Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham Railway ExplosionLifting the striken 'Leviathan' train engine from the track (Cambridgeshire Collection)

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.

The first miracle of this night was the courage these railwaymen found to face such responsibilities, the second was the survival of Ben Gimbert to tell the tale. He landed on grass near the Station Hotel and crawled his way to the doorstep of Horace Taylor's shop at the bottom of Station Road. He was then found by Railway Ganger Reed staggering about wanting to know if his mates and the rest of the train were safe. Jim's fate was not known at that moment but Ben at first refused to go to hospital until he knew. Red Cross women were in charge of the ambulance when it came and to spare them Ben, who weighed eighteen-and-a-half stones, refused to be carried on or off. Critically injured, he was kept in ignorance of Jim's death until an innocent visitor to his hospital bedside offered his condolences and thus set back the big man's recovery quite a bit.

There was a fourth hero in Herbert Clarke of Ipswich, the guard, who had suspected problems when the train slackened speed when his van was a train's length away from the distant signal. He saw the fire in the front wagon and helped his driver slow down with a light application of his van brake. When stationary the train is the responsibility of the guard and Herbert, recognizing the intention of Jim Nightall, got down and rushed forward to help him. The engine and its leading wagon moved away as he was still going forward. Then the blast hurled him back along the track some eighty feet and left him concussed. He gradually recovered enough to re-light the extinguished van lamps and then he walked back dazedly to the front of the train to ascertain the damage. Herbert was 59 and in deep shock but he gathered detonators to put down on the rails along the two-and-a-quarter miles back to Barway Junction, arriving at about 3.30am. utterly spent, where he was helped into the box by Signalman Cyril King. Herbert was not to know Frank Bridges had got his messages through before the blast destroyed all communications.

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