When war was declared between Britain and Germany in 1939 the railways became an important part of Britain’s war effort. The use of rail to move vital supplies and troops around the country made the stations, goods yards and tracks a significant target for German bombers. This is demonstrated by a vital piece of evidence, a bombing map of Northampton, found in the wreckage of a Hienkel III shot down near Kettering in 1940. The Germans took copies of the 1937 Ordnance Survey map and reprinted it with their own key, “ Einzelobjekte” which translates as ‘picked out objects’ which the Luftwaffe wished to destroy. On this map you can clearly see the Engine shed is picked out as a target, along with the rest of the Cotton End Railway complex. It is marked out as a “Speicher, Lagerhaus” which means ‘warehouse, storehouse, shed.’
The government and the railway companies went to great lengths to protect the railways from German bombs, sabotage and espionage. One of these measures was to install a ‘starfish’ bombing decoy somewhere in the Hardingstone area, consisting of burning lights designed to mimic an urban area and deflect bombers from key instillations such as the Cotton End Yards, and the neighbouring power station.
“One incident that Mr. Beeden remembers very well during the was, occurred one night In 1941 when he and a driver of long standing, Bill Muskin, were locking up the premises In London Road. They could hear aeroplanes droning way over head and talked about which poor blighters were ‘going to get it tonight’ Suddenly they heard a whistling noise coming from the sky,and realising it must be a bomb, they flattened out on the gravel driveway of the station. Mr. Beeden. said’ my heart was beating like mad. I was sure It was going to fall right on top of us. The noise got louder and louder and then we heard a terrific explosion. The bomb had fallen Into the railway goods depot between Far Cotton End and the Power Station doing a great deal of damage. But no one was hurt, When Bill and I pulled ourselves together we were shaking all over. It was a very frightening experience, you see if the bomb had hit our station with all that petrol stored there half of Far Cotton would have gone with it.”
Extract from an interview by CE Eastwood with Mr. Frank Beeden of Beeden’s bus company
The clipping here from the Mercury and Herald (10th January 1947) describes the career of the retiring Works Inspector for the Northampton Division of the LMS, Mr C.A Smith. Of particular interest is the description not only of his service in the Air Raid Precautions service, but his role in supervising bomb damage to the railway in his area. At the end of the war the LMS recorded the number of bombs which had fallen on the railway:
|Civil Engr’s District||Permanent way||Bridges and Retaining walls||Buildings||Total|
Both the railway and power station complexes were also guarded by the Civil Defence Force, more commonly known as the Home Guard.
Although the railways lost significant numbers of workers who joined the armed forces, many were encouraged to remain and help run this vital transport network. Similarly men were needed to keep the power station running. However, these men were encouraged to serve their country by volunteering as Air Raid Wardens or Home Guard to help secure these vital sites from harm. The 12th Battalion (the 15th Battalion after a reorganisation in 1943) of the Home Guard had two companies based on this site. Employees of the Northampton Electric & Power Works, formed A Company to defend the power station, whilst E Company consisted of LMS employees protecting the railway.
News reports from the period show that the Railway division of the Home Guard were active in training activities and, drills and competitions. The Railway Division won competitions for marksmanship in both 1940 and 1941. Whilst a grand competition was held at Franklins Gardens in 1943.
The more serious work of air raid and invasion drills were also undertaken throughout the war. In May 1940 a town wide air raid drill involved the ARP and emergency services practicing their responses to various scenarios. Amongst the many ’emergencies’ they had to contend with was ‘blazing railway carriages at Beckets Park Bridge.’
Even more significant were the war games that took place in 1941, so that Home Guard volunteers could prepare themselves for the eventuality of a German invasion. Battalions of the Northamptonshire Home Guard defended the town from ‘enemy’ troops, a role undertaken by the regular army. One of the areas which was included in this exercise was the railway at Cotton End.
“The railway crossing was a natural focal point for ‘enemy’ attack and there was plenty of action thereabouts as a screen of scouts endeavoured to filter through the defence by cunning use of hedgerows.’
At the end of the exercise the defenders had successfully held out and the commander of the ‘enemy’ praised the ‘avidity with which the Home Guards coped with the parachutists attempts to pierce the perimeter of the defence zone.’ (Mercury and Herald, August 1st 1941)