Trains may seem pretty mundane in the 21st century, when compared with jet aircraft.
These days, trains play a small role in transporting Americans. Things are a bit flashier in Europe and Asia, where they’re used for high-speed, comfortable travel.
This contrasts vividly with the last century, when not just trains but armoured trains were a vital piece of machinery in the two great military conflicts of the era.
The armoured train was first seen in the American Civil War, according to The Jamestown Foundation. But the battle-ready form of transportation came to prominence in World War I, when Russia used it as a means of defence during cross-country travel.
The trains were used by most of the European nations fighting in World War II: Poland took advantage of them extensively, Nazi Germany reacted and began using them, the Russians kept their fleet up. Even Canada patrolled its west coast with one for a time in case of an invasion, according to Canada’s Virtual Museum.
These trains were not just armoured — they were heavily armed. Cannons, machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, and even tanks were on board these moving walls of terror.
While the armoured train could transport large amounts of firepower rapidly cross country, they also had quite a few drawbacks.
They were hardly stealthy. Their reliance on tracks not only limited where they could go, it provided the enemy with an easy target: Sabotage the tracks, and you disable the train.
After World War II, automotive technology had caught up sufficiently to render the armoured train obsolete. But these insane trains have left an indelible mark on history.
[An earlier version of this feature was written by Alex Davies and Travis Okulski.]
This early Polish train, Smialy, is one of the most famous of the era. The rotating turret on the front helped clear out anything that got in the way.
Here is another shot of Smialy. It was captured by Poland in 1919 but was used in both wars by four different nations: Austria, Poland, the USSR, and Germany.
Over time, the compartments for the soldiers became increasingly secure. This one resembles a fortress.
Some of the cannons on these locomotives appear to be a size that would be more appropriate for a battleship.
As we said, the main issue with these trains was that they ran on tracks. Derailments and fires were their Achilles' heel.
During WWII, the Germans derailed this Polish train with a bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe. It was deserted next to the tracks as the German soldiers neared.
The wartime role of trains has not been totally forgotten. This Russian train, now decommissioned, is part of an installation in its home country.
Here's a classic German news reel of an armoured train in action. This is probably the only time you will ever see a train called in as backup.
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