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Barbara Windsor joins memorial to Bethnal Green’s 1943 air-raid disaster

PUBLISHED: 07:00 06 March 2016

Dame Barbara Windsor

Dame Barbara Windsor

David Harrison

Barbara Windsor returns to her roots in London’s East End today to join a memorial service to mark the 73rd anniversary of Britain’s worst civilian disaster of the Second World War.

Barbara Windsor at previous memorial in 2010, with survivor Alf MorrisBarbara Windsor at previous memorial in 2010, with survivor Alf Morris

Dame Barbara, recently given a Damehood in the New Year’s Honours after 70 years in entertainment, joins the Stairway to Heaven memorial to the 173 people killed in a false air-raid alert on March 3, 1943.

The service starts at 2pm at St John on Bethnal Green Church, with wreaths being laid afterwards next to the tube station entrance where disaster struck that evening.

The memorial honours those killed and injured, the survivors, rescuers and emergency services personnel, some of whom will also be present this-afternoon.

Survivor Alf Morris revists staircase and (inset) wartime ARP warden Maud Chumley who saved himSurvivor Alf Morris revists staircase and (inset) wartime ARP warden Maud Chumley who saved him

Among the survivors was a 13-year-old schoolboy, Alf Morris, now 86, who was pulled clear from the crush on the stairs leading down to the shelter by a wartime ARP warden, Maud Chumley.

Alf returns each year to pay tribute to the woman who saved his life 73 years ago.

He was in the crowd queuing to get into the unfinished Bethnal Green tube station, which was being used as a public air-raid shelter, when they suddenly lurched forward after an anti-aircraft battery fired a salvo of a new type of rocket artillery in Victoria Park a mile away.

Day after 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster... staircase being repairedDay after 1943 Bethnal Green air-raid shelter disaster... staircase being repaired

The rocket gun vibrations felt throughout the district caused alarm that the Luftwaffe was mounting a sudden air-raid.

A woman tripped with her child on the wet stairs in the dark leading down to the shelter and others behind fell on top of them.

Within seconds, 300 people were crushed on the narrow staircase. By the time the last person was pulled out by rescuers, 173 were dead and 90 injured.

Ellen Ridgway... one of 173 crushed to death at Bethnal Green air-raid shelter, 1943Ellen Ridgway... one of 173 crushed to death at Bethnal Green air-raid shelter, 1943

At this-afternoon’s memorial service at 2pm, all 173 names will be read out while a candle is lit for each one on St John’s church altar.

Barbara Windsor, who was born in Shoreditch and grew up in Mile End during the war, has attended the annual memorial before, in 2010, when she first met Alf Morris.

Today she joins Pearly kings and queens, Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs, TV’s Tommy Walsh, actress Somi de Souza and Bethnal Green’s MP Rushanara Ali as they parade across the road after the service to lay wreaths on the almost-completed memorial in Bethnal Green Gardens.

Tribute to those killed at Bethnal Green air raid shelter, 1943Tribute to those killed at Bethnal Green air raid shelter, 1943

Britain’s worst wartime civilian disaster, ironically, was not caused by enemy action—there was no German air raid over London that night.


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