Two G.C.’s after Soham Railway Disaster

The railway engine blown apart by the explosion at Soham in the early hours of 2nd June 1944. Miraculously the engine driver, Benjamin Gimbert, survived being blown some 200 yards.

The railway engine blown apart by the explosion at Soham in the early hours of 2nd June 1944. Miraculously the engine driver, Benjamin Gimbert, survived being blown some 200 yards.

Given the huge quantities of explosives that were brought across the Atlantic and then transported around Britain, it seems remarkable that there were not more accidents during the war.

One exception is the trainload of USAAF bombs being sent from Immingham to the air bases in Cambridgeshire. There were around 400 tons of bombs on board plus more wagons full of detonators. As they approached the small market town of Soham:

… the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window. Although he could see but nine to twelve inches, into the left-hand rear corner of the first wagon above the rear of his tender Ben saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.

The flames were spreading rapidly as if taking hold, unaccountably, of inflammable material. He sounded his whistle to alert the guard and stopped the train gently, taking about three minutes, for any jolt could have proved disastrous.

Having stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps he urged his fireman, James Nightall, to get down to uncouple the burning wagon from the rest, advising him to take a coal hammer in case the coupling was already too hot to handle.

Jim leapt to the task, released the coupling and climbed back on the footplate within a minute and Ben sped the engine and its fireball away, aiming to get it into the open country. 140 yards forward into the station, now illuminated by the burning wagon, he slowed down to shout to the signalman, Frank ‘Sailor’ Bridges: ‘Sailor – have you anything between here and Fordham! Where’s the mail!’

But Frank was ahead of him, having not received the mail train and having requested another engine to tow the detached wagons away. Ben had crossed to the fireman’s side to talk to Frank who was waiting on that offside platform with a full fire bucket hoping, forlornly, to douse the flames, putting his life at risk like the others to avert disaster.

He had no moment to answer or act. The earth shattered in one enormous blast, smashing him to the floor mortally wounded. Less than seven minutes had elapsed since Ben saw the fire. At approximately 1.43am. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, went up as one, reducing the station to rubble, killing Jim Nightall outright, blasting Ben Gimbert some two hundred yards away.

Read the whole account in ‘But For Such Men As These’ by Anthony Day, at Soham.Org

The destruction caused by the 5 tons of bombs that exploded was considerable, completely demolishing the railway station, and left everyone realising how narrowly they had escaped the blast from the full trainload of 400 tons. Nevertheless the line was vital to the war effort and men were drafted in, reopening the line by the evening of the same day.

The driver, Benjamin Gimbert, and the fireman James Nightall were awarded the George Cross:

As an ammunition train was pulling into a station in Cambridgeshire, the driver, Gimbert, discovered that the wagon next to the engine was on fire. He immediately drew Nightall’s attention to the fire and brought the train to a standstill. By the time the train had stopped the whole of the truck was enveloped in flames and, realising the danger, the driver instructed the fireman to try to uncouple the truck immediately behind the blazing vehicle. Without the slightest hesitation Nightall, although he knew that the truck contained explosives, uncoupled the vehicle and rejoined his driver on the footplate.

The blazing van was close to the station buildings and was obviously liable to endanger life in the village. The driver and fireman realised that it was essential to separate the truck from the remainder of the train and run it into the open. Driver Gimbert set the engine in motion and as he approached a signal box he warned the signalman to stop any trains which were likely to be involved and indicated what he intended to do. Almost immediately the vehicle blew up. Nightall was killed and Gimbert was very severely injured.

Gimbert and Nightall were fully aware of the contents of the wagon which was on fire and displayed outstanding courage and resource in endeavouring to isolate it. When they discovered that the wagon was on fire they could easily have left the train and sought shelter, but realising that if they did not remove the burning vehicle the whole of the train, which consisted of 51 wagons of explosives, would have blown up, they risked their lives in order to minimise the effect of the fire. There is no doubt that if the whole train had been involved, as it would have been but for the gallant action of the men concerned, there would have been serious loss of life and property.

The crater shows the scale of the devastation - which demolished the station building. Yet the line, vital for the supply of munitions, was repaired the same day.

The crater shows the scale of the devastation – which demolished the station building. Yet the line, vital for the supply of munitions, was repaired the same day.

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