Since I am now living on the other side of the world to my family and most of my friends this blog is about things I enjoy, things I notice, people I meet, people I miss, history, planning for the future, love and life in general! I guess it's about whatever pops into my head which I want to share with my friends and family... and who knows? I might make some more friends along the way!

25 January, 2010

Tragedy on my doorstep - pt 1

While I have been looking into the history of Clapham during WWII, I have learned of two horrific incidents which occured during the Blitz, and both of which took the lives of many civilians doing their best to just get from one day to the next. One was in nearby Balham Tube Station, a reasonably short walk from where I live, and the other was at Kennington Park, just a few tube stops from Clapham.

The Balham disaster happened just before 8pm on the night of 14th October, 1940 & cost the lives of 67 people, although the modest plaque which currently commemorates this tragedy does not take into account 3 Undergroud workers who died amid the citizens seeking refuge that night. A series of specific circumstances caused the casualties, although none of them died from the initial bomb blast, nor shrapnel, nor even - as one might expect - as a result of fire. The victims were either crushed in the panic to leave the station, or drowned in a slurry of water, sewerage & mud. The word horrific is used a lot these days, but I think it applies to the way these 67 people died.

The initial bomb blast created a masive crater in Balham High Street, breaking through to the platform below, & rupturing water, sewerage & gas pipes. The surge of water caused the crater to enlarge, and washed thousands of litres of slurry (including raw sewerage) into the tunnel below. We know the crater grew quickly as a bus driver, who was in the vicinity of the blast, was concussed & slightly injured, so he parked his bus near the crater, and sought medical attention from a nearby first aid station. While he was being treated the crater grew enough to swallow his bus. Dramatic photographs of this were in most national newspapers the next day, although details of casualties were suppressed in order to both deny information to the enemy, and maintain morale in the general public.

There are estimated to have been up to 500 people sheltering in Balham Station that night, although more conservative estimates suggest it was closer to 200, the popularity of the Underground platforms as air-raid shelters, and extensive photographic evidence show Tube stations crammed with families, althogh at that hour commuters were not travelling through the station.

At the first sign of a bomb blast many people surged towards the the escalators & the exits above. The first casualties probably were due to suffocation & being crushed in the stampede... The majority of deaths, however, were due to drowning...

You might ask how it is possible to drown on an Underground platform? Anyone who has ever visited London has travelled on the tube, and anyone who's travelled on the tube knows those tunnels go on & on for ever! Surely the water & mud were simply siphoned off into those long, wide tunnels? Wrong.

The Northern line, which runs through Balham, also runs directly under the River Thames, close to the Embankment & Charring Cross Stations, and the government were fearful that a catastrophic flood could occur if the line were breached close to the river, especially at high tide. For this reason many of the stations in the Northern Line were fitted with water-tight doors, and as one of the lowest stations on the line, Balham was one of them. The very system that was supposed to prevent the people at Balham from drowning in the waters of the mighty River on which London is built, is the very reason the deluge was able to fill the area so quickly.

This year sees the 70th anniversary of this tragic event, but so few people who travel through the station will even be aware of the significance of the date. It is just one, of so many tragic & remarkable stories of London World War II. I, for one, will be very aware of the date, & intend to remember the 67 people who lost their lives to a Nazi bomb, and a sad twist of fate.

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