Bank Holiday when four bombs straddled Kirbymoorside station. They didn’t go off, one fell near the station bridge, one near Russells, another close to it and the fourth at the house ‘Moorlyn’ where the butler was found sweeping the still ticking debris from the lawn back into its crater!

Stone Traffic

As the war progressed it was vital to keep stone moving, the limestone for the steelworks and the stone to build aerodromes and keep roads in good condition despite the damage caused by bombing. The Ryedale and Mowbray railway lines were essential for this.

There was a daily train to the Tees-side steel works from Thirsk with stone arriving from the North Grimston quarries… the train passed through Coxwold around 10.00am and returned empty two or three hours later, travelling through the Burdale Tunnel which required several trips as there was a limit to the number of wagons allowed in the tunnel.

As the stone supply declined from Burdale, other sources had to be utilised and Hovingham became a place used for the supply of stone. Some of this was used in the construction of Wombleton aerodrome. It was known as the Welburn airfield pre-war but became Wombleton aerodrome during the war, was officially opened on 20 October 1943 and was the home base for a fleet of Royal Canadian Air Force personnel. Between 3000 and 3500 tons of slag was also utilised in the construction, all coming by train from the Tees-side steel works to the nearest station at Nunnington. The War Office provided a shunting locomotive for Nunnington’s small yard so it could move the wagons to the nearby coal depot and where they could drop the slag through the bottom doors into the lorries waiting below. The initial idea was that bombers could use this as a base but the runways proved to be not suitable for their heavy loads so the aerodrome ended up as a training base.

The RCAF were fond of their music and if they knew one of their own troops was arriving on the local train they would send a band, sometimes two to the station, set up outside the goods office and commence playing loud martial music, with no break if there were two bands. One day they set up at 03.30 in the morning much to the disgust of the local Station Master who asked them what they were doing. “We’ve come to meet the troops” “You’re on the wrong day; they are not coming until tomorrow!” Poor man was not happy that he’d have to listen to the “dammed Canadian Rocky Mountain Rangers” again the next day.

My father was an Air Transport Auxiliary pilot and would drop into Wombleton whenever he could as it was the closest airfield to his home village … the RCAF took him to spend a night with his family and the local taxi would return him next morning. One of the local observers told me they used to get a message from their Malton base that a plane was travelling through at zero feet. He said “We knew immediately it was Ronnie, he was below zero feet for us as we were up on a hill… he used to swoop low and flatten all the lads working in the fields!!”

Reference: Patrick Howat, “The Railways of Ryedale and the Vale of Mowbray” Hendon Publishing, Hendon Mill, 1988, pages 39-41 (ISBN 0 86067 111 9) and “The ATA, a personal story of my father” Caroline Gaden.

  1. Matthew Wedgwood says:

    A very interesting article. I wonder if you could confirm where the information on the Warflat trains came from please?

    • cagaden says:

      All the references are included in the article but the specific one you need is listed at the end : Patrick Howat, “The Railways of Ryedale and the Vale of Mowbray” Hendon Publishing, Hendon Mill, 1988, pages 39-41 (ISBN 0 86067 111 9)

  2. Matthew Wedgwood says:

    Many thanks, I’ll get a copy

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