1. Introduction

During the Occupation, SNCF—like all public-sector organizations—was bound by French government policy and by the terms of the French-German Armistice Agreement, signed at Compiègne on June 22, 1940. Under Article 13 of the Agreement, all communication and transport systems in occupied France, including the rail network, were placed at the “full and entire disposal” of the German Army. Railways in the unoccupied zone were controlled by the Vichy government.

SNCF—a fledgling state-owned company founded just two years earlier, in 1938—had no option but to submit to the will of the French and German authorities, becoming a major cog in the Nazi war effort. With most trucks out of action—fuel and tires were rationed and vehicles were requisitioned—it was left to the railways to deliver supplies and keep the wheels of trade and industry turning. The Nazis used the French rail system extensively: to transport military equipment and troops into and around the country, and to take goods seized from France back to Germany.

In the summer and autumn of 1940, trains carried over 1.5 million prisoners of war to the Reich’s Oflag and Stalag POW camps. Starting in July 1941, the railways in France—and elsewhere in Europe—transported 88,000 political deportees and Resistance members to concentration camps. From March 1942 onwards, a total of 75,721 Jews, including 11,400 children, were taken by rail from France to Nazi death camps. And some 600,000 more victims were loaded into wagons and sent to the Reich to work as forced labourers. Each of these groups included rail workers, who were arrested and deported for the many and varied roles they played in the Resistance. Of these, over 2,200 were executed or died during deportation, paying the ultimate price for taking a stand. Rail workers were also celebrated for their contribution to the liberation of France in the summer of 1944—first by sabotaging railway lines to prevent German reinforcements reaching the coast following the Normandy landings (the so-called Plan Vert, or Green Plan), and later for the strike action that kick-started the Paris uprising. And from September that year, they would go on play a pivotal role in rebuilding France and its rail system.

This map shows the occupied and prohibited zones of France divided into Eisenbahndirektionen (EDs)—German-controlled railway divisions that followed the same contours as the SNCF regions, which were themselves based on the networks operated by the privately owned companies that pre-dated its existence. The Germany Army’s Transport Directorate (the Wehrmachtverkehrsdirektion, or WVD) positioned German rail workers in rail facilities and regional headquarters to oversee French managers. Northern and eastern France were controlled by the WVD operating out of Brussels, while railways in the de facto annexed regions of Alsace and Moselle were subsumed into the Reichsbahn, the German national railway company. © SNCF Historical Archives – SARDO, ref. 0026lm0018-007. Available online on SNCF’s Open Archives website.