The 'Hurban' Armoured train
located in Zvolen, Slovakia. It is not the original, but a replica used in a film. Only two preserved original cars exist; they are stored nearby in the railway repair shops at Zvolen, where they were produced in 1944
An armoured train is a railway train protected with armour. Armoured trains usually include railroad cars armed with artillery and machine guns. They were mostly used during the late 19th and early 20th century, when they offered an innovative way to quickly move large amounts of firepower. Most countries discontinued their use – road vehicles became much more powerful and offered more flexibility, and train tracks proved too vulnerable to sabotage as well as to attacks from the air. However, the Russian Federation used improvised armoured trains in the Second Chechen War of 1999–2009.
Design and equipment
A Polish armoured train, the Danuta
, in 1939. From the left: artillery wagon, infantry assault wagon, armoured locomotive, artillery wagon
A TKS tankette
used as an armoured reconnaissance draisine
, an attempt to overcome one of the inflexibilities of the armoured train - being limited to the track
The rail cars on an armoured train were designed for many tasks. Typical roles included:
- Artillery - fielding a mixture of guns, machine guns and rocket launchers. See also railway guns.
- Infantry - designed to carry infantry units, may also mount machine guns.
- Machine gun - dedicated to machine guns.
- Anti-aircraft - equipped with anti-aircraft weapons.
- Command - similar to infantry wagons, but designed to be a train command centre
- Anti-tank - equipped with anti-tank guns, usually in a tank gun turret
- Platform - unarmoured, used for any purpose from the transport of ammunition or vehicles, through track repair or derailing protection to railroad ploughs for track destruction.
- Troop sleepers
- The German Wehrmacht would sometimes put a Fremdgerät, such as a captured French Somua S-35 or Czech PzKpfw 38(t) light tank, or Panzer II light tank on a flatbed car which could be quickly offloaded by means of a ramp and used away from the range of the main railway line to chase down enemy partisans
- Missile transport - the USSR had railway-based RT-23 Molodets ICBMs by the late 1980s (to reduce the chances of a first strike succeeding in destroying the launchers for a retaliatory strike). The US at one time proposed having a railway-based system for the MX Missile program but this never got past the planning stage
Different types of armour were used to protect from attack by tanks. In addition to various metal plates, concrete and sandbags were used in some cases for improvised armoured trains.
Armoured trains were sometimes escorted by a kind of rail-tank called a draisine. One such example was the 'Littorina' armoured trolley which had a cab in the front and rear, each with a control set so it could be driven down the tracks in either direction. Littorina mounted two dual 7.92mm MG13 machine gun turrets from Panzer I light tanks.
Armoured trains saw use during the 19th century in the American Civil War (1861–1865), the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871), the First and Second Boer Wars (1880–1881 and 1899–1902). During the Second Boer War, Winston Churchill, then a war-correspondent, was travelling aboard an armoured train on 15 November 1899, when a Boer commando led by General Louis Botha ambushed the train. The Boers captured Churchill and many of the train's contingent, but many others escaped, including wounded soldiers who had been carried on the train's engine.
Early in the 20th century, Russia used armoured trains during the Russo-Japanese War. Armoured trains went on to see use during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and World War I (1914–1918). The most intensive use of armoured trains was during the Russian Civil War (1918–1920). The Spanish Civil War saw a little use of armoured trains, though World War II (1939–1945) saw more. The French used them during the First Indochina War (1946–1954), and a number of countries had armoured trains during the Cold War. The last combat use appears to have been during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
American Civil War
The most successful armoured train was a single car built to defend the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. The railroad had been attacked by southern forces to prevent transport of Union soldiers to the front; and snipers were discouraging men attempting to repair the damage. Baldwin Locomotive Works modified a baggage car in late April, 1861. A 24-pounder howitzer was placed on a swivel mount at the opposite end of the car from the pushing locomotive. The sides of the car were sheathed with 2.5-inch (6.4 cm) oak planks covered with 0.5-inch (1.3 cm) boiler plate. The end of the car around the howitzer was fitted with hinged 2-foot (61 cm) panels which could be temporarily lifted to aim and fire the howitzer and then lowered to protect the crew of six men loading the howitzer with grapeshot or canister shot. The remainder of the car contained fifty ports for riflemen. The car was effective for its original purpose, but vulnerability to artillery rendered such cars of comparatively little use during later stages of the war. In August, 1864, a Confederate raiding party disabled a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad locomotive pushing an armoured train; and then piled tires around the armoured car and set them afire.
In 1884 Charles Gervaise Boxall (1852–1914), a Brighton-born solicitor and officer in the 1st Sussex Artillery Volunteers, published The Armoured Train for Coast Defence in Great Britain, outlining a new way to employ heavy artillery. In 1894, when he had become commanding officer of the 1st Sussex AV, railway workers among the volunteers of No 6 Garrison Company manned an armoured train constructed in the workshops of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (of which the unit's Honorary Colonel, Sir Julian Goldsmid, was a director).
Second Boer War
The British Army employed armoured trains during the Second Boer War, most famously a train that was extemporised in the railway workshops at Ladysmith just before the siege was closed round the town. On 15 November 1899 it left the town on reconnaissance manned by a company of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers under the command of Captain Aylmer Haldane, a company of volunteers of the Durban Light Infantry, and a 7-pounder mountain gun manned by sailors from HMS Tartar. Winston Churchill accompanied the mission as a war correspondent. The train was ambushed and part-derailed, and Haldane, Churchill and some 70 of the troops were captured after a fire-fight, although the locomotive got away with the wounded.
World War I
French mobile artillery battery (1914)
During World War I Russia used a mix of light and heavy armoured trains. The heavy trains mounted 4.2 inch or 6 inch guns, the light trains were equipped with 7.62mm guns.
Austria-Hungary also fielded armoured trains against the Italians in World War I.
A Royal Navy armoured train from Britain, armed with four QF 6 inch naval guns and one QF 4 inch naval gun, was used in support of the British Expeditionary Force in the opening phase of the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914. Two armoured trains were constructed at Crewe during 1915 for coast defence duties; one was based in Norfolk and one in Edinburgh to patrol rail routes on stretches of coast considered vulnerable to amphibious assault.
The Czechoslovak Legion used heavily armed and armoured trains to control large lengths of the Trans-Siberian Railway (and of Russia itself) during the Russian Civil War at the end of World War I.
The Bolshevik forces in the Russian civil war used a wide range of armoured trains. Many were improvised by locals, others were constructed by naval engineers at the Putilov and Izhorskiyfactories. As a result, the trains ranged from little more than sandbagged flatbeds to the heavily armed and armoured trains produced by the naval engineers. An attempt to standardise the design from October 1919 only had limited success. By the end of the war the Bolshevik forces had 103 armoured trains of all types.
The Estonians built five armoured trains during the Estonian War of Independence and they had a key importance in recapturing territories captured by the Bolsheviks. They were under the command of Johan Pitka.
After the First World War the use of armoured trains declined. They were used in China in the twenties and early thirties during the Chinese Civil War, most notably by the warlord Zhang Zongchang, who employed refugee Russians to man them.
World War II
A typical Polish artillery car from 1939. Such cars were used in the trains Śmiały
Poland used armoured trains extensively during the Invasion of Poland. One observer noted that "Poland had only few armoured trains, but their officers and soldiers were fighting well. Again and again they were emerging from a cover in thick forests, disturbing German lines". One under-appreciated aspect of so many Polish armoured trains being deployed during the Polish Defensive War in 1939 is that when German planes attacked the railroads, it was usually the tracks themselves. As late as September 17, three fresh divisions in the east were moved westward by train. On September 18, three more divisions followed.
This in turn prompted Nazi Germany to reintroduce armoured trains into its own armies. Germany then used them to a small degree during World War II. However, they introduced significant designs of a versatile and well-equipped nature, including railcars which housed anti-aircraft gun turrets, or designed to load and unload tanks and railcars which had complete armour protection with a large concealed gun/howitzer. Germany also had fully armoured locomotives which were used on such trains.
During the Slovak National Uprising, the Slovak resistance used three armoured trains. The Hurban, Štefánik and Masaryk, which were built in the Zvolen railway factory, are preserved and can be seen near Zvolen Castle.
A Russian WW II-era armoured train with antiaircraft gunners
The Soviets had a large number of armoured trains at the start of World War II but many were lost in 1941. Trains built later in the war tended to be fitted with T-34 or KV series tank turrets. Others were fitted as specialist anti-aircraft batteries. A few were fitted as heavy artillery batteries often using guns taken from ships.
Canada used an armoured train to patrol the Canadian National Railway along the Skeena River from Prince Rupert, British Columbia to the Pacific coast, against a possible Japanese seaborne raid. The train was equipped with a 75 mm gun, two Bofors 40 mm guns, and could accommodate a full infantry company. The No 1 Armoured Train entered service in June 1942 and was put into reserve in September 1943, to be dismantled in the following year.
Twelve armoured trains were formed in Britain in 1940 as part of the preparations to face a German invasion; these were initially armed with QF 6 pounder 6 cwt Hotchkiss guns and six Bren Guns. They were operated by Royal Engineer crews and manned by Royal Armoured Corps troops. In late 1940 preparations began to hand the trains over to the Polish Army in the West, who operated them until 1942. They continued in use in Scotland and were operated by the Home Guard until the last one was withdrawn in November 1944. A 6-pounder wagon from one of these trains is preserved at the Tank Museum. A miniature armoured train ran on the 15-inch gauge Romney Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.