The Blitz tragedy that Churchill erased from history
At the time it was hushed up. But now survivors of Britain’s worst civilian tragedy, the Bethnal Green Tube shelter disaster, want a dignified memorial for its 173 victims, reports Jerome Taylor
Thursday 19 February 2009
Even after 65 years, remembering how Vera Trotter was killed on a winter’s evening in 1943 as the Luftwaffe made one of its regular post-Blitz raids on London’s East End is still enough to bring Alf Morris to tears. Standing on the eastern steps of Bethnal Green Tube station, the 78-year-old dabs his eyes with a handkerchief as he describes the moment his father found his eight-year-old friend. “My dad was the person who eventually identified Vera,” he recalls. “Only the week before he’d taken a nail out of her shoe. That was the only way that he was able to recognise her.”
But Vera wasn’t killed by German bombs. She died in the worst civilian accident of the Second World War – or, indeed, since – a barely-reported crush of people that was kept secret for years. As the air raid warning sounded on 3 March 1943, Vera and her mother Lillian routinely gathered their bundles of bedding and made their way to Bethnal Green Tube, a brand new extension of the Central line that had yet to serve as a station |but for the previous two years had become a much-needed air raid shelter with 5,000 beds.
For those living in the surrounding bomb-ravaged area, the triple bunk beds of Bethnal Green, nestled deep underground, were a safe haven.
But Vera and Lillian never made it that night. They and 171 others were killed as they descended the eastern staircase of the station. For once the terrifying one-tonne bombs dropped from the German Heinkels were not to blame for the horrendous death toll. The Bethnal Green Tube disaster, as it came to be known, was simply a tragic accident that remained buried in secrecy for decades. A small brass plaque above the entrance to Bethnal Green is the only indication for today’s commuters of what happened there. But now an ever dwindling group of survivors and their descendants are hoping to build a large memorial above the steps of the Tube station to inform future generations of the tragedy.
Planning permission has, after much wrangling, been approved but a lack of funds means that the £600,000 ‘Stairway to Heaven’ seems as far away from being built as eve. Survivors like Mr Morris are determined to have a proper memorial built before their generation |dies out. But they remain deeply concerned that few people are willing to support their cause because the disaster was an accident that took place in the poor East End.
“That disaster literally rocked the East End but no one wants to know about it,” said Mr Morris, shaking with anger. “I honestly believe that if it had happened in Knightsbridge or Kensington there would already be a memorial. I owe it to Vera and all the other people that died that day to create something that will preserve their memory forever. There should have been a memorial 50 years ago.” That Alf Morris is even here to campaign for a memorial is a miracle in itself. Twelve years old at the time, like Vera he found himself caught in the impenetrable crush on the eastern staircase as hundreds of terrified Londoners fled for the supposed safety of the shelter. He said: “To this day I don’t really know how I survived. People were screaming all around me, all trapped. I’d become wedged in a corner and although I couldn’t move my legs I was able to move my arms. It was Mrs Chumley, the air raid warden, who saved me. She just waded in and pulled me out.”
Concerned that the Nazis would use the disaster for propaganda, Churchill banned media coverage. Censored from history, it was years before the public knew the truth and even now it remains a woefully unstudied tragedy, even though it was more deadly than the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool FC fans died, or the 1966 Aberfan tragedy which claimed 144 lives – 116 of them children.
To this day, the details of exactly what happened at Bethnal Green that night remain unclear. Locals say the crush began when a woman |carrying a baby slipped at the bottom of the stairs shortly after a new |battery of anti-aircraft rockets opened up in a nearby park.
After living through the Blitz and two years of frequent bombing raids, East Enders had become more than used to the sounds of war. They would boast about being able to tell what type of bomb was falling or which anti-aircraft gun was firing from the noise it made. But no one had told locals about this particular battery of guns that had just been installed and fired rockets instead of shells. When the guns opened up, locals assumed they were taking a direct hit and the usually orderly queues outside the Tube station descended into pandemonium. As the crush worsened, two buses drew up, disgorging even more terrified passengers into the staircase.
Peter Perryment, also aged 12, was walking towards the Tube with his 17-year-old sister Iris and their seven-year-old cousin Barbara. He had lived two doors down from Alf Morris, before both families had been bombed out in 1940. Mr Perryment was two-thirds of the way down the stairs when the crush began and was the last person to be pulled out alive.
“I was holding so tightly onto Iris’s hand but eventually we had to let go of each other,” he recalls. “Even when I was freed and walked past all the bodies, it never occurred to me that they were dead.”
The next day his father came back from the mortuary and said they had found Iris. “He just looked at my mother and said, ‘She’s gone, girl. Iris is gone’. I’ll never forget that day.”
Sandra Scotting, 60, is now trying to trace the remaining survivors of the disaster and to raise money for the memorial, to feature an inverted white marble staircase and the victims’ names.
Her mother Irie suffered facial paralysis from the crush and the three-month-old nephew she was carrying died in her arms. Irie died three years ago. “My mother didn’t talk about what had happened to her for more than 50 years,” said Mrs Scotting. “The whole event was shrouded in such secrecy that people just didn’t feel able to talk about it or mourn openly. What we want to do is build a place which will not only teach future generations about what happened but also give the few remaining survivors a place to grieve.”
Official secrets: Wartime spin
The official cover-up of the Bethnal Green Tube disaster was one of many instances of the government suppressing bad news in the Second World War. Concerned that morale would be affected by a tragedy not directly caused by enemy action, Churchill allowed newspapers to report only limited details. The reason why more than 700 US Marines died while practising for D-Day is also unclear. The official line was that a German E-boat launched a surprise attack, but many descendants of the victims believe they were killed by friendly fire. Writers were also closely monitored; George Orwell’s Animal Farm was only published after VE day because Britain feared any criticism of the Soviets would harm the war effort.
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