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The Bethnal Green Disaster
March 3, 2009 2:47 PM   Subscribe

On March 3rd 1943, the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War killed 173 people, including 62 children. During an air-raid alert, the noise of a new anti-aircraft battery panicked the crowd trying to get into the shelter at Bethnal Green tube station. In the dark, wet conditions, someone tripped and fell at the foot of the stairs, blocking the pathway and knocking others over in a domino effect. More and more people continued to pile in at the top leading to a massive and deadly crush.

In order not to unduly alarm the populace, many details of the disaster were suppressed at the time, and the report of the official inquiry was kept secret until after the war - only on the 50th anniversary was a memorial plaque erected. A proper memorial is planned, which will list all the victims. Their website also has a series of recollections from survivors and relatives of victims.
posted by Electric Dragon (27 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
I really wish they weren't terming this the "Stairway to Heaven Memorial."
posted by availablelight at 2:55 PM on March 3, 2009


"Stairway To Heaven Memorial"? What the fuck?

Awesome post though, ED.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:58 PM on March 3, 2009


Thanks for the post - I've seen information on this terrible event before, but some of these links I hadn't seen so I'll continue to delve into them with interest.

The underground stations were (rightly?) seen as very safe havens during air raids, and the publication of this event would have certainly led to many people being unwilling to use them as shelters, so I can understand why it was kept fairly secret.

I'm absolutely certain, however, that the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War was not this one.
posted by Nick Verstayne at 2:58 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm absolutely certain, however, that the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War was not this one.

Possibly not but that would be a pretty uncomfortable dick measuring contest.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:02 PM on March 3, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm absolutely certain, however, that the worst civilian disaster of the Second World War was not this one.

I would guess that the Gustloff sinking would be a candidate.
posted by gimonca at 3:03 PM on March 3, 2009


Terrible name for the memorial, and it's ugly as Hell. Shame: those who died deserve far better.
posted by cbrody at 3:04 PM on March 3, 2009


I suppose that depends how you define "civilian disaster" - what marks out this for me was that it wasn't caused by enemy fire.

And yes, the name is pretty cheesy. I only heard about it myself when one of the survivors was interviewed on the radio a couple of weeks ago.
posted by Electric Dragon at 3:16 PM on March 3, 2009


I've never heard of this, thanks for the post. Just when I think I know everything, damn Metafilter comes along and teaches me something.
posted by marxchivist at 3:19 PM on March 3, 2009


Have to disagree with cbrody -- even though the name is horrible, I kind of like the memorial.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 3:25 PM on March 3, 2009


I would guess that the Gustloff sinking would be a candidate.

Yeah, 10K vs a few hundred... thousands in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well. But the war's losers don't count, right?
posted by Rash at 3:41 PM on March 3, 2009


Possibly not but that would be a pretty uncomfortable dick measuring contest.

Especially when between contestants with names like "Fat Man" and "Little Boy".


Wow. I think I just had the worst thought I've ever had. According to Rule 34 there should already exist slashfic involving anthropomorphic nuclear bombs. Possibly even including erotic fan art. No, I'm not searching for it. I'm still recovering from the dragons and cars and robots and dinosaurs and those weird half naked airplane girls.
posted by loquacious at 3:50 PM on March 3, 2009


I came across a site on the Gustloff just the other day. My grandparents lived on the Roman Road in Bethnal Green. They never mentioned this incident although they did mention other things that happened. They're gone now, so there's no chance to find out if they were involved at all.
posted by tellurian at 4:07 PM on March 3, 2009


Dresden. Firebombing of Tokyo. Not to mention the atom bombs. Worse "civilian disasters" of the Second World War.
posted by kozad at 4:09 PM on March 3, 2009


I suppose that depends how you define "civilian disaster" - what marks out this for me was that it wasn't caused by enemy fire.
posted by Electric Dragon at 6:16 PM


Just repeating that in case anybody missed it.
posted by marxchivist at 4:11 PM on March 3, 2009


Fat Man, Little Boy, Dresden, Tokyo. Very clever. I think we all know what Electric Dragon means.

Deadly accident involving civilians in a country participating in WWII, not as a result of any overt military force.

1944, 168 dead.

C to the T, homeboy.

On preview what marxchivist repeated.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 4:25 PM on March 3, 2009


Great post. I had never heard of this until now.
posted by ob at 4:42 PM on March 3, 2009


What's so civil about disasters, anyway?
posted by mannequito at 5:46 PM on March 3, 2009


I believe that's where and when an important scene in Ian McEwan's Atonement takes place, isn't it? (I may be completely embarrassing myself here.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:49 PM on March 3, 2009


Ooh, it really makes me wonder.
posted by brain_drain at 6:53 PM on March 3, 2009


No, The corpse in the library, that was Balham tube station.
posted by tellurian at 7:26 PM on March 3, 2009


for what it's worth, the wikipedia entry listed in the FPP calls it the largest loss of civilian life in the UK.
posted by Lucinda at 7:55 PM on March 3, 2009


Great post. I had to click on each person's story, each person's experience. People deserve to be remembered.
posted by CPAGirl at 8:11 PM on March 3, 2009


For four years after the Blitz, Winifred's mother, Winifred Daisy Shurety, lived in the underground. "My poor mother was terrified, she wouldn't come out. Dad would make her Sunday lunch and bring it to the shelter, and she'd creep out and sit on the park bench opposite. As soon as she finished, it was back down the tube." Mrs Shurety didn't vacate the shelter until V-E Day.

Jesus H. Christ! Four years. That's a story in itself. How many other mole people were there?

/not judging - I could see m'self doing such a thing
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:18 PM on March 3, 2009


Never trust the Central Line.
posted by Artw at 10:32 PM on March 3, 2009


Thanks for the post; sobering.
On similar disasters, happen to be reading a memoir of China in the war years and a similar incident (crush on the way to a shelter) happened during the Japanese bombing of Chongqing (Chungking), which slightly predated the London Blitz for the use of aerial bombardment against a civilian population and was a grim episode I was only dimly aware of. There's some photos in the Life magazine online archive (one or two pretty gruesome).
posted by Abiezer at 12:28 AM on March 4, 2009


Also recall reading the memoirs of Phil Piratin, sometime Communist Party MP for Mile End, who was prominent in the direct action that got the Underground stations opened for use as bomb shelters - there had been official indifference until locals took matters into their own hands apparently.
posted by Abiezer at 12:39 AM on March 4, 2009


Couple of links with background to the above and a contemporary Time report of Piratin leading some scruffy Eastenders to the swanky shelter under the Savoy (for what turned out to be an all-clear).
posted by Abiezer at 12:44 AM on March 4, 2009


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