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.

Germans Bomb London in the Blitz

Nazi Germany Bombs London

Damage in the drawing room at 10 Downing Street, London, after a bomb had fallen on Horse Guards Parade on 20 February 1944. H 36089 Part of WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION War Office official photographer Horton (Capt)
Damage in the drawing room at 10 Downing Street, London, after a bomb had fallen on Horse Guards Parade on 20 February 1944. Then occupied by Winston Churchill, 10 Downing Street is the official residence of British Prime Ministers.

Part of
WAR OFFICE SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION
War Office official photographer. Horton (Capt)

 

 

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 So many of London Transport’s famous double-decker red buses were damaged in the Blitz that cities through Great Britain loaned buses to London so bus service could be maintained. London was so big that when an air raid was occuring in one part of the city, other parts could be relatively safe. Bus drivers decided whether to stop their bus and evacuate passengers into a shelter or keep going.

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Photos showing Londoners sheltering from air raids in the London Underground have become iconic representations of the German bombing of London.

While emblematic of the Blitz on London, only 4% of the population of the city used the tube stations as air raid shelters. In the beginning of the Blitz, the authorities were opposed to allowing people to use the tube stations as air raid shelters. They were deeply concerned that people would go down into the tube stations and refuse to come out. Further, there were no sanitary facilities, no potable water or basic foodstuffs, no bedding. Nothing.

[pullquote]The ‘Blitz’ of Britain’s cities by Nazi Germany lasted throughout the war, saw the bombing of Buckingham Palace and the near-destruction of Coventry, and claimed some 40,000 civilian lives.[/pullquote]

There was also fear on the part of the government that people jamming into the tube stations would disrupt trains. While passenger service did not run 24 hours a day, underground trains were used at night to move supplies and personnel through the City of London. This was a vast area, all of which was governed by the London County Council (LCC). In 1965 the LCC was replaced by the Greater London Council.

In the photograph, you will note people are sleeping both on the platform and on the tracks so obviously the electric rail is turned off. There is some order in that several uniformed ARP (air raid precaution) personnel are on the platform. In the early days people queued to get in while still daylight. You had to pay the minimum fare to stay in the tube station. Because there were so few toilets, the underground began to smell like a public latrine according to witnesses or the era who also reported people copulating even though evening trains still hauling passengers were passing by.

Over months better accommodation and facilities and canteens were provided. Unquestionably the platforms of the London Underground saved my lives during German air raids. Deep platforms also made it easier to sleep since the sound of the guns and bombs was muted. However, many tunnels weren’t that deep and gave only the illusion of safety. If one of the tunnels was hit where it ran close to the surface then lots of people died.

People who could afford to leave London did leave during the bombing. Others were too poor or had jobs which didn’t allow them to leave. While many efforts were made to shore up basements of large buildings, many Londoners had no where to go when the bombs started to fall so they stayed at home–often under the staircase. That’s where the bodies were often found.

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Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter: People sleeping on the crowded platform of Elephant and Castle tube station while taking shelter from German air raids during the London Blitz. – Civilians sheltering in Elephant and Castle London Underground Station during an air raid in November 1940. –Sourced & Licensed from © IWM Imperial War Museum Non Commercial Licence

 

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Elephant and Castle Underground Station Shelter: Men and women bedded down for the night on either side of a staircase. –Sourced & Licensed from © IWM Imperial War Museum Non Commercial Licence.

 

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1942: A burlesque dancer makes her way to a bomb shelter during a WWII  German air raid on London

Voices From the Blitz – Part 3

Part 2  Part 3

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Three-quarter front nearside view of Manchester Corporation Leyland bus, fleet no 3235, reg no VR5755, which took part in the 1946 Victory Parade. The protective netting on the windows was added after the vehicle was transferred to London in 1940/41; by then the worst of the Blitz was over! Photographed by Topical Press, 7 Jun 1946

During the Blitz on London, drivers of city’s famous double decker red buses were given the authority to decide whether to stop and evacuate their vehicles during a bombing raid or keep going. (The buses had been painted over with a much darker color so weren’t actually painted red during the war.)

Because London was and remains such a huge city, one part could be under major attack while other parts were not being bombed at all. In an area not being bombed but close to a battery of anti-aircraft guns, the biggest danger was from falling shrapnel. These steel shards falling from the sky, the result of the anti-aircraft shells exploding at a fixed height, killed people on the ground all the time.

There are many stories of people rushing to get to their homes during a raid and through billows of smoke coming from the parts of the city being bombed, a London Transport bus would emerge on its regular route. It would stop and the people would get on as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Of course, diaries and memoirs from the time disclose that everyone was terrified, but the ethos of the time was not to show fear since everyone knew everyone else was afraid.

[Image courtesy of London Transport Museum.]