b. 06/02/1903 Ely, Cambridgeshire. d. 06/05/1976 March, Cambridgeshire.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 02/06/1944 Soham, Cambridgeshire.
Benjamin Gimbert (1903-1976) was born on 6th February 1903 in Ely, Cambridgeshire, the sixth of sixteen children of George William and Florence Mary Gimbert (nee Fletcher). Life started for Benjamin on a farm where his father worked as a labourer. In 1918, Ben, as he was now known, moved to Peterborough, where he gained employment on the Great Eastern Railway.
His first job was as a cleaner, then promoted to passed cleaner in March 1920, and then to fireman in February 1921. In 1926, he married Violet Bradshaw and they had three children – Joyce, Peggy and Michael (who sadly died as an infant). He obtained his fireman’s certificate in May 1939 and was on his way to fulfilling his dream of becoming an engine driver. In July 1942, he achieved his ambition but had to wait until 1943 before an engine became available to begin driving. By this time, James Nightall had become a close friend and became his fireman.
Life changed on 2nd June 1944, when the LNER (London & North Eastern Railway) ammunition train he was driving was just entering Soham Station in Cambridgeshire. As they approached the station, Gimbert noticed the wagon behind the engine was on fire. He made Nightall aware of it and stopped the train, but by the time it had come to rest the wagon was enveloped in flames. Gimbert instructed Nightall to uncouple the rest of the train. Without hesitation, he uncoupled the wagon, knowing full well it contained explosives, and then rejoined the driver on the footplate. The blazing wagon was close to the station building and Gimbert realised it was essential to move it into the open to set the engine in motion. As he approached the signal box he shouted to signalman to stop any trains that were due and indicated what he intended to do. At that moment the bombs in the burning wagon exploded and a massive crater some 20ft deep and 60ft wide was blown in the middle of the railway and all the station buildings were destroyed. As many as 600 buildings in Soham was damaged. Nightall was killed outright and Gimbert was severely injured, later having 32 pieces of metal removed from his body. The signalman, Frank Bridges died later from his injuries,but the train's guard, Herbert Clarke, survived, although he was badly shaken.
On the 25th July 1944, it was announced in the London Gazette that Ben Gimbert and James Nightall had been awarded the George Cross for their actions at Soham. Due to the significant injuries that he suffered, Ben’s driving career was heavily affected, and he was only able to drive on shunting lines while on the other hand he was a national celebrity, though a very reluctant one. He had to undergo numerous operations in Newmarket, resulting in the removal of 32 pieces of shrapnel from his body.
Ben became an enthusiastic member of the VC and GC Association, and attended many of the reunions. He was presented with an illuminated address by the people of March, and two plaques were erected to commemorate the event; one at the rebuilt station at Soham, and one in the local parish church. On the 22nd anniversary of the disaster, the plaque at Soham Station was moved to a new home in Soham Village College.
In addition to the GC, Ben received the 1953 QEII Coronation Medal, the very rare LNER Medal for Courage and Resource (one of only 22 awarded), and the Daily Herald Order of Industrial Heroism, of which only about 250 were awarded. He retired from the railways in 1966. On 14th June 1969, the “Hornet” comic included an account of the Soham story.
Ben died on 6th May 1976, aged 73 and was buried in Eastwood Cemetery in March. In 1984, his widow Violet fell into financial difficulties and was reluctantly forced to auction his medals at Sotheby’s, London. Most happily, the winning bid came from March Town Council, and she was able to hand them over at a ceremony on 24th October 1984. The Council placed the medals on permanent loan to the March Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: MARCH MUSEUM, MARCH, CAMBRIDGESHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: EASTWOOD CEMETERY, MARCH, CAMBRIDGESHIRE.
Gimbert's medals courtesy of the March Museum, Cambridgeshire.