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Disaster at Balham Tube station

Sleeping on Elephant and Castle tube station during the Blitz
There was huge demand for space on the London underground during the Blitz, probably the safest place to be. Yet nowhere was entirely safe.The Elephant and Castle station was only six stops along the Northern Line from Balham station.

Mike Harris at BBC People’s War recalls sleeping at Balham Underground station before his evacuation from London.

When I was a young boy I remember going down the Underground at Balham station on the Northern Line during the worst of the German air raids. I well remember the sound of the first train in the morning which woke us up from the bunk beds we were sharing. I remember the stuffy atmosphere but the sense of togetherness among the people.

He was fortunate not to be there on the 14th October 1940 when at 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi armour piercing bomb penetrated 32 feet underground and exploded just above the cross passage between the two platforms.

Site of the explosion at Balham Tube station cross passage
The bomb exploded above the cross passage between the platforms for the up and down lines. Massive quantities of debris fell into the tunnel.

Above ground a No.88 London double decker bus, travelling in blackout conditions, plunged into the crater created by the bomb. The dramatic spectacle of the trapped bus was to become emblematic of the dangers of the Blitz, a series of pictures of it appeared in publications around the world.

Bus in crater at Balham tube disaster.
The bomb exploded directly in front of a No 88 London bus which drove straight into the crater.

The water and gas mains, along with the sewage pipes, had been broken: water poured down, flooding the tunnels below, and gas hampered rescue efforts. Almost all of the casualties would have resulted from the blast and debris. Yet stories soon developed of trapped people drowning in the flood waters and of miraculous escapes by people swimming along the tunnels to the next station. Colin Perry wrote in his diary:

This bomb I think penetrated the steel-encased Tube below the ground, and I hear too that something, by a million to one chance, went down the ventilator shaft of the underground station. The water main was burst and the flood rolled down the tunnels, right up and down the line, and the thousands of refugees were plunged into darkness, water. They stood, trapped, struggling, panicking in the rising black invisible waters.

They had gone to the Tubes for safety, instead they found worse than bombs, they found the unknown, terror. Women and children, small babes in arms, locked beneath the ground. I can only visualize their feelings, I can only write how it has been told to me, but it must have been Hell. On top of this there came a cloud of gas. People not killed outright were suffocated, the rest drowned, drowned like rats in a cage.

See Boy in the Blitz: The 1940 Diary of Colin Perry.

It was easy for such stories to take a hold but there is no mention of these scenarios in the official accounts of the rescue. In total sixty six people died, although over the years there has been confusion over the exact number and only recently Transport for London has agreed to revise the memorial plaque at the station.

The double decker bus is removed from the bomb crater at Balham.
People are still moving along the footway beneath as the double decker bus is removed from the bomb crater at Balham.

The recovery of bodies was to take almost until Christmas yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1941, and the station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Nick Cooper’s London Underground at War has a very comprehensive account of the Balham aftermath drawn from official sources, and a huge amount of detail on everything about the Tube during the war.