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Railwayman James William Nightall GC (20 May 1922 – 2 June 1944) was posthumously awarded the George Cross and the Order of Industrial Heroism for the gallantry he showed during the Soham rail disaster. Nightall was a LNER Fireman on a fifty-one wagon ammunition train driven by Benjamin Gimbert. When a wagon caught fire, Nightall helped Gimbert uncouple it from the rest of the train. The wagon exploded, killing Nightall instantly. The explosion blew a twenty-foot crater in the track, destroyed Soham railway station, and damaged 600 buildings in the village. Gimbert, who miraculously survived the conflagration, was also awarded the George Cross and Order of Industrial Heroism.
James William Nightall
|Died||2 June 1944 (aged 22)|
Soham Rail Station
|Occupation||Fireman with the London & North Eastern Railway|
|Known for||Hero of Soham rail disaster|
Nightall was born in Littleport, Cambridgeshire, England, on 20 May 1922. He was the son of Walter Nightall, a labourer, and Alice Nightall.
He had a fiancee when he died, Edna Belson.
The citation for the award of the George Cross read as:
As an ammunition train was pulling into a station in Cambridgeshire, the driver, Gimbert, discovered that the wagon next to the engine was on fire. He immediately drew Nightall's attention to the fire and brought the train to a standstill. By the time the train had stopped the whole of the truck was enveloped in flames and, realizing the danger, the driver instructed the fireman to try to uncouple the truck immediately behind the blazing vehicle. Without the slightest hesitation Nightall, although he knew that the truck contained explosives, uncoupled the vehicle and rejoined his driver on the footplate.
The blazing van was close to the station buildings and was obviously liable to endanger life in the village. The driver and fireman realized that it was essential to separate the truck from the remainder of the train and run it into the open. Driver Gimbert set the engine in motion and as he approached a signal box he warned the signalman to stop any trains which were likely to be involved and indicated what he intended to do. Almost immediately the vehicle blew up. Nightall was killed and Gimbert was very severely injured.
Gimbert and Nightall were fully aware of the contents of the wagon which was on fire and displayed outstanding courage and resource in endeavoring to isolate it. When they discovered that the wagon was on fire they could easily have left the train and sought shelter, but realizing that if they did not remove the burning vehicle the whole of the train, which consisted of 51 wagons of explosives, would have blown up, they risked their lives in order to minimize the effect of the fire. There is no doubt that if the whole train had been involved, as it would have been but for the gallant action of the men concerned, there would have been serious loss of life and property.
On 28 September 1981 two Class 47 locomotives were named in honor of the two railwaymen: No. 47577 was named "Benjamin Gimbert, GC" and No. 47579 "James Nightall, GC". The nameplate "James Nightall G.C" was removed in November 1995. The loco was preserved in March 2007 and is at Mangapps Railway Museum (as at Oct 2015). On 2 June 2004, new "James Nightall G.C" nameplates were applied to 66 079 at Whitemoor yard (March).
- "World War 2 Awards.com - NIGHTALL, James William". Ww2awards.com. 2 June 1944. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
- "BBC - WW2 People's War - My Childhood Hero". www.bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
- "No. 36623". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 July 1944. p. 3457.
- "List of Persons Awarded the Order of Industrial Heroism".
- "Awards for Gallantry". Durham Mining Museum. Retrieved 20 May 2019.
- "GC Awards to Railwaymen". Stephen-stratford.com. Retrieved 19 August 2013.
- Encyclopedia of Modern Traction Names - Colin J Marsden
- Railway Magazine Aug 2004 page 68