Into the Night: The 1939 Lipbach(Germany) Train Collision

Lipbach is a former town in the extreme south of Germany, nowadays part of the municipality of Kluftern (population: 3619 as of August 2017). Lipbach is located in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg, 17.5km/11mi east of Constance and 7.5km/5mi northwest of Friedrichshafen (both distances in linear distance), just a stone’ throw away from the northern shore of Lake Constance.

The location of Lipbach in Germany.

The municipality of Kluftern lies on the Stahringen-Friedrichshafen railway, a part of the Bodenseegürtelbahn (“Lake Constance Belt Railway) that runs around the outside of the lake. Opening in sections between 1867 and 1901 the single-track non-electrified main line sees mostly regional passenger traffic and some freight services. At the time of its construction the line was international, of sorts, connecting the railway network of the Grand Duchy of Baden with that of the Royal Württemberg State Railways.

At the time of the accident the DR (the Third Reich’s national railway) was suffering a staff shortage due to the war effort, forcing employees to cover several positions at once. For example, the only signalman at Markdorf station also had to periodically leave his post, cycle to a level crossing 500m/1640ft away, lower the barriers, watch the train pass and raise the barrier again before cycling back to his actual post in the signal box.

The site of the accident seen from above today. Lipbach can be seen to the left.

Travelling northwest-bound through Kluftern was P Kar 21154, an express train from Oberstdorf to Müllheim. It carried 700 passengers, mostly former residents of Weil am Rhein who had been evacuated east in the early days of World War 2 and could now return to their homes as fighting in the area had died down. The train had become an irregular service after the war started and was only running “if required”. A shortage of rolling stock had delayed its departure by one day to the day of the accident, turning it into an irregular service. On the day of the accident the train consisted of a DR Series 57 steam locomotive, eleven express passenger cars and 4 enclosed freight cars for the luggage. Introduced in 1910 as the Prussian G10 the series 57 was a heavy freight train steam engine with five driven axles and a pulled tender. Each Series 57 measures 18.91m/62ft in length at a weight of 122 metric tons (tender, water and 7 metric tons of coal included). The locomotive produces 809kW/1085hp and can reach up to 60kph/37mph.

Due to its delay of a full day the train should have been entered into a special logbook for irregular trains at Markdorf station, the contents of which the conductor on duty would have copied onto a blackboard at the station by midnight so the next day’s shift could keep track of these trains.

A former DR Series 57 identical with those involved in the accident photographed in DB-services in 1966.

Coming the other way on its journey towards Lindau was Dg 7953, a freight train consisting of an enclosed freight car followed by an unknown number (at least 16) of coal cars. Usually a train guard rode in the brakeman’s cabin on the rearmost car, upon passing a station he would signal the station master. During daylight hours this meant a simple salute, during the night the raising of a lantern. On the day of the accident the freight train’s driver had allowed his colleague to seek shelter in the enclosed freight car due to the cold temperatures they were travelling in. Pulling the train was another Series 57, identical with the one pulling the passenger train. As a safety-measure against aerial attacks the trains both ran under blackout rules, having been fitted with special covers on the headlights that greatly reduced the light-output and aimed it downward, while the lights at the stations were to be turned off. This did hide the trains from the air at night, but it also reduced visibility for the drivers and made them harder to spot from other trains or by people on the ground.

Blackout covers similar to those fitted to the involved trains on a preserved KdF-Wagen (VW Bug predecessor)

On the 21st of December 1939 at approximate 8pm the vicarious station master at Markdorf received a telegram notifying him of the passenger train finally coming through his station the next day. For unknown reasons he failed to enter the train into the logbook for irregular trains after being notified of it. His superior took the following day-shift on the 22nd of December without realizing the error before the vicarious master took back over for the following night shift at 7pm. By this point he had apparently forgotten about the passenger train, and thus didn’t inform the surrounding signal boxes and points guards of it. The freight train was meant to stop at Markdorf even under a green signal, let the passenger train pass and then, upon command by the stationmaster, proceed southbound.

By 10:05pm he was working on an unknown piece of writing when he was interrupted by the notification that the freight train was waiting at Bermatingen-Ahausen, approximately 6km/4mi up the tracks from Markdorf station. He confirmed that the train was clear to proceed to Markdorf station and set the signals accordingly without first notifying Kluftern station, south of Markdorf, and asking if they were ready to accept the train. Apparently he still wasn’t remembering the passenger train as he set everything up for the freight train to proceed right through to Kluftern. In the meantime the passenger train departed Fischbach northbound for Kluftern while Kluftern’s station master tried reaching his coworker at Markdorf without success. For unknown reasons no one at Markdorf picked up the phone. Relying on the scheduled meeting at Markdorf station and his coworker’s professionalism the dispatcher at Kluftern allowed the passenger train to proceed towards Markdorf at approximately 10:15pm. Once the train was departing he tried calling his coworker again, who was calling back at the same moment, again causing the connection to not be established. Lastly Kluftern’s station master sent a bell-signal to Markdorf, announcing the train.

Hearing the bell ring in his office caused Markdorf’s dispatcher to remember the passenger train. He ran out onto the darkened platform in a panic, but the freight train’s locomotive had already passed the station building, disregarding the planned stop even on a green signal, and was proceeding into the foggy darkness. In his panic the station master had forgotten both his whistle and lantern, leaving him unable to make himself noticeable. Not that it would’ve helped much once the locomotive was gone as there was no guard in the rear car. The station master then ran back up to his office and called the signal box, wanting to tell the signalman to set the signal to red, but he reached no one as the signalman had headed out to operate the level crossing. At last he called his coworker at Kluftern station, finally establishing a connection, but too late. The passenger train had already passed the station. The accident was no longer avoidable.

Both trains were on a collision course at 60kph/37mph each, approaching each other on a 2.5km/1.6mi long straight section of track. The darkness of the night, the fog hovering in the area and the near-entirely covered headlights caused the train drivers to either not see the other train at all or only moments before impact. The passenger train’s driver initiated an emergency stop at the last second, too late to slow the train at all, before the trains collided head-on at full speed at 10:19pm, just outside Lipbach. The crash is so loud that residents in the surrounding towns suspect an aerial bombing or a large plane crash. The impact caused the passenger train’s tender to rise up in the rear, crushing the leading passenger car as it came back down before two more passenger cars broke apart on the back of it while the first fifteen coal cars along with the closed freight car were turned into an unrecognizable pile of twisted metal and splintered wood. 101 people die in the collision, including most of the train crews, 47 more are listed as having been (severely) injured.

The wreckage as photographed the next morning, the passenger train is on the left.

Responders arrive at the site of the collision soon after the accident, if so in smaller numbers than one might expect in peacetime. Initially the rescue is very difficult, taking place with insufficient tools and in total darkness. Some responders and civilians break the blackout-orders, parking cars in a semicircle and taking the covers off the headlights. One of the responders later recalls “no matter where they put their tools to help, someone started screaming”. Surrounding farms provide bedding and hay to keep survivors warm, it’s only much later that some anti air units bring their spotlights and someone organizes cutting torches. At some point one of the stokers is cut from the remains of his locomotive, surviving the accident with severe burns and various cuts inflicted by the locomotive’s controls and firebox. All in all the government tries to keep the accident under wraps, no newspapers, radio programs or tv-stations are allowed to report on it.

By the early morning all the victims and survivors have been removed from the wreckage with the victims being taken to nearby Markdorf. It has a high priority to get the trains moving again, the railway has a high priority in the third Reich. As such the wreckage is unceremoniously pushed and dragged to the side of the tracks, leading to many preserved photos showing rolled-over locomotives even though they remained upright in the collision. Largely ignoring the shortcomings in equipment and staffing as well as the possibility of a technical defect (not that there was one) the blame is soon placed on the station masters from Kluftern and Markdorf.

One of the locomotives sitting in the wreckage after the accident.

It turns out that both men are members of the SA (“Storm Division”, a paramilitary organisation in the Third Reich), with some claims that the paperwork that distracted one of them during the night of the accident having been related to his activity and position in the group. The station master at Kluftern was of a lower rank within the SA than his coworker and it is assumed that he was worried about repercussions if he needlessly stopped the train, which the master at Markdorf would have had to report to his superiors. This likely played a role in the decision to let the train proceed without the proper notification and confirmation having been given. However, at the time of the accident this aspect is largely kept out of the public eye. Strangely enough the investigation does recognize shortcomings in the staff and equipment as well as unjustified actions by the freight train crew, which are noted as mitigating circumstances once the two station masters have to stand trial.

Local residents watching the wreckage after it was moved off the tracks.

On the 26th of December 1939 the caskets of the victims are lined up on Markdorf’s town square, 2.5km/1.5mi (linear distance) from where the accident happened. The public funeral is turned into a giant propaganda-event for the Nazi government (to the point of one getting uncomfortable looking at the photos nowadays) with several swastika-banners, pylons with blazing flames and a number of representatives of the government and army present, including an honor guard by the Hitler Youth (the Reich’s youth indoctrination organization). The spectacle is topped off by Gauleiter (regional political leader) making his eulogy more about how the accident came at a poor time for the nation “struggling to maintain their population and secure space to survive” rather than about the victims. Which probably is the most tone-deaf eulogy ever (personal opinion).

The public funeral in the town square of Markdorf (I censored all the Swastikas).

The trial ends on the 3rd of July 1940 with two sentences being handed down. Kluftern’s station master receives a year in jail while his coworker at Markdorf, being seen as the main person at fault, goes away for 3 years. The freight train gets partial blame too, but since they didn’t survive the accident the station masters are the only people going to jail. Even with the mitigating circumstances the punishments are notably light, around the same time a train guard had been sentenced to 10 years in jail for keeping two packages he had been given by soldiers for safekeeping for himself.

The passenger train’s tender, photographed with the remains of the leading passenger car under it.

Having been made almost 3000 times (exact numbers differ) a lot of Series 57 locomotives survive the war, going to various European countries. Their service in Germany ends in 1970 (west) and 1972 (east), Romania and Turkey are last to retire theirs in the 1990s in favor of diesel locomotives. 31 locomotives are preserved to this day, spread out all over Europe and in varying condition. Notably the far majority of them (22) was license-built in Romania rather than in Germany.

After the war the newly founded DB (German national railway) introduces automated signals, a train can’t depart if an automated system reports the section of track as occupied. The pattern of stopping even without a red signal and departing on a specific permission is kept around for some time, mostly on branch lines. The practice is rapidly retired after the 1971 Dahlerau train collision. Train guards are a thing of the past too, as are station masters. Blackout-techniques have largely lost their use as modern warfare focuses on guided weapons rather than flying in and dropping bombs.

Nowadays the line is serviced by diesel multiple units for regional passenger services with freight traffic being nearly nonexistent. Plans are in motion to modernize the line, including electrification, by 2030 at the latest.

The accident never leaves the memory of the local population, leading to a memorial finally being unveiled on the 22nd of December 1989 on a dead-end road in Lipbach, near the site of the accident. An upright stone in a flowerbed carries a black plaque with gold lettering, reminding visitors of the tragedy that happened nearby. The text only notes 98 victims, excluding the 3 victims among the locomotive crews.

The memorial near the site of the accident, talking about the 98 passengers who died in the accident.

The 22nd of December 1939 is considered the German railway’s darkest day, holding not only the collision at Lipbach late in the evening but also the Genthin Train Collision 21.5 hours earlier. Similarly caused by equipment shortages, blackout laws and negligence regarding guidelines. Two passenger trains collide near Berlin and Hannover, claiming 278 lives. The accident was previously covered on this Blog and can be found right here.

The wreckage at Genthin (left) and the memorial for the accident (right).

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Max S

Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.