Bombing of Britain - Why did the Bethnal Green Tube Shelter disaster happen? Main page

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In 1943, the Germans began 'hit and run' air raids upon Britain. Groups of fast aircraft, flying either very high or very low, sped to their targets, dropped bombs, and fled back to base. The bombing was not as heavy as in 1940-1941 but still caused casualties and damage. Because of the speed of these attacks, people had less time to reach air raid shelters than before.

Bethnal Green Tube Station had been turned into one of east London's deep shelters, with 5000 bunks and space for another 5000 people. It was the largest deep shelter in the area and, during the Blitz, up to 7000 people at a time had used it. There was one narrow entrance; there were no crush barriers; and the first staircase was only dimly lit by one 25 watt bulb.

There were 10 air raids upon London during the night of 3/4 March 1943 and, when the alert sounded at 8.17 p.m., hundreds of people left their homes to run to the Bethnal Green Tube Station Shelter, where 500-600 had gone earlier. Local cinemas emptied and three buses stopped to let passengers into the shelter. Between 8.17 and 8.27 p.m., 1500 people entered. At 8.27 p.m. one of the new anti-aircraft rocket batteries nearby fired its salvo of 60 rockets, which made a frightening roar. The crowd at the shelter entrance, still waiting to get in, were not used to this noise and panicked, surging forward. Inside, a woman near the bottom of the first staircase fell. A man tripped over her, others slipped, and within 15 seconds the stairs were jammed with hundreds of fallen people. The pressure of the crowd trying to push into the shelter prevented rescue. A total of 173 people - 84 women; 62 children; and 27 men - suffocated to death in this terrible accident.

You can find more information on the Holnet website London at War 1939 - 1945