Armored trains are a relic of the past by today’s standards but in the late 19th and early 20th century, these big steel-plated locomotives besieged cities, pierced frontlines and supported infantry attacks all over the world.
The beasts of the railroads began their epic service in the American Civil War when a single car was built to defend the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Then war trains saw action in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and the First and the Second Boer Wars which led the machines into the 20th century.
In 1905, these trains were used in the Far East as part of the Russo-Japanese War, where the advantage of a large armored vehicle on rails during harsh winters proved to be irreplaceable. Russia later saw the even more extensive use of armored trains during the First World War and the Civil War which commenced immediately after the October Revolution.
Trains were seen as transport mainly at the time, as they were capable of carrying a large number of people and equipment in a short period of time. Its transport use revolutionized the way battlefield logistics were executed at the time. The fact that the machine was tied to the tracks didn’t represent such a disadvantage, for this was the only dawn of the automobile age and the four-wheelers were still lagging behind the locomotive.
Needless to say, tanks were only in development during the First World War, so flawed designs often lost sympathy in the military, and trains proved to be more reliable. Mounted with cannons and encased with thick armor, the trains were fearsome fighting machines.
But trains are perceived as transport mainly today, so this appendix of history takes place in a time before the rapid development of armored vehicles in the interwar period. During the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920), the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and the Second World War armored trains were actively used by all parties included in the conflicts.
In Poland, trains were active in the defense effort of the September campaign against the invading Germans. The Germans, on the other hand, developed super cannons on a train chassis, most famous being the Schwerer Gustav, which saw limited service, but had a devastating effect during the siege of Sevastopol.
Apart from official military use, trains often served as support for partisan groups which staged massive offensives during the last years of the Second World War. Such was the case in Slovakia, where three armored trains ― The Hurban, Štefánik, and Masaryk ― delivered a decisive blow to the weakened German units in September of 1944.
The British and the Canadians both used trains armed with entire arsenals of anti-tank, anti-aircraft and artillery guns for patrolling the coastline and protecting it from a potential invasion.
In Europe railroads were battlegrounds, and railway stations took on the form of strategic headquarters. So how did this concept come to be abandoned?