On March 5, 1943, The Times reported the findings of an inquiry into a “London shelter disaster” at Bethnal Green Tube. According to the report, a middle-aged woman, “burdened with a bundle and a baby”, had lost her footing on the stairs and obstructed the entrance to the landing. An “elderly man” stumbled over her; within seconds “a large number of people were . . . completely blocking the stairway”. This caused a crush in which 173 people were asphyxiated.
A yellowing clipping of the story in The Times is featured in Under Attack, a new exhibition at the London Transport Museum that explores life under bombardment. There is no other mention of the disaster, the worst civilian tragedy of the Second World War.
“Nearly 200 people suffocated needlessly, and the British Government hushed it up,” says the American writer Jessica Francis Kane, whose novel about the disaster, The Report — shortlisted for two prizes in the US — comes out in the UK later this month. “Churchill feared that the accident would be used as propaganda by the enemy, who would claim that Londoners were so scared they were crushing themselves to death in their scramble for the shelters.”