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Lest We Forget: How Londoners Sheltered in the Underground During World War Two

By Edited Jun 26, 2016 3 12

On September 7, 1940, Hitler began the Blitzkrieg (lightning war) or Blitz, the nightly bombing raids on British cities aimed at destroying the morale of the British people. While most major cities were bombed, the East End of London was a prime target because of the strategic importance of its docklands.

The Ju 87 "Stuka" dive-bomber was used in blitzkrieg operations

The statistics are staggering. London was pounded with bombs for 57 continuous nights. The first night of the Blitz in this densely populated area resulted in 430 civilian deaths. In the space of 24 days in September 5,300 tonnes of high explosives were dropped, An estimated 47,000 houses were destroyed, and 2,000 people died in raids on Tower Hamlets alone.

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Archival Footage of the Blitz

This shows both the horrors that people experienced and the propagandistic nature of the news footage

Although the London Underground railway system or Tube might appear to have been an obvious ready made air raid shelter, the government refused to allow people to use it because of health and safety concerns, and because they wished to keep supplies moving through the city.

Instead, the government issued Anderson shelters to families in high risk areas. These were small corrugated steel huts, designed to hold up to six people. They were given to to low income families free of charge, while those that could afford it were charged £7. The families were supplied with construction materials and a set of instructions. They were to dig the huts into the ground in their back gardens and cover them with a protective layer of soil. Although they provided effective shelter, these Anderson huts were damp, cold and uncomfortable, and many people actually preferred to risk staying in their houses.

An unburied Anderson Shelter in 2007, this shelter had seen use after the war as a shed

In addition, many of London’s working poor, such as those living in the highly targeted East End dock areas, were unable to erect shelters because they lived in tenement housing without back gardens. The government provided surface shelters for these people but they were poorly constructed and some actually collapsed during the air raids, killing those inside.

Unable to rely on the government, people began looking for their own shelters. They hid under railway arches, in church crypts, or even in caves outside the city. Many East Enders circumvented the government ban on sheltering in the Underground by buying cheap, short journey tickets and then staying down in the Tube overnight.

Finally, on September 19, 1940, 2,000 people invaded Holborn station en masse in a grass roots action that was hailed as a "people's victory." The police made no attempt to stop them, and as a consequence the government did an about face. They converted a short section of the Piccadilly Line from Aldwych to Holborn into a shelter. Eventually, seventy-nine stations were equipped with bunks and sanitary facilities.

London Underground Air Raid Shelter Sign

Conditions in the Underground were horrendous. The number of people greatly exceeded the available capacity and people slept wherever they could: on the stairs, in the ticket halls and even on the railway tracks. When trains were running the drivers had to move people's arms and legs so that they could get through. With so many people sleeping in such close quarters, families virtually slept in piles. There was absolutely no privacy and because of inadequate sanitation the smell of sewage was overwhelming. 

Families sheltering in a London Tube station, c. 1940

Various efforts were made to improve conditions underground.  Library books were donated. The Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) provided movies and live entertainment. A children’s play center was installed at the Elephant and Castle station, and regular church services were offered at the Aldwych shelter.

While people felt safe in the Underground, there were still fatalities. When a bomb blew up the water main at Balham station, 68 people were killed. When Bank station received a direct hit, 111 people died. In 1943 when panicking crowds heard an air raid siren and rushed into Bethnal Green Station, 173 people were crushed to death in what later turned out to have only been a drill.

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Following the 1940 bombings the government planned to build a system of deep shelters below existing Tube tunnels which would be accessible through various train stations. Built at a cost of approximately £40 per head, each shelter would consist of two parallel 12,000 feet long double-decked tubes. The entrances were protected against direct bomb hits by cylindrical blockhouses. Each facility had toilets, sleeping accommodation and medical facilities for up to 8,000 people. The tunnels were provided with electricity and water, and ventilated with air which was filtered as a precaution against gas attacks.

However, the project proved difficult due to wartime shortages of money, labor and material, and once built they were expensive to maintain. The government completed only eight tunnels, and shelved plans to build more. When complete, these tunnels were not immediately made available for public use. Two were used by the government, and five housed American and British troops. The Goodge Street shelter became the Allied armed forces headquarters and leading up to D-Day it was one of several sites for the US Army Signals Corps. It is also commonly believed that President Eisenhower used it as his command center, although some historians dispute this.

Major General Dwight Eisenhower, 1942

Deep shelters at four stations, Stockwell, Clapham South, Belsize Park, and Camden town, were made available to the public in response to the 1944-45 V1 and V2 attacks. They only reached a third of their total capacity, however, with the highest recorded nightly population being 12,297 on July 24, 1944. Two were closed again in October of that year, and some of the available space was used to accommodate troops on leave.  

It has been estimated that 170,000 people sheltered in Underground stations and tunnels during World War II, but that by January, 1945 only about 25,000 people were using either tube stations or deep shelters. Because so many houses had been destroyed, there were many homeless people. After the end of the war about 12,000 homeless continued to use the stations until the sleeping accommodation was removed and the shelters were closed.

After the war, Goodge Street station deep shelter was used as an army transit center and Chancery Lane was used as a telephone exchange. Goodge street was damaged by fire in 1956 and the Ministry of Works decided that deep shelters would no longer be used for human occupation. Some were converted into archival storage, using the original World War bunks as shelving, and Camden Town has been used as a filming location for the long-running television series Dr. Who.

Chenies Street entrance to the Goodge Street tube station deep-level shelter

The Goodge Street entrances have now been refurbished and the facility has been named the Eisenhower Centre, in honor of D-Day's Supreme Allied Commander.

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Comments

Oct 4, 2015 4:22am
K_Y_Lai
Why did the number drop to 25,000 by Jan 1945?
Oct 4, 2015 9:03am
HLesley
This is a really good question, KYLai, but none of the sources I read answered it directly. The war in Europe ended in May, 1945 so I assume that by this time Hitler was on the defensive and the air raids on London had virtually stopped. The people who were still using the shelters were probably mostly people whose homes had been destroyed in previous air raids.
Oct 23, 2015 10:04pm
kellapat
Very interesting information, Lesley, particularly from one who lived in the UK for many years. I hope you didn't suffer any of these mishaps when you were very young.
Oct 24, 2015 12:10am
HLesley
I was born after the war, so didn't experience the bombing myself. As a child living in London, I frequently played in bombed out houses without really understanding how they came to be there. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Nov 5, 2015 4:47am
GraceMMoser
What a great subject to write about. I love learning new facets of WWII. I'm glad you and your family came out of this alive and well. :)
Nov 5, 2015 4:48am
GraceMMoser
What a great subject to write about. I love learning new facets of WWII. I'm glad you and your family came out of this alive and well. :)
Nov 5, 2015 11:30am
HLesley
Glad you enjoyed the article, Grace.
Nov 7, 2015 8:14am
HLesley
Thank you for stopping by, an for the positive feedback.
Nov 8, 2015 7:19pm
branchtell
It was painful to see such a leading nation suffering bombardment
Nov 9, 2015 10:41am
HLesley
It is painful to see any nation suffering bombardment like this. During World War Two the Germans also suffered the fire bombing of Dresden at the hands of the allies.
Nov 16, 2015 11:54am
HLesley
I feel for Parisians at this moment, but my heart also goes out to the Syrian people as the French have now joined the Russians to reign more bombs down on the country. Whether they willprobably break the spirit of ISIS, they will definitely create more hardships for the ordinary people and increase the number of refugees.
Nov 16, 2015 11:55am
HLesley
Sorry. I meant to say, whether or not they break the spirit of ISIS they will make matters worse for the ordinary people.
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Bibliography

  1. James Richards "The Blitz: Sorting the Myth from the Reality." BBC History. 17/02/2011. 1/10/2015 <Web >
  2. "London deep-level shelters." Wikipedia. 1/10/2015 <Web >
  3. Malcolm Oakley "World War 2 and East London." eastlondonhistory.co.uk. 07/10/2013. 1/10/2015 <Web >
  4. James "Anderson Shelter Facts." Primary Facts. 15/01/2013. 1/10/2015 <Web >
  5. Juliet Gardiner "The hell beneath the inferno: As bombs fell, families fled underground. But life beneath the streets was a squalid nightmare and wasn't even safe." Daily Mail. 30/08/2010. 1/10/2015 <Web >
  6. "Deep Level Shelter Tunnels." Underground History. 2/10/2015 <Web >
  7. "Construction." Deep Level Shelters in London. 2/10/2015 <Web >
  8. "The Eisenhower Centre’, Chenies Street." Portsmouth City Council D-Day Museum. 2/10/2015 <Web >

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