The history of the Welsh Highland Railway has been strongly affected by the two world wars. The first world war cut short the Edwardian era of contentment and tourist traffic almost completely ended. The North Wales Narrow Gauge Railways had closed its passenger operation by the end of 1916. The slate mines found their market nearly wiped out and their men taken away to do battle, but the NWNGR continued to operate its goods service.
Prior to the war, schemes to extend the railway were already struggling, but the Local Authorities were still seeking ways to reach Portmadoc. But when war broke out, all such plans were abandoned until 1921 when the Welsh Highland Railway was conceived. It was built and operated but had failed commercially and closed by 1937.
Although the Welsh Highland Railway had closed by the start of the second world war, its rolling stock and trackbed played a small part in helping the war effort.
In November 1939, the Air Ministry approached the Ffestiniog Railway (who were leasing the Welsh Highland at the time) to see if they could acquire a section of the Railway, primarily the area north of Beddgelert, for use as an ammunition store. Nothing ever became of this proposal and it wasn't until 13th March 1941, when the Ministry of Supply issued a Requisition Order to take up the line for scrap, that the railway finally died.
A section of the line between Hafod Rufydd and Pitts Head was left intact for military use as a training ground for anti-tank gun crews. Targets mounted on old slate wagons were pushed down the steep gradient from Pitts Head and were fired at by the trainees.
Of the Railway's three remaining locomotives, only one survived the scrap drive. Baldwin 590, a veteran of First World War trench railways, was scrapped on site at Dinas in 1942. Its remains can be seen on display in Porthmadog. The second locomotive, Moel Tryfan, was stored out of service at the Ffestiniog Railway's Boston Lodge works. This locomotive was scrapped by the Ffestiniog in 1954. The remaining locomotive, Russell, survives to this day and can be seen hauling passenger trains at the Welsh Highland throughout the summer. In 1942, under the auspices of the Ministry of Supply, Russell was purchased by the Brymbo Steel Company and was sent to work at the Hook Norton ironstone mines in Oxfordshire.
The railway trackbed itself was regarded as of strategic military importance. It was feared that it could be used as an invasion route should the enemy have landed upon it. As a result, ‘pillboxes’ and gun emplacements were placed along the trackbed to protect the route. Some of these can still be seen today along the Aberglaslyn Pass and the entrance to the tunnels at Nantmor.
Today the railway boasts one of the largest collections of narrow gauge Second World War rolling stock in the country.
In addition to Russell, the railway has two other locomotives directly connected with the Second World War. Karen was one of a number of locomotives built during the war for export to foreign countries that supplied Britain with raw materials to aid the war effort. She was built by Peckett of Bristol and exported to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for use in a chrome mine. She returned to Britain during the 1970s and is on display in Porthmadog. The other locomotive is a Cnicht, a 28hp Diesel tractor built in 1941 by Motor Rail and used by the McAlpine company in the construction of an underground ammunition store in Cornwall.
On display at Gelert's Farm, Porthmadog, is a 1941 Mines Rescue vehicle built for the RAF underground munitions store at Fauld. Regrettably the vehicle was never used for the purpose for which it was intended as virtually the whole site was destroyed by an underground explosion. For use at the Welsh Highland, the vehicle has been converted to a mobile store and mess room in preparation for the extension of the railway. A wooden sided bogie wagon from the same location, used for transporting materials around the site, has been converted into one of the railway passenger coaches.
The railway has, over the last few years, acquired a fleet of 1941 Naval box vans and flat wagons that had been used for transporting bombs and shells around Naval depots. They have been carefully restored and re-gauged from 2' 6" to 2' gauge, and now form the core of the Welsh Highland Railway extension train, fully equipped and ready and waiting to rebuild the railway to Beddgelert and Caernarfon. You can see them in frequent service behind one of the large Polish Diesel locomotives, or one of the smaller Simplex locomotives.