London Underground Saved Thousands During Blitz

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a welcome sight to Londoners during the Blitz—- mainly heavy night bombing of London by Nazi Germany.

When someone is bombing you from the air then you instinctively want to get as far underground as you can and during the Nazi blitz on London the London subway system known unofficially as “the tube” and officially as the London Underground provided a safe place during the bombing. However, not all London Underground stations were very deep since they had been built by “cut and cover” method. This usually involved tearing up a street digging to the minimum depth required, putting in the concrete pieces of the tunnel then covering the “cut” with excavated soil.

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ARP warden looks over children sleeping in hammocks in the underground. ARP was the abbreviation of “Air Raid Precautions,” the government’s umbrella organization which organized a series of services to help people during and after German bombing raids. (The Italian Air Force also joined their German allies several times in bombing London).

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Playing cards to pass the time. What the photographs don’t show is the stench and dirt.

At the beginning of the Blitz few Underground Stations had sanitary facilities to handle hundreds and hundreds of people. Chemical toilets were hastily installed but that wasn’t a panacea. Most tube stations smelled like public latrines and were filthy. Rats were a common site and mosquitoes and other bugs flourished in the warm environment. All of these problems were addressed but it took time and money and only later in the war were the Underground stations capable of handling huge crowds and providing them with bathrooms, etc.

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In this photograph taken in the Piccadilly Underground station men and women have commandeered the passenger cars themselves and are using them as dormitories–albeit very uncomfortable.

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The lack of comforts in the early days is captured by this photograph of a platform in the Piccadilly Circus underground station. People are sleeping crammed together while others are just sitting on the dirty concrete platform. One of the reasons the platforms were dirty was the inability of London Transport cleaning crews to clean the platforms at night because of all the people. 

Memoirs from the era typically mention the stench of the tube stations and the smelled of diapers or nappies suddenly filled by a scared child. That stank. People copulated and those around them looked away. Life-threatening events tended to increase sexual desire among people. It wasn’t a great experience and isn’t something most people of the time remembered very fondly. While photographs of Londoners sheltering in the tube stations became an iconic part of the history of the war, less then 5% of the population sheltered in the tube stations during air raids. Others sheltered in place or went elsewhere.

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Safe from bombs but hardly an ideal environment. Water for cleaning yourself was not available in the Underground stations in the first months of the Blitz.

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Happy Londoners in posed photo showing them receiving refreshments after the “all clear” has sounded. The woman with her arm around one of her children in the left side of the photo appears to be wearing trousers which would have been very unusual in that era.

Published by

Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/