Steaming into the Firing Line: Tales of the Footplate in Wartime Britain by Michael Clutterbuck is a collection of short stories about the lives of railway workers during WWII. Clutterbuck is the son of a Chester railway man and he, much like myself, spent many childhood hours spotting trains. He currently resides in Melbourne, Australia.
For some, trains are more than just machines to move people and goods. There is a mystique with trains, much like biplanes and old motorcycles, and steam engines hold a special place. In America, they helped build the West. Steam engines connected the coasts of America and every school kid has seen the picture of the driving of the golden spike linking the coasts by rail. Trains made America. Today our rail system is neglected and far below the standards of the rest of the developed world. In Europe trains still live on and are considered a part of everyday life. The connection to the rails still exists.
Steaming follows the lives of driver (engineer) George Denton and fireman Lance Hargreaves. George is the conservative, professional, father figure to the young fireman Lance. Lance is young and a bit rough around the edges. His actions at times make him an example for others rather than an example to others. He tries his best and has promise to be promoted to driver. George does his best to guide him along.
The book spans years and the beginning at the dawn of the second world war. Thoughts of the war being over by Christmas are quickly crushed by the previously unimaginable bombings of England. Railroads take on an important role in the war effort. From hauling wounded from the evacuation of Dunkirk to hospitals in the interior of England to carrying war supplies military bases, the railroad workers were the unsung heroes of the war. Working the rails was by no means safe, in fact trailways were prime targets for the Luftwaffe bombing raids.
The setting and storytelling is superb. Reading the book felt very much like watching an old 1940s movie: A little gritty, maybe a bit over acted to make the point, and characters that are very familiar. There was almost the feeling I was reading in black and white instead of color. The characters make real life choices and get caught up in real life dilemmas. You feel the pain of the war and at the same time comfort of a pot of tea boiled over the engine’s fire. There are slightly humorous stories such as being mistaken for a spy and some very serious stories too. The stories are important too in that they give a picture of wartime England.
“Get your facts right” shows how quick people were to make judgments. People were losing their sons and spouses in the war and then see railroad drivers and firemen living in the “safe” civilian world while ours died. Firemen and drivers were protected positions; they could not even volunteer for combat because they were so badly needed at home to support the war. England did not have enough drivers and the training was long. There was a formal apprenticeship program that took years to for a person to move to the position of driver. War accelerated the process, but there still remained a shortage of drivers.
Trains, of course, make up the other part of the story and the casual reader will learn a few things about the steam engines and maybe a bit of English geography too. There is an appendix that will help the readers with the railroad terminology. For Americans reading the book, your Kindle dictionary and Wikipedia will help with the English slang of the 1940s. For those not familiar with steam engines, there is also a helpful guide to explain the number strings like 2-4-0 or 0-6-0. Once you understand the engines they are very easy to visualize.
Steaming is a combination of of steam engines, World War II, great characters, and very good story telling that link a collection of short stories into a fine novel. A great book for fans of steam engines and the home front of WWII.