Dr Joan Martin, 99, recalls horror of 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster
- Credit: Stairway Trust
A woman of 99 who was a doctor on duty in London’s East End on the night of Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster in 1943 turned up for the 71st anniversary memorial service of the Bethnal Green tragedy.
Dr Joan Martin was the junior casualty officer at the Queen Elizabeth’s Children’s Hospital when she received a call on March 3 that year to expect casualties.
But she didn’t realise the scale of the horror that was to unfold, after 173 men, women and children had been crushed to death.
“It was the worst night of my medical career,” she recalled.
“I had two students from the London Hospital working with me when one dead person after another arrived on stretchers. The faces were wet and mauve in colour.
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“Then a small boy with a broken arm gave us some idea what had happened at the air-raid shelter.”
A crowd in the street tried to reach safety during a sudden air-raid alert when they surged down the narrow, badly-lit staircase into the half-built Bethnal Green Underground station being used as a public shelter. A woman tripped and the crowd fell on top of her.
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Dr Martin received the call at 8.45pm when Air Raid Precautions officers told her to prepare for casualties.
“The anti-aircraft guns in Victoria Park were particularly noisy that night and sounded like bombs coming down,” she recalled. “The casualties were beyond hope and we piled the bodies in one of the consulting rooms.
“The next morning we were told not to discuss what had happened.
“To this day, I have tried to suppress the ghastly memories of that night in 1943—and still get in a panic if I’m in a crowd at a tube station.”
Dr Martin was one of the handful of rescue teams and survivors at Sunday’s memorial at St John on Bethnal Green church where all the names of the victims, including 62 children, were read out as candles were lit in their memory. It was followed by wreath-laying at the memorial by the staircase leading down to the station where the tragedy occurred 71 years ago.
The Stairway to Heaven trust needs another £75,000 to complete the unfinished memorial. Donations at the service brought in another £2,040.