Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham Station CraterThe crater left by the explosion (Cambridgeshire Collection)

Indeed, judging by his quick reactions, Frank may have seen the fire before Ben, for he had aroused Sub-Ganger Will Fuller, who was living in Mount Pleasant Cottage a hundred yards from the station, soon enough to enable Fuller to notice the fire the moment the train pulled up about 230 yards away. Fuller was then pulling on his clothes by the bedroom window as he heard the uncoupling, then he saw the burning wagon moving forward until it was obscured by the station buildings. In moments the explosion shattered Fuller's cottage and buried him and his wife and daughter in the debris. It was Fuller later who gave evidence of seeing blue flames among the yellow rising from the wagon and of detecting a smell like burning gas. The possibility of this deriving from the residue of the wagon's previous load of bulk sulphur was studied at the inquiry.

It even seemed possible that Frank Bridges had been notified of the fire in the wagon by the Barway signalman, Cyril King, but King later avowed he saw nothing to disturb him on the train, saw no sparks coming from the engine and caught no smell of burning beyond the normal as the train slowly passed his signal box at about 1.31am. He saw one of the engine men exchange tokens using the line-side apparatus, watched the tail light of the train moving away and signalled 'Train out of junction' back to Ely Dock Junction. When the train was about three-quarters-of-a-mile away he saw a pink glow that he took to come from the firebox, then saw the train obscured by the bend and soon after heard the explosion.

Five others followed Ben and Frank to hospital with severe injuries including the station master, Harry Oliver, who had been found pinned under his bed badly concussed after the house had tumbled about him and his wife, his nineteen-year-old daughter Pat and his ten-year-old son Dick, who escaped with minor injuries. Mrs Oliver wandered away seeking shelter and was taken in, but there was no room for her daughter who had to go elsewhere. Mrs Oliver suffered from shattered nerves for a long time after this night.

The streets of Soham were littered with glass, shop goods were blown into the streets and the station was replaced by a crater fifteen feet deep and sixty-six feet across. Only a buffer and a socket casting were left of the wagon, the rest being driven downwards, there to stay so that the lines could be restored quickly at that time of acute national emergency. The tender was a twisted mass still attached to the engine which was wholly derailed yet received no serious structural damage other than to the cab, its light platework, boiler and cylinder lagging. The larger part of the train disconnected by Jim Nightall lethal in its content, was hit by no worse than minor splinters and thus the town of Soham was saved from utter destruction by human courage beyond praise. So many of those who recalled the night for me would have been killed or badly maimed but for the self-sacrifice of those men.

Hardly had the fight from the burning truck and the explosion extinguished themselves than they were replaced by flames from the nearby gas holders, eerily dancing over the scene of destruction. The huge advantage thereafter was having so many trained units at hand to deal with every problem. The Wardens and Home Guard were swiftly there tending the injured and comforting the rest and it was they who summoned the other services needed, all of them on wartime alert. It was a clear but moonless night but luckily the electricity and water supplies were not affected and these were soon vital to the work in hand. The National Fire Service soon put out the fire at the gas works and they were soon joined by the Local Rescue and Ambulance Party reinforced by Royal Air Force ambulances, by lsleham Ambulance Party, Burwell Rescue Party, Fordham Red Cross Ambulance and Royal Air Force personnel from Snailwell and Newmarket.


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