"Results such as the railways have achieved are only won by blood and sweat, and on behalf of the Nation I express gratitude to every railwayman who has participated in this great transport effort which is contributing so largely to final victory.”

So said Winston Churchill on the role that Britain’s railways played in World War Two, a role that journalist Michael Williams explores in his new book, Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won the War.

“Churchill effectively said that without the railways we couldn’t have won the war,“ explains Michael, a former deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday, executive editor of the Independent, and head of news at the Sunday Times.

“The railways carried the evacuated children, troops from Dunkirk, there were no cars and no petrol – trains kept people moving, the people who worked them kept Britain moving.“

In many ways, the railway system during the war was the story of the Home Front. They were the lifeline of the nation: replacing vulnerable road transport and merchant shipping; mobilising troops, transporting munitions, evacuating children; and keeping vital food supplies moving. Railway men and women performed outstanding acts of heroism – nearly 400 workers were killed at their posts and another 2,400 were injured in the line of duty. Another 3,500 died in action.

Michael, who lives near Euston and lectures in journalism at the University of Central Lancashire, interviewed a number of the final survivors of the war, now in their 80s and 90s, to collect a series of vivid first-hand accounts of the great evacuations of the Blitz, Dunkirk and D-Day.

“Not many are still alive now,“ says Michael, “so it was very important to get a range of these first-hand experiences recorded.“

Among those he interviewed were a signalman who was in the bombing of Coventry, a driver during the Blitz, a railway ‘sapper’, the last person to be rescued from the bombed Bethnal Green Tube station, and the first woman porter on the Great Western Railway.

Arnold Powell, from East Finchley, was another interviewee. Arnold, a retired GP who had a surgery in Kilburn, was evacuated twice from his family’s home in Old Street.

“The first time was in the autumn of 1939,“ says Arnold, 81. “I was evacuated to Cambridgeshire when I was seven with my youngest brother Michael, who was only five, and my sister Gloria, two years older than me.“

Arnold went to live in the level crossing gatekeeper’s cottage on the edge of the train tracks in a hamlet called Black Horse Drove, on the main line between Cambridge and King’s Lynn.

“The level crossing had these huge gates,“ Arnold remembers, “you swung on them like a swing. The level crossing keeper would let us work the gates, and soon we were so good at it we were doing it on our own. When my parents came to visit, they were appalled and they took us back home.“

He was evacuated for a second time in June 1940, when the bombing intensified, with his 12-year-old brother Maurice, this time to Cornwall.

“We didn’t know where we were going, it was a big adventure. When you’re eight, you see the planes in the sky and the news films with warships in the cinema, it was very exciting.

“Mousehole was just beyond Penzance, a little fishing village, it was delightful down there. There were rock pools where you could find sea anemones.“

Arnold and Maurice lived with the Crompton family, who had made their money from the manufacture of electric lightbulbs, and were looked after by the family’s nanny.

“They were very nice people,“ Arnold remembers. “The only time I was unhappy was when I was unwell at one time and had to have my tonsils removed. Although my host family were relatively kind, nobody came to visit me and I was very upset.

“And on the train on the way down, we saw these beaches as we passed Plymouth and we all expected ice cream – that’s what you do at the seaside. I can’t tell you how disappointed we were when we didn’t get one!“

Arnold has just received his copy of Steaming to Victory. “I had a good laugh reading about myself,“ he chuckles.

“I had no idea how fascinating a role the railways had played during the war. Churchill’s ‘never was so much owed by so many to so few’ speech could just be about the people behind the railways. Without them, the country would have ground to a halt.“

  • Steaming to Victory: How Britain’s Railways Won the War is available from Monday, May 13. Details: www.randomhouse.co.uk