Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham Railway ExplosionAmerican Servicemen helping to clear the debris from the explosion (Cambridgeshire Collection)

Once the seriously injured were away to hospital the minor cases were taken to an Emergency Rest Centre set up in the Grammar School, supervised by the Women's Voluntary Services who worked in shifts throughout the weekend, closing down to allow the school to resume on the Monday. Damage had been done to the official Local First Aid Point, but the nurses were able to treat several cases there. The local police sergeant set up an Incident Post in one room of Roselyn, the Bradleys' cottage in Mereside, the church hall was used by the YMCA for serving tea and a mobile canteen arrived from Cambridge to sustain all who need more than tea throughout a traumatic night. The Queen's Messengers; Flying Squad also brought in cooked food and supplies in large containers from the emergency depot in Over. At the Rest Centre there was also an Information Bureau using a travelling van with a loudspeaker and clothes were brought in from Cambridge and parcels from the Lord Mayor of London's Distress Fund arrived during the following week and were distributed in the Baptist schoolroom by the Rotary Club and representatives of the 'Daily Sketch.' The British Red Cross also treated many minor injuries and the two local doctors were kept busy all night and for days afterwards catching up with minor injuries that might have turned worse.

Gradually the chaos of that night gave way to the relative order of day, unravelling the extent of the damage and the miracle of Ben Gimbert's escape from the epicentre of the blast. Houses and shops as far away as the high street and to the north of the town in Julius Martin Lane and south to Stone Bridge had roofs, walls, ceilings and windows shattered. On the same day as the blast the Wardens took a census of the damaged buildings, as a result of which about a hundred workmen were brought into Soham to speed up repairs and many homes were repaired by evening. It was estimated there had been damage to 761 properties in all, 13 of them beyond repair, 153 seriously damaged of which 36 were rendered temporarily uninhabitable, these within 350 yards and the rest within 900 yards of the explosion. The church, only 700 yards away, suffered only damage to glass. Windows were shattered in Wicken and Fordham.

Fourteen public authorities gave assistance to Soham, bypassing red tape with admirable enterprise at a time when emergency plans were constantly being implemented. Many vehicles were made available to transport the homeless to friends and temporary homes and very quickly too at such a time the Army Police set up a guard on the district. Nothing was left to chance. Rationing had kept people low in stocks of food, although hoarding had been an early symptom of the war. Emergency ration cards were provided, entitling the holders to a week's supply of food and clothing coupons and grants of money were issued for crisis needs. Even a mobile laundry van arrived to wash what was taken to it and the dignitaries to arrive included the Bishop of Ely and the Regional Commissioner and other top personnel of Civil Defence Control from Cambridge mid Newmarket. The country was geared for worse than this night at this and earlier stages of the war.

My kin, the Bradleys, living in Roselyn cottage near the Station Hotel, who were bombed awake like the rest, found themselves uninjured but the house damaged. The roof facing the station had lost its slates but it was the rebound, caused by a vacuum from the explosion, that hit them harder, forcing in the windows on the other side and a bedroom door off its hinges, wedging it firmly in the door frame. Eva Bradley, the mother, rushed at once to her baby John lying in his cot, flinging herself over him but finding him unharmed. When she returned to her bed she found three bricks lying where her head would have been. She thought later of her china cabinet and its precious treasurers, but although the locked door had been forced open and shut and although they removed rubble and dust, not one item of china or glass had been broken! The Bradleys moved into an empty cottage next door while theirs was being repaired.

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