CALL of DUTY The ROD 2-8-0s
They served in Europe – and eventually all over the world… RICHARD FOSTER tells the story of the ROD 2-8-0.
Just imagine the reaction if the RAF had used squadrons of First World War Sopwith Camels to fight in the Second World War, and had then called on them again for frontline action in the Middle East in the 1950s. Sounds a bit far-fetched, doesn’t it? Of course, this didn’t happen in the world of aircraft, but when it comes to locomotives things are different.
It’s well known that the LNER ‘O4’ 2-8-0 became the locomotive of choice during the First World War, even if the specifics of that story aren’t so familiar. But a lesser-known story is that nearly 100 of these venerable ‘Great War’ soldiers served in the Second World War too, and that British Railways sold five to the War Department in 1952 for service in Egypt.
The ‘O4’ story is unique. It’s an Eastern Region design, but it worked in all four corners of Britain in a way that no other class did. It also worked in Asia, Australasia and Africa, as well as Europe. The class also became a massive millstone around the Government’s neck.
Like all good stories, we have to start at the beginning, and that beginning isn’t 1950s Egypt. It isn’t even the Western Front – it began in Immingham.
The Great Central Railway was known for the fast freights and expresses of the London Extension, but one of its primary roles was transporting coal from Derbyshire and South Yorkshire to the Humber for export.
The GCR started work on a new deep-water port at Immingham in 1906, and it was due for completion in 1912. The GCR already had a successful mineral locomotive, the ‘8A’ (LNER ‘Q4’) 0-8-0 of 1902, but it needed more to cope with the demand that Immingham docks would bring. Locomotive Superintendent John G. Robinson got to work and came up with what was effectively a 2-8-0 version of the ‘8A’.
The new ‘8K’s’ boiler was tapered, rather than parallel, and it was superheated. The pony axle carried the extra weight and improved the ride. Cylinders were 21in by 26in and the driving wheels were 1in larger in diameter.
The first emerged from Gorton in 1911, and by 1914 the GCR works, Kitson in Leeds and North British in Glasgow had built a total of 126 ‘8Ks’.
The story might have ended there, as the general British attitude towards war in Europe was that it would be over by Christmas. But the stalemate of trench warfare had not been anticipated, which is why it took until 1915 for the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers to begin operations in France.
Britain had anticipated that it would use French and Belgian locomotives and stock, but both refused to loan them to the British.
Britain’s railway companies were now under government control and some 500 locomotives were requisitioned. Clearly, this state of affairs could not continue: the ROD needed a locomotive of its own and it decided to order some ‘8Ks’. The design was simple, strong and robust, but the decision was probably helped by the fact that GCR General Manager Sir Sam Fay was Director General of War Transport, and the chief of the ROD’s Audruicq workshops had once been employed at the GCR’s Gorton Works.
The new ROD 2-8-0 was an ‘8K’ but with some very subtle tweaks. French-profile tyres were used, Ross ‘pop’ safety valves replaced the Ramsbottom type, continental-pattern buffers and side chains were fitted along with re-railing jacks on the front running plate and mechanical lubricators were later replaced by ‘Intensiflor’ lubricators. The first ROD locomotives had a steam brake and an air pump on the right-hand side and a reservoir under the running plate just fore of the cab. Those built from the summer of 1918 onwards had air brakes only, the only giveaway being the extra reservoir on the left-hand side.
The tender was outwardly similar but the water scoop was omitted and the coal capacity was increased to seven tons. The first orders were placed in February 1917 and production continued throughout 1918. Even after the Armistice of November 11 1918, British factories were still working flat-out on munitions work and so an additional 196 locomotives were ordered in late 1918, the last being delivered in 1920, long after the war had officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles on June 28 1919.
A total of 521 ROD ‘8Ks’ were constructed: NBL built 369 between 1917 and 1919 (ROD Nos. 1787-2001/ 2008-13/2015-31/2033-44/2046-48/2051-84/2086-2167); Robert Stephenson 82 from 1917-20 (ROD Nos. 1633/1635-36/1638/16401700/1733-49); Nasmyth, Wilson 32 from 1917-19 (ROD Nos. 170132); Kitson 32 in 1917/18 (ROD Nos. 1601-1632); and the Great Central Railway six in 1918/19 (ROD Nos. 2002-07). Note that the number bears no relationship to the date the locomotive was delivered. The GCR’s order was originally for 25 locomotives but it was cut to six. The new locomotives were sent to France fresh from the factory. Initially, they were shipped from Portsmouth to Le Havre but the roll-on-roll-off train ferry from Richborough in Kent came into operation in February 1918.
Locomotives were prepared at Audruicq, near Calais. They were employed on troop movements both to and from the front (including moving British troops to help the Italians after the Central Powers victory at Caporetto), moving supplies and even working some civilian services. Only Nos. 1601-32/1647-95/1701-24/1801-1969/197299 and 2002-2004 worked in France, but this included locomotives that arrived after the Armistice had been signed. Although the fighting stopped, the ‘O4s’ were still needed: troops and equipment had to be brought home, and this continued until 1920. One particularly arduous ‘O4’ duty was the daily Cologne-Boulogne ‘leave train’ that took more than 20 hours to reach the French coast.
The locomotives that returned from France went into store in Surrey, while new 2-8-0s were put straight into store near Leeds and Immingham. Nos. 2005-2007 were stored at Gorton and were swiftly assimilated into GCR stock (apparently the Government was never paid for them!).
Some ended up with the GWR, others with the LNWR, L&YR, Caledonian, GER, LSWR and SECR (and later with the ‘Big Four’ after the Grouping); with varying degrees of success.
Many never returned, and their two-cylinder beat reverberated around the world, including at the collieries of J&A Brown of New South Wales, which bought 13 for hauling coal on the Richmond Vale Railway; while 20 were bought by agents for use in China.
Many, including some of the ‘Great War’ ‘vets’, returned to mainland Europe for the Second World War effort: 92 ‘O4s’ went to Egypt and Palestine.
Sixty-one had been built for the Railway Operating Division. They were numbered 700-91 in the War Department series; two were lost at sea. The surviving 90 were put to work on Egyptian
State Railways and Palestine Railways, as well as the HaifaBeirut-Tripoli railway that was under construction.
Locomotives were transferred between railways and most were converted to oil-firing.
At the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, there were 329 ‘O4s’ on the LNER (although some had been rebuilt as ‘O1s’ by this time), 50 on the GWR, 90 in Egypt and 13 in Australia. What happened to the locomotives sent to China in the 1920s is anybody’s guess.
Happily, Nos. 1984 (once loaned to the L&Y and LNWR), 2003 and 2004 survive today.
Both Nos. 1984 and 2003 are kept in store at the Dorrigo Steam Railway, New South Wales, while No. 2004 is on display at the Richmond Vale Railway where funds are being sought to restore it to working order. Fellow Gorton product No. 63601 resides at the Great Central Railway, where it will make an appearance this month for the Armistice weekend, adorned in temporary ROD livery.
The first of 521 ROD 2-8-0s was No. 1801, built by North British in August 1917. It was to become LMS No. 9662. Note the air brakes, re-railing jacks and side coupling chains.
The precise record of where No. 1720, built by Nasmyth Wilson in 1918, was photographed has not survived. Loaned to the SECR and LNWR after being ‘demobbed’, it became part of the LMS fleet.
An ROD 2-8-0 hard at work in 1967! Richmond Vale Railway No. 15, formerly ROD No. 1889, powers along near Minoric Road Bridge on the New South Wales line, on February 2 1967. Three of its Aussie sisters survive.
A common sight throughout the 1920s – ROD 2-8-0s in store. The seven 2-8-0s loaned to the LSWR await disposal by the Government at Strawberry Hill shed in the summer of 1920. No. 2069 is nearest the camera – it was later sold to the GWR.
North British-built No. 1859, of the Depot D’attache Dunkerque, is in a spot of bother somewhere in northern France, having been toppled over by a glancing blow. MILITARY HISTORY COLLECTION/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO