Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Blitz tube deaths anniversary

The anniversary today of the Bethnal Green tube disaster. The worst incident of civilian casualties in the Second World War when 173 people were killed during an air raid in 1943. Fearing for public morale the affair was effectively hushed up and it is only recently that local residents have taken up a campaign to commemorate the victims.

It wasn't actually enemy action that caused the deaths but panic amongst the crowd going down the steps into the station after the warning sirens had sounded - ironically a panic induced by the unfamiliar sound of a new anti-aircraft weapon being fired in a nearby park. But the whole story of the use of underground shelters (and Bethnal Green was not the only disaster) belies the mythology of the 'spirit of the blitz' and cheerful cockneys.

The truth is that at the start of the war the government had made little provision for public air raid shelters. In fact some thought that they would be bad for morale and would discourage people from continuing their normal business in the face of bombing ( the same logic that said parachutes would be bad for pilot morale in the First World War). In the early raids the police actually locked the gates at tube stations to prevent people from taking shelter there.

This was perceived as a class issue - many better-off Londoners had private shelters built in their gardens. Notoriously lavish shelters were built in some of the West End hotels and gentlemen's clubs. Communist MP for Stepney Phil Piratin led an occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter to expose these double standards. In fact the campaign for public shelters that led to the opening of the tube stations was largely led by the Communist Party. More so than most, Communists would have had memories of the horror of aerial bombardment of cities in the Spanish Civil War.

Equally they would have been aware of the double standards of the wartime patriotic rhetoric. Far from the mythology that has since arisen, Churchill and the royal family were jeered and booed when they visited the East End in the early days of the Blitz. And the Queen Mother's famous comment about being able to look the East End in the eye after Buckingham Palace was bombed (whilst the royals were secure in their shelters) was literally all too true.

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