Britain’s worst Tube disaster was at London’s Bethnal Green station in 1943, when 173 people died. But it remained a secret; the story was hushed up at the time in order to keep up wartime morale. Our contributor Sandra Brind’s grandmother and cousin died in the incident; her mother and aunt were among the survivors. Here, Sandra Brind investigates the causes of the disaster, and reveals what is being done to commemorate Britain’s worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.
Bethnal Green underground station was not finished when war broke out, and there were no tracks in the tunnels, writes Sandra Brind. So it was used use as a deep shelter during bombing raids and people slept in the empty tunnels. At the time the station had only one narrow entrance, rather than the three there are today.
On the night of 1st March, 1943, the allies bombed Berlin badly and everyone was expecting reprisals. At 8.17pm on 3rd March the air raid sirens sounded and, in the pitch dark of the blackout, East Londoners made their way to the shelter in their usual orderly fashion.
Ten minutes later three buses stopped at the station entrance to let their passengers off, saying they would not go any farther during an air raid. So all the people on the buses joined those around the entrance trying to get into the shelter, while other people continued to arrive from all directions.
Just then, the unfamiliar, deafening sound of a brand new anti-aircraft rocket battery opened up in the park nearby. Nobody knew it was there so people assumed it was some new enemy bomb exploding.
As the crowds pressed down the dark staircase a woman at the bottom, holding a child, fell on the wet slippery stairs and pulled another man down on top of her. Before they could get up, others fell on top of them. People coming down the stairs in the pitch dark had no idea what was happening below them, so more and more people pressed down the stairs, stepping on bodies then falling themselves. The official report into the disaster says that within a few seconds 300 people were trapped: jammed solid between the floor and the ceiling. Pinned down by the weight above them, people first couldn’t move then couldn’t breathe.
It took just over three hours to pull out the last victim, and by then 173 people were dead – 62 of them children – and approximately 90 were injured. It turned out to be the worst civilian disaster of World War 2 yet it was not caused by enemy action. No planes were detected over that part of London that night and to this day we do not know why that new weapon test fired.
The emergency services personnel suffered life-long trauma as a result of frantically pulling people out of the crush and not knowing if their own friends and family were among the casualties. Most of the dead children were so disfigured that they could be recognised only by their shoes or clothes. The terrible sights stayed with the rescuers throughout their lives.
At the time, people were told to keep the disaster secret to prevent the enemy gaining propaganda and to keep up civilian morale. However, official records have recently been discovered revealing that two years earlier, in 1941, Bethnal Green Council asked the
government three times, in writing, for permission to alter the shelter entrance to make it safer. Each time, the government refused. Needless to say, these measures were all put in place the day after the disaster but the Council was not allowed to reveal their earlier plea and they were effectively made to take the blame. If the truth had been known then the Home Secretary of the day would probably have
had to resign. He was Herbert Morrison (Lord Mandelson’s grandfather). He tried to blame the victims instead. It was the Hillsborough of its day.
In 2008 the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust was formed to build a fitting Memorial to the tragedy. Two thirds of the Memorial was dedicated at a Service in 2013 attended by approximately 600 people. But it has taken until now to raise the funds and obtain the licences needed to finish the final part of the Memorial. Work has started and it is hoped this will be completed shortly. Funds are always welcomed to help this happen as quickly as possible, bearing in mind that most of the survivors are in their upper 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.
The final part will be the ‘stairway’, made of sustainable teak, with the
surnames of the victims carved in large letters all around the sides. On the roof there will be 173 conicals to allow sunlight to shine through and represent those who died
People can donate on www.stairwaytoheavenmemorial.org or by
text giving (text STHM43 £10 to 70070). Or they can call Derek Spicer on 07722 162 168 for more options.