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15 October 2014
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My Childhood Hero

by nannymeg

Contributed by 
nannymeg
People in story: 
James Nightall G.C.
Location of story: 
Soham, Cambridgeshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3074546
Contributed on: 
01 October 2004

I was born and brought up in Peterborough, Northamptonshire, now Cambridgeshire. My mother's sister, Edna Belson of Peterborough, was James Nightall's fiancee at the time he died soon after successfully completing uncoupling a blazing wagon, which was adjacent to the engine, from an ammunitions train at Soham station, Cambridgeshire. Although James managed to climb back on the footplate of the engine within a minute and the driver, Benjamin Gimbert, sped the engine and its fireball away aiming to get it into the open country; on slowing the train down at the signal box to warn the signalman Frank Bridges to stop any other trains, the subsequent explosion of forty-four general purpose bombs each weighing five hundred pounds, in total containing 5.14 tons of explosive content, went up as one, killing Jim outright, blasting Ben some two hundred yards away and damaging some 600 properties. However the rest of the train had remained intact and the courage and heroic actions of these two men had saved the town of Soham and its 5000 inhabitants. This was duly recognised at an Investiture at Buckingham Palace on 10th October 1944 when both men were awarded the George Cross Medal and the London & North Eastern Railway Company's Silver Medal for Courage and Resource (dated 2nd June 1944). My Auntie Edna accompanied Alice Nightall, James' mother, and Alice's brother Charles Barber, to the ceremony to receive his posthumous awards. Benjamin attended with his wife and two daughters to receive his awards. I understand that James' George Cross medal is now with Soham Village College and Benjamin's medal is on permanent loan to March Museum.

As a child I was often taken to Littleport to visit Walter and Alice Nightall (James' bereaved parents) many times accompanied by Auntie Edna. I remember Alice would give us afternoon tea; she always wore black clothes and I felt very proud to know her and her husband Walter, a quiet, gentle, man - James had been their only child.

On learning that there was to be an unveiling ceremony of two locomotives at March station on 28th September 198l, I contacted British Rail in Norwich and subsequently received a telephone call from the Chairman who was interested in my memories. He asked me if I would like tickets for the ceremony to which, of course, I said, yes please. Auntie Edna, my ex-husband and myself, and my late father Frank Coombs, all attended. Locomotive 47579 was named JAMES NIGHTALL G.C. and locomotive 47577 was named BENJAMIN GIMBERT G.C. Both locomotives were in service later that day. These two engines have now been decommissioned and two English Welsh and Scottish Railway Class 66's, 66079 and 66077 respectively now carry the names JAMES NIGHTALL G.C. and BENJAMIN GIMBERT G.C.

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Message 1 - Childhood hero.

Posted on: 01 October 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Meg,
Thank you for this story it goes to prove there were as many hero's among the civilian population as in the forces.
As a young lad during the war I had my hero's too but came to realise the people around me getting on with life whilst doing war work were also hero's.
They did normal jobs then extra civil duties such as Firemen ARP Wardens firewatchers like my Dad who got a crack on the head with shrapnell while standing out in an air raid watching for fire bombs.
Those storeis need to be put on paper and on this site so all can see what great people those men and women were.
Thak you and regards,
Frank.

 

Message 2 - Childhood hero.

Posted on: 01 October 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Hello Meg

I fully agree with Frank, heroism knows no boundaries. I recommend this site http://www.soham.org.uk/history/trainexplosion.htmAbout links to all. It gives a full account of that dreadful day, 2nd June 1944.

Peter

 

Message 3 - Childhood hero.

Posted on: 02 October 2004 by nannymeg

Hello Peter
Thankyou for recommending the Soham website which I have just viewed. I was pleased to read about the candlelit walk, from St Andrews Church to the site of the original explosion, in the early hours of 2nd June this year. I am so glad my parents and brother kept the memory of James fresh in their hearts and continued contact with James' elderly parents in Littleport.

Margaret

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