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.

Surviving an aircraft crash in the desert

A Hawker Hurricane Mark IID of No. 6 Squadron RAF gives a demonstration of the firepower of its Vickers 40mm Type S anti-tank guns against derelict German tanks in the North African desert.
A Stuart tank being refuelled from an RAF fuel bowser outside Sidi Barrani, 15 November 1942.

In the Western Desert the pursuit of the Afrika Korps continued. For RAF units the race was on to establish new airfields in the forward area so that Allied aircraft had the range to stay with the ground forces.

Fred Oldfield was a RAF Air Gunner with 221 Squadron based at Shallufa, near Suez, Egypt. He led a charmed existence because this was the third of four occasions when he survived an aircraft crash:

On November 15th 1942 we were called upon to ferry barrels of oil and petrol to Gambut, which was quite well up towards Tobruk. This was required for the fighter aircraft which had followed hard on the heels of the Eighth Army, and we loaded the aircraft and flew the several hundred miles to Gambut. The place was like a beehive, people all over the place, but we got a mug of tea and a bite to eat from a mobile caravan. By this time we had got a new Sqdn C.O. – Wing Commander Jock Hutton – and he was at Gambut. He was a smashing bloke and he stood in the queue with the rest of us, with a mess tin in his hand.

We took on five passengers – ground crew chaps – and this skipper of ours, had to show off by flying a few feet from the ground the whole way back. Whenever he saw some kind of a camp he would beat it up, blowing down tents, then going out over the sea where you could see great big troughs where the slip stream hit the water.

We were so low we were practically touching the water and he was laughing, this being just his kind of thing. It was obvious to me that something would go wrong, and I prepared myself in the usual position, under the astrodome. Then it happened – he flew the aircraft into the ground. There was a slight rise and he flew the aircraft into it. The engines screamed, the propellors bent and buckled and the belly of the aircraft was ripped out. We even went under some telegraph wires before plunging into the ground again, eventually coming to rest.

I was out of there very quickly. We all got out alive, but some of the passengers were injured. The ones who weren’t hurt soon had some tea brewed, by puncturing one of the wing tanks to get petrol, and brewing with usual half tins. The skipper ordered me to get back in the aircraft and send out an SOS on the radio. This was a bit dicey because there was petrol everywhere, and the generators for the radio gave off sparks. I climbed in and gingerly operated the switch, ready to dive for the hatch, but nothing happened and the SOS I sent, was in fact received in Malta and relayed back to our Squadron.

The skipper set out across the desert to look for help and we settled down around a small fire that our ground crew had got going, brewed some more tea and cooked the emergency rations of tinned sausages and tinned tomatoes, served up with hard tack biscuits. The skipper returned eventually with some blankets and we got down for the night around the fire. We were woken after a while by a sound, and it turned out to be a couple of Bedouin Arabs, looking for their sheep, which they said had been scattered by the Germans. They were very pleasant and even gave us some cigarettes.

The next morning we made our way to the road, stopped a few lorries and cadged some cigarettes. After a while we found a German stores which had been abandoned in such haste they were almost intact. We got all sorts of souvenirs; boots, haversack, ground sheet, shirt and shorts, a helmet and caps, and a jacket with the German eagle badge on it…. didn’t do us much good because we lost the lot later.

We had a high old time throwing mortar bombs around and were lucky we didn’t blow ourselves up. We quite enjoyed ransacking this German store.

One of our aircraft came up to rescue us. It was piloted by the Flight Commander, Harding – He couldn’t land, so he went back and arranged for a lorry to come and take us to LG013. I think they were South Africans at this landing ground and we were given a tent and slept on the ground.

Read more of this story on BBC People’s War.

Flying Officer L C Wade of No. 33 Squadron RAF, photographed at Gambut, Libya, after being awarded the DFC for his successes in the Western Desert fighting.
Lance Wade, a Texan, joined the RAF in Canada in 1940 after being turned down by the USAAC. After pilot training in the United Kingdom, he joined No. 33 Squadron in Egypt and claimed his first victories on 18 November 1941 when he shot down two Italian Fiat CR42s. He took part in the heaviest fighting in the Western Desert before completing his first tour of operations in September 1942. He then toured training establishments and test-flew aircraft in the USA before returning to operations in North Africa as a flight commander with No. 145 Squadron RAF in January 1943. He was made Commanding Officer the following month and added to his victory claims over Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, before ending his second tour as the top-scoring Allied fighter pilot in the Mediterranean area in November 1943. Wade was promoted to Wing Commander and joined the staff at Desert Air Force Headquarters, only to be killed during a routine flight when his Auster spun and crashed at Foggia on 12 January 1944. He remains the highest-scoring American pilot to serve solely in the RAF, with 25 victories.
Flight Lieutenant J L Waddy of No. 260 Squadron RAF, sitting in the cockpit of the Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark I (named “Ve” after his wife) which he flew while a member of No. 250 Squadron RAF, at LG 91, Egypt. Waddy, an Australian, joined the RAAF in September 1940 and was posted to 250 Squadron RAF in Egyptin in November, following his pilot training. After claiming eight and one shared victories, he moved to 260 Squadron RAF at the end of May 1942. He enjoyed further success before being granted leave in June and joining No. 4 Squadron SAAF the following month. Waddy’s final operational posting in North Africa was to No. 92 Squadron RAF in October 1942, with whom he scored the last of his 16 victories. He then returned to Australia where, after a period as a flying instructor, he was given the command of No. 80 Squadron RAAF whom he led until June 1945.

Tragedy over Dorset

The Whitley bomber was outdated at the start of the war but with no alternatives available was kept on offensive operations until 1942.

In the early hours of 4th April [but see comments below] a black painted Hurricane night fighter from No. 87 Squadron flying from RAF Charmy Down, Somerset was patrolling in the dark watching for the frequent German raiders targeting the ports of South Wales and Bristol. With no technical aids and reliant only on his eyes, the pilot of the Hurricane found a twin engine bomber heading south at 10,000 feet. It was headed in the direction of German bombers returning to bases in France.

The pilot stalked the returning German raider for several minutes unseen before opening fire and watching the bomber spin out of control to crash near the market town of Sturminster Newton in Dorset. Four crew members were able to escape by parachute, but the rear gunner was later found dead in the wreckage.

The tragedy was that the rear gunner was Sgt William Brindley of the RAF. The Hurricane night fighter had shot down a Whitley bomber from No. 51 Squadron, on course for the the Nazi battle cruisers at Brest. Sergeant Brindley now lies in the cemetery near RAF Dishforth, his home base.

This was but one incident of ‘friendly-fire’. How common such events were is hard to assess, as no publicity was given to them at the time and RAF records remain opaque.

A Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane Mark IIC (s/n BE500, ‘LK-A’, “United Provinces Cawnpore”) being flown by Squadron Leader Dennis Smallwood, the Commanding Officer of No. 87 Squadron RAF based at RAF Charmy Down, Somerset (UK). No. 87 Squadron was one of the first RAF night fighter squadrons. Sqn Ldr Smallwood led the squadron in 1941-42, when most intercepts were made entirely without on-board radar. The aircraft is painted in an overall black scheme known in the RAF as “Special Night”. BE500 subsequently served with No. 533 Squadron RAF and finally in the Far East.

HMS Duchess sunk in collision with HMS Barham

HMS Barham

On 12 December 1939 the 1,375 ton destroyer HMS Duchess H64 (Lt.Cdr. R.C.M. White, RN) was arriving in the Clyde escorting the 33,000 ton battleship HMS Barham. At 0400 hrs in the North Channel, 9 miles off Mull of Kintyre, at position 55.19 N, 06.06 W, possibly due to fog in the area, the zigzagging pattern of the Barham and Duchess crossed. HMS Barham crashed into HMS Duchess, cutting her in half. There were only 23 survivors out of the 160 crew.

The tragedy recently inspired composer Sally Beamish to write the Sea Psalm.There is a much larger image of the sister ship to HMS Duchess, HMS Daring, at Naval History net.

HMS Oxley is sunk … by HMS Triton

HMS Oxley

Lieutenant-Commander H. P. de C. Steel, Royal Navy, HMS Triton; testimony given at the Board of Inquiry into the circumstances of the loss of HMS Oxley;

I surfaced at about 5 minutes to eight on the evening of 10th September and fixed the position of the ship Obrestad Light 067°, Kvassiem Light 110°. That position put me slightly west and south of my patrol billet which was No.5. My intention for the night was to patrol to the southward on a mean course of 190° and in order to get on that line I steered 170° zigzagging 30°, 15° each side of the mean course at about three to four knots, slow on one engine, charging on the other. The submarine was trimmed down. Before I went below I gave orders to the Officer of the Watch that if he saw a merchant ship he was to keep clear of her and in any case attempt to get end on. At the time there was one merchant ship coming south well away on my port quarter, and that was the only ship in sight at the time. The officer of the watch took over and I went below. Actually, we could not see this ship on the port quarter with the naked eye – only with binoculars.

Shortly before nine o’clock I was in the control room and there was a message from the bridge: Captain on the bridge immediately. I went straight up. The night was dark and there was a slight drizzle and I could see nothing except the shore lights. The Officer of the Watch informed me that there was a submarine fine on the port bow which for the moment I could not see. The ship was swinging to starboard and the officer of the watch was in charge. The signalman was sent for. In fact I am not certain whether he followed me up. I then made out through binoculars an object very fine on the port bow and I gave orders for the bow external tubes to stand by – Nos. 7 and 8 tubes.

At the same time the crew went to diving stations. I broke the charge and got on the main motors at once and it was at this moment that I recognised the object as a submarine. I took the ship and kept Triton bows on. From what I could see I appeared to be on a broad track, I should say about 120 degrees, and the object was steering in a north-westerly direction. It occurred to me that it might be Oxley and I dismissed the thought almost as soon as it crossed my mind because earlier in the day I had been in communication with Oxley and I had given her my position accurately, which was two miles south of my billet, No.5, and Oxley had acknowledged this, and I had also given him my course which was at the time 154°. By this time the signalman was on the bridge and I gave him the bearing of the object or the submarine. I told him not to make any challenge until he got direct orders from me. He knew the challenge and the reply. I then ordered the challenge to be made as soon as my sights were on and I knew the armament was ready, and the signalman made it slowly. No reply was received. After about 20 seconds I ordered the challenge to be made again. During this time I had been studying the submarine very closely indeed. She was trimmed down very low and I could see nothing of her bow or shape and the conning tower did not look like Oxley’s, and I could not see any outstanding points of identification such as periscope standards, ete.

Accordingly, I ordered the second challenge to be made; received no reply to the second challenge. Receiving no reply to the second challenge, I made a third challenge again after a short interval. Receiving no reply to the third challenge I fired a grenade which burst correctly. I did not see the grenade actually burst although I knew it had burst because of the light as I had my eyes fixed on the submarine. By this time I was completely convinced that this was an enemy submarine. I counted fifteen to myself like this: and-one, and-two, andthree … When I had counted fifteen to myself! gave the order to fire; No.7 and No.8 tubes were fired at three-second intervals. About half a minute after firing, indeterminate flashing was seen from the submarine. This was unreadable and stopped in a few seconds. The Officer of the Watch also saw this. It gave me the impression that somebody was looking for something with a torch – it was certainly not Morse code. Very shortly afterwards, a matter of a few seconds after the flashing had stopped, one of my torpedoes hit. I told the Officer of the Watch, Lieutenant. H. A. Stacey, to fix the ship, and he fixed the ship as follows: Obrestad Light 035° Egero Light 105°. This fix placed the ship 6.8 miles 189° from No.5 position, which put me 4 miles inside my sector. I took the bearing of the explosion and proceeded towards the spot at once. The sea was about 3 and 2. Very soon we heard cries for help and as we came closer we actually heard the word ‘Help’. There were three men swimming. I manoeuvred the ship to the best of my ability to close the men and kept Aldis lights on. Lieutenant Stacey and Lieutenant Watkins attached lines to themselves and dived in the sea which was covered in oil and succeeded in bringing Lieutenant Commander Bowerman and Able Seaman Gukes to safety. The third man who afterwards transpired to be Lieutenant Manley, RNR, was seen swimming strongly in the light of an Aldis when he suddenly disappeared and was seen no more.

No blame was apportioned to HMS Triton; HMS Oxley was found to have been out of position and her watchkeeping had been at fault – ultimately all the blame fell on the unfortunate Lieutenant Manley, RNR.

Just as the RAF were learning through a process of ‘trial and error’, as at the ‘[permalink id=1044 text=’Battle of Barking Creek’]’, so too were the Royal Navy. The cause of the disaster was kept a close secret until the 1950s.

See TNA : ADM178/194 and Submariners.co.uk for Roll of Honour of those lost on HMS Oxley.

The first British pilots are shot down in the 'Battle of Barking Creek'

From the Operations log of No.74 Squadron RAF

Hornchurch 6.9.39
Twelve Spitfire aircraft (6 of ‘A’ flt and 6 of ‘B’ flt) ordered to intercept enemy air raid which turned out to be a friendly formation of Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron, North Weald. P/O BYRNE and a and P/O FREEBORN opened fire on two Hurricanes thinking they were Hostile Escort Fighters. Both Hurricanes were brought down. One pilot P/O HULTON-HARROP, was killed. Other pilot was uninjured. No enemy aircraft were sighted.

See TNA AIR 50/32

Byrne and Freeborn were subsequently acquitted of any wrong doing at a Court Martial held at Hendon on the 17th October. The record of proceedings at the Court Martial does not appear to have survived.

See also North Weald Airfield Museum.