The 740th Railway Operating Battalion in France & Belgium
Sometime after the termination of World War I, the War Department, in conjunction with the Class I railroads, formed paper organizations of Railway Operating Battalions which were designated reserve elements under the Corps of Engineers. Until the beginning of World War II, however, the Battalions remained on paper; but then the War Department called on the railroads to supply officer personnel for the formation of Units, the enlisted personnel to be drawn from inductees who had had civilian railroad experience. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railway Company was called on in summer of 1942 to supply qualified men for filling the positions of officers, but it was not until April of 1943 that appointment began coming through. The first officer was called for active duty on 10 August 1943 and the others on 28 and 29 October. All positions had not been filled and men from other railways were assigned to the organization, which had been designated the 740th. In the meantime, military railway units had been transferred from the Engineers to the Transportation Corps, and all officers were required to undergo a basic military training course at the Transportation Corps Officer's Training School at Fort Slocum, New York. The 740th-to-be- officers graduated on 2 December.
Charles W. HEFFNER
740th Raiwlay Operating Battalion
The next duty station was the Transportation Corps, Army
Service Forces, and Unit Training Center at Camp Plauche, New Orleans, Louisiana, where the Battalion was activated on 14 December 1943… Completing basic training at Camp Plauche, the Battalion departed on 23 January 1944 for Camp William C. Reid, Clovis, New Mexico, to take technical training on the Santa Fe Railroad, where it arrived on 25 January. The training territory was from Amarilla, Texas, on the east, to Belen, New Mexico, on the west, and on the branch line from Clovis south to Carlsbad. Operators were assigned, track gangs, bridge and building forces and telegraph and signalmen were scattered over the line with the Santa Fe workers. Shopman were placed in the engine houses at Clovis, New Mexico and Amarillo, Texas, and train and engine crews assigned to road and yard service. Technical training was completed on 30 April and the Battalion began marking time pending receipt of overseas orders. The interim was filled in by an intensified military training program, recreation, etc. Finally, on 20 May 1944 the advance party of two officers and one enlisted man departed for the New York Port of Embarkation, from where they sailed on 29 May, arriving at Liverpool on 5 June and debarking on 7 June. The Battalion left Camp Reid on 2 July and sailed from New York on 18 July, arriving at Liverpool on the 29th and debarking on the 30th. From there it proceeded to St. Mellons, near Cardiff, Wales, where it was split up into twenty detachments for work in the various General Depots throughout midland and southern England. Battalion Headquarters were established at Egginton, Derbyshire, on 1 August. On 5 August orders were received to call in the Detachments and assemble at St. Mellons for movement overseas. Reaching St. Mellons on the 7th, the Battalion remained until the 9th when it left for the Marshalling Area in Nightingale Woods at Eastleigh, just north of Southampton. 13th of August saw the Unit embarking for the continent; Battalion Headquarters, and Headquarters, "A" and "B" Companies, loading on one transport and Company "C" on another. The convoy arrived off Utah Beach the next day and while Company "C" debarked immediately, the other Companies did not land until 16th. On landing of Company "C", one detachment was sent to Cherbourg to run engines east to Mayenne; truck on the 14th, and the balance on the 15th sent one to Mayenne. When the other Companies landed they spent the night in a bivouac area, with part leaving the area at noon on the 17th
and arriving at Mayenne that night, and the remainder leaving about midnight and arriving at Mayenne the afternoon of the 18th.
As of this time, tracks had been restored from the beaches and Cherbourg through Coutances, Folligny, Avranches, Pontaboult, Mayenne, La Chapelle and Sille Le Guillaume to Le Mans, the railhead. The line from Pontaboult through Mayenne to La Chapelle was a secondary single-track railroad, the selection of which was made necessary because the high bridge at Laval, just west of La Chapelle, on the double track Rennes-Le Mans line, had been blown up. The 718th Railway Operating Battalion, which crossed the channel in the same convoy with the 740th, had its eastern terminus at Mayenne. When the Battalion arrived at Mayenne, it was without supplies or equipment, insufficient time having been allowed in the United Kingdom to accumulate them, and found trains waiting to be run east, only one track open, all buildings severely damaged by bombing, no communication lines to the east, and the one to the west inoperative; very little water in the tank and the pump broken; only 15 tons of coal on hand with the nearest supply 65 kilometers away; no roundhouse facilities available, and no flagging equipment. Information was received that 31 trains of ammunition, rations and gasoline that General Patton said was required to enable him to take Paris in 20 days, were on the way through. Three of these trains had passed Mayenne by the 17th of August, but on the afternoon of that day, crews of Battalion relieved at Mayenne, all crews of other Battalions to the west. From this beginning, trains were operated to the east on manual block system; then lenemen opened a circuit to the east, and assisted in the repair of the line west to Fougeres;
track laborers, with a motley and inadequate collection of tools, restored three yard tracks at Mayenne and started on the removal of slow orders between that point and La Chapelle; and old reciprocating steam pump that had not been used for years was repaired and used for pumping water to the tank from the river; a small open air engine terminal was established; a supply of very poor coal was sent in, and an additional water pint was provided at Ernée as the pump at Mayenne continually gave trouble. An officer to take charge of the railhead operations was sent to Le Mans on 19 August, but as this was the scene of our principal operations, Battalion Headquarters were moved there on 22 August, leaving a detachment at Mayenne. Le Mans, one of the largest rail terminals in France, was found to have been given a severe bombing and was almost completely demolished. As of the 22nd of August, only one main line into the terminal and two yard tracks had been restored. Orders were received to begin the rehabilitation of the yard for increased unloading. This was a stupendous task. The terminal was a twisted mass of wrecked locomotives, cars, rails, ties, buildings, etc. The work was planned and started and continued under the supervision of this Battalion, but on arrival at Le Mans of the 712th and 722nd Railway Operating Battalions, their trackmen were also assigned to this work. While operations of Le Mans terminal was assigned to the 712th Railway Operating Battalion effective 31 August, the Superintendent Maintenance of Way of this Battalion remained in charge of the rehabilitation on request of the Commanding Officer of the 706th Railway Grand Division. To 15 September, when the Battalion was transferred from this territory, 20 yard tracks, the 'loop' tracks and five engine house tracks had been restored for service.
When the Maintenance of Equipment Company moved into the engine terminal on 20 August, they found it deserted. One roundhouse had been completely destroyed, the other badly damaged and the machine shop about two thirds wrecked. Bomb craters, collapsed walls and beams, wrecked locomotives and machinery proved a great obstacle to setting up shop. Men were assigned the job of clearing a working space, and a survey was made of the tracks to determine what would be necessary to get engines into the shop. This revealed that one track could be used with a little repair work. When a search failed to locate tools, blacksmiths were assigned the task of making wrenches, hammers, screw drivers, punches, chisels, etc., so that the other crafts could go to work. Oil was no problem – The Germans had left a large quantity. The mechanism of the turntable had been damaged and had to be manually operated, requiring the services of eight to ten men each time an engine left the roundhouse. Despite these handicaps, engines were serviced and light repairs made and there was no delay to movements due to lack of power. While the 764th Railway Shop Battalion moved into Le Mans and took over the back shop about 1 September and jurisdiction of the entire terminal was assigned to the 712th Railway Operating Battalion on 30 August, shopmen of this Unit continued to work in the shops until the Battalion was assigned to another sector on 15 September. The Car Platoon also suffered from lack of tools with a tremendous job facing it. Soon after arriving at Le Mans, a call was made for every available empty car for the ports. Great numbers of cars, of all European nationalities and in all states of condition were in the yard. Many were completely wrecked, some required minor repairs and a large number were serviceable but on tracks that had had switches or leads blown out. To get out these cars, track repair was necessary and then frequently the use of an old French 'tea kettle' hook that had been resurrected, was required to clear out damaged cars and locomotives that were blocking exits. The car shop was completely wrecked. On arriving a search was made for tools, brasses, and other equipment. Baling wire was used to make repairs to cars in transit. Journal brass was a problem until a Frenchman informed the car force that some American brasses were stored in an old warehouse uptown. On investigation, it was found this brass had been sent over in 1918 for use on World War I equipment. It was collected and immediately
put to use.
For the first few days of operation between Mayenne and Le Mans, the very crudest of operating conditions prevailed. On the completion of the communication circuit dispatchers and operators were placed. At night, absolute blocking was in force, with both permissive and absolute blocking, depending on conditions, prevailing in the daytime. Trains were operated and switching performed at night by the trainmen using personal flashlights, cigarettes lighters and lighted cigarettes for flagging. Crews were on the road as long as 96 hours, catching catnaps in cabs and cabooses. The Germans that had been bypassed at Mayenne by the combat forces, cut the wires night after night, and sniped at passing trains, and at yard and engine house men. Until the end of August, no civilian traffic was permitted on the railroad. The food situation in Paris was so acute, however, that the French were finally permitted to move so much tonnage per day over the road. By this time the line had been restored through Chartres and Dreux to the outskirts of Paris. In reassignment of territory effective 30 August, the 740th, which was under the 708th Railway Grand Division, gave up the Le Mans terminal and the line to Paris, retaining the line from Mayenne to the west switch of the Mans yard, and
being assigned the double track road from Surdon to Le Mans. Only one track on this latter line was open, but trackmen sent to Alençon opened for traffic 15 miles of second track to 14 September. Effective 31 August, the bridge at Laval was completed and traffic was then routed through Rennes; the first train over the bridge being loaded with potatoes destined for Paris. All operation over the secondary railroad from Mayenne to La Chapelle was discontinued effective 4 September. In the meantime, the Engineers were engaged in rehabilitating the northerly and more direct rail route from the beaches and Cherbourg to Paris; and one completion thereof on 14 September the roundabout line from Folligny to Rennes, thence through Laval, Le Mans, Chartres and Dreux to Paris was discontinued as the main supply route and it's operation turned over to the French. The Battalion had been well baptized. It had learned under what conditions it was expected to perform; conditions that in civilian life would have been deemed impossible, testing the intelligence, ingenuity and physical stamina of every officer and enlisted man. Suffice it to say that without GI supplies of any kind until 30 August (when our supplies and equipment started catching up), the road, yard, motive power and communication facilities and operating practices had been improved to the extent that from the handling of 36 trains in the first six days, 45 trains were handled on 13 September. Concurrently with turning over the Rennes – Le Mans line phase III operation, the Battalion received orders to move to Laon, France, for operation of the railroad from there to railheads in Belgium. West of Paris we had served the Third Army, but with arrival at Laon on 17 September, we began a service to the First Army that continued without interruption until after V-E day. As the Army rapidly advanced until it reached the defenses of the Siegfried Line, the Engineers restored a single track line, and as that was done, the Battalion moved in and established railheads; then improved the roadbed for operation at higher speeds, opened yard tracks for increased traffic, and constructed additional communication lines. As of 17 September, one track had been restored to Liege, Belgium, the most advanced railhead. A circuitous route reached this over secondary roads, mainly, from Laon through Liart, Hirson and Anor, France; and Mariembourg,
Charleroi, Gembloux, Ramillies, Namur and Huy, Belgium. On 25 September, however, restoration of the bridge over the Meuse River into the Liege Guillemins passenger station was completed. While this station was a bottle neck, trains having to pull in, the engines run around the cars and then coupled on again and run east, it re-opened Liege as the hub of railroad supply lines to the east, north and south, and Advance Section, Communications Zone, and Air Corps Units to the West. One of these lines ran north to Vise, another through Chenee to Pepinster, and the other from Chenee to Herve. While the combat forces were butting against the Siegfried Line, restoration of the lines east of Liege were in progress, and continued so until finally railheads were established only a few kilometers behind the line. On 2 October 1944, rail territory was reassigned giving to the 740th all lines from Namur to the railheads. This brought the Headquarters up to Liege on 4 October.
Liege, Incidentally, is also a province, not only a city; although Guillemins, Ans, Longdoz, Bressoux, Tilleur, Kinkempois, Renory, etc, are so closely grouped they appear to be one big city. Effective 5 October, the road east from Vise through Remersdael and Montzen to Herbesthal was opened, and later in the month, the track was restored from Herbesthal to the Belgian-German border town of Raeren. The opening of operation of the Vise-Herbesthal line was just another case of getting a supply road opened quickly. It was a circuitous route from Liege to Herbesthal, but was the more feasible of the two that could be quickly restored while work was in progress on the bomb-damaged bridge just east of Pepinster. Outside of distance, another objection was that at Remersdael, the road was on an ascending grade in the direction of loads through a tunnel, from the lining of which seepage caused slippery rails. With the completion on 21 October of the bridge east of Pepinster, traffic for Herbesthal and east was routed over this line. On 15 October, the Gembloux – Landen – Ans – Liege Line was opened to relieve traffic conditions on the one through Namur – Huy – Liege. To ever come some of the difficulties at the Liege-Guillemins station, Company "B" and Company "C" were moved to Ans so that engines and crews could be changed there. Ninth Army units began moving into Holland in the early
There were no changes in assigned territory during the first half of November, but improvements to track and structures were still in progress. Company "A" track forces restored the track into Germany as far as Walheim, which had been chosen as a prospective railhead. No heavy work was involved except where the line runs through the 'Dragons Teeth' at Smithoff, and there it was found the work was not only heavy but also dangerous. The first swipe of the bulldozer blade raked up four mines. Before completion of the job, a total of twenty-five were removed. The work was completed on 7 November and on that day a work train of Company "A" passed through the Siegfried line; followed on 14 November by the first of two trains of Engineer supplies and equipment for Walheim. While the track was ready for operation, First Army authorities refused to grant permission to establish a railhead at Walheim, giving as the reason that it was too close to the front line. To overcome the objectionable operation through LiegeGuillemins passenger station, construction of a bridge at Flemalle-Grande over the Meuse and the restoration of tracks in Kinkempois yard had been started in October. With the completion of the bridge on 14 November, the bulk of the traffic was routed over the Namur – Huy – Kinkempois line. Kinkempois yard was another Le Mans and Laon. Concurrently with the completion of the bridge, three tracks on the Maastricht side of the yard, five on the Herbesthal side and three stub tracks were ready for use. This brought a reassignment of operating territory effective as of 15 November, whereby the 740th gave up all lines west of the Meuse River and took over all east of the Meuse in Belgium and Holland; i.e.:
Flemalle-Grande to Raeren, via Kinkempois, Chenee, Pepinster and Herbesthal. Chenee to Battice. Chenee to Herbesthal, via Vise and Montzen Vise, through Maastricht to Schinnen and Wylra Gulpen. The line in Holland was extended during November and December eastward to Kerkrade and Kerkrade-Rolduc. The lines east and north of Maastricht resembled a crude figure '8', with Maastricht and Sittard on the west, Schinop-Guel and Heerlen in the middle, and Kerkrade and KerkradeRolduc on the east. Except for the short stretch between the last named two stations, the line was in operating condition, although after Sittard had been shelled by artillery several times, the section north from Maastricht was discontinued. The only other extension of note in December was from Pepinster to Malmedy where a gasoline railhead was established on the 14th. This operation was short-lived. The German break-through in the Ardennes swept quickly into Malmedy and the last train in on 16 December was turned around and brought it's load right back, out. At that, the crew had to locate a track gang to replace a rail length that had been blown out by an aerial bomb between the up and down trips. Besides abandonment of this line, all supplies east of Pepinster on the road to Herbesthal and Raeren were evacuated to depots west of the Meuse, and traffic east of Pepinster practically ceased until after the enemy was driven back across the border. Again on 1 January 1945 the Battalion relinquished the lines in Holland. This time for good. The 734th Railway Operating Battalion arrived just after Christmas and was assigned the territory north from the east switch at Liege – Bressoux. The only other changes to the end of January were the opening up of the branch out of Angleur south to Trois-Ponts on 17 January, and resumption of service on the Malmedy line to Sart-lez-Spa on 25 January. Repairs to this line continued through January and most of February until the entire loop (a scenic route through the northern part of the Ardennes) – Pepinster – Stavelot – Malmedy – Waimes – Weywertz – Roetgen – Raeren was in operation.
Reconstruction work was in progress on the line through Raeren and Walheim to Stolberg, and on 7 February the first freight railhead in Germany was established at Walheim. This was not the first train operation into Germany; however, as the Battalion had run trains into Walheim and Aachen as far back as November. While the road was opened to Stolberg by the 8th of February, further extension of rail service was stopped until the first part of March the bridge and tunnel work necessary between that point and Eschweiler. Extension of the line east necessarily caused a reassignment of territory. Effective 1 March, the Battalion gave up line except the one from the east switch at Chenee, through Pepinster, Herbesthal and Raeren, Belgium, to Stolberg, Germany; and the loop – Pepinster – Stavelot – Malmedy – Weywertz – Raeren. There was assigned the line from Aachen West (exclusive) to Stolberg to connect up with the Maastricht – Aachen line. Battalion Headquarters was moved from Liege and opened at Aachen on 8 March. On completion of the bridge and tunnel work just east of Stolberg, rapid progress was made in restoring a single-track line through to Duren, then Zulpich, then Euskirchen, then Bonn and then Urmitz… Again on 19 March a reassignment of territory was announced. Under this, the 740th relinquished the line from Chenee to Herbesthal, and of the loop, retained only that part between Raeren and Weywertz.
… A complete account of the activities of the various Companies and sections of the 740th Battalion would fill several books… Beginning with the operation at Laon, our notes include the following: Arriving on 17 September the railroad was in a very disorganized state. Through communications did not exist. Railway maps were hard to find and the average French railway employee did not know anything about general conditions. While we were operating in Phase II, due to lack of communications, we actually had no centralized control. Trains were blocked and operated by the French stationmasters. G.I. operators were placed at the more important stations, and by various methods of communications, managed to maintain some sort of train's records. When the Battalion moved to Liege, we found conditions not much improved. This area was directly in the rear of the First Army and we were faced with the problem of establishing and supervising a large number of railheads. The Belgian soon set up a system of centralized dispatching. Our dispatchers kept joint records with them, and operators were placed in their block offices…. …. When the assigned territory was changed on 2 October, Company "A" was sent to Herbesthal due to the fact this was German territory prior to 1918 and there was very little native labor to rely on for maintenance. In addition to performing normal maintenance around Herbesthal, men from this Company acted as guards for bridges and tunnels between St. Martin and Remersdael and at Berneau until relieve by the Belgian F.I. A track gang was also sent to Maastricht to open additional tracks. The Telephone and Signal section found some communication lines to the front already installed by Signal Corps, had to install others, and patched up German cables when found and suitable for use. At Laon switchboards were installed in the Headquarters of the 740th and 708th Railway Grand Division; and from the 740th board, lines were run to all companies, dispatcher's office, motor pool, the towers, sand house, roundhouse, etc. One dispatcher's circuit and a message circuit were patched up between Laon and Hirson. When the railroad from Namur to the railheads was taken over, lines were installed from Liege to Tilleur; at Ans from station to Company "C" engine house and to each end of the yard; from switchboard at Liege to dispatcher, Chief Dispatcher; yard office; Tower 2; roundhouse; barracks; motor pool, 741st Headquarters; two trunks to the 708th; yard office to Tower 2; roundhouse,
and from 708th switchboard to the Belgian board in Liege. From Liege to Namur, and Liege to Herve – Verviers – Herbesthal, German cables were used. From Liege to Pepinster, through Chenee and Trooz; Liege to Maastricht, Holland, via Vise; and from Liege to Landen via Ans, German circuits were rehabilitated. In one instance when wire ran out, a wire fence along the right of way was used. At Laon, messes were established for all companies, and in addition, a 24-hour mess was opened at the passenger station. On moving to Liege, 24-hour messes were established at Liege, Ans, Pepinster, Herbesthal and Maastricht, with regular messes at Headquarters Company, Company "B" and Office's Quarters. Rations were distributed by truck to all men – yardmen; telegraph operators, car inspectors, switching and pusher crews, and linemen. For one period while Headquarters were at Liege, the Battalion served a total of 31 railheads. The table of organization allowed three yardmasters. Because the number of railheads, conductors and brakemen were utilized as yardmasters. Officers from other companies were detailed to duty with Company "C" as railhead commanders. Although Belgian and Dutch crews were utilized, and crews were reduced to four, and sometimes three men, a shortage, and a crew that spent less than four continually plagued five days or us on the road without rest was the exception. Company "C" of the 741st Railway Operating Battalion, newly arrived from the States was attached about the middle of October and this helped to ease the situation. A few days later, the main body of the 741st reached Maastricht, and the line in Holland was turned over to it… …The numbers of individual acts of heroism are too numerous to attempt to record here, and this is true also of the men who put in long, arduous hours of toil in all companies and sections. The Battalion has ample reason to be proud of its men individually and collectively; and higher headquarters, as well as the First Army have commanded its achievements, and the Traffic Regulating Station with which it was longest associated. Some of the achievements of special note are: During the period 20 November 1944 to 28 January 1945, when Liege and vicinity were subjected to an intensive barrage of robot bombing (V-1 and V-2), and, in addition, during the period 16 December 1944 to the end of the month
to aerial bombing and strafing attacks, the Battalion suffered casualties of eight killed and thirty-three wounded, besides damage to tracks and equipment and constant interruption to communication lines. The 'Battle of the Bulge' caused the Battalion to cease operations entirely on the Malmedy branch and the line east of Herbesthal. All supplies and material from railheads at Malmedy, Eupen, and Herbesthal were evacuated and moved west of the Meuse River. All guards were doubled and men of Company "A" spent their nights in foxholes south of the town of Herbesthal. Although conditions in Liege and environs at times approximated from line conditions, the Battalion (to borrow from a letter from the Commander of the 708th Railway Grand Division) did not "back up inch or lose one ounce of supplies entrusted to its charge." "Buzz Bomb Alley" will long remain in the memories of the veterans of this Unit….