Between 1940 and 1941 the wail of an air raid siren would alert civilians of incoming German Bombers who would drop their devices within minutes of the alarm. Through the first few weeks of the Blitz, an estimated 200 Luftwaffe aircraft bombed London every night. The first 57 nights London was subjected to consecutive bombing.
As well as London the cities of Birmingham, Belfast, Bristol, Cardiff, Clydebank, Coventry, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Portsmouth, Sheffield and Southampton were also targeted. On hearing the air raid siren many would make their way to the nearest air raid shelter, and in London they would often frequent underground stations.
For two years during the First World War bombing by German Zeppelins and aeroplanes which started in 1915 took the lives of 670 people in London and wounded nearly 2000. Many underground stations at the time were being used then as underground shelters.
A government policy made in January 1924 ruled against the use of underground stations as shelters in future conflicts. The reasons at the time were to prevent the spread of disease due to the lack of toilet facilities in most stations, the risk of people falling onto live tracks, and it was felt that those sheltering in stations and tunnels might be tempted to reside in them day and night.
Following intensive bombing of London on 7th September 1940 and the overnight raids of 7th and 8th September there was a call for change to the policy. On 19th September the Ministries of Home Security and Transport broadcast an urgent public appeal to refrain from using Tube stations as air-raid shelters except in the case of urgent necessity. Those with Anderson shelters were encouraged to use them and not the public shelters, so as not to deprive those without shelter. A promise was made to enhance amenities in existing shelters with improved lighting, improved sleeping accommodation and improved sanitary facilities.
Despite this plea, on the nights of 19th and 20th September thousands of citizens headed to the Tubes with bedding and supplies of food to last them the night. They were unimpeded by the Police or by station staff. The Government could not control this public rebellion and were compelled to change policy on 21st September introducing the “deep shelter extension policy”.
79 stations were installed with 22,000 bunks, first aid facilities and chemical toilets. 124 canteens were established in all parts of the tube system. Shelter marshals were assigned to keep order, administer first aid and conduct evacuation in the event of a tunnel flood. Special supply trains ran, providing seven tonnes of food and 2,400 gallons of tea and cocoa every night to people staying in the Tube.
The short branch tunnel between Holborn and Aldwych was converted into an air raid shelter. The Aldwych branch was closed to trains and the tracks concreted over. Select businesses were permitted, such as Plessey who appropriated the tunnels of the not then completed Central Line extension at Redbridge for a tubular air craft part manufacturing plant. Its existence remained an official secret until the 1980s.
There were also a number of government offices. The anti-aircraft centre for London used Brompton Road station as its headquarters. Emergency headquarters were established for London Transport and the wartime Railway Executive Committee at Down Street station, these offices were later used for meetings of the War Cabinet during the Blitz.
The London Underground was considered one of the safest places for many London inhabitants to turn to during an air raid. However, the tunnels were not impervious to bomb damage and there were incidents and fatalities where Tube stations were hit.
The first happened on 16th September 1940 when a high explosive bomb ripped through Marble Arch Tube station and exploded in the tunnel, killing 20 people.
On 14th October 1940 a bomb pierced through the road and tunnel at Balham Tube station which blew up the water mains and sewage pipes. 68 people died.
On 11th January 1941 a direct hit on Bank station caused a crater of 100 by 120 foot. The road above the station collapsed causing 111 fatalities.
From September 1940 to May 1941, 198 civilians were killed in Underground stations across the city.
However, the highest civilian death toll in a single incident occurred at Bethnal Green Tube station on 8th March 1943, when 1,500 people entered the station. The crowd panicked at the sound of an unfamiliar explosion, which was actually a top-secret anti-aircraft rocket. In the darkness someone stumbled on the stairs and unbeknown the crowd pushed on, falling upon one another. 173 people were crushed to death.
The nature of these tragedies were not disclosed to the public until the end of the war.
By Government directive, London Transport began construction of eight new deeper level tunnels in 1940. The intention was to provide more secure public shelters while the war persisted, but the long term strategy was to use them to initiate a new express Tube Service. The tunnels were used exclusively by the military upon their completion in 1942, but five were given over to public shelters in 1944. The express Tube idea was never implemented.
The carnage from the Blitz is demonstrated by 43,000 civilian deaths, half of which occurred in London; and in excess of a million buildings were destroyed or damaged in London by the end of May 1941.
Around 170,000 residents sheltered in tunnels and stations during the Second World War. The underground was also responsible for evacuating 200,000 children to the countryside during the Second World War. A great deal more people would have lost their lives had they not been able to seek the protection or the assistance of the London Underground.