Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Soham Station 2nd June 1944 8.00pmRailway Track completely rebuilt by 8.00pm on 2nd June 1944 (Cambridgeshire Collection)

There was still some fear at this stage that the bombs on the other wagons might go up and Eric was one of those ordered to inspect them, adding danger upon danger to one who was fast asleep not long before. It would have occurred to no-one on that night that locomotive W.D.7337 of the 2-8-0 'British Austerity' heavy goods type weighing 128 tons with tender, lying there stricken, would come to be rebuilt. Yet it was. Originally built by the North British Locomotive Company of Glasgow as works number 25205 in 1943, it ran after refurbishment for many years on the Longmoor Military Railway in Hampshire as 'Sir Guy Williams' and was finally retired and scrapped in 1967.

The Soham line was vital for carrying heavy freight at this time and it had to be restored as soon as possible. To this end the Cambridge breakdown crane arrived in Soham at 5.10am. to re-rail the engine and remove the wreckage of the tender. Through Lieutenant-Colonel C.P. Parker of the Royal Engineers the Railway Company acquired the assistance of about a hundred United States engineer troops with two bulldozers to fill the crater and firm the surface to carry new rails where 120 feet had been destroyed. This party arrived at 10.50am. about an hour-and-a-half after the arrival of the Company's ballast train and they worked throughout the day. The two lines through the station were reopened to traffic at 8.20pm. after a lapse of only eighteen-and-a-half hours. The station, as such, was opened for light passenger traffic next day, June 3rd, with temporary booking facilities, but emergency signalling had to remain for a further four days.

The Inquiry into the accident was opened on 16th June 1944 headed by Major G.R.S. Wilson for the Ministry of War Transport, assisted by Captain N. Fawcett the Inspector of Explosives at the War Office. Ben Gimbert was the chief witness, supported by Herbert Clarke and Will Fuller, but none of them was fit to give evidence until 18th July 1944, although Ben was interviewed briefly on 5th June 1944. The first suspicion was that an over-heated axlebox had caused the fire but every possibility was studied and nobody was certain at the end.

The Carriage and Wagon Examiner at March, G. Stevens, a man of long experience, had taken an hour to examine the train there, feeling all the axleboxes after the eighty-nine mile journey with the back of his hand, tapping all the wheels and looking round and under every wagon. Such men were always alert for hazards, not to mention sabotage, at that time, and were taking no chances. Stevens found no defects and no axlebox likely to overheat to cause a fire and none of the wagons was overdue for oiling. He and two other examiners had seen overheated axleboxes but had never known one to start a fire. The War Office and the Railway Police probed for long into the possibilities of sabotage without finding any reason to believe this was the cause. An attempt to ignite one of the wagon sheets by using combustible material and simulated draught such as would fan flames on a moving train also failed to convince and Major Wilson was forced finally to summarize thus: 'I think it must be assumed that there was some substance present in the wagon which was particularly sensitive to ignition by a trifling spark from the train engine (or perhaps from the engine of a passing train) which otherwise would have proved harmless.' Nothing had come of trying to set light to a dusting of sulphur residue such as might have been clinging to the wagon and the Inquiry's conclusion must be said to have been inconclusive.

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