b. 20/05/1922 Littleport, Cambridgeshire. d. 02/06/1944 Soham, Cambridgeshire.
DATE AND PLACE OF GC ACTION: 02/06/1944 Soham.
James William Nightall (1922-1944) was born on 20th May 1922 in Littleport, Cambridgeshire, the only child of Walter and Alice Susan Nightall (nee Barber). James attended the local school in Littleport, before leaving at the age of 14. His father worked on a local farm and he got James his first employment on a local chicken farm owned by Jim Kerridge. James found chicken farming not to his taste, however, and only a short time later, he had gained a job with the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) as a cleaner in the small town of March about 20km from Littleport.
By the time James was 22, he had been promoted to fireman, a responsible post. On the outbreak of World War II, James was keen to enlist, but was told that he was in a “reserved” occupation, and that his current job was vital to the war effort. He had met the woman he intended to marry, Edna Belson, who came from Peterborough, in 1942.
On 2nd June 1944, he and Benjamin Gimbert, a close friend and the engine driver, were entering Soham Station on an ammunition train. s 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 that it contained explosives, and then rejoined the driver on the footplate. The blazing wagon was close to the station building and Gimbert realised that it was essential to move it into the open so set the engine in motion. As he approached the signal box he shouted to the 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 was blown in the middle of the railway and all the station buildings were destroyed. Nightall was killed outright and Gimbert was severely injured. The signalman, Frank Bridges died later from his injuries.
James was laid to rest in Littleport Cemetery (his surname on the headstone is spelt Knightall). He was posthumously awarded the George Cross on 25th July 1944 alongside Benjamin Gimbert. He was also awarded the LNER Silver Medal for Courage and Resource as well as the Daily Herald Order of Industrial Heroism which was presented at the Hippodrome, March, Cambridgeshire on 26th November 1944. The medals were held by his mother Alice for a number of years after his death, before she donated them to Soham Village College, though only replicas are displayed.
On 28th September 1981, at March Station, two Class 47 locomotives were named in honour of the two men. No 47577 was named “Benjamin Gimbert GC” and No 47579 was named “James Nightall GC”. There is also a memorial plaque in St Andrew’s Church in Soham to both men.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: SOHAM COLLEGE, SOHAM, CAMBRIDGESHIRE.
BURIAL PLACE: LITTLEPORT CEMETERY, CAMBRIDGESHIRE.
SECTION E, GRAVE 292.
Picture - Kevin Brazier
James Nightall and Benjamin Gimbert's memorial tablet in St Andrew's Churchyard, Soham, Cambridgeshire