Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham Station 2nd June 1944 5.00pmRebuilding the Railway Track at 5.00pm on 2nd June 1944 (Cambridgeshire Collection)

Not far from the station stands Clark and Butcher's Mill, then in overtime production for the war effort, but only its steam engine had been damaged in the explosion. The mill's Managing Director, Jack Clark, recorded his impressions of that night in 'A Master Miller Remembers' in the 1970's. Shocked awake in the adjacent Mill House, he trod broken glass to the smashed window only to be stabbed in the face by a broken curtain rail. The mill was his responsibility, but in the road he was soon distracted by people wandering about dazed and dusty as if after an earthquake. Many had no idea what had happened or what to do or where to go, so he led some back to his house where his wife, a native of Wicken, made tea for them, boiling the kettle on an open fire since gas supplies had been cut off for both Soham and Fordham. Mr Clark was also a special constable and a member of the Home Guard.

A Londoner living nearby, Mrs E. Tyrell, said the night was worse than any she had suffered in the blitz and her neighbour, Mr Wallace, an ex-naval man, likened the blast to the force of a typhoon. Another nearby resident, Mr J.T. Skipper, pulled his three-year-old grandson to safety as part of the roof of their cottage was crashing down on his bed, the boy escaping with no worse than a scratch. The flames from the gas works were unnerving while they lasted and the Maltons, living in numbers one and two Gas Lane, were relieved to see them put out. The blast had damaged their cottages but left them uninjured, the only casualty being the family canary which succumbed to gas fumes. Two chunks of the station platform landed in the garden of number two, now called 'The Maltons,' where lives Edith Canham, nee Malton, and husband Stuart, formerly of Wicken, and there the chunks remain as weighty ornaments.

There are light-hearted recollections of the night. John Gilbey, then aged five, of Bushel Lane on the other side of Soham, recalls waking up and wondering at the strange whirring sound downstairs, The family gramophone, long seized up, had been freed by the blast, but once it had wound down it would not wind up again. John Ford, the Biology and Chemistry Master and Deputy Headmaster at the Grammar School awoke in the belief, like many others, that this was a bombing from the air, inexplicably without siren warning. As ARP Post Warden he pulled his trousers over his pyjamas and cycled down Clay Street over glass - without getting a puncture - and joined the helpers. For a few days he was apt to be known as 'Bluey' for the colour of those pyjamas showing below his trousers. There had to be moments to ease the strain.

Eric Isaacson, a Soham butcher and, at 24, a Leading Fireman in the National Fire Service, received directions soon after the blast to go to the blazing gas works then to the Goods Yard, which received some damage, to attend a small fire there. When an American officer asked him if he had seen the fireman, Eric directed him to the gas works, not realising he meant the engine fireman. Corrected, he accompanied that officer to the crater and got down into it with him. An ambulance backed to the crater using a small searchlight which soon exposed the body of Jim Nightall. As the smallest of the four men now in the crater Eric was persuaded to release the body from the rubble near those huge driving wheels and the hissing locomotive and the scalding heat of the firebox. He found Jim with his head resting on an arm as if in sleep. His shirt was open baring his chest where scalding had peeled the skin. He turned the twisted body so that the others could pull it out, then he crawled his way out from the worst ordeal of his life.

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