Soham Railway Disaster - 2nd June 1944

Ben Gimbert GC 10-10-1944Benjamin Gimbert outside Buckingham Palace after receiving the George Cross on 10th October 1944

A 'Salute the Soldier' service had been planned for Soham church on the following Sunday, to include a parade in the Recreation Ground, but this was altered to a service of thanksgiving for the saving of Soham. The church needless to say, was packed. Tiny fragments of glass were still tinkling down from the windows as the Reverend Percy Fletcher Boughey began his address with the wholly appropriate words: 'But for such men as these' There were big attendances too at the funerals of Jim Nightall and Frank Bridges on 6th June 1944 when donations to the Tribute and Relief Fund amounted to £1,760. This money was, however, distributed thinly rather than given to those who most needed it. Those funerals coincided, of course, with D- Day and all minds were soon turned to that.

The youngest person living in Soham on the night of the explosion was six days old. She was Diane, daughter of Gladys and Roger Turner, living so near at Mill Corner where the ceiling spilled dust over the bed without causing more damage to the occupants than leaving a piece of grit in the baby's eye. Her life was saved by brave men that night. Jim Brown had been the first Soham man to be called up for active service and when he and the other survivors came home for good it was, through the intervention of those railwaymen, to the town he had left behind.

The awards of the George Cross to Ben Gimbert and Jim Nightall were gazetted on 25th July 1944, the only instance of the award being made to two railwaymen for the same incident. The implication that Frank Bridges may not have been aware of the contents of the wagons when he came forward to assist must be dismissed, if only because if he had not known he would have anticipated the worst at such a time. Although drivers and firemen and others involved along the routes were given no specific details of the loads they were pulling or controlling they were seldom in any doubt during the war. The guard was fully aware since it was his responsibility to inspect the wagons and the signalmen along the routes were sharp on recognition. But with awards it appeared to be all or nothing and neither he nor Herbert Clarke received any acknowledgement of their deeds apart from being included in the inscriptions on the plaques placed in Soham church and, eventually, Soham Village College.

We should honour too the conscience and concern of the Americans present in this area at the time for the people of Soham after their shattering experience. The American Red Cross were soon distributing parcels, wonderfully varied in their contents at such a time of austerity, to all the infants in Soham. There never was such an interchange of sympathy and unit of purpose.

Extracts from 'But For Such Men As These' by Anthony Day,
Published by S.B. Publications, ISBN 1 85770 060 0.
Black & White Photographs Courtesy of The Cambridgeshire Collection


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