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Blitz

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MatC
162610.  Tue Apr 03, 2007 6:29 am Reply with quote

Q: When the Blitz on London began in WW2, where did the cockneys take shelter?
F: In the Tube system.
A: In the Savoy Hotel.

Background: At the start of the war, the Communist Party was the only political party to continue its activities. When the Blitz started, and thousands of East Enders became homeless - many sleeping rough in country towns - the CP set up Shelter Committees, to agitate for proper bomb shelters.

Existing shelters for the masses were dreadfully inadequate - the trench shelters in the parks were full of water, and the surface shelters on the streets were quickly destroyed by bombs. But huge numbers of people were without shelters of any sort.

The rich, by contrast, were using private shelters in private homes, and in West End clubs and hotels.

Stepney Communists - led by Phil Piratin, later Communist MP for Stepney - invaded the Savoy Hotel with about 70 men, women and children, having been tipped off by construction workers about the hotel’s luxurious bomb shelter. “We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families.”

The cockney “visitors” were amazed: “Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’”

While bolshy waiters served the refugees with refreshments, management called the police. Piratin told the officer in charge that if he tried to evict the families during an air-raid “Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.”

The occupation led to press coverage around the world; humiliated, the government began urgently to improve the provision of shelters. However, the CP had a new demand: let people shelter from the bombs in the Underground. The government said this was impossible, for health and safety reasons: children might fall on the tracks. Police guarded the padlocked tube stations during air raids, to make sure nobody could take shelter in them.

The CP now led an invasion of Tube stations; huge crowds armed with crowbars swept the police aside and took over the station platforms. Tens of thousands of people were involved.

The next morning the Home Secretary announced that the government had “reconsidered” the matter, and the Tubes were at last - and after thousands of deaths - opened up as shelters.

(Main source for above: “Our flag stays red” by Phil Piratin).

From later sources, we learn why the government didn't want people sheltering Underground: they feared that the lower orders would socially mutate into a permanently troglodyte race of ungovernables.

 
Frederick The Monk
168214.  Fri Apr 20, 2007 8:12 am Reply with quote

MatC wrote:

From later sources, we learn why the government didn't want people sheltering Underground: they feared that the lower orders would socially mutate into a permanently troglodyte race of ungovernables.


Isn't that what happenend?

Splendid stuff - I'd never heard of the Savoy sit-in. Of course there were legitimate fears about sheltering in the Underground which came true on the night of 15th October 1940 in Balham.

Mid-evening that night the air raid sirens had sounded and people had begun gathering on the Northern line platforms of Balham tube station, about 30 feet (9 metres) beneath Balham High Road. No count was taken at the time of how many people were on the station but it is estimated that it was close to capacity so several thousands had taken shelter there. The platforms were noisy and unsanitary places, with no real facilities for large numbers. People brought their own bedding and food and pitched camp wherever they could. Those who needed the toilet used the tunnels and there were frequent outbreaks of lice infestation.

At 9.15 p.m a stick of German high-explosive bombs was dropped in the vicinity of Balham High Street. Initially the above-ground entrance to the tube station took a direct hit, then another bomb fell on a row of shops above the station at the road junction and, as it exploded, the shops fell into the crater where the underground booking office had been. The weight of this massive collapse of masonry fractured the underground service network, including the gas, water and sewage mains. Thousands of gallons of water and raw sewage now began flooding down the escalator stairways towards the north bound platform, carrying with it hundreds of tons of sand and rubble. As this swept along it fused the lights plunging the whole station into darkness. As the torrent burst onto the platform many people were swept away or clung on to each other or anything they could find to hold until the avalanche subsided. One man was said to have saved himself by swimming and then walking down the tunnel to Tooting Bec. As the initial force of the flood fell away panic set in and there was a stampede for the staircases as thousands of people all tried to leave before any further water or rubble came down, or the compromised tunnels collapsed. Gas was now also filling the area.

One group however became trapped as the water, rubble, sand and sewage flooded into the tunnels blocking them in both directions.

The force of the explosion and the effect of the flood caused the collapse of 26 feet of tunnel and the blocking of a further 370 feet as well as distorting other adjoining tunnels which the debris was washed into. Despite this an attempt at rescue was made from Clapham South station by floating a boat down the flooded tunnel. Just a hundred yards out of that station however they had to turn back as the whole tunnel was jammed with debris and filling with gas so the attempt failed.

During that night 600 injured people were rescued from the station. There are no reports of any of these later dying from their injuries. In fact, few had been badly physically injured by the blast, instead most were suffering from impact injuries from rubble in the torrent and breathing difficulties from having swallowed water. One group however had not been so fortunate.

The station and track between Clapham South and Tooting Bec remained closed until January 1941 whilst the rubble was cleared and the tunnels shored-up. During these excavations 64 civilian and 4 staff bodies were found. Some of these had been trampled to death in the stampede to leave the station as the disaster struck but the large group trapped on the station platform had, horrifically, drowned in the mix of water, debris and sewage. The last body was not recovered until Christmas.

Although pictures of the above ground devastation were finally published in 1942 the figures for the dead and injured – the worst single loss of life to date in a tube station were withheld from the public for the duration of the war to prevent panic and loss of faith in air-raid precautions.

Today there’s a plaque in the ticket hall of the station commemorating the dead. A more pertinent reminder is at the Northern ends of the platform tunnels where, due to an oversight in the hurried rebuilding, the tiles that were washed away that night were never replaced and are still missing. Following the disaster all Northern line booking offices were also modified with the installation of heavy concrete blockhouses at the heads of staircases to prevent a repetition of the tragedy. Many of these survive to this day.

 

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