Bethnal Green tragedy shakes London

By the spring of 1943, London was far removed from the constant terror of the Blitz, but there was valid reason for concern when the air-raid sirens began to sound at 8:17 p.m. on March 3.

RAF bombers had struck Berlin two nights earlier — news had been trumpeted on front pages and radio programs as usual. While those triumphant communiques invariably were released quickly to the press and public as a way to boost morale, they also may have played an inadvertent role in one of the great civilian disasters of the war.

The people of London steeled themselves for potential Luftwaffe retaliation, which perhaps added a sense of urgency in finding shelter when those sirens went off in the capital. As they had been trained to do over the previous years, civilians headed for the Underground, where tube stations had kept so many safe during raids.

This time, though, something went horribly wrong at the Bethnal Green station, where a crush of people in a stairwell left nearly 200 dead and dozens more injured. All the while, not a single German bomb fell from the sky.

On the evening of March 4, Britain’s Ministry of Home Security released a lengthy statement on the “serious accident” that had occurred the night before at an unnamed tube shelter.

There were nearly 2,000 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 of people were lying on the lower steps and the landing, completely blocking the stairway.

Those coming in from the street could not see exactly what had taken place and continued to press down the steps, so that within a minute there were hundreds of 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.

According to initial estimates released that evening, about 60 of the dead were children. The final, official death toll would be 173.

(Copyright: © IWM)

The statement emphasized that reports from eyewitnesses and law enforcement at the scene said there was no indication of a panic, and noted that “no bombs fell anywhere in this district during the evening.”

Wire-service reports about the tragedy appeared on the front pages of evening newspapers across the United States and Canada that day and were in print everywhere by the following morning.

Some in the British government had been reluctant to release any information at all, lest it encourage Germany to step up the bombing raids that had mostly ceased to be a regular concern. But some level of transparency won out, and the reports cleared by censors told a heartbreaking story.

Among the witnesses whose accounts appeared in the March 5 Liverpool Daily Post was William Webster, who had cleared the bottleneck and entered the shelter when the crush began.

“I have been dive-bombed at sea and 20 men in the ship were killed,” he said, “but that was nothing compared with this. You just could not move them. We were standing there helpless, only managing to get one or two out every quarter of an hour. We took water up to them in milk bottles. Spectators were crying because they were powerless to help and a number of men fainted.”

William Johnes entered the shelter with his three children — 7-year-old son Peter and daughters Patricia, 11, and June, 13. He told reporters there was no rush at the entrance; everyone in front of him simply stopped moving, but everyone behind him kept moving forward. The stairway was dark, so he couldn’t see what was happening at the bottom.

I was carrying my little boy in my arms. Patricia was right in front of me and June just behind. Nobody could move forward. People began screaming and fighting to get out.

Patricia screamed, ‘Daddy, I can’t stand it anymore. I’m dying.’ I tried to shove to make more room for her, but couldn’t move an inch — we were packed so tight.

Finally I felt myself going. I was gasping for breath. My arms seemed to go dead. My little boy slipped down along my body until his feet touched the steps and he was jammed between my legs.

For the whole half hour we were jammed like that. It was horrible. Babies were crushed and suffocated and died in their father’s and mother’s arms. People who had fallen down were trampled on as everybody screamed and struggled to get out.

People died standing up and bodies stayed upright until the police came and cleared away the jam around the entrance and turned on the lights. Then the dead ones just toppled over.

Johnes’ son, Peter, died in the crush. Patricia suffered broken ribs and June only bruises.

Elsewhere on the stairwell, Elizabeth House held her 6-month-old daughter above her head to try and keep her clear of the crush. At some point, someone grabbed the baby from her while she remained stuck. House eventually was pulled out, but it wasn’t until hours later that she learned her daughter was safe. House’s sister had rescued her niece “and fought her way down into the shelter where they spent the night,” the Associated Press reported.

November 1940: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz. (Photo by Bill Brandt. Copyright: © IWM)

Considering how routine nights in the tube shelters had become for Londoners during the Blitz, word of the tragedy left the public grasping for answers.

The front-page New York Times story datelined March 4, which did not carry a byline, mused on this: “How it happened that so many people were killed through such a simple accident was hard for those who visited the scene of the tragedy tonight to understand.”

Though the station entrance was poorly lit and the staircase didn’t have a center handrail to help control the crowds, the Times correspondent wrote, there didn’t seem to be anything extraordinary about the environment itself:

“It was the sort of thing that might have happened at Times Square subway station when Saturday night theatres are letting out if a heavy thunderstorm broke just as crowds reached their peak.”

The London correspondent of the Manchester Guardian flipped that notion on its head, wondering why something like this had not happened before.

“People must have flocked in the same way many times in former raids, and the danger was always there, although apparently nobody had noticed it clearly enough to do anything about it.”

The correspondent closed that item by commenting on the release of the information, which had quickly become a hot-button issue. Some London newspapers had criticized the government for waiting so long to put anything out, thus letting rumors run rampant.

Whatever the timing, the Guardian correspondent touted the release of the information as one more example of Britain’s superiority over its enemy:

Some debate goes on whether the authorities were wise to publish the full details of the disaster and so present Goebbels with easy propaganda, but the overwhelming opinion is that they were right. Even his German hearers cannot but recognise that it is the British who can print and face such a misfortune, and may ask themselves whether their authorities would dare to do so.

Home Secretary Herbert Morrison ordered an immediate inquiry into the cause of the tragedy, but it was nearly two years before the public learned of the findings.

By the time the summary of magistrate Laurence R. Dunne’s investigation was released on Jan. 19, 1945, the war situation had changed considerably. Allied troops had been driving toward Germany for six months and the British had developed countermeasures against the V-1 rocket attacks that began a week after D-Day, while the frequency of the V-2 attacks had begun to fall.

Dunne’s report revealed that the Bethnal Green community had formally requested renovations to the station in September 1941 to help make it safer, but he ultimately didn’t put the blame on the facility itself. In fact, his top-line determination directly contradicted the government’s assurances from March 1943 that no one had panicked that evening.

“This disaster was caused by a number of people losing their self-control at a particularly unfortunate place and time,” Dunne wrote, adding that “no forethought in the matter of structural design or practicable police supervision can be any real safeguard against the effects of a loss of self-control by a crowd.”

(Wikimedia Commons)

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