The Soham Rail Disaster
On June 2, 1944, just before D-Day, driver Benjamin Gimbert and his fireman, James Nightall, were in charge of a freight train delivering bombs to the USAF in White Colne, Essex, UK. As they approached the village of Soham in Cambridgeshire, Benjamin realized that the wagon coupled directly behind the locomotive was on fire. That’s never a good thing, but this fire was particularly dangerous, given that the train was carrying tons of explosives.
He stopped the train, and James came down from the footplate to uncouple the blazing wagon. Only 128 meters (420 ft) from the station in Soham, they attempted to ditch the wagon in the open countryside before the bombs exploded. They failed, and seven minutes after Benjamin originally saw the fire, the wagon exploded. It flattened the station building, damaged 600 others, threw Benjamin almost 200 meters (about 600 ft) away, and killed two other railway workers who had stayed to stop another train that was headed for the wagon’s path of destruction.
The cause of the fire was never fully explained. The wagon had previously been used to carry a load of bulk sulphur powder and although it would have been cleaned in between loads, the possibility remained that some of the powder remained. Although the wagon was sheeted, the theory advanced was that a cinder from the engine had landed in the wagon and had ignited some sulphur which in turn set alight the wooden body of the wagon.
Despite the crater the explosion created that was 6 meters (20 ft) deep, the track was up and running again by that evening. Both Benjamin and James were awarded the George Cross, the highest award for non-combat bravery in the British and Commonwealth. Their actions are commemorated with two different plaques in Soham.
A permanent memorial was unveiled on Saturday 2 June 2007 by HRH Prince Richard, Duke of Gloucester followed by a service in St. Andrew’s Church, Soham. The memorial is constructed of Portland Stone with a bronze inlay depicting interpretive artwork of the damaged train as well as text detailing the incident.
Both Gimbert and Nightall had Class 47 locomotives named after them, although the nameplates have since been transferred to Class 66 locomotives. However, 47579 also retains its name in preservation.