Before the rise of the internal combustion engine and the invention of tanks, there were armoured trains. It didn’t take long for the military to see the value of using the expanding rail network, first for troop movement, and then for more offensive purposes. Improvised armoured trains first appeared during the 1848 revolutions in Europe with their offensive potential first exploited in the American Civil War. Inevitably they also saw action in the colonial wars of the 19th century before reaching their apogee in the Russian Civil War, with purpose-built trains of increasing complexity combined with innovated tactics. Though the rise of air power exposed their vulnerability, armoured trains soldiered on through World War II and beyond, with some being used in the break-up of former Yugoslavia.
Armored Trains (New Vanguard 140) by Steven J. Zaloga and illustrated by Tony Bryan (ISBN 978-1-84603-242-4) is a whistle-stop tour through the history of the armoured train. Before the arrival of the tank, these Wellsian creations were the answer to the military need for mobile firepower, which were only really countered by the rise of airpower. With the more forward-looking model companies beginning to search for something new to kit, this book is a timely addition to the literature on the subject. The book comprises 48 pages including 8 pages of colour plates and black-and-white photographs. Osprey has tweaked the New Vanguard format a little; the cover design has been improved to make it a little more eye-catching and the plates are interspersed through the text and not concentrated in the centre of the book.
The book is divided into the following sections: Introduction, Origins, World War I, The Russian Civil War, War of the Empires, Armored Dragons, World War II, The Decline of the Armoured Train, Further Reading, Color Plate Commentary, and Index.
After a short introduction, the text gives a concise chronological account of the development of the armoured train. The content is restricted to trains fitted with armoured protection, thus railway guns and armed (but not armoured) trains are excluded. Even without these, the coverage spans over a century and most continents. As the development of railways usually preceded that of roads, armoured trains were ideally suited to the developing nations of Europe and also in Europe’s colonial wars. Although the text is necessarily brief, a fair amount of detail is packed in, particularly in the sections on Russian and later Soviet trains. There is also the space to allow segments on individual trains, like the ambush of a Natal Railways train by the Boers which led to the capture of Winston Churchill.
The huge size and poor infrastructure of Russia made it an excellent area for armoured train operations, both during World War I and during the chaos of the Civil War. Although the subject is also covered in the New Vanguards on the armoured units of the Civil War, the early development of the Tsarist trains is explained and the unbelievable odyssey of the Zaamurets covered from its construction in Kiev, through forming part of the armoured train Orlik of the Czech Legion, up to its disappearance into the hands of the Japanese Kwantung army. The Russian Civil War also saw the development of new tactics with the introduction of desant raiding troops to operate away from the train, increasing its effectiveness. Despite the growing menace of air power, the wide open spaces of the Soviet Union ensured that armoured trains would remain an important factor through the Great Patriotic War and even on into the 1960s.
For very similar reasons, China was a battleground for the armoured trains of competing warlords during the 1920s, with many trains crewed by émigré White Russians. The war was also fought with equally high levels of brutality and the vulnerability of trains, confined to the rails, was often a death sentence for their crews.
German armoured train development during World War II was in contrast tardy and their use tentative and sometimes inept. The need to protect long supply routes from partisan action forced first the renovation of captured trains then the construction of new trains and armoured railcars though they were never used as effectively as the Red Army’s trains.
While the majority of the book is focussed on Soviet and German use, other nations, chiefly in central Europe are touched on, as is Japanese use. Japanese trains aren’t illustrated so I’ve included a link to a Japanese site which includes some pictures to give an idea of the sophistication of the Type 94 armoured train.
Almost every page of the text includes one or more black and white photographs, printed at a larger size than many of those in Osprey publications, which is just as well given the large size of the subjects. There are some fine Wellsian illustrated, particularly the Zaamurets rail cruiser and its Austro-Hungarian equivalent, shown on opposing pages.
As noted above the colour plates are spread through the text, usually as single pages, though there is the usual New Vanguard two page cutaway, this time of a Soviet PL-37 artillery wagon. Plate B illustrates the stages in the career of the rail cruiser Zaamurets which is also covered in the text, from its origins in the Tsarist Army to its final appearance a decade and a half later at the other end of Asia in the hands of the Manchurian Army. Further plates show a wide variety of trains from World War I onwards, including a railway carriage for the Polish TKS tankette. The last plate illustrates some representative armoured train configurations from World War II and later, presumably at a common scale, though this is nowhere stated. Given the wide variation in sizes of the individual trains, Osprey should consider printing the plates at a stated scale, which would increase the value of the book.
The Further Reading section is very extensive and includes a wide range of publications and suggestions for further reading.
Valuable as an introduction to a huge and under-explored subject that is finally getting attention in model form. The size of the subject restricts the depth of the coverage as always, but shouldn’t put off anyone with an interest in the subject. As always with Steve Zaloga the content is clear and well-written and similarly with Tony Bryan as illustrator, the artwork is excellent.
Highs: Wide range of information given the restricted format, well written and featuring some excellent colour illustrations. Lows: Minor nations don't get much of a look-in, and presenting the plates at a given scale would help.Verdict: Inevitably brief study, but surprisngly wide ranging coverage of an interesting subject. Definitely rekindled my interest in armoured trains and I'll be looking for some of the books in the Further reading section.
About David Maynard (Drader) FROM: WALES, UNITED KINGDOM
From south Wales originally, I became an archaeologist by chance and have continued being one for about 20 years. Which is a lot of mud shifted. The nursing home where I was born is now part of the Celtic Manor and, by a nice bit of irony, I did the archaeology for several of their golf courses. I h...