Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham - Train EngineWhat was left of the 'Leviathan' Train Engine after the explosion (Cambridgeshire Collection)

London, on the very day of the Soham incident, was appointed the World's News Centre when the allied forces invaded and it was reported too that the United States Air Force had dropped 63,000 tons of bombs on Germany, the occupied countries and The Balkans in May and was stepping up the intensity all the time. On the previous Tuesday, 30th May 1944, the American Cemetery at Madingley near Cambridge was dedicated with due ceremony and all knew there were many more spaces to be filled there before the war was over.

Like most of my generation I was in uniform and while not far away it was some time before I knew the precise location of the Soham incident. In the meantime I might not have been unduly held by such headlines as 'THREE MEN SAVE A TOWN,' 'HE DIED LIKE A SOLDIER TO SAVE AN ENGLISH VILLAGE' and 'HERO SAVED TOWN FROM DISASTER.' I might have guessed sooner from the indecision of the national press on whether Soham was a town or a village! It was a long time after, following two years abroad, when the full story of that grim night was put before me, a story summarised many times since with freedom of interpretation, but which I now unfold from the beginning.
On 31st May 1944 a consignment of bombs and components for the United States Air Force was taken off ship and on to sixty-one railway wagons at Immingham on the Humber, destined for White Colne in Essex. This long train left Immingham Sidings at 2. 55am. On 1st June 1944, travelling so slowly that it took seven hours to cover the eighty-nine miles to March in Cambridgeshire.

It arrived at March Yard, which was subsidiary to the nearby marshalling yard at Whitemoor (where today stands the high security prison), where the wagons were, as always, carefully inspected. The ten leading wagons were then detached to be worked forward by convenient services later, leaving the fifty-one wagons and the guard's van in Number One Siding Coal Yard. These remained in the yard for fourteen-and-a-half hours unaltered in formation until they left at 12.15am. On Friday 2nd June 1944 as the delayed 11.40pm (1st June 1944) train from Whitemoor to White Colne.

Forty-four of those wagons were laden with 250-pound and 500-pound bombs, un-fused, amounting to approximately four hundred tons in all and another six with detonators and primers, fuses, wire release gear and bomb tail fins, all firmly stacked under tarpaulin sheets of low combustibility with the care that had prevented any major crisis in the transportation of weaponry on British railways throughout the war, one wagon remained empty.

This train was about 390 yards long and there were no gradients between March and Soham to unsettle such loads. For the four-and-three-quarter miles from Ely Dock Junction to Soham the line was, and is, single, while from Soham it was, and remains, double. The train stopped at Ely twice where observers saw nothing unusual aboard. All the Soham signals were clear for the train's approach when it was moving at between fifteen and twenty miles per hour with the engine steaming lightly along the level line. Then, a few yards beyond the Up signal, 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.


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