Disaster at Bethnal Green Underground station

Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a 'Z' Battery on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.

Home Guard soldiers load an anti-aircraft rocket at a ‘Z’ Battery on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.

Anti-aircraft rocket or 'Z' Battery manned by the Home Guard on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.

Anti-aircraft rocket or ‘Z’ Battery manned by the Home Guard on Merseyside, 6 July 1942.

Although the worst days of the blitz had long since passed the threat of intermittent bombing remained in Britain and regularly caused death and destruction across the south and east of Britain. Anti-aircraft gun emplacements were concentrated in all centres of population, often with women working alongside on the aircraft detector equipment. London remained a primary target and the threat of air raids was very real. People were still using the Underground railway stations as safe places to sleep every night.

The news that the RAF had bombed Berlin on the night of the 1st March had heightened the sense that there might be a retaliatory raid. In the East End of London, in Victoria Park, the anti-aircraft gunners were about to test a new system of anti aircraft rockets. These circumstances led to a tragic chain of events when the air raid sirens went off on the evening of the 3rd February and the searchlights went on when enemy aircraft apparently flew overhead.

Alf Morris was a boy at the time:

Children used to line up outside the Tube entrance from about 4.30pm until 6.30pm when it opened. Then we would go down the escalators to the platform and put a blanket on the place where we were going to sleep that night.

On the day disaster struck the radio went off at about 8pm. My mother and father told my aunt, who was living with us in Old Ford Road, to go to the shelter. My aunt and I were walking along Old Ford Road when the searchlight came on, it went on to an aircraft and that is when anti-aircraft guns started firing. The rocket guns in Victoria Park also fired.

I was being carried down the staircase and the noise of the new rocket guns could be heard. Someone shouted “there is a bomb coming” and people started to push forward. I was about the third stair from the bottom but could not move as my legs were trapped. An air raid warden called Mrs. Chumley pulled me out of the crush by my hair and then put her arms under mine and pulled me out.

My aunt had to leave her coat and shoes in the crush to get out. She was bruised black and blue. We were then told to go to the bottom of the stairs and taken to the duty warden and told to say nothing.

Bethnal Green Underground station entrance in 1943. The station had been built just before the war and building work had not been completed, there were no handrails on the stairs. copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Archive

Bethnal Green Underground station entrance in 1943. The station had been built just before the war and building work had not been completed, there were no handrails on the stairs.
Copyright: Tower Hamlets Local History Archive

Read the whole of Alf Morris’s account at Stairway to Heaven Memorial

He had had a very lucky escape, the scale of the tragedy that unfolded was difficult to comprehend. In amongst the hundreds of people trying to cram into the Underground station, many would be crushed to death:

The Ministry Of Home Security made the following statement:

According to accounts so far received, shortly after the air-raid Alert sounded, substantial numbers of people were making their way as usual towards the shelter entrance.

There were nearly 2000 in the shelter, including several hundred who had arrived after the Alert, when a middle-aged woman, burdened with a bundle and a baby, tripped near the foot of a flight of 19 steps which leads down from the street. This flight of steps terminates on a landing. Her fall tripped an elderly man behind her and he fell similarly. Their bodies again tripped up those behind them, and within a few seconds a large number were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway.

Those coming in from the street could not see what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were about 300 people crushed together and lying on top of one another covering the landing and the lower steps.

By the time it was possible to extricate the bodies it was found that a total at present estimated at 178 had died and that a further 60 were in need of hospital treatment. Statements from a large number of eye-witnesses and members of the police and Civil Defence services make it clear that there was no sign of panic before the accident on the stairs.

No bombs fell anywhere in this district during the evening. Preliminary reports received by the Home Secretary and Minister of Home Security indicate that police, wardens, soldiers, W.V.S. and civilians worked hard and well to rescue the victims. Mr. Morrison has instituted the fullest inquiries to establish in greater detail what took place and to see whether any structural or administrative weaknesses have been brought to light

Guard manning an anti-aircraft rocket weapon (known as a ''Z' Battery) at Bootle, Liverpool, January 1942.

Guard manning an anti-aircraft rocket weapon (known as a ”Z’ Battery) at Bootle, Liverpool, January 1942.

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