It’s March 1943 and Nazi bombs are still ravaging the city of London, England. Suddenly, the terrifying sounds of warfare tear through the air, and a mass of panicked citizens head for safety underground. But in their rush to escape the danger from above, they stumble into an even more horrific fate.
Since 1940 Londoners have been subjected to a succession of enemy bombing raids, with both civilians and buildings sacrificed to the destruction of World War II. And even though the worst is now over, the city and its people remain under threat. In fact, the constant danger is never far from anyone’s mind.
Then, one evening, a rumor begins to spread. Apparently, German bombers are on their way to the capital, bent on attacking the city under the cover of dark. Soon, the sirens begin to wail, and the sound of strange explosions echoes through the streets. Desperate, the crowds seek shelter below ground.
One by one, 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, they stumble into a different kind of nightmare. And this horrific event still haunts East London more than seven decades later.
Looking back, the London Underground has a history almost as interesting and diverse as the city itself. Initially opened as the Metropolitan Railway in January 1863, it was the first railway in the world to carry its passengers underground. And over the years, the network has expanded to cover as many as 270 stations scattered across the capital.
Today, the London Underground carries well over a billion passengers a year over a network of 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, the story of the London Underground isn’t only one of industry and success. In fact, many tragedies have marred the network. For example, in 1987 a deadly fire tore through the ticket hall of King’s Cross St. Pancras station, resulting in the deaths of more than 30 people.
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 as a result of the incident, 52 people lost their lives.
However, it might come as some surprise that neither of these incidents rank among the London Underground’s deadliest. In fact, the worst loss of life to occur across the network happened during World War II. Tragically, it 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 erupted in the country’s skies as the Royal Air Force attempted to fight off attacks from German Luftwaffe planes. But even though they were eventually successful, the aerial bombardment of the capital city continued on a smaller scale.
In September 1940 Adolf Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to launch a sustained attack against London. And for nearly two months, bombs rained down on the city from above. Eventually, up to 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.
Although some citizens sought protection from the raids in home shelters, many hid from the German bombs in the London Underground. In fact, the practice had begun during World War I, although a concerned government had initially tried to prevent it. However, the authorities eventually relented 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. But civilians remained in cramped conditions and some even slept on the tracks themselves. But creature comforts such as bathrooms, kitchens and even entertainment were brought in to make the experience a little more bearable.
Although the Blitz ended with the withdrawal of the Luftwaffe in May 1941, the war would continue for another four years. Now, the skies over London had grown quieter, but the fear among its citizens remained. 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. And on March 2, 1943, the Allied forces launched an aerial assault against the German capital of Berlin that killed more than 700 people. Back in London, meanwhile, civilians waited nervously for a retaliatory attack.
The following evening, a frightening story began to spread through the city streets. Apparently, the feared German bombers were on their way. 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 in 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, it became a temporary shelter, offering facilities such as a library, a canteen and a temporary hospital.
At 8.17 p.m., the air raid sirens cut through the streets of the East End. And soon, even more people were making their way down into Bethnal Green station. Then, ten minutes later, 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.
Back at Bethnal Green, the people fleeing into the station mistook the unfamiliar fire for the sound of German bombs. And in a panic, they surged to get inside. Apparently, the only method of access was through a single entrance without barriers or central rails. Furthermore, the authorities weren’t on duty to help guide the fearful crowd.
Apparently, the situation got worse after three buses disgorged their passengers directly outside the station. And soon, even more people were attempting to descend the 19 steps into Bethnal Green. However, the entrance was just 15 by 11 feet, and the dimly lit stairwell had become dangerously slippery in the recent rain.
According to witnesses, the evacuation underground began remarkably calmly, despite the difficult conditions. However, 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. And soon, a crush had 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, it soon became impossible for anyone to escape the horrific situation.
To some, 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 better access into the busy station. However, their requests had been repeatedly denied.
Soon, some 300 people became caught in a claustrophobic trap, with more and more people piling on top, crushing and asphyxiating those underneath. Eventually, 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 seconds 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 just five months old.
According to witnesses, would-be rescuers attempted to revive the victims by pouring water over their prone bodies. However, only around 90 people escaped the crush alive. Meanwhile, the authorities shipped the dead off to nearby churches and hospitals, leaving bereft friends and families to scour the scene in search of their missing loved ones.
Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children was one of the facilities that received casualties from the incident. And qualified doctor Joan Martin found herself in the midst of the disaster. 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.”
The next day, Martin’s friend warned her that the government would want to keep news of the disaster under wraps. And apparently, she was right. She 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.”
Meanwhile, an effective censorship effort had begun. Apparently, Daily Mail journalist Eric Linden had witnessed the deadly crush, but soon saw his exclusive story pulled by the War Office. And for two days, the papers remained completely silent about the tragedy. So almost all of London remained clueless about the terrible events that had unfolded at Bethnal Green.
Eventually, the story broke that a great loss of civilian life had occurred on the evening of March 3. However, the papers initially reported that the deaths had been the result of an enemy bomb landing directly on Bethnal Green station. Meanwhile, witnesses and their families were 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. However, the authorities feared that this information could inspire copycat attacks by German forces.
As a result, the government suppressed the truth about the Bethnal Green disaster. Moreover, it’s believed that information regarding the potential dangers of the entry stairway was 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. Indeed, one woman whose husband had died in the disaster attempted to sue the Bethnal Green Corporation for damages. But the court determined that there had been no panic or crush. And shockingly, the country’s second-highest judge agreed.
Eventually, more relatives came forward, resulting in a total of £60,000 being paid out in compensation. Meanwhile, an official report acknowledged that London authorities had failed to take vital safety precautions at the station. However, the conclusions were not released to the general public.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the authorities quickly transformed the station. They finally installed a safety rail along the center of the steps, and greatly improved the lighting and facilities. However, the stairwell that caused so much death and confusion looks exactly the same and thousands of commuters still use it every day.
At some point in the 1990s, a plaque was erected to mark the spot where so many people lost their lives. However, the disaster remained largely forgotten until 2000, when the daughter of a survivor began a campaign to build the victims a more fitting memorial. And eventually, supporters manage to raise £660,000 for the cause.
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 sculptures’ three sides are the names of the victims. And the entire piece is poignantly punctured by 173 holes, to allow light to shine through.
During the unveiling of the memorial, a number of important people attended to see the disaster finally commemorated. And among them was Dr. Martin, then 102 years old. Apparently, she did not speak to anyone about the incident for many years after and still suffers nightmares to this day.
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. And in all three incidents, those responsible have never been held fully accountable for their actions. Moving forwards, 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.