Rare glimpse of London Tube station used as Blitz shelter

24th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

A London subway station that sheltered thousands of terrified people during the Nazis' bombing campaign in World War II was to open to the public this weekend to mark 70 years since the raids.

Survivors of the Blitz were among visitors to the three-day opening of Aldwych station in the city's theatre district, descending the 160 steps below ground for a rare glimpse of life in war-torn London.

Aldwych was one of the first Tube stations to be used as an air raid shelter when the German bombing campaign began in September 1940. It would last eight consecutive months and claim the lives of thousands of Londoners.

Crowds of people huddled on the platforms in the dark, with little in the way of food or comfort, shuddering as the bombs fell above.

"At first we just went down for an hour or two, then we'd go home after getting the all-clear," recalled Margret [sic] Clark, 78, who sheltered at Clapham North station in south London with her family.

"After that it started lasting all night -- we weren't exactly sleeping, we had no bedding, we just sat, sat on the floor, sat on a bench.

"There was a gentleman's agreement, you'd have your spot and each evening that would be your spot. My mother had a corner at the bottom of one escalator and my auntie the corner of the other escalator."

Visitors to Aldwych -- out of use since 1994 -- are greeted by the same green and white tiled walls and peeling paint that was there in 1940, while actors will play out the role of the sheltering Londoners.

The station was closed to trains on September 21, 1940 and soon equipped to shelter 500 people. Two hundred bunk beds were set up on the platforms, and a ticket system regulated access.

A first-aid station, a canteen and a library were installed, and church services were even held there on a Sunday.

The sheltering crowds also shared their space with some unusual companions -- the station was used to house treasures from the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

For many the arrangement remained a horrible experience.

"I hated it, I hated the idea of coming down night after night... I was cold, I was frightened... it got very dirty," recalled one unnamed man in a recording played to journalists at a preview.

Many Tube officials tried their best to help the people who came into their care, such as when the wedding of Peggy and Jack Birmingham was disrupted by an air raid and the party went down into Edgware Road station in north London.

The station manager opened a lift for the young couple and set it halfway down the shaft so they could enjoy their wedding night in peace.

A total of 79 Tube stations were used as shelters during the war, equipped with beds for 22,800 people, although an estimated 100,000 took refuge in stations every night as the German bombers swept over the city.

Thousands of lives were saved in this way, although others were unlucky. Between September 1940 and May 1941, about 200 people died when stations were directly hit, and 181 Tube staff died.

© 2010 AFP

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