Taking shelter in the Underground stations wasn’t a great experience. Early in the Blitz there were few sanitary facilities and people who lived through the era often write about the stench of underground stations.
While no more than 3% of Londoners used the tube stations as bomb shelters, photographs such as these became iconic images showing the determination of Londoners not to let the Nazis break their will.
(The sign in the window to the right of the tube car door informs passengers that this is a non-smoking car. In 1940)
This is probably a section of the Picadilly Line which was no longer in use when the war began.
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.
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.