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by Simon B

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Contributed by 
Simon B
Article ID: 
A795909
Contributed on: 
29 July 2002

The Bethnal Green Tube shelter disaster took place on the evening of Wednesday March 3, 1943. 1731 people died in a terrifying crush as panic spread through the crowds of people trying to enter the station's bomb shelter in the East End of London. However, no bomb struck and not a single casualty was the direct result of military aggression, making it the deadliest civilian incident of World War Two.

The context

The East End, with its industry and docks, had been a target for German bombers since the Luftwaffe2 had failed to establish air superiority in the Battle of BritainAbout links. Furthermore, the East End was seen as a barometer of British civilian morale. So, even though the BlitzAbout links had ended almost two years ago in May 1941, bombing raids and sirens were still an everyday part of life for Eastenders as Germany and Britain carried out tit-for-tat raidsAbout links in an attempt to demoralise civilian populations.

Bethnal Green Underground station, as one of the few deep-level stations in the East End, was an obvious choice for a huge public bomb shelter. Situated in a densely populated urban area, the shelter had at times held 7,000 people, and contained 5,000 bunks.

In the weeks leading up to the disaster the shelter had seen regular use. By now local people were quite knowledgeable about the blows and counter-blows of the bombing campaign: indeed an inquiry into the disasterAbout links had noticed that they 'take a most intelligent interest in the accounts of our bombing of the enemy'. Consequently, many people would be in or near the station when expectation of German bombing in the area was high. Following heavy bombing of Berlin on March 1, many were anticipating a retaliatory strike on March 3.

The bombing begins

Approximately 500 people were already in the shelter when the warning sirens sounded at 8.17pm. Since German bombing had switched tactics from slow, heavy aircraft, to lighter, faster bombers, people had less time to reach safe shelter. Bethnal Green residents knew this, and poured out of cinemas and off passing buses towards the station.

An estimated 1,500 people negotiated the station's dimly lit, solitary entrance between 8.17pm and 8.27pm. With only a 25-watt light bulb to guide them in the dark of the blackoutAbout links, the station's wet steps - it had been raining - must have made for a treacherous descent.

Panic

At 8.27pm the touch-paper was lit. A frightening roar went out as a nearby anti-aircraft battery fired its salvo of 60 rockets. The battery was new, with an unfamiliar sound. Apprehension turned to panic. As the crowd surged forward down the slippery steps a woman holding a small child fell near the bottom of the first staircase. A man tripped over her, and a tragic human domino effect had begun.

It is estimated that hundreds of people fell within just 15 seconds. Unaware of what was happening in front of them, people kept surging forward into the supposed safety of the shelter.

In this mass panic any rescue attempts were severely hampered. PC Thomas PennAbout links, who was escorting his pregnant wife to the shelter, arrived on the scene as the disaster was unfolding. To assess the scale of the event he crawled over the massed bodies to the bottom of the 19 steps and found 200 people in a space the size of a small room. PC Penn climbed out again and sent a message for help, before returning down the steps to help extricate people from the tangle of limbs and torsos.

Aftermath

Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 173 people: 27 men, 84 women and 62 children. A further 62 people were taken to hospital. It was reported that the woman who originally fell had survived, but her child had not.

Fearful that news of such an unnecessary disaster would damage public morale, the British government ordered that both the location and precise number of fatalities should be kept secret. A public inquiry was demanded by some, but instead the details of an inquiry by Mr Laurence Dunne were kept 'under Lock and Key' due to security considerations. Minutes from a War Cabinet meetingAbout links where the disaster was discussed concluded that publication 'would give the incident a disproportionate importance, and might encourage the enemy to make further nuisance raids.'

Instead it was decided that a short statement should be made to the House of Commons by the Home Secretary and Minister for Home Security acknowledging receipt of the inquiry and saying that action was already being taken to prevent further such disasters taking place. Furthermore, in accordance with the inquiry's findings, it was to be stated that rumours of 'Jewish or Fascist elements' being involved in creating the crush were absolutely without foundation.

Remembrance

As well as having a song written about it3, the disaster is commemorated with a plaque that can be found at the station's southeast entrance on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman RoadAbout links, above the step where the first women fell. It reads:

In Memory of the 173 Men, Women and Children
who lost their lives on the evening of
Wednesday 3rd March 1943
descending these steps to Bethnal Green
underground air raid shelter
Not forgotten

1 Some sources put the figure at 178, but 173 is the figure given on a plaque at the station and is also the figure given in the government inquiry, so that is the figure used here.

2 The German air force.

3 'Bethnal Green Tube Disaster' by Frank Tovey and The Pyros on their 1991 album, Grand Union.

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Message 1 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Simon B

Entry: The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster - A795909 Author: Cinnamon Boobies - U198227

This is the my first submission for peer review and also the first article written especially for the h2g2 World War Two society at A794531.

 

Message 2 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by KerrAvon- I tawt I taw a putty cat!

Well written and informative <ok>. Can't think of anything else at the minute, so I'll be back later for further comments.

<ale>

 

Message 3 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by BH (Calcutta) failed puts a sparkle in yer ear'ole

This looks very good <ok> Just enough info to explain what happened, but not too much to bog the reader down.

There is one typo I noticed - "Furthermore, the East End was seen as a barometer of British civilian moral." I think you need an 'e' on the end of 'moral' there. The idea of people from the East End being perfect <angel>s... well, I grew up and lived in several parts of East London, and you won't find a more dodgy bunch of characters anywhere, especially around Befnal Green ;-)

Also, "The East End, with its industry and docks, had long been a target for German bombers." That sentence as it stands makes it sound like the East End had been a German target for German bombers for... years maybe. You need to make it clear that it had been a target since the WW2 bombing of London started.

I'd say this is a perfect entry for The Guide :-D

 

Message 4 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Simon B

Thanks for the comments so far. I've amended the typo and have also reworded the sentence on German bombing of the East End so that the timescale is more specific. It now says:

"The East End, with its industry and docks, had been a target for German bombers since the Luftwaffe had failed to establish air superiority in the Battle of Britain."

Keep 'em coming <ok>

 

Message 5 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Jimster (Do you read the Front Page every day?)

Hey CB, cracking first entry and a horrific story too. My mother knew an ARP who'd witnessed one of his shelters in Liverpool taking a direct hit, as in this entry.

Should have no trouble getting this picked.

<bubbly>

Jimster

 

Message 6 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by BureauGris

I think this is excellent, and will be one of the little gems in the edited guide.

My suggestion is that the title is changed to lose the word "Tube" and put in "Underground" instead. The reason for this is that underground seems to be the word of choice in describing that funny subterranean railway system that they have in London. If that word is in the title then the piece becomes much more searchable. Try typing "underground" into the search box above and you'll see what I mean.

 

Message 7 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Giford

Superb article.

Gif <geek>

 

Message 8 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Simon B

Thanks for the comments <ok>

Interesting point about the article's "searchability". In most cases the incident is referred to using the word "Tube" (including the government inquiry), so that was what I went with as it seems more accurate.

There is a similar question about the term "World War Two". This has synonyms such as "Second World War" and "WWII", yet a search under those terms would not produce this article (certainly not on the first page of results).

Hmm <huh>

 

Message 9 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Monsignore Pizzafunghi Bosselese

Simple answer: the search index gets updated only once a day. Therefore, a new entry won't be found at all on its first day, and changes are reflected only after the same period.

 

Message 10 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 30 July 2002 by Monsignore Pizzafunghi Bosselese

'touch paper' would deserve a footnote, what's that please?

Otherwise, I can only echo the other comments above: I'd a perfect entry for The Guide!

<ok>

 

Message 11 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 31 July 2002 by Simon B

I'm not sure it's to do with how often the search index is updated. I think it's more to do with the h2g2 search engine being a fairly simple free text engine, and so does not have the "intelligence" to know that when someone says "World War Two" that can also mean "Second World War", "WW2" and "WWII" and so entries with these phrases in them should appear too.

Basically, it needs a controlled vocabulary [
http://www.controlledvocabulary.com/About links
]. Or, even better, a way to plug into all the "relationships" that humans create between h2g2 articles by linking to them. For example my h2g2 World War Two society page [A794531] links together all kinds of articles using World War Two, Second World War, WW2 and WWII because I know that these are pretty much the same thing.

Anyway, all a bit off topic. Maybe something to ask in the DNA Hub when it launches :-)

 

Message 12 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 31 July 2002 by Ausnahmsweise, wie üblich (Consistently inconsistent)

Hi,

Very good entry. I had never heard of this incident, although my mother lived through the Blitz in nearby Hackney, and some of the family used to live on Belsham Street. By '43 she was probably away from London in the Land Army, and if it was covered up, then she may not have learned of it. I'll definitely ask.

I also wondered if "Tube" is still in common use? But you have Underground in the body of the entry. And there have been entries here on the art work of the "Tube" posters. I think it will be just fine.

Awu

 

Message 13 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 31 July 2002 by Bels - an incurable optimist. A1050986

It would seem superfluous to add mine to the accolades already posted, but it's a great pleasure to do so anyway. <ok>

My only further comments would be some minuscule stylistic points that you don't have to bother about if you don't want to.

"the deadliest civilian incident of World War Two"
I think 'deadliest' conveys a slightly different meaning to the one intended here; and it is not clear what is meant by 'civilian incident'. Obviously such an incident would never have occurred in peacetime, or if there hadn't been air raids, so it wasn't a civilian incident in the sense that the Kings Cross fire was. My guess would be that you mean that more civilians died in this incident than in any other in WW2, but I can't be sure because that is not what you wrote, and I would be surprised if no other WW2 incident anywhere killed more than 173 civilians. Anyway I think it could do with being clearer.

Regarding the 173, you don't need to repeat that later. And when you write:
"Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 173 people died, among them 27 men, 84 women and 62 children" - 'among them' is awkward. So you could change this to;
"Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 27 men, 84 women and 62 children died."

A few of the footnotes could go into the main body of the text, possibly in parentheses. It's better not to have lots of footnotes.

"Furthermore, the East End was seen as a barometer of British civilian morale ... tit-for-tat raids, attempting to damage civilian morale."
Repetition of 'civilian morale'. Perhaps the second one could change to 'tit-for-tat raids in an attempt to demoralise the population / break the proud spirit of the nation' - or something.

"Situated in a highly residential area"
For me, 'highly' doesn't seem to quite go with 'residential'. I would prefer something like 'a densely-populated area' or 'a large residential area' or something like that. Actually the East End was (still is) also an area of lots of factories, warehouses, sweatshops and so on, as I am sure you know.
So you could also say, 'Many thousands of people lived and worked in the area, and the shelter...'

That's the trouble with these entries that there's nothing wrong with - all that's left is nitpicking.

<cheers>

Bels

 

Message 14 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 01 August 2002 by BH (Calcutta) failed puts a sparkle in yer ear'ole

I agree with all of your points there Bels, except the first... sort of. I knew exactly what "deadliest civilian incident" meant when I read it - to me it said, the deadliest incident which wasn't directly caused by an act of war by the aggressor. In other words, these people didn't die because they had a bomb dropped on them.

I reckon it's perfectly possible for an incident like this to happen in peacetime. If you've ever seen the crowds of people who try to get into (for instance) Leicester Square tube station on a Saturday night not long after the cinemas empty out, or just before the last train leaves, it would only take one person to trip up to cause a very similar tragedy (although I think the death toll would not be so high), and there are many other tube stations where it could happen in the same and other circumstances.

 

Message 15 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 01 August 2002 by Bels - an incurable optimist. A1050986

Gosho, we are told the incident happened in an atmosphere of the damoclean sword of impending air raids, sirens wailing, unexpected anti-aircraft rockets being launched, and the dim lighting of the blackout - all among a population whose nerves were already taut with the tension, deprivation and panic of war. That must have had some bearing on the incident, and that's what I meant.

I too thought I'd worked out what the phrase meant, and it's ok as it stands, but it's not absolutely clear and I feel there's a slightly better wording possible.

But it's no big deal.

Bels

 

Message 16 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 01 August 2002 by Simon B

Thanks for the input Bels and Gosho. I've made some amendments following your comments.

The opening paragraph has been re-structured to give greater clarity as to what kind of incident this was:

"The Bethnal Green Tube shelter disaster took place on the evening of Wednesday March 3, 1943. 173 people died in a terrifying crush as panic spread through the crowds of people trying to enter the station's bomb shelter in the East End of London. However, no bomb struck and not a single casualty was the direct result of military aggression, making it the deadliest civilian incident of World War Two."

I have removed "among them" from the first paragraph in Aftermath and replaced it with a colon. This is less clunky; much more punchy. However, I prefer to keep the repetition of the death toll as I think it has a strong impact at this point.

I have replaced some of the footnotes with links. This makes the article more useful anyway.

Repetition of civilian morale replaced.

"Highly-residential area" replaced with "densely populated urban area". I think this better conveys the kind of area it was to people who are unfamiliar with it.

CB :-)

 

Message 17 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 01 August 2002 by Bels - an incurable optimist. A1050986

Super. <ok>

 

Message 18 - A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 01 August 2002 by BH (Calcutta) failed puts a sparkle in yer ear'ole

Dooper :-D

 

Message 19 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by DNA Messages

Your Guide Entry has just been picked from Peer Review by one of our Scouts, and is now heading off into the Editorial Process, which ends with publication in the Edited Guide. We've therefore moved this Review Conversation out of Peer Review and to the entry itself.

If you'd like to know what happens now, check out the page on 'What Happens after your Entry has been Recommended?' at <./>EditedGuide-Process</.>. We hope this explains everything.

Thanks for contributing to the Edited Guide!

 

Message 20 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by Blues Shark - a khaki-coloured bombadier it's Hiroshima that I'm nearing

<bubbly>
<shark>

 

Message 21 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by Jimster (Do you read the Front Page every day?)

<bubbly>

Well done - muchly deserved.

Jims

 

Message 22 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by BH (Calcutta) failed puts a sparkle in yer ear'ole

Well done :-D <bubbly>

 

Message 23 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by Spiff (MP) - The Alt Writing Workshop - where *you* decide what goes into the UnderGuide!

wow! <ok> Great article!

it was obviously a gimmee for the edited guide, but <congrats> all the same.

one omission in the first para of the 'Aftermath' section

>>
Despite the best efforts of rescuers, 173 people: 27 men, 84 women and 62 children.
<<

(perhaps a Freudian slip, given the significance of the missing word :()

Would 'perished' be over-dramatic? personally, i don't think so, but otherwise 'died' would be a suitable alternative.

so, once again <congrats> on a fine contribution to the guide
the first of many, one suspects, <biggrin>

cya
spiff

 

Message 24 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by Spiff (MP) - The Alt Writing Workshop - where *you* decide what goes into the UnderGuide!

Oh yes, there was one other thing, for your consideration.

>>
Furthermore, in accordance with the inquiry's findings, it was to be stated that rumours of 'Jewish or Fascist elements' being involved in creating the crush were absolutely without foundation.
<<

This piece of info seemed out of place to me. I think i would like EITHER more explanation of why such a statement was necessary, OR nothing at all on the subject.

Something about it definitely bothers me.

ps sorry if this was discussed in the thread - i had a quick look through but not at the details. :)

 

Message 25 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by KerrAvon- I tawt I taw a putty cat!

Congrats! <ok> Very well deserved, have a <ale>.

 

Message 26 - Congratulations - Your Entry has been Picked for the Edited Guide!

Posted on: 08 August 2002 by Monsignore Pizzafunghi Bosselese

indeed! <bubbly>

 

Message 27 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 23 September 2003 by Researcher 247261

A good account of the disaster. Good to see the subject is not forgotten. My great grandmother died in it, her son holding her hand for as long as he could before the crush parted them.He suffered from the shock and grief and his wife was crushed badly but recovered and they went on to see their daughter grow up and give them 2 grandaughters. His older sister, my grandmother, had to identify her mother's body as the older brothers were all away at war. My mother is remembers the tragic time very well as she was 13 at the time and the reality of war was hitting home for her.

 

Message 28 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 17 November 2003 by Garnishboy

Nice one, Simon B, I appreciated the links. Do you know of any first hand reports of the disaster? I'm also interested in stories from Camberwell where my family is from.

 

Message 29 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 27 February 2004 by lovelygorgon

I was very interested in the piece on Bethnal Green Underground Disaster; it answered a lot of questions for me, the date (I would have put it at 1942) the time the number of rockets fired and the reason that the incident was never discussed.

During WW2 I lived in the flats on Marsh Hill Homerton, not too far from Victoria Park and of course Bethnal Green.

That evening the sirens started and we took off for our local shelter. We were not given too much warning on those occasions no sooner had the siren sounded the guns were firing and planes were overhead. I had to go back to the flat for something - don't remember what, as soon as I had entered the flat there was a horrendous roar and the place lit up. I hadn't heard that noise before and waited for the explosions, there were none other than the local guns firing and shells bursting overhead.

When I got back to the shelter everyone was asking what the noise was?

Next day I went to the city on the bus as usual and there was no talk about the event. Later in the day, I had picked up a weekly magazine from an old newsvendor who stood at the entrance to Leadenhall Market. He mumbled something to me and the only part of the conversation that I caught was "and two hundred people were killed".

I had no idea of what he was talking about, until I got back home that evening. My mother said that a policeman had called at the flat next door where a young woman lived with two young children. She had been told that her mother and two younger sisters had been killed at the Bethnal Green shelter and needed her to go over and identify them. When she arrived back she told my mother that all the bodies were laid out in the church opposite the shelter "Her mother and sisters looked so small" she said. Not a very pleasant ordeal for a young mother whose husband was away in the army.

We knew that something was going on in Victoria Park where the northeast corner had been fenced off. It was a "new gun site" according to the latest rumours. They didn't look like guns to me when I passed by the park. Word did leak out later that they were anti aircraft rockets capable of firing a block barrage and were to be manned by the Home Guard. On the evening of the disaster the rockets must have been fired right over the heads of the people making there way to the shelter.

That was the first time they had been fired and to my knowledge were never used again.

 

Message 30 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 11 March 2004 by Simon B

Hello lovelygorgon,

I'm really glad you enjoyed the article, especially as you were actually there at the time.

Have you considered writing up any of your own stories to go on the WW2 People's War site?

Best wishes,
Simon

 

Message 31 - Peer Review: A795909 - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster

Posted on: 24 March 2004 by Layla1

I think you story was verry good as I also had family in the tube disaster, My greatgrandmother and great Aunt And there friend Dolly, Dolly was pulled away and died, But when my Aunt and nan got to the bottem my Aunt had had a baby put in her arms as she was thrown over the top of every one. I have a letter that my nan wrote a while after it happend, about what it was like. I would just like to say not all the body's were layed out in the Church, cos it tock Dolly's family a while to find her they had to seach the hospitals for her. The tube is still in use today as I went back 2 years ago with my Nan, and two Aunts. I have a verry strong family link to the tube as not only my Greatgrandmother and Aunt was in it my Mum's Dad was a policeman at the time and was one of maney who was left to pull the dead bodies out, He never talked about it cos it was to pain ful for him. But your story is verry good!! and tells it like it was!!

Message 1 - Bethnal Green Tube Disaster

Posted on: 04 June 2004 by dikalili

I was opposite Bethnal Green Station while the disaster was occurring .I was sheltering under the Salmon and Ball rail

way arches because i refused to go down the tube station because of the foul atmosphere.I was sheltering because I heard what I have since found out was the sound of the Anti Aircraft rockets.
I would like to clafify a few points which were not clear in your report:-
1.The station was never in use until after the war ended.It was still in course of completion when war broke out.The Central Line ended at Liverpool Street at that time.

2.I was not aware of the sounds of any panic while this was going on.One would have thought that there would be screams of some sort if there was extreme panic.

Iwent home after the anti aircraft fire died down completely unaware of what had happened until the next day, when my friend Bert Lodge who was just 17 at the time was called in by his employers (the Town Hall)to go through the pockets of the dead listing details of their personal belongings.He was never the same person after that event.

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