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!

Trent Park – The Listeners

Sunday mornings are usually times I reserve exclusively for sleeping, making up the inevitable deficit from the preceding week. Therefore it can be assumed that if any activity is partaken of before 11am, it is probably something pretty good. In this case, it certainly was!

By 10am, I had made my way from North East London to Cockfosters, right at the end of the Piccadilly line, and enjoyed an invigorating walk through the park to the cafe. The invigoration was necessary; having started watching 13 Reasons Why at 10pm the previous night I was running on around 90 minutes sleep (seriously, you can’t stop watching, its gripping!). At the cafe I was greeted by a surprisingly large group of people.

As seems to be my usual method of stumbling upon activities, an event recommended to me by Trent Park’s Facebook page popped up on my news feed, advertising a history walk. As someone who both loves walking, and history, this seemed like the perfect morning plan, and having met over 50 people who had also risen early on a Sunday morning, my sentiments are definitely shared!

I’d first discovered Trent Park after listening to Radio 4 with my grandmother. Having just returned from a trip to Bletchley Park the news of a new museum opening, considered to be Bletchley’s human intelligence counterpart, peaked my interest. Trent Park was one of the secret locations run by British Military branch MI 19 during World War II, used for spying on senior German Officials, aimed at getting them to reveal important information, without duress. MI 19 capitalised on senior officer’s arrogance that, with their senior positions they were entitled to preferential treatment, being allowed to live out the rest of their war in relative comfort. British Spies were sent in, disguised as German officers, expected to build their trust and lead conversations on to matters of German intelligence, such as the plans of the U-boats, whilst intelligence officers recorded the conversations with microphones, and listened in from another region of the house. When Churchill discovered it’s existence, he instantly condemned it, but luckily his ordered were ignored, and the British continued to obtain valuable information about the German Military, saving countless British lives.

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Camlet Moat

Trent Park House sits within the gorgeous Trent Country Park, a 320 hectare park. Our history walk too us around the grounds, leading us through the history of the land, from its use as Henry VIII’s hunting ground, to Cromwell selling off the land to pay for his army, to its most recent owner Philip Sassoon (cousin of Sigmund Sassoon, my favourite war poet). The Sassoon family, descended from Iraqi Jews, moved to London quickly rose to High Society.

Sassoon’s hospitality was known across the country, even little Queen Elizabeth, visited the house! He would go to great lengths to be the perfect guest to celebrities from across the globe, and he designed the estate to be the perfect location for entertaining. Visitors such as Charlie Chaplain, George Bernard Shaw, Thornton Wilder and Edward VIII (accompanied by Wallis Simpson) frequented the house, and Winston Churchill even painted the house and its interior on several occasions.

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Sassoon’s Obelisk where his guests would gather for some shooting!

In 1924 Sassoon lavishly purchased large quantities of rose bricks from the recently demolished London palace, that once belonged to William Kent. It is from these bricks that the Georgian style house is built from today, designed by architect Philip Tilden. In the grounds, Sassoon designed a beautiful Wisteria Walk, as well as a Japanese Garden and swimming pool. An avid flyer he even build his own Aerodrome, where he housed his Percival Gull, Percival Petrel, de Hallivand DH90 Dragonfly and de Havilland Leopard Moth.

In 1939, just three months before the outbreak of World War II, Philip Sassoon died after developing influenza that spread to his throat, and subsequently to his lungs. After a small private funeral his ashes were scattered over Trent Park.

Trent Park today has subsequently been sold off to property developers Berkeley Homes. After a long campaign, the Save Trent Park campaign,  it was announced that Trent Park would house a new museum. The Trent Park Museum which will occupy part of the ground floor will open in 2019/2020.

For further information check out Trent Park Museum’s website here!

Communist Sofia ~ A Concrete Jungle 

20161204_124647.jpgArriving in Sofia, it is immediately recognisable as a city with a communist past. Concrete flat blocks rise up before you, and every street boasts Stalinist architecture all along its length. Walking through Sofia however, there are no statues of Lenin, or red stars visible, having been ripped down in 1990 when the Communist state fell.

Having decided to take a 4 hour walking tour exploring the Communist history of the city it was clear that even today opinions vary hugely across the population.

Bulgaria’s military history during the Second World War is a fascinating one, with their allegiance changing multiple times over the course of the war, including a period when they were technically at war with every other fighting country in Europe. By the end of the war they had sided with the Red Army. Thus began their communist era.

Championed by Georgi Dimitrov, The Bulgarian Communist Party took power in 1946. Bulgaria then became known as People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a title which would remain until 1990. Before the war Bulgaria, had been known as the Kingdom of Bulgaria. Their rise to power was preceded by a bloody assault on the monarchy. On 1st February 1945 the Regent Prince Kiril, along with hundred of officials who had been prominent in pre-communist Bulgaria, including an ex Prime Minister were accused of war crimes, and around a quarter were subsequently executed 4 months later.

 

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Busts of the Communist leaders of Bulgaria and Karl Marx

During its early years The Bulgarian Communist Party began to outlaw religions. Whilst not explicitly legislating against citizens rights to practice religions they used scare tactics. Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and Temples were hidden away by new buildings, purposefully built around them to mask the existence of sacred buildings. Members of the police, or uniformed members of the party would hover outside said buildings at the times of services, observing those attending religious ceremonies, never acting with hostile intentions, but instead scaring members of the congregation until few people attended organised religious services. The paranoia still exists today; when we visited The Church of St George (a beautiful redbrick rotunda) I took a photo of the exterior and a lady going to a service asked to check my photo to ensure her face wasn’t in the picture.

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Painting of Lenin (Nikola Mirchev)

When Dimitrov passed away in 1949 Vulko Chervenkov suceeded him as leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, whilst not popular within Bulgaria, his main supporter, Stalin had enough influence to allow him to maintain his position for 6 years. After Stalin’s death in 1953 Chervenkov only survived a year before he was replaced by Todor Zhivkov. He stayed on as Prime Minister for another 2 years before Anton Yugov took that position from him too.

Todor Zhivkov had a notably long stay as head of the Bulgarian Communist Party, leading it for 33 years, and in 1962 he also took up the position of Prime Minister, he monopolised control of Bulgaria. One of the biggest controversies of his rule came in the form of the infamous murder of Georgi Markov, a previous friend of Zhivkov, who had been exiled to London following publication of anti-communist works. Markov was murdered in London after a member of the KGB used an umbrella to stab him with a ricin infused pellet on Zhivkov’s birthday in September 1978.

img_20161204_111607.jpgThe Communist government of the Bulgarian people was based near Serdika (now a fantastic site to find Roman ruins) and the party headquarters were adorned with the large red star seen below. This was rumoured to have been made of rubies, however when it was torn down at the end of the Communist era it was found to only be coloured glass. Originally the 12ft statue of Lenin was erected far across the Piazza surveying his Communist Head Quarters, now however this has been replaced by a statue of Saint Sofia. Both the star and the statue can be found at the Museum of Socialist Art which is a little way out of the city center but definitely worth a visit!

By January 15th 1990 the Communist Party was officially no more. It was the end of an era of governing that had cost between 50,000-100,000 lives. Zhivkov’s daughter, Lyudmila Zhivkova, had been responsible for the start of social liberalization in the country and was a force for cultural freedom until her suspicious death in 1981. By Mikhail Gorbachev’s election as President of the Supreme Soviet Union in 1985, the USSR and the Communist movement were losing momentum. In June 1990 Bulgaria held its first multi-party elections in 51 years, The Republic of Bulgaria was born, and the Bulgarian flag no longer included the Communist emblem. The Communist reign in Bulgaria was over.

Pretending to be Lenin

That History Girl Travels ~ Oslo Day 5

Our final day in Oslo had finally arrived. With a flight in the evening we decided to save the Armed Forces Museum till last as it was one we were both interested in, we wanted lost of time there, and it’s free!

2017-01-28-21.13.51.jpg.jpegHoused within the grounds of Akershus Fortress, the museum is huge! Outside cannons, tanks and ambulances greet you as you arrive. The ambulance, it turns out came from the UK, and was on loan for their temporary exhibition on the medical corps.

2017-01-28-21.16.38.jpg.jpegThe museum takes you through military history in Norway, from the Vikings through to modern day conflicts and WWII. The first room focuses on modern conflicts, and Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan, and work with the UN.

Upstairs the rooms are filled with cannons, and models of castles from around Denmark-Norway, as the pairing was then called. Christiania (now Oslo) was the Norwegian capital, whilst Copenhagen was the capitol of the whole country. The models also include castles such as Kastellet, found in Copenhagen on a star shaped island.2017-01-28-21.19.22.jpg.jpeg Medieval weapons, defenses and uniforms are displayed, however some rooms do not have English translations, but have QRS codes which unfortunately don’t work. This room was full of military uniforms, with rank slides and honours which are still a total mystery to us, which was  a shame as it was something we were both interested in!
Returning downstairs there is a very detailed exhibition on how WWII started, and how Norway became 2017-02-15-09.31.20.jpg.jpeginvolved  with the fight. The Resistance Museum had more information on Norwegian citizens  and their actions throughout the war. Having been a neutral state from 1814 to 1940 they only had a 20,000 strong army to defend against the German Army. The Norwegians had been keen to stay out of the fighting across Europe they were not prepared for the advancing German Forces. Had they started recruiting forces earlier they could have increased their forces to 120,000 people. 50,000 Norwegian Men were said to be fighting for Norway during 1940, compared to Germany’s 4.5 million. The final permanent room looked into modern conflicts with the UN, the Cold War, including a mini bunker, the Navy, and ground forces in Afghanistan.

2017-01-28-21.20.24.jpg.jpegThe final room of the museum was an exhibition on Military Medicine. The exhibition housed various pieces of quintessential pieces of medical equipment such as first aid kits, stretchers and technology developed for the military.  Horse drawn ambulances from the first world war, along with modern ambulances used in combat were displayed here.

Tearing ourselves away from the museum, we headed to Hard Rock Cafe for our final time (they have an awesome lunch deal). Our planned afternoon of souvenir shopping was rather disrupted by Spencers/Portico deciding whilst we were thousands of miles away was time to try and sort our broken heating (After we’d waited 6 months for them to get their act together). A delicious lunch later, we headed to the airport.

2017-01-28-21.22.15.jpg.jpegIn 2014 a redevelopment of Oslo Airport was announced. Designed by Gudmund Stokke, under architectural firm Aviaplan. The new departure hall is beautiful! The building is light, airy, with golden fairy lights draped around every pillar. The whole building is clean and very Scandanavian, even the security staff are lovely, when you forget to take your 1l water bottle out of your hand luggage!

After a lovely but exhausting week, it was time to head back to London. Even staying for 5 days I felt there were things I could go back to do/see. I’ll definitely be back! Probably in summer…and when I actually have money!

Decoding the Bombe ~ Bletchley Park

At 9am on a crisp Saturday morning, QMUL History Society met outside Mile End Station to begin our 1st trip of the year to the home of modern computing security.

Bletchley Park, most well-known for its involvement in the Second World War, was developed to its present state by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon who bought the site in 1883. Later bought by Admiral Henry Sinclair, the head of MI6 in 1938, it became the designated home for code-breakers, in the case of war being declared.

Following the release of 2014 film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kiera Knightly, the work of mathematician Alan Turing has been thrust into the spotlight. Turing is most revered for his work in inventing the Bombe, a decoding machine, designed to break the Enigma code in WWII. The Enigma machine, designed by German Arthur Scheribus, provided German officials with triple level encryption for their messages, and they never doubted its security.

The Enigma machine worked by initially swapping two letters, before feeding the letter through to 3 spinning wheels, which would change the letter 3 times. The letter then traveled backwards through the 3 drums, before revealing the letter on a lit keyboard. The catch? Each machine used 3 drums at a time (of a possible 5) set to 1 of 26 positions each. When a letter was fed through, the 1st drum would rotate 1/26 of a rotation; when this drum had completed 1 revolution the next drum would turn 1/26 of a turn and so on. In this way, the set up of the machine changed with every letter typed.

The flaw in the Enigma machine, which the code-breakers at BP exploited, was that Enigma could never code a letter as itself. That is to say A could be coded as B-Z, but never A. This allowed codebreakers, before the Bombe was invented, to estimate codes, whilst looking for frequently used phrases such as ‘wettervorhersage’ meaning weather forecast.

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Using this knowledge Alan Turing designed his Bombe, which was later modified by Gordon Welchman to vastly improve its efficiency.

Today, Bletchley Park is no longer a hub of military intelligence, having moved to GCHQ and NSA once the war was over. The work at Bletchley remained classified long after the war had ended. The Germans never found out their enigma code had been broken; Only the British and Americans were privy to this information, so when Russia looted their way through Eastern Europe and found a large quantity of Enigma Machines, they didn’t think twice about using them during the Cold War.

When Gordon Welchman was brought in by the NSA during the Cold War to crack Russian codes, he found the work surprisingly similar to his work at Bletchley. Luckily, even after Bletchley had been stripped of any clues to its existence in 1945, several Bombes had been kept, by GCHQ and the NSA, giving the USA a key advantage.

Bletchley Park today highlights and celebrates the works of the code-breakers who worked tirelessly throughout the war, with little to no recognition, to thwart the Germans in a battle of wits.

Initially you’re given a brief introduction to the history of Bletchley and code-breaking before you’re given an audio guide and allowed to explore the grounds at your own pace.

The beautiful, famous manor house (above) shows visitors the scale of the operations at Bletchley before they were upscaled. The initiator of the increase in workforce, Gordon Welchman, is celebrated here too, his work so frequently overshadowed by Turing.

Various huts are open to the public. Hut 9 contains information about the redevelopment of Bletchley, having been left in a state of disrepair when it closed in 1945. This hut explores the archaeological techniques used to understand it’s original appearance, and allow developers to recreate this as accurately as possible.

The other huts take visitors through the various stages of code-breaking,  with interactive activities in various rooms giving people of all ages the chance to try their hand at cracking the Enigma code. All the huts have been restored to their original condition, and some contain audio-visual effects to recreate conditions just over 70 years ago.

Visitors are also able to see the cottages inhabited by the code-breakers, although the interiors aren’t open to the public.

 

In 1995 a group of scientists and enthusiasts headed up by John Harper decided to try and rebuild the Bombe. When Bletchley was decommissioned all traces of the work that had dominated the lives of up to 3000 people for the past 6 years was burned or destroyed, so finding plans for the Bombe seemed impossible. 10 years later, after a decade of hard work, trial and error and sourcing now discontinued materials such as Bakelite they had a working Bombe. Today you can see this in action with demonstrations every half an hour.

 

Beside the rebuilt Bombe sits a beautiful graphite statue of Alan Turing, and the letter of apology from Gordon Brown for his conviction of “debauchery” when it was discovered he was a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Having chosen chemical castration over imprisonment, Turing tragically took his own life in 1954. Given that Turing’s work is said to have shortened the war by up to 2 years, saving potentially hundreds of thousands of lives, the fact it took nearly 50 years to pardon him is downright disgusting. Furthermore Parliament’s decision to overturn a bill which would pardon all those convicted of “debauchery” a few weeks ago shows just how static societies views on the LGBTQ+ community are, despite politicians constantly self-congratulating themselves on how progressive they think they are.

Today a memorial to all those who worked at Bletchley stands outside hut 2 bearing the inscription “We Also Served”. When Bletchley closed all those who worked there were sent away with strict instructions never to speak of their work, and for this reason so many achievements went uncelebrated. Since the Enigma code was declassified many of the men and women who worked there have released memoirs of their time at Bletchley. Most speak of fond memories, and many found love there.

Without the work of the Code breakers, WWII could have had a very different conclusion, with millions more innocent lives lost. It is thanks to their work that we live in the world we do today, and for that we salute them.

Admission to Bletchley Park costs between £14.00 and £17.25 for adults which includes unlimited access to the site for 1 calendar year. English Heritage members also enjoy a further discount.