Well… a lot actually! At first glance there seems to be a pretty damn obvious weakness: trains can only go where there are rails. If you want to neutralize a train, can’t you just tear them up? Certainly this is been a strategy – Russian armored trains could be equipped with a special rail-ripper car to tear up tracks while retreating even – but when you are fighting for control of the rails, doing irreparable damage to the line is counter-productive. In fact, it really was the tactic of last resort. While the armored train has always been above all else intended for defensive work, protecting isolated tracks from partisans or responding to hotspots with needed firepower, during their heyday, as you will see, they could be powerful offensive weapons, and well supported trains were used as spearheads of military offenses.
With the invention of the steam locomotive and the development of the railroad, it of course was only a matter of time before they would find use in war, as they offered a speedy way to transport troops to the front, and were a major boon when it came to solving logistical concerns. But the fragility of these lifelines was of course also obvious, and it became quickly apparent that protecting the trains, and the rails themselves, was of major concern. As early as 1848, while Revolution swept through Europe, we have records of improvised armored train cars being used to protect the rail-lines, but all in all they were isolated instances, and the train hadn’t yet become a vital part of military operations.
The Train Comes into Its Own During the American Civil War
It was the American Civil War that would first see the train truly demonstrate its usefulness in military matters, first by providing the Confederates with key reinforcements at the Battle of First Bull Run, when Joseph E. Johnston’s troops were transported from the Shenandoah by rail in time to help Beauregard fight the battle. When war broke out, there was some 30,000 miles of rail in the country, with about ⅔ of it concentrated in the North, and it would continue to prove its worth throughout the war, enabling massive movements of troops and supply for both sides – although more so the North. Their importance though made them targets, and both sides made to disrupt the others’ logistical lifelines.
Probably the most famous attempt at this was ‘The Great Locomotive Chase’ which occurred in early 1862, when a group of Union raiders attempted to steal a train and ride it up to Chattanooga, which the Union Army was trying to capture. They would be destroying the W+A Railroad as they rode up it. hoping to cut the city off from effective resupply. It worked at first, and they got the train, but the Confederates were soon chasing them in their own locomotive, and the raiders were unable to do the damage to the line that they had hoped. They ran out of coal eventually, and had to abandon the train. Some were captured and executed, including their leader James J. Andrews.
The ‘Chase’ was not exactly the rule though. The Union being much more reliant on rail than the South, it was only logical that Northern lines would be targeted with much more frequency by Confederate partisans and guerillas than the other way around. Continued attacks on the PW+B Railroad as it traveled between Wilmington and Baltimore were a major problem for resupply down the East Coast, and since the entire line couldn’t be guarded en masse, it was necessary to protect the trains on the expanses of track between outposts. The result was the creation of armored cars to be included in the train, examples of which can be seen here and here.
The Confederates got into the act as well, most notable with the so-called “Dry Land Merrimac” deployed at Savage’s Station in 1862. Named for its more than passing resemblance to the CSS Virginia, the iron-clad railcar carried a 32-pound cannon pointing from its front and was pushed along by an unprotected locomotive. It proved to be a very effective weapon, but the vulnerable engine meant that it was soon withdrawn from the fight, but not before inflicting an estimated 100 casualties. Later examples, known as “cotton-bale” batteries, used wooden walls reinforced with cotton-bales on the outside for additional protection, used to attack Union forces at Galveston, Texas in early 1863. Functionally, these were more akin to railroad guns than what came to be defined as an armored train, and both sides experimented with rail-mounted artillery, the most notable being the heavy 13 in. mortars deployed outside Petersburg during the Union Siege. By the end of the war, strategic arrangements of rifle cars, an artillery car on each end, with the locomotive in the center were patrolling the Union rails and fending off banditry.
Although further development would stagnate in the USA – perhaps a little surprising given the westward expansion of the country into lands contested by the American Indians – I did find an interesting reference to the use of an armored train by law enforcement to deal with a miner’s strike in 1913. The Sheriff of Kanawha County used an example built but the C&O Railroad following attacks on their train by the miners, and dubbed the “Bull Moose Express” to do a “drive by” shooting on the miners’ camp, killing one of the miners and wounding others.
Before the World Wars
The success of the train in the American Civil War heralded widespread adoption of militarized arrangements to some degree or other. Railroad guns saw some use by the French in the Franco-Prussian War (The Prussians, never ones for subtlety, simply made hostages travel in the locomotive to discourage franc tireurs), and the Spanish regime in Cuba employed armored trains to quell unrest in the late 1890s just prior to the Spanish-American War, but it was the British who seemed destined to perfect the weapon, with lots of experimentation done by the Royal Navy as early as 1882, when they placed naval guns on railcars in Egypt, protected them with metal plates and sandbags, and manned them with Royal Marines. Mounting 20 pounder guns, they played an important role in the British return to Khartoum. The Navy also implemented an early countermeasure to further protect the train, placing empty boxcars in-front of the locomotive to trigger any mines or loose rails. The Navy’s experiments were used in Egypt/Sudan, and India, but it was in South Africa during the Second Boer War that the British trains became best known. Thirteen armored trains and locomotives were in operation at the time of the war’s outbreak in 1899, allowing the British to quickly rush troops around the region. One of the most interesting was “Hairy Mary”, a locomotive draped in 6” thick ropes to protect the crew from small arm’s fire. The early examples used second hand guns, many of them muzzle-loaders, but their inadequacies were clear, and by the end of the war they were mounting quick-firing 12 pounders. Not only used to patrol rail-lines, the British experimented with them in assaults on the Boer lines. Combined with the long series of blockhouses constructed in the region, the armored trains offered a very effective means of stymieing Boer attacks on the railroad.
One of the most famous incidents of the Boer War also highlighted the inherent vulnerability of trains operating in potentially hostile areas. On Nov. 15th, 1899, a train was attacked by a Boer force, derailing one of the infantry cars and managing to knock out its artillery with their own field guns. the train was further boxed in by a large boulder they had rolled onto the tracks behind it, preventing its escape. While the locomotive was able to push it off the track eventually and make its escape, some 50 or so troops, and one journalist named Winston Churchill, were abandoned to be captured. While not destroying the concept of the armored train, the vulnerability highlighted by the incident made clear that they could hardly operate with impunity. Their effectiveness at protecting rail lines was unquestioned, but a quality intelligence and a vigilant crew were a necessity against a skillful enemy. Despite the incident, the overall evaluation of the armored trains were high, but the British military establishment was dismissive of their usefulness outside of colonial conflicts where they were warding off attacks by irregulars, so little effort was made towards any sort of development in the UK, which is perhaps understandable given the UK’s geographical isolation from the continent.
World War I
At the outbreak of WWI, only one of the combatants had any appreciable investment in the concept of at the outbreak, and that was Russia. Its immense size and lack of quality roads made it even more dependent on rail-lines than any other belligerent power, and as such had constructed four examples (Or two. Or ten. Sources disagree). In the west, there was no pre-existing stock, but a few examples were hastily constructed by adding armor and weaponry to existing boxcars and locomotives. The Belgians had two examples in action, and the British Naval Division (an infantry unit of Royal Navy reservists and Marines unneeded for service at sea) created two as well which saw action outside Antwerp. The Germans followed suit on the Western Front with a few examples they used to protect against possible partisan attacks in Belgium, and a light armored train that ‘invaded’ Luxembourg in 1914, but the quick stagnation of the fighting saw no further advancement of the concept in the west.
The Eastern Front was a different matter though. As I said, they already had some number of trains, composed of armored locomotive and a couple of armored cars carrying machine-guns or light artillery, and already having trains ready to go at the very start gave Russia a leg up. They almost immediately saw use both offensively and defensively. The Russians already had experience with armored trains, having deployed improvised examples against Japan in 1904 and during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In one of the earliest actions of the war, an armored train was used to capture a bridge at Stanislav. In offensive roles, infantry cars would be stocked with troops to quickly dismount before the shock of the train’s sudden arrival wore off, but the war quickly ruined any track that crossed between the lines. There remained the occasional case where the changing movement of the fronts left intact rail line allowing for an attacking role, but more generally they were restricted to more defensive roles through 1915 and 1916.
The use of a train would be to have it stay behind the front, and if there was a report of an enemy attack, it would be switched to the appropriate track and choo-choo off there to provide firepower – usually two 76mm guns and numerous machine guns. They proved to be very effective in this role of mobile defensive platforms, and the Russian Army had built nearly a dozen more by the end of 1915, with at least 15 in service at that time, spread out between various fronts. Inspired by the success of the Russian’s trains, the Germans and the Austrians copied them, with the first Austro-Hungarian example, the Pz.Zug I, entering service in early 1915, and a German train close on its heel’s that fall.
The evolution of the trains between 1914 and 1917 was quite incredible. The Russian trains at the beginning of the war were comparatively crude affairs, essentially an armored locomotive with armored boxcars attached to protect the crew for the guns and machine guns, but within a few years sleek designs that evoked the image of a battleship on land, with turreted guns and absolutely bristling with machine guns. The Austrians followed in the footsteps of the Russians, imitating their opponent in design, and putting them into action against both the Russians and the Italians. The German High Command never put as much stock into the concept, so while a number were operating by the end of the conflict, they were mostly assembled on the local level, with a wide variation in workmanship, and never taking on the finished appearance of the Russian examples.
Up to this point, armored trains had been been built in the image of any other train. The locomotive was attached to some number of cars which served various functions – infantry cars, artillery cars, command cars, AA cars etc. During World War I though was developed the rail-cruiser. Cruisers were single cars and capable of supplying their own power, giving them much greater speed and flexibility than a regular armored train. Both Russia and Austro-Hungary developed examples, ranging from the small trollies like the Motorkanonwagen to the impressive Russian railcruiser Zaamurets (later to become better known for serving with the armored train Orlik with the Czech Legion). Rail-cruisers could be attached to a larger train, but if needed, unhitched and sent off on their own. While incredibly useful in the defensive roles that they filled, even on the Eastern Front the relatively conventional fighting meant that armored trains weren’t used quite to their full potential. It would take the next big conflict to see them at their height of power.
The Russian Civil War
With the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and ensuing withdrawal from the war, the Russian Civil War gave the fleet of armored trains a new purpose. The vast expanses of the country made control of the rail lines absolutely vital, and both sides made use of armed and armored trains extensively. At the beginning of the war, most of the Imperial Army’s fleet had either been requisitioned by the Germans or else fallen into White Russian hands. The Red forces quickly put into action a building program, churning out not only the well developed and battle tested designs of the Tsarist regimes from the factories they controlled, but improvising a wide array of ingenious designs, perhaps the most interesting being to build an interior wall in a boxcar and fill the gap with concrete to create a protected infantry car (these semi-armored trains were known as blindirov). In all, well over 200 armored and blindirov trains of varying quality operated with the Reds during the Civil War, and another 80 or so with the Whites. While the Reds were able to build quality trains using Czarist designs, the Whites generally lacked access to the factories and their quality rarely equalled that of their opponents’.
With the front lines much more amorphous, a general lack of air support, and neither side willing to uproot miles of vital track that would prefer to fight for control over, the train could truly perform as an offensive weapon, serving as a spearhead of the attack, instead of the savior in the defense. Trains would travel with raiding teams “desantniy otryad” of infantry and cavalry. The infantry would ride in armored box-cars providing protection on the move, deploy out when stopped and vulnerable, and also allow the train to strike away from the tracks, with the infantry operating under protection of its artillery. The cavalry would travel as a screening force to protect the train from ambush – although in numerous engagements the trains proved they could hold their own against enemy cavalry formations, such as a veritable slaughter outside Tsaritsyn in 1918. Many trains would carry an observation balloon, primarily for artillery spotting but also to allow for more effective reconnaissance outside of the narrow corridor of rail track.
With 37,000 miles of rail, and generally poor quality roads, the importance of the armored train during the war can’t be understated, and personnel were almost exclusively to be drawn from party members and the most literate at that. Although how much this was done in practice is up in the air. Railroad men were impressed into the service due to their existing expertise, and at least one foreign observer described the crew of a train he traveled on as “a choice selection of human scum”. Whether they were the cream of the communist party or the scum of the earth, the crews were certainly capable of great deeds, and when used at their best, could take on all comers, perhaps best exemplified during the Civil War by Train No. 1 Rifle Regiment in Honor of Karl Marx, which sped into the town of Liski, catching the garrison by surprise and capturing the town and two idling White trains to boot! Describing the Soviet use of trains in 1920, a Polish officer noted that, “Armored trains are the most serious and terrible opponent. […] Our infantry are powerless against them.” It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say they they were simply the best weapon of the war.
The Whites lacked the organization with their trains displayed by the Reds, and not just because they had few facilities for manufacturing. While this certainly meant that there was a lot of diversity in their fleet, the much more fractured force simply couldn’t develop a unified doctrine, although they certainly emulated the successes of the Reds when possible. In addition to the anti-Bolshevik Russian groups, both the British, French, and Americans operated lightly armored trains during their fruitless intervention of 1918-1920. And while the Whites generally were playing second fiddle to the Red in terms of effective train deployment, no one used them better than the Czech Legion as they fought their way east.
Perhaps the most famed armored train of the war – if not period – was Orlik. Originally a Russian rail-cruiser named Zaamurets that was captured from the Bolshevik’s by the Czech Legion as they trekked east in their effort to leave Russia and join the fighting on the Western Front, Orlik Vuz cis. 1 (Vehicle One) became part of their armored train Orlik. The train helped the Czechoslovakians control a vast swathe of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from late 1918 through early 1920, until they finally were able to evacuate Russia via Vladivostok. Orlik ended up in White hands before finding its way into the hands of Chinese Warlords, and eventually the Kwantung Army, a puppet force of Japan, some time around 1931.
I digress though, by the end of the Russian Civil War, the Soviets had a well established armored train doctrine, originally with light tains revolving around the raiding parties on the one hand (bronyepoyezd), and heavy trains more centered on providing heavier fire support (bronyobatoreyo). In both cases, they generally consisted of a armored locomotive in the center flanked by two gun cars, and control cars on each end. The variation was in the armament, the light train carrying 76.2mm pieces, and the heavy trains armed with between 100mm and 150mm (the heavy trains would be the least armored though, as it referred simply to the armament. A Heavy train was not meant to get close to the fighting, so was lightly armored compared to the light trains, which needed the protection. Confusing, I know!). Infantry cars could be added if needed, as well as a rail-cruiser. This was changed to three classes, of ‘A’ – the heaviest armored train, with 4×76.2mm guns; ‘V’ (or ‘C’) – 4x152mm or 203mm guns; and ‘B’ – 4x107mm or 4x122mm guns, in 1920. Type ‘M’ trains also existed, but more akin to railroad guns, mounting heavy naval artillery for coastal defense.
The Interwar Years
The years between the wars saw considerable use of armored trains, aside from the Russian Civil War that is, and few more so than the Poles, who fully embraced the concept and were running about 70 of them in the early 1920s. Their initial fleet was made up of examples captured either from the Austro-Hungarians and Germans at the end of World War I, or else from the Soviets during the Polish-Soviet War in 1919-1921, a conflict that saw numerous use of trains as raiding weapons, and even duels between Soviet and Polish trains! One of the greatest innovations of the Poles during the war was the use of flatbeds with Renault FTs placed on them, allowing the tank to fight from the train if needed, but able to dismount and range outside of the corridor of track if needed. Given the limitation on tank designs at the time, the speed and firepower offered by a train was simply unsurpassed at the time, and in regions where rail-lines went, there was no weapon a Polish or Soviet commander was happier to have at his disposal.
The other major utilization of armored trains in the period occurred in China. Plagued by warlords in the 1920s and the Japanese in the 1930s, and lacking major roads, the rail-lines were just as vital in the as in Russia, and consequently much of the fighting happened within a stone’s throw of them. I mentioned previously the long travels of the Orlik, but it was hardly alone in traveling the rails of warlord-torn China in the 1920s. The defeat of the Whites saw many of them flee from Vladivostok into northern China, where they offered their equipment and services to Chinese warlords as mercenaries. In his efforts to bring down the warlords, Chiang Kai-Shek followed suit by paying the Soviet’s for their expertise in constructing armored trains for him and training men in their use. By the time the Warlords had been mostly suppressed in the late 1920s, the National Revolutionary Army was fielding 20 trains, and the Manchurian Army under Zhang Xueliang had another dozen to support them with. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 would turn most of the latter over to the invader’s Kwantung Army. The Japanese would add a few new construction to their force, but their favored vehicle for patrolling the rail lines were armored trolleys, similar in function to the rail-cruiser, but essentially an armored car fitted with rail wheels. The Type 91 could have road and rail wheels switched, allowing it to function in either capacity and the Type 95 was a tracked vehicle with rail wheels that could be lowered from the hull onto the tracks.
World War II
As World War II dawned, it was the Poles and the Soviets who held most of the stock of armored trains. The Germans had nearly two dozen “track-guarding trains”, but they were lightly armored and improvised examples intended for use during civil unrest, not in a real combat situation. A few Czech examples fell into the Wehrmacht’s hands during the annexation, but the high command remained skeptical of them. When the Germans crossed the Polish border in 1939, much of the Polish stock had been taken out of service, but they still had ten in service, and all of quality design, having been modernized in the early-30s, with two artillery cars each, assault car for infantry and two control cars. Although some used armored trolleys attached to scouting, the flatbeds for tanks were prefered, and most trains would have a Renault FT and two TKS tankettes. The Polish tanks performed quite admirably against the Germans, proving to he an excellent defensive weapon against the German tanks. The primary vulnerability was to air attack, with most losses incurred from bombings.
Although the Germans did attempt to make use of their trains in Poland as well as the Netherlands, having pieced together seven of them using a mix of their own, meager domestic examples and the better Czech cars, they generally failed to employ them effectively in the early months of the war. Used as raiders to capture bridges, they failed both at Dirschau, Poland and Arnheim, Netherlands, either being repulsed or else the bridge destroyed. Captured Polish examples helped to bolster the forces, and by early 1941, German armored trains had been deployed to occupied France, as well as Yugoslavia where they guarded railroads against the partisans. The vastness of Russia, and the importance of rail lines for their logistics, convinced the Wehrmacht that armored trains would be an important part of Barbarossa, but the realization that the USSR used a different gauge of rail seems to have come late, as conversion only began in late May of 1941, with six trains converted in a rather haphazard fashion.
As with the Poles, the Soviets had both reduced their numbers from the early 1920s, but the 37 armored trains in operation with the Red Army in 1941 were of excellent design. The fearsome three turreted MBV-2 rail-cruiser had only just entered production, and 2 had been finished by that point. Aside from the Army, the rail force was supplemented by another 40 or so rail-cruisers being run by the NKVD, although as internal security, only nine were deployed near the western frontier at the time of Barbarossa. NKVD rail-cruisers would generally operate in groups of three accompanied by a support car locomotive, allowing them to be deployed separately as needed.
Just as the Poles did, the Soviets soon learned just how vulnerable the, but also how useful they could be in protecting rail junctions. Overrun by the German forces just as the rest of the Red Army in those early months, they put up a determined fight, but sold themselves dearly. The NKVD lost nearly its whole rail-cruiser force in the region, and the Red Army lost at least 47 trains, many of them falling into German hands to bolster their opponents meager force. Construction on replacements started immediately, first for simplified or improvised designs such as the OB-3 (Oblegechennaya [Simplified] Variant), and by the fall of 1942 78 new trains had chugged out to war. With losses replaced, concentration on new, better designs resulted in the BP-43, which used T-34 turrets to simplify construction, and utilized two anti-aircraft cars each to deal with the primary threat. 21 were built by war’s end, and it was the most advanced design used during the war.
Numerous other designs for anti-aircraft defense were also built to be attached for existing trains, and some trains were designed for the sole purpose. Some 200 PVO (Protivo Vozdushnaya Oborona – AA Defense) trains were built by wars end, used as protected and mobile anti-aircraft stations, giving commanders great flexibility in placement – assuming, of course, they were near the rails.
The capture of Russian armored trains in the summer of 1941 was a boon to the meager German fleet, but even with the improvement in quality this brought, enthusiasm for their use with the German high command was muted at best. Although they would on occasion perform the ‘johnny on the spot’ defensive role seen with the Soviet forces, the main role of the trains was fighting partisans behind the lines, of which there was no shortage of work doing. What new construction was done, such as the BP 42 and BP 44 designs, was heavily influenced by Polish and Soviet innovations, including dismount cars for tanks (usually PzKpfw 38(t)s), and Panzerjägerwagens equipped with Panzer IV turrets. But they always remained boxy affairs, looking like the secondary thoughts that they were for German manufacturers. The change of fortunes in 1943 finally began to shift the perspective on trains, and their utility as defensive weapons showed itself clearly to OKH. By late 1944, manufacturing of trains had even been placed at high priority, behind only the new Tiger and Panther tanks, but it was far too late. Finished trains rolled out at a mere trickle – only nine of the new BP-44 design were completed by the end of the war. In all, Germany would only operate some 70 trains through the war, with a high point of 55 with the construction push near the end of the war.
As for other nations, armored train use was a decidedly limited affair. The Italians used a small number for anti-partisan activities in Yugoslavia, and the British used about thirteen ungainly examples as coastal defense platforms in southern England – manned mostly by Free Polish forces, whether by coincidence or because of their knowledge of armored trains I’ve never been able to pin down. The British also deployed one in the Middle East during the brief fighting in Iraq. The Allies never deployed them in their advance from 1944-1945, and encountered only a handful of German examples, as the Wehrmacht’s use had been almost exclusively on the Eastern Front. A small number of artillery centric trains and anti-aircraft centric trains were encountered, and a few patrolled in Italy, but that was about the extent of it.
Post-War and Decline
The Second World War was essentially the last gasp of the armored train as a weapon of conventional warfare. That of course is not to say it disappeared entirely, just that the advances in airpower, and the general direction of tactics and strategy removed its purpose in a regular ground war. But it still could make its mark, especially in the role of anti-insurgency operations, where the mobile forts could protect the rail-lines without much fear of air attack. Soviet trains continued to ply the rails of Ukraine and Poland as they fought the UPA and the so-called ‘cursed soldiers’ of the former Armia Krajowa who continued to resist Soviet hegemony into the late 1940s, and some continued to patrol the Trans-Siberian Railroad well into the latter part of the 20th century, especially with deteriorating relations with China. Most of these trains were heavily armed with anti-aircraft weapons, and revolved around the speedy delivery of tanks and APCs to remote regions, where its cargo would do the real fighting. Both the MVD (Interior Affairs) and the military made use of trains in Chechnya in the past two decades (apparently there was actually an excess of them, due to lack of coordination between MVD and military commanders).
Aside from trains intended for combat, in the 1980s the Soviets also began mounting SS-24 ICBMs onto trains, a means of preventing easy targeting by American missiles by being constantly mobile. The test launch was considered a success with American spy satalites unable to locate it, and the Americans viewed it as enough of a threat to consider building their own system, although it never came to fruition due to the end of the Cold War.
Probably the most well known example was La Rafale, a French train that was built in 1948 to protect the railroad between Saigon and Nha Trang during the First Indochina War following a massacre by the Vietminh. Built and manned by the French Foreign Legion, it was an impressive train with two armored locomotives, and over a dozen protected cars including combat cars and troop transports, plus cars for freight and passengers. The Vietminh eventually figured out how to neutralize it blowing up a series of bridges to isolate it and wreck it with mines, either in although sources seem to place this from anywhere between 1951 to 1954 (Possibly due to confusion that a second one was built to operate in Cambodia in the same period). The Vietminh seem to have made their own armored trains, and there are accounts of the two duking it out inconclusively.
Other instances which my sources are unfortunately brief in their mentions of include armored trolleys (ie rudimentary rail-cruisers) deployed by the British during the Malayan Emergency, and armed trains created during the Congo Crisis. Russian trains were involved in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and multiple groups used improvised trains during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kim Jong-Il, apparently afflicted with a fear of flying, used an armored train to travel long distances, such as an almost two week ride to reach Moscow in 2001.
The vital importance of the railroad for military logistics starting in the mid-19th century, and the inherent vulnerability of the large tracts of unprotected rail, made the development of weaponized trains a virtual inevitability. Although the armored train would reach its height of importance in the early 20th century before airpower came about to offer the easiest and most effective counter, they would continue to show their worth through World War II, and find uses even after that. Prior to the invention of the tank, these land-battleships were the most powerful weapon on wheels when well supported, bringing incredible firepower to bear and never-before possible speed. Although limited by where the rails went, a well manned armored train could nevertheless not just serve as a mobile fort protecting a railroad from attack, but could even be employed as the spearhead of an attack, charging in with guns blazing to disgorge literally hundreds of infantry to overwhelm shocked defenders.
Airpower would end the ability of the train to operate with impunity, but by no means were they done for, fighting their way through World War II and beyond. The life span can be split into four phases really. The juvenile stage where the concept hadn’t yet been developed fully (pre-WWI); the mature stage where they operated not just as defensive backstops and behind the lines, but as offensive tools in their own right (Centered on the Russian Civil War); their old age, mostly working behind the lines in a support role (World War II); and their slow death after the war, serving in a counterinsurgency role, but deprived of the ability to operate conventionally.
Addendum A: Railroad guns
Although early on I touched on the immense mounted artillery role known as the railroad gun (not to be confused with a rail gun), it is worth pointing out that I haven’t really covered them here because they aren’t, strictly speaking, armored trains. Not to say they can’t be, but railroad guns are intended to just provide very heavy artillery support, usually with immense naval guns as in the case of the United States Navy’s Mark I Navy railway mount, which carried a gigantic 14” naval gun, or custom guns such as the infamous Paris Gun which the Germans used in World War One, and mounted a 111 foot, 238mm gun.
Railroad guns can have armored protection for their crews certainly, but even then they aren’t usually lumped into the category of armored trains, although armored trains certainly could include artillery cars of impressive caliber. These would weigh in at several hundred tons (compare to an armored train car of maybe 60 tons), and many railroad guns actually required reinforcing of the rails to be fired, or construction of a temporary spur to fire from as they lacked a turret and required the entire car to face in the direction they intended to fire. Through both World Wars, both sides fielded railroad guns, and basically stated, the slow and lumbering railroad gun filled the opposite role of the speedy armored train.
Addendum B: Examples
I’ve peppered this account with a few images here and there, but not exactly with rhyme or reason. I tried not to break the flow of the narrative by getting into long winded talks about Train types, and instead decided to stick that stuff here!
American: The US military virtually inagurated the entire weapon type, with their rail batteriesand armored railcars. After leading the way during the American Civil War, armored trains weren’t really America’s style it would seem. Like their British counterparts though, they made a few in Russia in the late 1910s. These were improvised examples though, and hardly as impressive or powerful as what the Soviets were building by that point.
Austro-Hungarian: The Austro-Hunarians built some very handsome designs, such as this artillery car mounting a 70mm gun in a turret and multiple machine-gun ports. It was theMotorkanonwagen which was their most impressive weapon though, a small railcruiser that carried a 70mm gun in its turret.
British: The Royal Navy handled most of the armored trains employed by the British.
They first used them extensively, in the Second Boer War. “Hairy Mary” was the most recongizable, due to the rope protection used on the engine. You can see the metal sided carsbehind the engine. Adequate to stop small arms fire, they were still pretty flimsy, as you can seehere. The entire structure collapsed when the car flipped during a Boer attack (the same that saw Churchill captured).
This example of a car was built hastily at the outbreak of World War I using a 4.7 in. naval gun, and armored but open-topped infantry positions. This flattop car with a gun placed on top of it probably would have gone into action with sheet metal attached to protect the crew, or maybe just sandbags. Two trains were made, and fought outside Antwerp. Just after the war, a few more were built in Russia, although rather basic in design. Rail-wheeled armored cars andarmed/protected box cars for escorting passenger trains still saw use with the British – these examples in Palestine in the mid-30s during the uprising there – but they were seen as nothing more than weapons for the colonies. The closest the British came to deploying trains in Europe again would be these open-topped examples that patroled the southern coast of England, mostly manned by the Poles.
France: Although not part of a proper armored train, the French used armored artillery carsduring the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. Later on, while the British and American examples from the Allied Intervention looked kind of iffy, they at least used metal! This French artillery car is nothing more than logs and sandbags, illustrating just about the lowest end of design one can find. The French would prove to be much better with their designs when they putLa Rafale into service in Indochina, although it still used a basic, open topped design for much of the fighting compartments, with a few turrets.
Germany: During World War I, German design was ugly. Compare these “doghouse” design artillery cars to the Russians or Austro-Hungarians! This mainly reflected the lack of organization, as design and construction was done on a local basis. While this example includes a turreted car, you can still see that the train is bulky and looks like pillboxes mounted on flatcars.
Entering World War II, German trains were very few. What they had reflected the lack of design evolution from the First World War era, still being bulky, and little more than marginally protected artillery cars or reinforced box cars, seen here with Train No. 3. Design did improve, such as thisartillery car added to the same train as before in 1940, mounting a 75mm gun. Much of what the Germans put into service in the early years of the war either were heavily influenced by other nations designs, such as this Pzkpfw. 38 (t) dismount car (Although German’s didn’t have the ramps on the car originally. The crew had to unload it), or just outright taken – Polish-sourced artillery car, Polish locomotive, Russian cars, Czech Cars. For comparison of what the Germans were making, Train No. 28’s artillery cars are actually just three SOMUA S35s on flatbeds.
The first really impressive domestic production was the BP 42. Although sometimes things would vary, the train was mostly standardized and they were set up in mirrored fashion from the center where the locomotive sat. Moving outwards on both sides was the artillery car with 100mm gun, acommand/infantry car (One was the command car, the second was a backup and houses the infantry), and another artillery car with a 76.2mm gun and 20mm anti-aircraft gun. A tank-dismount car might be added after that carrying a PzKpfw 38(t) (with proper ramp!), and a pusher car last, nothing more than a flatbed to trigger any mines laid on the tracks. Two Panhard 38(f) armored cars would be included for scouting purposes, with wheels that could be switched between road and rail in a few minutes.
Here is a cool newsreel of one in “action” (its staged). It shows the general idea of train warfare pretty well, with the train charging in, pummeling the enemy partisans, and infantry detachment dismounting to capture them. The BP 42 was a great anti-partisan train, but couldn’t stand up to conventional forces, leading to the BP 44 which mainly upped the firepower. The overall configuration changed little, but all the artillery cars carried 100mm guns, and thePanzerjägerwagen was added to the mix, using a Panzer IV turret for additional anti-tank firepower. The first BP44 rolled off the assembly line in June of 1944, and not even a dozen were finished.
Aside from the standard trains, the Germans built a number of scout-cars – small rail-cruisers – to make up ‘scout trains’, or schweren Schienenpanzerspähzug These would be hooked into groups of 8-12, and mostly deployed in Yugoslavia. Some would have Panzer III turrets, and others would be machine gun or infantry cars. Three bigger Panzerjäger-Treibwagen were built using two Panzer IV turrets but never saw action. The even larger Panzertriebwagen rail-cruiser had only one example built – PT 16, as the Germans prefered the Soviet examples they captured, and it saw little action as well. It was impressivley armed though with two captured Soviet 76.2mm guns and bookended by Panzerjägerwagen built using T-34 turrets. It would be given to the Polish People’s Army after the war for hunting down anti-Soviet partisans. Additionally, dedicated anti-aircraft trains were built, essentially protected gun emplacements on flatcars.
Polish: Early Polish trains were mostly captured Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian examples, but they quickly started building their own fleet of very modern designs. These artillery wagonsdate to 1921, and carry a 100mm howitzer and 75mm field gun, plus nine machine guns. One of the best features of the Polish trains were the dismount cars, either for Renault FTs or TKS tankettes.
Sino-Japanese Conflict: A lot of the trains used in China by the warlords, National Revolutionary Army, and the Japanese were of Russian origin, so I won’t go into details on those. Domestic productions generally mimicked Russian design, not only due to exposure but because many were in fact built by White Russian exiles, such as this example from the early 1920’s Fengian Army. The Fengian Army’s stock of trains mostly fell into Japanese hands in 1931, where they continued to operate. The main example of Japanese construction wasn’t in armored trains per se, but railroad capable armored vehicles, such as the Type 91 So-Mo and Type 95 So-Ki. About 1000 of the So-Mi were built, and just under 150 of the So-Mo.
Soviet/Russian: While not their first armored train to be deployed, the Imperial Russian Army’s first standardized design was called the Khunkhuz class train, debuting in late summer of 1915. It featured an armored locomotive flanked by artillery cars, each spouting a 76.2mm gun at the end a number of machine guns bristling out. Although the Reds did control most of the factories and raw material, allowing better construction than the Whites, they still had a dizzying array of variety in quality. This is actually a Khunkhuz artillery car that was rebuilt in 1918, abandoning the turret for simplicity. The OV locomotive was a purpose built armored locomotive that became popular, and here is a rather fearsome looking example of unknown car type with artillery and AA. No given train was exactly the same in the late 1910s, early 1920s.
A few examples from the White forces include this reinforced boxcar, mounted with a Naval gun by the Whites, or this infantry car from a White train which is made with concrete. Thisexample is mostly boxcars with added turret and roofing, while this is a slightly nicer looking set of cars, but still seem to be built from boxcars. This machine gun car is rather well appointed though.
Aside from trains, there was of course the Imperial Army’s Zaamurets* rail-cruiser, which I mentioned previously, and was part of a Czech Legion train which also used Khunkhuz class cars. Smaller gun wagons were built as well.
The fleet was modernized in the 1930s, with the PL-35/37 being the standard at that time. Example of a PL-37 artillery car. Second World War examples include the NKPS-1942 and the simplified OB-3 train, which would be compoased of four artillery cars with 76.2mm guns, and four security cars with heavy machine guns. The exigencies of war meant a number of designs were constructed, many using turrets from tanks, such as the T-26 or T-28.
The final major design was the BP-43, which simplified construction by using T-34s for its four PL-43 artillery cars, and used two of the PVO-4 AA car. with two 37mm guns each, as the need for heavy air-defense was apparent. The locomotive was still the ‘O’ series, harkening back to the ‘Ov’ developed during the Civil War. Control cars and machine gun cars were added as needed.
Soviet rail cruisers were popular as well. The NVKD built numerous MBV D-2 rail-cruisers through the 1930s, but they were bulky affairs, and it wasn’t as good as the MBV-2, of which only two existed in mid-1941, despite its impressive firepower of three 76mm guns. Aside from the rail-cruisers, there were dual road-rail armored cars such as the BA-6Shd.
The post-war “tank trains” of the 1960s used no artillery cars, depending on ground firepower from the tanks and armored vehicles carried in the dismount cars, but the anti-aircraft car carried an impressive array of four ZPU-4 14.5mm quad-machine guns and a ZU-23 23mm twin-cannon. They could be supplemented with the BTR-40A (ZhD) convertable rail-car.
I’ve drawn on a number of sources for this piece. If you want to read about the topic further, I would highly suggest ”Armored Trains” by Steven J. Zaloga as an introduction to the topic. It is a basic and accessible overview, and doesn’t go into all that much detail, but where you would want to start.
Other works I’ve used include:
“German Armored Trains in World War II”, “German Armored Trains in World War II Vol. II 1939-1945” and “German Armored Trains on the Russian Front 1941-1944” all by Wolfgang Sawodny. He is considered to be the expert on German trains, and every other source cites him constantly. His most comprehensive work, apparently, is “German Armored Trains 1904-1945” which I unfortunately have not been able to get my hands on as it is insanely expensive 😦
”Armored Trains of the Soviet Union 1917-1945” by Wilfried Kopenhagen
”Armored Units of the Russian Civil War: Red Army” by David Bullock
”Armored Units of the Russian Civil War: White and Allied” by David Bullock and Alexander Deryabin
”American Civil War Railroad Tactics,” by Robert R. Hodges, Jr.
”Engines of War” by Christian Wolmar
“Forging the red thunderbolt: Armored trains provided mobile firepower during the Russian Revolution and after” by Alan. R. Koenig, in “Armor”, Vol. 110, No. 3 (May/June, 2001)
”Armored Trains a Success” from “The Science News-Letter”, Vol. 43, No. 7 (February, 13, 1943)
”The Shock-Battalions of 1917 Reminiscences Part One and Part Two” by Victor Manakin, in “Russian Review”, Vol. 14, Nos. 3 and 4 (July and October, 1955) Not actually all that useful, but there was a neat passage about a fight against an armored train on page 335.
”The Perils of Counterinsurgency: Russia’s War in Chechnya” by Mark Kramer, in “International Security”, Vol. 29 No. 3 (2004)
”The Nature of Guerilla Warfare” by R. Ernest Dupuy, in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June, 1939)
”Mountaineer Mine Wars: An Analysis of the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912-1913 and 1920-1921” by Hoyt N. Wheeler, in “The Business History Review”, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1976)
”The Terrible Condition of Affairs in Cuba”, from “The Advocate of Peace” Vol. 60, No. 4 (April, 1898)
”Indochina’s Railroad War”, by Paul Wohl, in Railway Progress (February, 1953)