Today was seventy years on from the country's worst civilian disaster of the Second World War - and there is a fitting new memorial for the 173 who died in the Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster. All these photos were taken this afternoon at the memorial and at St. John's, Bethnal Green, just the other side of Roman Road, where 600 people packed into a memorial service. The inscription (above) on the memorial reads:
THE BETHNAL GREEN TUBE SHELTER DISASTER
On 3 March 1943 the air raid warning sounded at 8.17pm. People made their way in the pitch dark of the blackout to file in an orderly manner down the steps of the single entrance to the unfinished Bethnal Green underground station next to this memorial. It had been in regular use since 1940 as a deep air raid shelter.
Over the next 10 minutes local pubs and cinemas emptied so that some 2000 people were already in the shelter by 8.27pm when the searchlight went on. Those still waiting to enter were alarmed by the deafening sound of a new anti-aircraft rocket battery opening fire for the first time nearby. They assumed it to be enemy bombs falling. At that time three buses set down their passengers at the unsupervised shelter entrance. The crowd hurried down the poorly-lit 10 foot wide flight of 19 concrete steps which had no central handrail. On this wet, slippery stairway a woman with a child fell on the 3rd step from the bottom and others tumbled over her. The crowd above continued pressing forward unable to see the horror of what was happening below. Within seconds the whole staircase was a solid, tangled mess of 300 people trapped five or six deep.
Despite heroic efforts, rescuers working above and below found it difficult to release them before they suffocated in the crush. It was 11.40pm before the last of the total 173 dead was pulled out - 84 women, 62 children and 27 men. Sixty-two people were hospitalised and at least 30 more walked away wounded. Many more suffered life-long trauma. This was the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.
Stairway to Heaven
As you leave Bethnal Green tube station in London's East End, there's a small plaque marking the site of the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War. 173 people were killed there on 3rd March 1943. The station was being used as an air raid shelter. But it wasn't enemy action which led to the loss of life. A new form of anti-aircraft weapon was being used nearby, it seems, and that triggered a crowd surge - hundreds were trapped and crushed.
You may have heard little about the tragedy. At the time, a desire not to harm morale contributed to the downplaying of the incident. After the war, this was widely seen as a private and local tragedy. There are still a few survivors of the disaster, and there's also an increasingly active local group seeking to build a memorial.
The project is to build a Stairway to Heaven Memorial - an inverted flight of stairs above the entrance to the stairwell. There's a whole range of events being organised to raise money. and earlier this year Sean Dettman wrote a detailed account of the tragedy and the response to it - The Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster of 1943: A Stairway to Heaven, published by the East London History Society.
We need to honour and memorialise our past.
Andrew Whitehead's blog
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