After Hillsborough, now apology needed for 1943 Bethnal Green wartime tragedy

PUBLISHED: 00:01 15 September 2012

1943... Staircase leading down to air-raid shelter where 173 people were crushed to death

1943... Staircase leading down to air-raid shelter where 173 people were crushed to death

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Today the Advertiser starts a campaign for an official apology to the people of the East End over a wartime tragedy that cost the lives of 173 men, women, children and babies.

East Enders shelter in the deep-level tunnels at Bethnal Green before the Central Line extention was finishedEast Enders shelter in the deep-level tunnels at Bethnal Green before the Central Line extention was finished

The move comes in the wake of this week’s apology in the Commons by Prime Minister David Cameron over the Hillsborough disaster which cost the lives of 96 football fans 23 years ago.

The similarities between Hillsborough in 1989 and what happened at a public air-raid shelter in Bethnal Green on March 3, 1943, are uncanny.

The victims were put to blame in both cases by the authorities who later orchestrated a cover-up.

The Hillsborough relatives eventually got the truth after 23 years—that safety warnings were ignored, witness statements were altered and that many victims died needlessly through official incompetence.

All 173 victims of Bethnal Green’s tragedy who were crushed trying to get down narrow stairs to safety during an air-raid alert could have been saved—if the wartime Civil Defence authorities had listened to warnings from the Town Hall two years before.

That was the conclusion author Rick Fountain reached last March, on the 69th anniversary of the disaster.

Bethnal Green Metropolitan borough council had rung alarm bells as early as 1941 about the unsafe stairway leading down to the half-built Underground station being used as a deep-level air-raid shelter—but no-one listened.

Worst of all, Home Defence minister Herbert Morrison used wartime restrictions and the Official Secrets Act to gag the council—then told Parliament the tragedy was due to panic among crowds.

“The Hillsborough disaster bears a striking resemblance to Bethnal Green,” Rick told the Advertiser.

“In each case, the authorities ignored early warnings about crowd safety and later covered up that warnings had been given. They shifted the blame on the victims.”

Bethnal Green Council was unable to defend itself because of Morrison’s gagging order, released Cabinet papers have since revealed.

The Dunne Report released in 1945 at the end of the war claimed the crowd entering the shelter “had lost their self-control”, which researchers now say was a cover up—just like Hillsborough.

The Stairway to Heaven Trust which is raising funds for a permanent memorial to Bethnal Green’s dead is backing the Advertiser’s call for justice.

The trust’s Sandra Scotting said: “The Home Secretary in 1943 liberally sprinkled the phrase ‘a loss of control’ in his speeches, despite police reports that there was no panic until everyone found themselves trapped and unable to move.

“In today’s climate, it would have been put down to sheer weight of numbers, unsafe entrance design, poor lighting and the sad fact of the woman who fell at the bottom of the stairs causing others to fall on her.”

What is needed now, says the Advertiser, is an independent commission similar to Hillsborough to find out who was really to blame for Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster. Like Hillsborough, it certainly wasn’t the victims.

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