Bethnal Green Tube Disaster
On a rainy night in March 1943 the worst civilian loss of life of WWII happened at the entrance to Bethnal Green tube station.
By this stage of the war the East Enders were accustomed to the routine of seeking shelter when the air raid sirens sounded. One of the safest places to go was the still unused Bethnal Green tube station, its tunnels deep under the earth surely proof against anything the enemy could throw at it.
Part of the routine was awareness of Allied bombing action, which when directed against particularly sensitive targets brought a German backlash. On March 1 Berlin had been pounded by the RAF, so Londoners expected retaliation that week.
Because the station was not yet in use for its original purpose (and would not be so until 1946), its facilities were inadequate, though improvisation had seen huge numbers of bunks installed in the tunnels. The 19 steps from the surface to the below-ground booking office were lit by just one low-power bulb because of blackout regulations; no central handrail had yet been installed; and there were no crush barriers.
When British Army artillery positions in a nearby park opened up using a new and still secret rocket device, the noise was out of that comfortable routine that saw orderly entrance to the shelter. Someone shouted ‘Bomb’, and panic quickly set in. With the steps glistening with rain it was inevitable somebody would slip, and so it happened: a woman carrying a baby tumbled over, those behind her were unable to clear her prostrate form and they fell, in turn bringing down more and more.
By the time control was regained 300 people had fallen, crushed together in a mad jumble of bodies forced into a tiny space. Some 172 died at the scene, unable to breathe beneath the weight of those above them, and another person died in hospital later.
Because of fears for morale the government hushed the seriousness of the disaster up, preventing the naming of the location or the release of the death-toll, and insisting reports gave the cause as a direct hit by a German bomb.
Today a small plaque is all that marks the tragedy at the site, though a fittingly more dramatic memorial is planned.
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From Cathy Radcliffe on 16th April 2009
My mothers best friend, Rose Bailey, her mother and sister died in the tragedy. My Mum is now dead but she never forgot Rose and talked about her until her last years. She would be so pleased that at last, a proper memorial will be erected. She said Rose was a real East End girl, full of life and so very kind.