Fitting memorial for hero steam train driver moves step closer

EXCLUSIVE: By Geoff Courtney

THE unmarked grave of an express steam train driver who lost his life saving his passengers from a potential major catastrophe may receive a headstone recording his heroism, following research by Heritage Railway.

Crew at rest at Crewe: Unkempt Britannia No. 70051, shorn of its Firth of Forth nameplate, smokebox numberplate, and shedplate, is light engine at Crewe not long before its withdrawal in December 1967. Two years before, the Pacific was the scene of a horrific incident at Winsford when its fire blew back and enveloped the driver in flames and smoke, leading to the death of the driver, Wally Oakes, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for his heroism in bringing the train to a halt before falling off the footplate. The medal is being sold at auction on September 2. COLOUR-RAIL/9334

Wallace ‘Wally’ Oakes died from burns a week after being enveloped in flames and smoke on the footplate of Britannia No. 70051 Firth of Forth on June 5, 1965. He and his fireman Gwilym Roberts had taken over the 10.42am Euston-Carlisle express at Crewe, but within minutes the fire blew back from the smokebox while the Pacific was passing through Winsford station, seven miles north of Crewe, at 55mph.

Roberts managed to climb out of the cab and hang on to the side of the locomotive, but 33-year-old Wally remained at the controls and brought the train to a halt, so averting the threat of a major accident. Only then did he fall off the footplate, and Roberts found him on the embankment, still alive but suffering 80% burns.

Although badly burned himself, the fireman telephoned a signalman to raise the alarm and the southbound ‘Royal Scot’ was stopped to pick up the two desperately injured men, but Wally died a week later from his terrible burns.

Four months after the tragedy Wally was posthumously awarded the George Cross, the second highest award in the honours system behind the Victoria Cross, and this medal, which is now in a private collection, is coming up for auction on September 2 in a Great Central Railwayana sale.

Read more in Issue 232 of HR – on sale now!

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