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By Simon Batchelor on

Port of Richborough and the birth of the cross channel train ferry.

An army marches on its stomach—but how did the railways help keep troops well-supplied?

How to keep an army in the field supplied with sufficient arms, ammunition, food and other essential supplies to keep it effective is a fundamental question asked by all military commanders. The difficulty of this undertaking is increased when that army is fighting overseas, and it was a question which had to be addressed in 1914.

Supplies manufactured all over the United Kingdom had to be transported to all theatres of war and therefore it is not surprising that the government sought control over the bulk carrying transport infrastructure such as railways and canals. Nor is it surprising that the military developed specialist units to build run and maintain such facilities in the war zones.

In December 1914 the Inland Waterways Transport Department of the Royal Engineers was formed, its purpose was to acquire, dispatch and man supply barges being sent from Dover to France. The barges were loaded with military stores and towed across the Channel; their crews would then pilot them along the French and Belgian waterways to stores depots close to the fighting front.

The use of barges was seen as advantageous to military logistics for several reasons; firstly it cut down on the need to double handle cargoes, once loaded the supplies could be delivered directly to the depot rather than being unloaded at a base port, loaded onto a train and then unloaded once again once they reached their destination. This in turn meant that the French ports and railways would be less congested with the materials of war and better able to move troops to where they were needed most. Thirdly because of their size and shallow draught barges were less likely to be sunk by torpedoes and therefore it was more likely that their cargoes would arrive safely at their destination and it spread the risk – if a cargo of ammunition is put aboard a ship and it is sunk the whole lot is lost, but put the same cargo on a barge convoy, even if they don’t all make it across, a percentage of the cargo will.

The barge operations began very quickly but IWTD was not particularly welcome in Dover and it became clear that they needed an operational base elsewhere. Richborough was chosen as it was close to SE&CR’s Minster Junction giving easy access to the rail network so that war materials could be easily transported to the new facility and allowing for direct dispatch to France. By 1916 Richborough Military Port had become a military stores depot not just for France but also for all other theatres of war. It also became the training centre for waterways operations sending men to Italy and the Middle East where they set up inland waterway operations to serve those fronts. By 1917 the port had its own engineering works and was building its own barges rather than just assembling them, they were also repairing railway wagons and operating their own railways. At the end of the war Port of Richborough covered some 2200 acres, had five railway yards, approximately 60 miles of track and could handle some 30000 tons of traffic per week.


Copyright National Railway Museum/Science and Society Picture Library.

Richborough also became the Eastern port for a brand new service. In 1916 the need to supply the army becoming urgent and it was suggested that a train ferry service be introduced. The value of the barge service was that materials could reach the forward supply depots without being constantly loaded and unloaded so why could you not do the same with a train – Shunt the wagons onto a ship, send it across The Channel, couple it to a locomotive on the other side and take it straight to where it was needed. Such a ship would also make it easier to transport, large guns, tanks, lorries and armoured cars, replacement locomotives and rolling stock, in short all the necessities for modern warfare. Given the support of Sir Guy Granet (Midland Railway), the railway representative on the Army Council and Director General of Movements and Railways at the War Office, and his successor Sir Sam Fay (Great Central Railway) In 1917 the plan was approved and army proceeded to order three Train Ferries. Two of which were to operate from Richborough and one from Southampton. Whilst the ships were being built their new facilities were constructed both at the English ports and the ports of Dunkirk, Calais and Cherbourg. The first Train Ferry left Richborough on February 10th 1918, the above image shows army lorries and an ambulance train loaded onto a train ferry at Southampton, 11th April 1918. The ferry accommodated both road and rail vehicles. The lorries and ambulance trains are heading for the Western Front in France or Belgium, where the German Army had just launched its spring offensive. The ambulance train had been manufactured by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. They continued to sail on a daily basis until late 1919 when the ships were laid up.


1992-7780 The Train Ferry by Frank H Mason. Copyright National Railway Museum/SSPL

In 1922 the Great Eastern Railway approached the Army with a view to purchasing the three ships and the docking facilities both at Richborough and Southampton as they were planning to set up a new Train Ferry service between Harwich and Zeebrugge. Purchase was completed in 1923 and the dismantling of the Southampton facility began in earnest, unfortunately part of the link span was lost when the ship carrying it sank on its way across The Channel. The Richborough facility was also dismantled and sent to Harwich. The ships retained their rather functional military names Train Ferry 1, 2 & 3 and began their new service in 1924.

All three vessels were to serve again in World War 2 this time under The Admiralty. Train Ferry 1 was purchased in 1940 and converted into a Landing Ship under the name of HMS Iris (later Princess Iris). In 1944 she was converted back into a Train Ferry and at the end of the war was sold back to the London & North Eastern Railway, who named her Essex Ferry. Train Ferry 2 was requisitioned and used as a stores ship. In 1940 she was sent to St.Valery-en-Caux to assist in the evacuation of British Forces, she came under fire from enemy held shore batteries, which caused sufficient damage to force the crew to abandon her off Le Havre. Train Ferry 3 was also requisitioned as a stores vessel and in 1940 was sent to assist in the evacuation of Jersey and Guernsey. She was purchased by The Admiralty and renamed HMS Daffodil. In 1945 she struck a mine and sank off Dieppe.

7 comments on “Port of Richborough and the birth of the cross channel train ferry.

  1. Much of the port still remains in situ. At least one barge is still in daily use on Belgium and French canals. A few high speed launches, one I think is at the RNAS museum at Yeovilton. One on the cranes/gantries is or was until recently at Harwich? One of the big sheds was were Pfizer had one of their factories

    1. Thank-you for the information it is good to know that there are still substantial remains out there of what was, at the time of it’s creation, considered to be a temporary facility.

  2. The rise and fall rail/road loading ramp was later moved to Harwich were it can still be seen today ,on your right,on leaving port. I believe,hopefully,it is a listed structure

  3. Hello and thanks in great anticipation –
    ……a new found French friend lives and works aboard an AC1320 barge at Dinan France .
    While he is very well informed about the history of his barge and has all the ‘ships papers’ – he is very keen to make more links to gain information and contacts right through from the Barrow in Furness steel suppliers, the Richborough kent construction yards, the role of the Royal Engineers , OVS Bullied esq ( the pioneer in construction techniques).
    He is planning a centenary commemoration later this year and would love to have a full archive and as much personal representation as possible.
    Please use my email address for initial responses as his written/spoken English is not so good.
    Tim Saville

    1. Hi Tim, I would love to get in touch with yourself and the barge owner as we are covering Port Richborough barge production in our latest series of Britain at Low Tide.

      Unfortunately the privacy policy of this blog doesn’t allow e-mail addresses to be published – please find our website, we are Tern TV – and please get in contact via e-mail or phone so we can connect and talk about this incredible barge! All the best for now, Rich.

  4. I am interested in the Soton train/ferry. Can you clarify whether Soton was in fact the first cross Channel ferry because of problems with construction at Richborough?

  5. Train ferry no 2 St Valero
    Can you please tell me if tf2 was sunk or beached and if the wreck is in situ and where it is positioned. My grandfather Ernest Stokes was crew and killed at St Valery. We intend to visit in June 2020 as it will be the 80th anniversary and were looking for most appropriate location
    Many thanks
    ps .are there any pictures on file of crew of tf2

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