Risky Decisions: The 1939 Genthin Train Collision
Genthin (pronounced “Gentin”) is a small city (population in 2019: 13761) in the east of Germany, 83km/51.5mi west of Berlin and 47km/29mi northeast of Magdeburg (both distances measured in linear distance).
The city lies on the Berlin-Magdeburg Railway, a 142km/88mi electrified double-track main line opened in it’s full expansion in 1846. While the railway sees everything from regional trains to long distance express trains and freight trains the city itself nowadays only has regional connections, with most express trains passing right through the station.
In the 1930s the German war effort required a large amount of locomotives, train cars and staff, so when the amount of travelers increased around the holidays the DR (German national railway from 1920 to 1945, often called the DRG in English) was unable to provide additional trains for the already strained connections. As a consequence, a lot of trains ran hopelessly overcrowded. In 1939 the 24th of December (Christmas day, the main day of celebration in Germany) was a Monday, so a lot of families as well as soldiers home from the front lines used it for a 3-day weekend. This led to an incredibly high number of passengers, making it impossible to tell how many people were on the trains involved in the accident.
The trains involved
On the 21nd of December 1939 two trains were going from Berlin westbound towards Genthin around midnight. The first one was D10, an express train going from Berlin’s Potsdam Station to Cologne. It left Berlin perfectly on time at 11:15pm on the 21st of December, but quickly ran up a delay over the next couple of stops. It simply took longer for passengers to enter or leave the train, due to the overcrowded train and many stations sitting in darkness due to blackout laws meant to hide infrastructure installations from hostile aircraft looking for bombing targets. The exact configuration of D10 is unknown, it evidently consisted of several express passenger cars, some of which (judging from the aftermath) being older wooden constructions. The train was hopelessly overcrowded, 35 victims would later be found in the remains of the baggage car (meant to be unoccupied) alone.
Departing 30 minutes after D10 was the express train D180 going to Neunkirchen (Saar) in the southwest of Germany, close to the current-day border to France. It was pulled by DRG series 01 158, a 24m/79ft long steam locomotive. The series 01 had been constructed to pull heavy express trains at up to 130kph/81mph (forwards) or 50kph/31mph in reverse, and weight 111 metric tons including 10 metric tons of coal. All series 01 locomotives had been fitted with “Indusi”, a safety-system capable of autonomously stopping the locomotive if it ran through a red signal.
Despite leaving Berlin on time D10 quickly started to run late. Reaching Potsdam (just outside Berlin) it had a 5 minute delay, soon after that grew to 12 minutes. Having to follow a slower military cargo train then caused the delay to grow to 27 minutes as the train passed through the town of Brandenburg (not to be confused with the federal state of the same name). This, in addition to having fewer stops than D10, caused D180 to quickly catch up to the other train, eventually running only one block-section behind it. Trying to keep the delay of his train as short as possible to fulfill expectations towards punctuality Mr. Wedekind, the driver on D180, drove his train “hot”. This meant he would approach red main signals at speed, relying on them switching to green before he actually passed them. This was done to avoid time-consuming brake-maneuvers requiring the heavy train to regain speed after every main signal goes green (as expected). This tactic was certainly risky, especially due to the low visibility that night caused by rain and fog. Wedekind’s strategy worked out until he passed the town of Belicke (7km/4.3mi linear distance east of Genthin), speeding through a red signal meant to protect D10. The signal guard saw the train race past his post without permission and called his colleague in the Genthin-east signal box as well as a nearby crossing guard, telling them to signal D180 to stop immediately. The signal box employee took a red lamp, which illuminates once it’s taken off it’s wall-mount, and headed to the window to signal the approaching train. Just at that moment D10 passed the signal box and saw the red light shining from the windows, interpreting the signal to refer to it. The driver triggered an emergency stop and successfully came to a halt at 0:51am, barely into Genthin station with the rear car sitting at kilometer 92.2. Meanwhile D180 passed a green signal at kilometer 90.2 (2km/1.2mi away from D10’s rear car) which had referred to D10 and not been changed back (presumably because the signal box employee had been occupied with fetching the red lamp). The crossing guard 600m/1970ft onward attempted to warn the train driver with a flag but got no reaction. He later reports D10 rolling past him as he went to warn D180, and already seeing the headlights in the distance. Both signals between D180 and the station were green, so Mr. Wedekin kept his train going at full speed. It’s unknown why exactly the signal remained green (usually changing signals has a high priority), or why no-one, witnessing D10 come to a screeching halt, attached detonator caps to the track between the two trains. These devices, emitting a loud bang if run over, were standard equipment at the time to give an emergency stop order. At 0:53am D180 entered Genthin station at approximately 100kph/62mph and immediately slammed into the stationary D10. The rear cars disintegrated when struck by the 111 metric ton locomotive, with the rest of the train cars being compressed into one another or telescoping above the wreckage leaving little chance of survival for anyone inside. D180’s locomotive and the first six of it’s carriages derailed, while the locomotive plowed into the wreckage before getting stuck some of the cars mounted the debris ahead of them.
Genthin’s residents were awoken when the deafening noise of the impact echoed across town, some suspecting an explosion in the local laundry detergent factory. The rescue-effort, which ended up taking a whole week, turned out to be very difficult for 3 main reasons:
- The station lay in complete darkness due to blackout-laws protecting it from hostile aircraft. Mobile floodlights required individual permissions, which weren’t always given. Even the headlights of cars were largely covered up to reduce their visibility. This made the site very difficult to navigate for both survivors and responders, and it is likely that some initial survivors died because they weren’t found in the darkness.
- With a lot of men having been drafted for the war firefighters and medical staff were suffering an extreme crew-shortage, extending how long every single task on site took and reducing the number of survivors that could be treated simultaneously.
- Temperatures during the night of the accident sunk as low as -15°C/5°F, a number of trapped survivors froze to death before being rescued.
Everyone available, trained or civilian, is ordered to participate in the rescue, any car or truck the responders can get their hands on is used to take survivors to hospitals and victims to a local gym. A lot of the victims cannot be identified, as ID’s weren’t mandatory at the time and something like DNA-identification the way we have it today doesn’t exist. So for literal days all responders can do is recover pieces of dead bodies and count how many arms, legs or torsos they find in order to figure out how many people died. A lot of unidentified victims are later buried in a mass grave. At the same time some of the people involved in the rescue and recovery try to enrich themselves, a couple of employees of a local undertaker are caught looting and stealing from the dead they are intended to take care of. They end up being executed for it. In the end the DRG claims 186 victims and 106 injured survivors, while witnesses point to 278 victims and 453 injured survivors. It’s likely that the number of victims was claimed wrong on purpose, trying to downplay the event (which never got much media coverage at the time anyway). Records later show that the city reported the higher numbers to the local government, confidentially. 3 people in the rear car of D10 survive, they happen to see the headlights racing towards them in the dark and jump off the train seconds before impact. Mr. Wedekind survives the accident along with his stoker, he later claims that the signal he passed at Belicke was green, something proven wrong by records kept by the signal guard. Questioning how the train could run a red signal and keep going without Indusi stopping it investigators make a startling discovery. The system aboard 01 158 had been found to be defective a week prior to the accident and had been removed to be replaced or repaired. While waiting for that to be done it was decided to return the locomotive to service despite being not allowed to operate without Indusi, trying to help handle the severe equipment shortage without cancelling too many trains. As the decision had been deemed to be worth the risk it’s disregarded in the legal proceedings, with investigators placing the blame exclusively on Mr. Wedekind’s decision to drive the train “hot” and running a red signal. He is eventually sentenced to 3.5 years in jail, while the signal guard and his stoker are relieved of guilt.
Due to the shortage of capable locomotives 01 158 is repaired after the accident and returns to service, after the end of the war the locomotive becomes property of Eastern Germany’s national railway (confusingly also called the DR), and is rebuilt and renumbered 01 153–1 in 1964. Being retired in the late 80s it’s saved from the scrapyard by a group of enthusiasts, and can be seen at a museum in Arnstadt today. Now running on oil it still drives occasionally, pulling historic trains for enthusiasts.
An official memorial is unveiled in December 1999 outside Genthin station, financed completely by private donations. The DB (German national railway) declined involvement, even needing the donors to buy the steam locomotive axle used in the memorial from them. Despite an invitation no employees of the DB attended the unveiling. In 2015 workers digging trenches to install new gas lines unearth an 800kg/1764lb boulder on the property of a former military flight school at Oranienburg north of Berlin. It’s an engraved memorial for six cadets of the school who died in the collision, after the end of the second world war Eastern German authorities didn’t want the reminder and had the stone tipped over and buried.