Veterans’ tribute to Jellicoe Express

ARMED with his kit bag, a few shillings and the obligatory Woodbines, the teenage serviceman boarded the train and headed for war.

Around him were hundreds of other soldiers and sailors crammed into the small compartments where even the luggage racks were used as makeshift beds.

Duncan Cormack was 17 when he left Thurso at 8pm one night in 1943 to make the long journey to London by rail on his way to train for the Royal Marines. It was a full 24 hours later that he and his colleagues arrived at Euston, many of them having to stand all the way.

Yesterday, Mr Cormack, now 77, was back on the platform at Thurso to help mark a place in history reserved for the famous Jellicoe Express troops train of which he has vivid memories.

Mr Cormack joined other war veterans, Royal British Legion members and officials from ScotRail and Railtrack Scotland to unveil a plaque commemorating the train service which daily ran the length of the country during both world wars.

During the war years, travellers were being actively discouraged from going by rail and holiday trains were converted to troop carriers.

The Jellicoe Express, named after Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, the former commander of the British Grand Fleet, was first waved off in 1917, taking naval personnel from the south on their journey north to Thurso for transfer to the British Fleet in Scapa Flow. It was to be used again during the Second World War, carrying army, navy and RAF servicemen; in all carrying an estimated 500,000 military personnel during both campaigns.

Nearly all of the trains were standing room only, with little or no provision for sleeping. On a typical journey from Thurso, a mixture of servicemen would fill the train - sailors returning from Scapa Flow to England, Scottish army recruits heading to London thence to mainland Europe and American servicemen travelling to London on leave.

Mr Cormack said: "It is an episode of my life that has passed into history but one which I will never forget.

"It was a battle from the time you got on. The trains were packed with hundreds of guys, all fighting for space and you were very lucky if you had a seat. It was first come, first served and some of the smaller guys finished up in the luggage rack when they wanted to sleep. You had to learn to look after yourself."

He said the Salvation Army’s Home Front Service distributed food and drinks on the Jellicoe services and the troops spent a shilling of their ten shillings a week pay on meals.

As honorary vice-president of the Thurso branch of the Royal British Legion, he played a lead role in arranging yesterday’s event: "I think it is very important to remember events like these which are an important part of our history," he said.

Ian Macdonald, a senior signaller with Railtrack Scotland, said the company was honoured to commemorate the importance of the Jellicoe Express: "The plaque will act as an enduring tribute to the railway, the staff and the trains that were so important in contributing towards the war effort."