In early March 1943 the worst days of the Blitz were two years past. The horror of V1s and V2s yet to come. Yet in this relative calm on the home front, 173 East Enders would lose their lives during an air raid. Next Sunday*, the Church of St John on Bethnal Green remembers the men, women and children who died on 3 March 1943 – a disaster for years clouded by confusion, rumour and misinformation.
Although the skies over London were quieter by 1943, East Enders’ memories of the Blitz were raw. During the winter of 1940-41 the pounding of London had been relentless. At one stage, the city was hit for 57 nights running. 29 December 1940 saw the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as firebombs rained down on the capital. Through the night of 10 and 11 May 1941, there was another intense bombardment, and the East End as a whole, had taken more than its share of the bombing.
Just in case Londoners might forget, there was the continual peal of air raid sirens. Often the raid would be a false alarm, but with many of their children back from evacuation, East Enders would make for shelter at the first sound of the siren.
With up to eight folk crammed into the garden’s Morrison Shelter with little air, no light, and a chamber pot for a toilet, many preferred the Underground. In any case, they reasoned, a tin shelter wouldn’t be much protection from a direct hit or even falling masonry.
Bethnal Green was a new station – work had begun on extending the Central Line from Liverpool Street in 1936, but had been interrupted by the outbreak of war. With the track yet to go down, there was plenty of room, and the station was converted into a shelter with 5000 bunks. Sleeping in the Underground had big advantages over the Anderson Shelter; East Enders took their community spirit underground with them – there was light, company, singsongs and concerts, urns dispensing hot, sweet tea, even a lending library.
But as the siren sounded at 8.17pm on 3 March 1943, it all went horribly wrong. A woman, carrying her baby, tripped and fell as she went down the steps to the platform. At the top of the stairs, came shouted warnings of bombs falling. On that night many reported that they had heard ‘a new sort of bomb’. The people pushed ever more quickly into the shelter.
The way was now blocked, but still people poured in. There were no handrails, or crush barriers, light from a single 75 watt bulb and no white lines on the stairs to mark out steps. Within seconds around 300 people were wedged into the stairway. Shelterers, carried forward by new arrivals behind them, tumbled down the steep steps. Within 90 seconds, 27 men, 84 women and 62 children had died of suffocation and sixty of the survivors needed hospital treatment.
For two days afterwards, the Government maintained a blanket blackout, terrified of shattering fragile civilian morale, as newspaper reporters toured the East End offering payment to anyone who could tell them what had happened. Within a week a Government Inquiry was convened. Even then, its findings would be kept quiet until the end of the war. It cited insufficient lighting (due to blackout restrictions) as one cause of the tragedy. Lack of handrails in the centre of the stairs, and no police on duty to hold back the crowds were two more. It also found that the local Council had been asked to provide safety barriers months before but, strapped for cash, had not done so. Finally, it speculated on what had caused such a dash for shelter. Unknown to locals, the Government was testing a new type of anti-aircraft gun in Victoria Park. The noise was immense – this was the ‘new type of bomb’ people had reported hearing. After the tragedy, new handrails were installed on the steps down to the station. Each individual step was also marked with white paint to help people see them in poor light.
This wasn’t to the only disaster to befall shelterers in the Underground. On 17 September1940, Marble Arch station took a direct hit. The white tiles that covered the walls shattered into deadly shrapnel, killing 20 people. At Balham on 14 October that year, a bomb exploded above the station. The blast went down through the road and blew up water mains and sewage pipes, flooding the tunnel. 68 died and many more were injured. And at Bank on 11 January 1941, a direct hit collapsed roadway and station on to the shelterers below. 56 were killed and 69 injured. The bomb left a crater, 120ft by 100ft.
But the tragic irony was that nobody at Bethnal Green was a victim of a bomb – apart from the sound of friendly fire echoing from Victoria Park. When dawn broke on the next day, not one enemy missile had fallen on the East End. The 173 souls had been victims of panic, rumour, official incompetence and secrecy, but not German planes.
The memorial ceremony takes place on Sunday 2 March 2003 at 3pm at the Church of St John on Bethnal Green, 30 Victoria Park Square, E2 9PB. There will also be a small commemorative exhibition in the crypt of St John’s.