Bethnal Green - disaster at the tube

Discussion in 'WW2 General' started by syscom3, Mar 4, 2008.

  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

    Jun 4, 2005
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    Orange County, CA
    This happened on March 3rd 1943. 65 years ago.

    BBC Homeground - Bethnal Green Tube Disaster

    It was the worst civilian incident of World War Two. Homeground looks back at the Bethnal Green Tube station disaster, and explores new evidence about the causes of the tragedy.

    During the Second World War Bethnal Green was the epicentre of the Blitz with day after day of heavy bombing raids.

    On March 3 1943, 173 people including 62 children lost their lives in the worst civilian tragedy of the war at Bethnal Green Tube station.

    Homeground investigates the disaster using eye witness accounts of eastenders who were there at the time.

    Down on the tube

    When war began, London had its own ready-made shelter system - the Underground.

    Many Londoners used the Tube as a shelter from the air raids. Eastenders sought refuge in its deep underground shelters whilst the bombs rained down on the streets above.

    Bethnal Green Tube - a subterranean home from home shelter

    At first people slept when and where they could, even when the trains started running again in the morning.

    As time went on, the shelters became more organised. Reg Baker remembers the scenes.

    "You were so close to everyone in those tunnels that you got to know everybody - down in the bunk beds- they were only about four feet apart.

    "We used to sleep in the tunnel and bunk beds either side that went right the way down. It was a full community... we had a canteen... we had a church - well, a vicar... we had a library..."

    The night of the disaster

    There were 10 air raids upon London during the night of March 3 1943.

    When the alert sounded at 8.17 pm, hundreds of people left their homes to run to the Bethnal Green Tube Station shelter where 500 people were already sheltering.

    Local cinemas emptied and three buses stopped to let passengers into the shelter. In just ten minutes, 1500 people entered the shelter.

    At 8.27 p.m. one of the new anti-aircraft rocket batteries at nearby Victoria Park fired its salvo of 60 rockets, making a deafening roar.

    The sheer volume of people crowding to get in the shelter was overwhelming.

    Inside the tube station
    Tube station steps
    Sheer panic - crowds pressed forward on the Tube station's wet and slippery stairs

    The crowd at the shelter entrance, who were waiting to get in, panicked and surged forward.

    There was only one narrow entrance to Bethnal Green Tube and there were no crush barriers.

    The main staircase was dimly lit by a 25 watt bulb.

    It had been raining and the station's steps were wet, making for a treacherous descent.

    Inside, a woman near the bottom of the first staircase fell. A man tripped over her, others slipped, and within 15 seconds the stairs were blocked with hundreds of fallen people.

    The pressure of the crowd trying to push into the shelter prevented rescuers from helping.

    A total of 173 people suffocated to death in the ensuing panic.

    Eye witness account

    Alf Morris is one of the few remaining survivors of the disaster still alive today.

    He was one of the last people to be pulled out of the crush and remembers the scenes of panic.

    "It's indescribable what went on in them few minutes when most of the people died... the screaming, the hollering," he recalls.

    The rescuers couldn't pull anyone from the bottom because they were piled up like sardines.

    "When I arrived here there were all the bodies laid right the way down... I helped to get some of the youngsters up, I was only little myself, and I picked up mostly young children," says James Hunt.

    Cover up?

    Newspaper rookie Eric Linden was on the spot as the tragedy unfolded. He filed a story for the Daily Mail, and was surprised to find that it wasn't used.
    Journalist Eric Linden
    Eye witness Eric Linden suspected a cover-up

    The official line was that there had been a direct hit on the station but Eric and local people didn't believe this.

    The station was still in tact and there was no bomb damage.

    Nor had there been any sound of aircraft engines roaring overhead.

    The disaster had been covered up and all traces of it cleaned up within hours.

    Even the conclusions of the official inquiry were deemed to be too damning to be published until after the war.

    When the report was finally released in 1946, its verdict was that the tragedy had been caused by sheer panic, exacerbated by the narrow entrance and design of the shelter.

    Mysterious sightings

    Something new and unexpected seemed to have caused the panic.

    Regulars at the shelter knew the warning signals and sound of an air raid all too well- the sirens, the rumble of guns, the drone of aircraft, and the sound of bombs dropping.
    Victoria Park
    Locals report hearing an unusual sound coming from Victoria Park on the evening of the disaster

    So was there a more sinister explanation for the evening's events?

    What new weapon was being tested to cause such panic by locals hardened to daily attacks?

    There appeared to have been a salvo of rockets from nearby Victoria Park.

    Sixty years later it has been impossible to find any members of the Z-Battery that manned the Home Guard unit in the park.

    A new experimental weapon?

    However former soldiers from other London Z-Battery units recall the testing of an experimental new weapon.

    "It was as if all hell had been let loose, belching out flame and noise as you've never heard it."
    The new weapon was designed to incinerate enemy planes

    "Everyone else who heard it would be the same as me - petrified," remembers one old soldier.

    The ex-veterans find it hard to believe that a test was carried out without warning to local people in a very populated area - unless a major mistake was made.

    Alec Allen was a 'cocoa boy' working as a dogsbody for the unit on the night of the disaster.

    He claims that he was told of a test firing by the commander of the unit.

    "It was horrendous. The skies were lit up these rockets. It sounded like the whole battery had been lit up simultaneously," he recalls.

    The inside story

    The Ministry of Defence has confirmed that there was indeed a Z-Battery using rockets in Victoria Park.

    However it claims that the tragedy was still caused by the alert of a Luftwaffe raid not by panic caused by antiaircraft fire.

    But none of the survivors recalls hearing a plane on the fateful night.

    So what was the real cause of the tragedy and could it have been averted?

    The tragedy remains a mystery. Unless further light can be shed on the actions of the Z-Battery in Victoria Green on March 3, 1943, it's a puzzle that will continue to baffle historians.

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  2. Konigstiger205

    Mar 20, 2007
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  3. Njaco

    Njaco The Pop-Tart Whisperer
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    Feb 19, 2007
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    Horrible - I posted a short excerpt in the "This Day in Europe..." thread.
  4. evangilder

    evangilder "Shooter"
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