The worst civilian disaster of World War 2: A Dispatch From Bethnal Green


Great Britain may have been isolated from the Continent during the Second World War, therefore not subject to invasion and occupation but it suffered its fair share of destruction. From September 1940-May 1941, London & Britain were subject to “the Blitz”, an aerial bombardment campaign by the Luftwaffe designed to make Britain surrender or at the very least, sue for peace, by weakening public morale. Some 30,000 tonnes of explosives were dropped on the capital and the rest of the country. 5,300 tonnes fell on London in September alone.

The Blitz failed though. The harassment had the opposite effect. It galvanised the nation’s spirit in the face of adversity and unprecedented destruction. It became known as the Blitz spirit. The defiance in the face of such an unknown and indescriminate type of warfare was evident in the fanatical desire to keep St. Paul’s Cathedral aloft. A symbol of hope against the tyranny that Europe was in the grip of.

St. Paul’s stands proud while the buildings surrounding it were levelled. Source.

Few places embodied the blitz spirit more than the East End: the eastern part of the city was heavily targeted because of the number of important dockland areas. It fostered a closeness between neighbour’s and strangers alike that is still talked about and remembered fondly, even today.

The Blitz may have ended in 1941 but the threat of bombs dropping from the sky didn’t go away. London and the rest of the country were subject to further air raids and later, Hitler’s fabled V2 rockets throughout the course of the war. A blackout policy was implemented. All forms of light were to be switched off or dimmed as much as possible. Air raid sirens became a familiar sound to Londoners as their wailings warned of incoming terror.

Our tube stations are very old, the oldest in the world in fact, first opened in 1863. They were built deep underground, seemingly making the ideal place for an air raid shelter. On the 3rd March 1943 that the air raid sirens sounded and people made their way to Bethnal Green Tube Station for safety with nearly zero visibility.

It was on this fateful night that the worst civilian disaster of WW2 happened. Somebody tripped as everybody made their way down the steps to shelter, leading to a crush of around 300 people that killed 173 and injured almost 100 more. For over 70 years this has been a lesser known part of London’s history during WW2.

The Stairway to Heaven memorial. A fitting tribute to an under-represented part of London’s immense history.

This changed in 2017 when a memorial was opened at Bethnal Green Tube Station. Attended by some of the survivors of that night, it commemorates the 173 people, mostly women and children, who lost their lives on that pitch black March evening. No bombs were actually dropped that night.

The canopy of the memorial.

The ‘Stairway to Heaven’ memorial displays the surnames of the victims of the tragedy carved into the hollow, inverted, wooden staircase. There are also 173 holes underneath. Allowing sunlight to shine through it represents each and every victim. A free audio guide detailing some of the history of that night can be borrowed, free of charge, from Bethnal Green Library a short distance from the memorial.

It serves as a reminder that although cities can be re-built; see London, Berlin, Warsaw or many major European cities for that matter, some things cannot be brought back. It is often said that the first casualty of war is innocence. The second, surely, are the blameless civilians.


Thanks for reading.


Sources and further reading:

Bethnal Green Tube Disaster 1943.




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