Remembering the Balham Tube disaster

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Photo taken by the author in August 2018

The 14th of October marks the 76th anniversary of the one of the worst atrocities of the London blitz, in which nearly 70 people died while sheltered in a south London tube station, just two stops away from where I currently live.

The Battle of Britain and The Blitz were in full swing by 14th October, 1940. The population of Balham were well accustomed to their routine – once the air-raid siren went off, they proceeded to their shelters. Thousands upon thousands of people would seek shelter in Tube stations, sleeping on the platforms (and often on the tracks) for around 12 hours each night, while overhead the Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign ravaged. Mid-October 1940 was midway through a consecutive 57 nights of bombing – but London fought on, determined not to be defeated by Hitler. Local communities were united nightly as they escaped the danger overhead.

13 metres below ground, around 500 people were sheltering at Balham on the night of October 14th, 1940. At 8.02pm a 1400 kilo semi-armour piercing bomb penetrated the ground above, causing a massive crater in the ground. A photo emerged of a number 88 bus with it’s head nose-dived into the ground, which was to become symbolic of the event.

However, the explosion fractured a water mains pipe below ground. The subsequent flood of water and soil into the tunnel was to kill nearly 70 people. Water, mud, sewage and sand flooded the tunnels, causing people to drown. A rescue boat was sent from Clapham South but failed to get through. Water-tight doors that were designed to keep floods out, instead kept this one in. The lights also fused, adding to the chaos. A gas explosion also hampered rescue efforts

The official death toll records 66 deaths, although there is some discrepancy, with figures ranging from 64 to 66 people. More than 70 people were injured. It’s ironic to think that people had taken had gone into the Tube for safety, and instead found themselves in unimaginable danger.

With propaganda and censorship being active, news of the event was kept to a minimum. The government feared that news of the event might discourage civilians from continuing to shelter in the underground.

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The bodies were not fully recovered until Christmas, yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on 8th January 1841. The station itself reopened on the 19th January.

Today, as you pass through Balham station, all that reminds you of that terrible night is a tiny blue plaque commemorating the event. It’s hard to believe that if 70 people were killed today in a freak accident, that a blue plaque would be all to commemorate the site of it. However, this was not an isolated incident. The night before the Balham disaster, 16 people were killed when a bomb dropped on Bounds Green station. 56 were killed at Bank in 1941, due to a direct hit. But perhaps most shocking of all is the 1943 Bethnal Green station, in which 173 people were killed in a human crush was attempting to seek cover in the station. A previously unheard air-raid siren had struck panic into the people filing to safety. A woman and a child fell over, causing numerous people to scramble on top of them, leading to the crush.

Despite evacuations from cities, Anderson shelters, and crucially, the London Underground system, it is estimated that at least 32,000 civilians were killed in Britain during World War II.

balham-bus-crater
(I do not own this image)
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