World War II Today: Two G.C.’s after Soham Railway Disaster:
Given the huge quantities of explosives that were brought across the Atlantic and then transported around Britain, it seems remarkable that there were not more accidents during the war.
One exception is the trainload of USAAF bombs being sent from Immingham to the air bases in Cambridgeshire. There were around 400 tons of bombs on board plus more wagons full of detonators. As they approached the small market town of Soham:
… the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, noticed some steam issuing from the left-hand injector and looked out of his cab window. Although he could see but nine to twelve inches, into the left-hand rear corner of the first wagon above the rear of his tender Ben saw flames rising some eighteen inches from the bottom.
The flames were spreading rapidly as if taking hold, unaccountably, of inflammable material. He sounded his whistle to alert the guard and stopped the train gently, taking about three minutes, for any jolt could have proved disastrous.
Having stopped some ninety yards short of the station platform ramps he urged his fireman, James Nightall, to get down to uncouple the burning wagon from the rest, advising him to take a coal hammer in case the coupling was already too hot to handle.
Jim leapt to the task, released the coupling and climbed back on the footplate within a minute and Ben sped the engine and its fireball away, aiming to get it into the open country. 140 yards forward into the station, now illuminated by the burning wagon, he slowed down to shout to the signalman, Frank ‘Sailor’ Bridges: ‘Sailor – have you anything between here and Fordham! Where’s the mail!’
But Frank was ahead of him, having not received the mail train and having requested another engine to tow the detached wagons away. Ben had crossed to the fireman’s side to talk to Frank who was waiting on that offside platform with a full fire bucket hoping, forlornly, to douse the flames, putting his life at risk like the others to avert disaster.
He had no moment to answer or act. The earth shattered in one enormous blast, smashing him to the floor mortally wounded. Less than seven minutes had elapsed since Ben saw the fire. At approximately 1.43am. Forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, went up as one, reducing the station to rubble, killing Jim Nightall outright, blasting Ben Gimbert some two hundred yards away...