Wednesday of last week marked the 80th anniversary of a Second World War German bomb striking Balham Tube station. Here TOBY PORTER recounts what happened.
They had gone down into an Underground station seeking a refuge from the Blitz.
But more than 60 people were killed when a German bomb landed on Balham Tube station.
Then a Balham resident, Mike Harris said: “When I was a young boy I remember going down the Underground at Balham station on the Northern line during the worst of the German air raids.
“I well remember the sound of the first train in the morning which woke us up from the bunk beds we were sharing. I remember the stuffy atmosphere but the sense of togetherness among the people.”
Balham was one of many deep Tube stations designated for use as a civilian air raid shelter.
But at 8.02pm on October 14, 1940, a 1,400 kg semi-armour piercing fragmentation bomb fell on the road above the northern end of the platform tunnels.
It created a colossal crater – into which an out of service bus then crashed.
The northbound platform tunnel partially collapsed and was filled with earth and water from the fractured water mains and sewers above.
Those then flowed through the cross-passages into the southbound platform tunnel, with the flooding and debris reaching to within 100 yards of Clapham South Tube station.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 66 people in the station were killed – although some reports suggest 64 shelterers and four railway staff were killed and more than 70 were injured.
The damage at track level closed the line to traffic between Tooting Bec and Clapham Common.
Colin Perry in his book Boy in the Blitz said he wrote in his diary: “This bomb I think penetrated the steel-encased Tube below the ground, and I hear too that something, by a million to one chance, went down the ventilator shaft of the underground station.
“The water main was burst and the flood rolled down the tunnels, right up and down the line, and the thousands of refugees were plunged into darkness, water. They stood, trapped, struggling, panicking in the rising black invisible waters.
“They had gone to the Tubes for safety, instead they found worse than bombs, they found the unknown, terror. Women and children, small babes in arms, locked beneath the ground.
“I can only visualize their feelings, I can only write how it has been told to me, but it must have been hell. On top of this, there came a cloud of gas. People not killed outright were suffocated, the rest drowned, drowned like rats in a cage.”
Nearly seven million gallons of water poured into the tunnel and mixed with sand, debris and sewage.
The platform was buried under gravel and sand and within minutes.
The water nearly reached the main concourse, some 25ft above.
Almost all of the casualties would have resulted from the blast and debris.
But stories soon developed of trapped people drowning in the flood waters and slurry and of miraculous escapes by people swimming along the tunnels to the next station.
A report at the time said: “The [engineer] still has the scars on his hands caused by people tearing at them while he was trying to draw the bolts of the emergency hatch.”
The devastation was so great that rescue teams were still recovering bodies at Christmas.
Yet remarkably the damage was repaired and trains were running through the station on January 8, 1941, and the station itself reopened on January 19.
The Government, though, covered up the scale of the tragedy for fear of spreading enough panic to stop people using Tube stations for shelters.
In October 2000, a memorial plaque commemorating this event was placed in the station’s ticket hall.
It stated that 64 lives were lost, which differed from the CWGC register at the time, and other sources.
On October 14, 2010 this was replaced with a new commemorative plaque which does not state the number of fatalities.
This second plaque was again replaced with an official memorial stone in Welsh slate commissioned by London Underground and that was unveiled on October 14, 2016.
The second removed plaque was again deposited with the London Transport Museum.
The bombing of the station during the war is briefly mentioned in Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement, while the film based on the book depicts the station’s flooding, where a main character is killed.
Both the novel and the film date the event incorrectly, with the novel placing it in September 1940, and the film dating it as October 15 rather than the previous day.
Please support your local paper by making a donation
Please make cheques payable to “MSI Media Limited” and send by post to South London Press, Unit 112, 160 Bromley Road, Catford, London SE6 2NZ
Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has encouraged everyone in the country who can afford to do so to buy a newspaper, and told the Downing Street press briefing recently: “A free country needs a free press, and the newspapers of our country are under significant financial pressure”.
So if you have enjoyed reading this story, and if you can afford to do so, we would be so grateful if you can buy our newspaper or make a donation, which will allow us to continue to bring stories like this one to you both in print and online.