Photo of Bethnal Green Tube entrance courtesy www.espress.co.uk.
On March 3, 1943, in the London subdivision of Bethnal Green, 1500 people poured out of cinemas and busses, houses and flats, all heading for the subway. They reached the steps of the tube and descended the steps en masse. A lady holding her baby tripped: the people behind her trampled her and the infant. A domino effect resulted and within minutes, 173 Londoners were trampled. It was the largest civilian casualty of the war. What caused such a tragedy?
The London Blitz of 1940-1941 had reined so many bombs on the city that dodging them became a way of life for its residents. Londoners were accustomed to the blackouts. They were accustomed to the sound of explosions. They were accustomed to the sight of burning buildings. They were accustomed to the sight of rubble in the streets. Such was the life of the average Londoner. For those it the East End, bombs were even commonplace as its industries and waterfront served as a prime target. Besides which, the RAF had just attacked Germany only two nights before and England was waiting for retaliation.
But what caused the panic of March 3, 1943, leading to the deaths of so many Londoners? East Enders were convinced that their neighbourhood was under vicious attack. They heard the bombs and they reacted immediately by descending into the subway en masse: without proper air ward supervision, without light due to the blackout, without handrails on the staircase (it was still under construction) and without crash barriers. Furthermore, the steps were wet due to a recent rain.
In the end, the explosions were not the result of the Luftwaffe, but of the British Army: they were testing anti-aircraft weapons in nearby Victoria Park. The deaths of 173 Londoners were all in vain. The Tube disaster could have been avoided.
P.S. A recent BBC documentary suggests that the weapons being tested were the new Z-battery rockets.
Photo courtesy www.express.co.uk.