James Nightall

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James William Nightall
Born (1922-05-20)20 May 1922
Littleport, Cambridgeshire[1]
Died 2 June 1944(1944-06-02) (aged 22)
Soham Rail Station
Nationality United Kingdom
Occupation Fireman with the London & North Eastern Railway
Known for Hero of Soham rail disaster
Awards UK George Cross ribbon.svg George Cross

Railwayman James William Nightall GC (1922 - 1944) was posthumously awarded the George Cross 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 the 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.

Early life[edit]

Nightall was born in Littleport, Cambridgeshire, England, on 20 May 1922. He was the son of Walter Nightall, a labourer, and Alice Nightall.

George Cross[edit]

The citation for the awards 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.[2]


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".[3] The nameplate "James Nightall G.C" was removed in November 1995.[4] 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).[5]


  1. ^ "World War 2 Awards.com - NIGHTALL, James William". Ww2awards.com. 1944-06-02. Retrieved 2013-08-19. 
  2. ^ "No. 36623". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 July 1944. p. 3457. 
  3. ^ "GC Awards to Railwaymen". Stephen-stratford.com. Retrieved 2013-08-19. 
  4. ^ Encyclopedia of Modern Traction Names - Colin J Marsden
  5. ^ Railway Magazine Aug 2004 page 68