Bethnal Green Station; The Hidden Tragedy of WWII

In a war that claimed over 50 million lives, a single incident that lead to 173 deaths can seem like just a drop in the ocean, but the tragedy at Bethnal Green Tube Station still stands out as one of the most devastating incidents in wartime London. What isolates this incident is that, in reality, it was entirely preventable.

In 1936 it was decided that the Central Line would be extended to run beyond Liverpool Street to Stratford. As building the new line was halted during the war the tunnels and stations were left empty, and subsequently East Londons began using Bethnal Green as an air raid shelter, rather than the uncomfortable Anderson and Morisson Shelters provided by the Home Office.
The shelter at Bethnal Green was massive, fitted out with 5,000 bunks, with room for 2,000 more, and complete with library, musicians and entertainers. Londoners whiled away many hours here in the subterranean community while bombs rained down above.

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Bethnal Green Station today

On 3rd March 1943 however disaster struck. Following heavy bombing of Berlin London was preparing for retaliation, so when the alarm sounded locals rushed for shelter as usual. The steps down to the shelter were dark, only 1 light illuminated them, there was no markings on the side, or central hand rail, and as was customary London was in Blackout conditions. As East-Enders began making their way down the stairs a lady carrying a baby and a roll of bedding tripped and fell on the stairs, an elderly gentleman tripped over her, and thus began a devastating cascade of human dominoes. In the darkness nobody knew of the danger ahead, and Londoners kept hurrying down the stairs. The arrivals of two buses full of people looking for refuge only accelerated the disaster. A few miles down the road, in Victoria Park new bombs were undergoing secret testing, giving the impression of a German air-raid and only increasing the crushing panic.

In a matter of minutes 173 people were dead, including 62 children. A further 90 were injured. The bodies pulled from the staircase were purple and bruised beyond recognition. One child was only identified by a cobbler, who remembered adding a nail to her shoe the day before!

On the 3rd March 1943 not one German bomb fell on London, in fact, not even one enemy aircraft was spotted, there was no danger to London, and yet there had been huge civilian casualties!  Upon hearing of the disaster Churchill ordered that it be covered up. Survivors and witnesses were told of the importance of their silence, and some never spoke of it in their life times. Churchill believed that news of the Bethnal Green disaster would lead to a huge drop in morale and public spirit, and thus a cover-up was initiated.

It wasn’t until 2 years later that the Home Office released their official reports, along with the autopsy reports from the Police Surgeon. Even to this day no memorial stands to the victims, save a small plaque, which frequently goes unnoticed. The Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust has been fundraising to install a memorial by the tube station, of an inverted staircase. Designed by Harry Paticas, the memorial was entered in to the Royal Academy of Art’s prestigious Summer Exhibition in 2012. Whilst more funds are still needed to complete the memorial, the Trust are still highly active, and every year on 3rd March, a memorial service is held.

Over 70 years later, it is astounding that the deaths were covered up so easily, and that the tragedy is still so unknown! Family members of those killed were given only a pittance as compensation (around £950 for adults and £250 for children), and many took the psychological scars to their graves. A list of those who were injured, or died can be found on the Stairway to Heaven website.

 

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People Power: Fighting for Peace @ The Imperial War Museum 

Fighting for Peace is somewhat of an oxymoron, and today it is seen all too often as the justification for Britain going to war. It is east to forget that the routes of the expression date back to WWI and the conscientious objectors.

People Power: Fighting for Peace is the first exhibition of its kind, you’re taken on a journey through the anti-war movements from WWI to present. Today we live in a world constantly on the brink of war, between North Korea, Trump and Russia the prospect of a hot nuclear war draws ever closer. In light of this the exhibition elicits a more emotive response response than I was expecting!

2017-06-08-17.09.54.jpg.jpegIn 1916, for the first time in the history of the British Army, conscription was introduced. It would last until 1920, and called all men aged 16-41 to join up and fight during the First World War.

Those excluded from conscription included those doing “vital work” on the home front, those with medical conditions or for the sake of their home life. A Military Service Tribunal would determine who got sent to war, and who was saved. There were 16,000 conscientious objectors during the first world war, generally hailing from Quaker families. The Quakers first set up the Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU) in 1914 at the out break of war. Referred to unkindly as “conchies” by other soldiers, they often performed vital work under the new Non-Combatant Corps. William Coltman, a conscientious objector who worked as a stretcher bearer during the war was awarded the Victoria Cross, as well as a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar, Military Medal and Bar, and Mentioned in Dispatches, all without firing a single shot.

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CRW Nevinson The Doctor (1916)

The exhibition also looks at the art of war. One of my favourite artists, CRW Nevinson, features heavily throughout the exhibition, including some of his famous works such as Paths of Glory and The Doctor (pictured right). Works by Paul Nash, and handwritten poems by Siegfried Sassoon are also featured.

By the Second World War, pacifism was becoming a recognised movement. When in 1939 the National Services Act was passed around 60,000 conscientious objectors protested. I was surprised to discover Paul Eddington, best known for his roles in The Good Life and Yes Minister was among their number. He hailed from a Quaker family, and spent his war working for with Entertainment National Service Agency, starting his acting career. As with WWI the conscientious objectors were demonised by their fighting comrades. In one of the audio archives in the exhibition, a CO recalls a soldier yelling to others to “throw him into the river” as they were lead past under arrest.

One of the notable pacifists explored by the exhibition is John Bridey, who was a member of RNVR (Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves). A physics teacher by trade, he refused to fight, but spent his war using his knowledge of physics to diffuse bombs, constantly putting his life on the line to save others.

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The longest, and most moving section of the exhibition focuses on the Cold War, and the Ban the Bomb protests. Seamlessly flowing from the attacks at Hiroshima and Nagasaki which occurred on the 6/9 August 1945 you’re taken into the 1960s. On the wall is states the death toll of the stated nuclear bombs. 215,000 died instantly, a further 155,000 were injured, not to mention those who died later from radiation poisoning. The number is staggeringly vast, the cruelty incomprehensible. It is so easy to forget the scale of this event, very few people alive remember the moment as it happened, and yet if this was to be repeated today the scale and destruction would be considerably worse. The size of nuclear weapons possessed by so many today could wipe out the whole earth 4 times over.

Fighting for Freedom includes many multimedia components, including a soundscape of audiobytes from protests, recorded accounts from various conscientious objectors from each conflict. My favourite multimedia section was the one within the Cold War area. Having visited the York Cold War Bunker (click here to read the blog) it was fascinating to see it from another point of view. The public service video sent out in 1965 to advise British citizens how to build a nuclear shelter/bunker in their home or garden, which is counterposed with the 1965 film The War Game by Ian Dury, which explores the world if the war had gone hot. It is a stark reminder of what could easily come to pass today!

The final room explores protest art, the posters, banners and photographic art produced including video of artist David Gentleman.

Overall the exhibition is incredibly well curated! It took me just over an hour to complete, only listening to half the audio recordings and only watching a section of the final documentary! I went early afternoon on a weekday, and the exhibition was very quiet, although I expect it’s busier on weekend! A very stimulating, emotive, very reasonably priced exhibition!

N.B. Once you’ve finished the exhibition check out the Syria and Afghanistan exhibition on the same floor! They go very well with Fighting for Peace, and only take an extra 40mins-1hr to do both!