55 SohamRailAccd Donna Martin April 2019
At our April meeting we were very pleased to welcome Donna Martin, the curator of Soham museum, as our speaker. She gave a very comprehensive account of the Soham railway disaster covering not only the details of the accident itself but also the effect it had on the town.
The accident happened in the early hours of the morning of the 2nd June 1944, just a few days before D Day, when one wagon of a heavy goods train carrying 400 tons of high explosive bombs caught fire and exploded. The train was travelling from the port of Immingham and heading via Ipswich for White Colne in Essex where the bombs were to be distributed to US airfields in the region. The accident occurred at Soham station, one of the stations on the line linking Ely and Newmarket which was opened in 1879. This stretch of line was for many years operated as a typical part of the rail network. However it assumed greater importance in the run up to D Day when it became an integral part of the route used to transport supplies from the East coast to US air bases in East Anglia. The train involved consisted of 51 of the standard 2-axled ‘coal’ wagons, each wagon carrying 10 tons of 500lb bombs, and was being hauled by a WD Austerity 2-8-0 freight engine. Because of the hazardous nature of these loads such trains were limited to speeds of 15–20 mph. Approaching Soham station the driver, Benjamin Gilbert, noticed flames coming from underneath the leading wagon and he immediately brought the train to a halt. He instructed the fireman, James Nightall, to get down and uncouple the burning wagon from the rest of the train. The engine and burning wagon then drew forward to the signal box to check with the signalman, Frank Bridges, that they had clearance to proceed onto the single track which would lead to open country. Unfortunately before the engine and wagon could clear the station the wagon load of bombs exploded causing extensive damage to the station buildings and many properties in the town. It also left a crater 15ft deep and 64ft wide in the track itself. The fireman was killed outright, the signalman later died of his injuries but the driver, although badly injured, later recovered in hospital. The guard, Herbert Clarke, was badly traumatised but despite his condition managed to protect the unaffected wagons by placing warning detonators on the line. Apart from the injuries to railway staff, there were no fatalities amongst the local inhabitants although there were 5 serious injuries and 22 minor ones. About 700 properties in the town were damaged with the 300 nearest the station suffering the worst damage. Repairs to the track started immediately with American GIs being drafted in to fill the crater with the readily available brick rubble. The track was open for freight traffic within 18 hours and passenger traffic resumed after 24 hours. The engine, which landed up on its side, suffered some damage but after any loose metal had been cut away it was re-railed and towed to Cambridge. The brave actions of the train crew and the signalman prevented the complete train exploding and thus saved the town being completely devastated with many lives being lost; driver Gilbert and fireman Nightall were both awarded the George Cross.
The cause of the fire was never fully explained; a spark from the engine was unlikely to have started a fire as all the open wagons were covered with heavy waterproof sheeting. It was felt unlikely also that a hot axle box could have set the wooden wagon alight. It is a testament to the effectiveness of the precautions taken by the railway authorities when moving dangerous loads that in the three months after D Day 600 trains delivered 250,000 tons of bombs to various destinations without any reported incidents or loss of life. This makes it even more difficult to understand why the Soham accident should have taken place at all.
An event organised by the museum to commemorate the disaster will be held at Soham football club ground on Sunday 2nd June.
Our next meeting is on Monday 10th June when Brian Hall from the B17 trust will describe the plans to build a replica B17 locomotive.