It’s March 1943, and Nazi bombs are still ravaging the city of London, England. And as the terrifying sounds of warfare tear through the air, a mass of panicked citizens head for safety underground. But in the people’s rush to escape the danger from above, they stumble towards an even more horrific fate.
Since 1940 Londoners have been subjected to a succession of enemy bombing raids, with both civilians and buildings sacrificed in the conflict of World War II. And even though the worst is now over, London and its people remain under threat. The capital’s inhabitants are well aware of that fact, too.
Then, one evening, a rumor begins to spread. Apparently, German bombers are on their way to the city, with the enemy bent on attacking under the cover of dark. Sirens ultimately begin to wail, too, and the sound of strange explosions echoes through the streets. Desperate, the crowds seek shelter below ground.
Men, women and children pile through the entrance to Bethnal Green – an incomplete tube station transformed into a makeshift air raid shelter. But instead of finding safety beneath the city streets, the people stumble into a situation that is the stuff of nightmares. And the horrific events that ensue still haunt East London more than seven decades on.
Looking back, the London Underground has a history that is almost as interesting and diverse as the city itself. Initially opened as the Metropolitan Railway in January 1863, it was the first institution of its kind in the world to carry passengers below ground. And over the years, the network has expanded to cover as many as 270 stations scattered across the capital.
Today, in fact, the London Underground carries well over a billion passengers a year over 11 different lines – a statistic that equates to roughly five million people every day. And while some of its tracks now crisscross the surface of the city, many are still buried at startling depths beneath the busy streets.
Sadly, though, the story of the London Underground isn’t only one of industry and success, as many tragedies have marred the network, too. In 1987, for example, a deadly fire tore through the ticket hall of King’s Cross St. Pancras station and ultimately caused the deaths of more than 30 people.
Then, almost 20 years later, tragedy struck the London Underground once more after terrorists detonated a series of bombs across the city. Along the network’s Circle and Piccadilly lines, explosions tore through trains packed with morning commuters, and 52 people perished as a result.
However, it may come as some surprise that neither of these incidents rank as the London Underground’s deadliest. Instead, the worst loss of life to occur across the network happened during World War II. Tragically, this was also the biggest civilian disaster of the entire conflict – and it happened beneath the streets of Bethnal Green.
By March 3, 1943, the citizens of London had become hardened to the devastation of war. Back in 1940 the Battle of Britain had played out in the skies as the Royal Air Force (RAF) attempted to fight off attacks from German Luftwaffe planes. Yet even though the RAF was ultimately successful in this endeavor, the aerial bombardment of the capital continued on a smaller scale.
In September 1940, for instance, Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to launch a sustained campaign on London, and so bombs rained down on the city from above for nearly two months. Approximately 43,000 people died in the carnage that would become known as the Blitz, with cities such as Coventry and Plymouth also suffering heavy blows.
And although some citizens sought protection from the raids in home shelters, many hid from the German bombs in the London Underground. In fact, this practice had begun during World War I, although a concerned government had initially tried to prevent it. The authorities finally relented, however, and allowed crowds of frightened Londoners to flock into the stations every day.
Indeed, up to 150,000 people a night camped out in the London Underground at the height of the Blitz. This was despite the fact that civilians remained in cramped conditions; some even slept on the tracks. Nevertheless, creature comforts such as bathrooms, kitchens and even entertainment were brought in to make the experience a little more bearable.
The Blitz ended with the withdrawal of the Luftwaffe in May 1941, although the war itself would continue for another four years. Still, even after the skies over London had grown quieter, citizens remained fearful. And whenever the bombs returned to the city, people would flock once more to the comparative safety of the Underground.
However, it wasn’t only the Luftwaffe that rained down havoc from above. On March 2, 1943, for example, the Allied forces launched an aerial assault against the German capital of Berlin that killed more than 700 people. And in London, civilians waited nervously for a retaliatory attack.
Furthermore, during the following evening, a frightening story began to spread through the city streets: apparently, the feared German bombers were on their way. And in the impoverished East End – where the violence had already claimed many lives – Londoners in their hundreds abandoned their plans and headed underground.
There, many sought safety at the Central Line station of Bethnal Green. Constructed back in the 1930s, the facility was mostly complete, although it had been recommissioned by the local council before it could enter service. Instead, then, the station became a temporary shelter that offered facilities such as a library, a canteen and a makeshift hospital.
And at 8.17 p.m. on March 3, the air raid sirens cut through the streets of the East End, leaving more people to make their way down into Bethnal Green station. Ten minutes later, however, another noise rang out across the din. Just a few streets away in Victoria Park, a new type of anti-aircraft weaponry had roared into life.
Yet the people fleeing into Bethnal Green station mistook the unfamiliar fire for the sound of German bombs and so surged to get inside. The civilians thus poured through the single entrance to the location – one without barriers or central rails nor anyone on duty to help guide the fearful crowd.
Apparently, the situation got worse after three buses dropped off their passengers directly outside the station, leaving yet more people to attempt the 19-step descent into Bethnal Green. However, the entrance measured just 15 feet by 11 feet, and the dimly lit stairwell had become dangerously slippery in the recent rain.
And although witnesses later related that the evacuation underground had begun remarkably calmly, tragedy soon struck. Near the bottom of the steps, a woman and child slipped and fell, causing an older man to tumble down after them. Then, soon after that, a crush formed.
Towards the back of the crowd, people had no idea about the situation below and continued to push forwards – away from the imagined bombs. Meanwhile, at the front of the crush, more bodies began to pile up. And without any barriers present at the scene, it soon became impossible for anyone to escape the horrific situation.
To some, however, the lack of safety features in the station were a disaster waiting to happen. In fact, authorities from the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green had previously pleaded with the Home Office for an improved entrance into the busy station; sadly, though, their requests had been repeatedly denied.
In the station, then, some 300 people became caught in a claustrophobic trap, with more and more people piling on top and thus crushing and asphyxiating those underneath. Finally, though, some nearby wardens and a solitary police officer noticed the chaos and began holding back the crowd. And just 15 seconds after it had begun, the disaster was over.
However, those brutal moments saw 173 people lose their lives – making it the worst civilian disaster of the entire war. On the scene, people pulled the discolored bodies of men, women and children from the shelter and lay them out on the streets of Bethnal Green. Apparently, the youngest victim was a girl who had been just five months old.
And according to witnesses, would-be rescuers attempted to revive the victims by pouring water over their prone bodies; ultimately, though, only around 90 people escaped the crush alive. The authorities then chose to ship the dead off to nearby churches and hospitals, leaving bereft friends and families to scour the scene in search of their missing loved ones.
Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children was one of the facilities to receive casualties from the incident, meaning qualified doctor Joan Martin would find herself in the midst of the melee. She told the BBC in 2016, “We had hardly finished changing the beds before the first wet, mauve body was carried into the hospital.”
“We worked through the night, my two medical students and I,” Martin continued. “I kept waiting for a consultant to come, but no one came – presumably because they had heard that everybody was already dead. I had only been qualified for one year, and yet here I was in charge of this desperately impossible situation. I’ve had nightmares ever since.”
Then, the following day, Martin’s friend warned her that the government would want to keep news of the disaster under wraps. And, apparently, she was right. As Martin recalled to the BBC, “The two students I worked with were told not to come back to the hospital – not even to this part of London – and I never saw them again. So, I stayed quiet. I tried to totally black it out.”
An effective censorship effort had begun, too. Although Daily Mail journalist Eric Linden had reportedly witnessed the deadly crush, he ultimately saw his exclusive story pulled by the War Office. For two days, in fact, the papers remained completely silent about the tragedy. As a consequence, then, almost all of London remained clueless about the terrible events that had unfolded at Bethnal Green.
And while it was later disclosed that a great loss of civilian life had occurred on the evening of March 3, the papers initially reported that the deaths had been the result of an enemy bomb landing directly on Bethnal Green station. Witnesses and their families were also discouraged from speaking about what had happened.
Then almost two years after the disaster, the authorities finally released the official report on the incident. Apparently, an initial investigation had determined that panic, sparked by an air raid, had caused the multiple deaths. At the time, though, it had been feared that releasing such information may have inspired copycat attacks by German forces.
And owing to this apprehension, the government suppressed the truth about the Bethnal Green disaster. Furthermore, it’s believed that information regarding the potential hazards of the entry stairway was also covered up in an attempt to protect those who had failed to act. Instead, many blamed the local council for the deaths – and even the panicking victims themselves.
Before the war was over, however, some had begun to question the official version of events. One woman whose husband had died in the disaster even attempted to sue the Bethnal Green Corporation for damages. Nevertheless, the court determined that there had been no panic or crush. And, shockingly, the country’s second-highest judge agreed.
In time, though, more relatives came forward, and a total of £60,000 ($76,000) was paid out in compensation. Meanwhile, an official report acknowledged that London authorities had failed to take vital safety precautions at the station – although this conclusion was not information that was released to the general public.
Still, in the aftermath of the disaster, authorities quickly transformed the station. They finally installed a safety rail along the center of the steps, for instance, as well as greatly improving the lighting and facilities. But the stairwell that caused so much death and confusion looks exactly the same, and thousands of commuters still use it every day.
Then, at some point in the 1990s, a plaque was put on display to mark the spot where so many people lost their lives. Even so, the disaster remained largely forgotten until 2000, when the daughter of a survivor began a campaign to build the victims a more fitting memorial. Supporters ultimately managed to raise £660,000 ($842,000) for the cause.
And on December 16, 2017, the memorial was finally revealed. Dubbed Stairway to Heaven, it comprises an inverted wooden replica of the steps where the tragedy took place. On each of the sculpture’s three sides are the names of the victims, while the entire piece is poignantly punctured by 173 holes to allow light to shine through.
A number of important people also attended the unveiling of the memorial – among them Martin, then 102 years old. Apparently, the doctor did not speak to anyone about the Bethnal Green tragedy for many years after the events of March 3, 1943; in addition, she still suffered nightmares.
And today people draw parallels between this tragedy and others such as the 1966 disaster in Aberfan, Wales, when a collapsing coal tip killed 116 children. In that case, and in that of the deadly 2017 fire at London’s Grenfell Tower, the authorities ignored safety concerns. In all three incidents, those responsible have never been held fully accountable for their actions. Moving forwards, then, we can only hope that the new Bethnal Green memorial will remind us that these deaths were preventable – and stop us from making the same mistakes again.