The Tube as a shelter

How London's Underground stations saved lives during the Blitz

Beaches of Normandy Tours

Aldwych station being used as a shelter during WWII
(Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Press Agency Print Collection)

As German bombs rained down on London during the Blitz of 1940-41, the city's Underground stations provided a vital sanctuary for civilians seeking refuge from the constant bombing. From sleeping on Tube platforms to the installation of bunks and medical posts, the government and the London Passenger Transport Board had to overcome significant challenges to ensure the safety and comfort of the shelterers. In this article, you will discover the story of London's underground shelters during World War II and the unprecedented effort to keep the Tube network running smoothly during the darkest days of the war.
 
In the summer of 1940, the Battle of Britain was raging in the skies over southern England, as the German Luftwaffe attempted to gain control of the skies and pave the way for a ground invasion. The Royal Air Force (RAF) fought valiantly to repel German air raids. Thanks to the use of an extensive radar system, good fighter planes and effective tactics, the British air defense was able to inflict heavy losses. This forced Germany to cancel its invasion plan, Operation Sealion, which also meant officially losing the Battle of Britain. This was Germany’s first big defeat during World War II. However, even though the Battle of Britain ended, Germany continued to launch air raids on British cities in what was known as the Blitz with the aim of damaging the country's infrastructure and reducing its ability to wage war.
 
Civilians on the ground were facing a deadly threat of their own. Starting on September 7, 1940, Londoners found themselves living under a constant threat of aerial attack. The Germans adopted a strategy of bombing the city during the night, when visibility was low, and then deploying bombers and fighter squadrons during the day to weaken the British fighter fleet by attacking air bases. London and other major cities were subjected to a barrage of bombs for 57 consecutive nights, causing widespread destruction and loss of life.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Saint Paul’s Cathedral burning during the Second Great Fire of London
(Photo: Herbert Mason)

London's docks and transportation hubs were favorite targets for the Luftwaffe seeking to disrupt the city's vital supply lines. From September to mid-November 1940 alone, railway facilities in and around London were bombed over 600 times. Over a million tons of bombs had been dropped on the capital by the end of the year, causing a huge conflagration called the Second Great Fire of London on December 29. (The first Great Fire of London occurred in 1666 and burned for three days, destroying over 13,000 homes and 87 churches, spanning an area of about 436 acres.) The Blitz lasted until May 1941, by which time two-thirds of the Luftwaffe had been redeployed to other fronts. 40,000 British civilians lost their lives, and a million buildings were destroyed during the bombing campaign. The need for air raid shelters was paramount, as people sought refuge from the constant bombing and the government looked for ways to protect its citizens.

Smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz. (Photo: public domain)
Smoke rising from the London docks after an air raid during the Blitz.
(Photo: public domain)

Londoners had previously sought shelter in the Tube during World War I from Zeppelin raids.  Learning from WWI, in May 1929, Frank Pick, then managing director of London Electric Railways, received a secret request from the War Office Committee of Imperial Defense to consider how the Tube could be used as shelters and for the purposes of evacuation. He was given twelve days to gather the information but replied in just two, with a plan to use stations on the Bakerloo, Piccadilly, Northern and Central lines as adapted shelters.

The outline of the Tube in 1945 (Photo: London Transport Museum)
The outline of the Tube in 1945
(Photo: London Transport Museum)
The plans were put on hold in 1929 but were carried out over a decade later when World War II broke out. Churchill’s wartime government initially opposed this idea. They were fearful of creating a shelter mentality that would encourage Londoners to forsake their wartime duties, and possibly serve as a catalyst for civil unrest. By September 1940, the Germans started to concentrate bombings on London and other major cities. They hoped to cause widespread chaos and panic, and also wanted to retaliate for the British bombing of Berlin and other German cities, which had occurred earlier in the war. The British government made a U-turn at this point and decided to open deep-level Tube stations as civilian shelters during air raids.
 
According to historical records, there were a total of 270 tube stations in the London Underground network in 1940. There were already several disused stations in the network that had been closed due to low passenger demand or poor construction quality. As planned by Frank Pick, some abandoned stations were opened for wartime use. For instance, Bethnal Green station was leased by a banking firm from the London and North Eastern Railway primarily to shelter their own workers, but was later also opened to the general public. Highgate station was owned by London Underground Electric Railways and leased at the time by the Plessey Company, which manufactured electronic equipment for the British military. Their factory was moved to the disused station’s tunnels, which were outfitted with the necessary equipment and facilities to continue production. The station also served as a shelter for the company’s employees and the public as well. Purpose-built deep-level shelters were also constructed at key points.
King William Street Station, abandoned in 1900, became one of the first examples of how a Tube station could be converted into a shelter. (Photo: Harry Todd, Fox photos)
King William Street Station, abandoned in 1900, became one of the first examples of how a Tube station could be converted into a shelter.
(Photo: Harry Todd, Fox photos)

Opening the Tube for civilian shelter was not an easy task. It required careful planning and preparation, as well as significant investment. The government and the London Passenger Transport Board had to address a number of challenges, including how to ensure the safety and comfort of the shelterers, how to manage the crowds, and how to keep the Tube network running smoothly.
 
Even before the government started to address these changes, people took matters into their own hands. Many bought tickets for the Tube and then simply refused to leave. During an interview a woman, who was a child during the Blitz explained: “We used to go down there to find somewhere to sleep. You had to buy a ticket to get down there...they didn't want people on the Underground initially but if you bought a ticket that was it! This behavior was really frowned upon, we were called the “droppers”. People wouldn’t take no for an answer, so the Underground conceded and started organizing and planning for people to stay down properly.”

So-called “droppers” on the platform of Elephant & Castle Station (Photo: Bill Brandt - Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)
So-called “droppers” on the platform of Elephant & Castle Station
(Photo: Bill Brandt - Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)

This prompted the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) to take control. Once the decision was made to formally admit shelterers, they came in their thousands. On September 21, 1940, around 120,000 people were seeking refuge in London’s underground stations. This had risen to 124,000 by October, with 2,750 sheltering at King’s Cross alone.
 
The responsibility of ensuring appropriate arrangements for shelterers, including sanitation, medical support, disease prevention, the installation of bunks and appointment of marshals, fell on local authorities. As the number of shelterers increased, however, the LPTB recognized the need to collaborate with local authorities in administering these responsibilities. On November 30, 1940, Westminster City Council became the first to introduce shelter reservation tickets, and individuals in unsanitary conditions were denied entry or removed to limit the spread of diseases.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Reservation ticket for Clapham South shelter
(Photo: London Transport Museum)
Safety below ground was a primary concern for the LPTB and the authorities continuously issued ”conditions of use” for shelterers. These regulations mandated several rules, including having a shelter ticket, arriving after 6.30 p.m., leaving by 7.00 a.m., avoiding standing in groups, keeping a distance from the platform edge, controlling children, taking rubbish home, and cooperating with the staff. A shelterer’s memories of the underground referenced the importance of the safety code: “They didn't want the kids walking about because the trains were running...they'd start playing about on the escalators...there was one kid, one night, got his fingers caught in the belt...”
Passengers sleeping on an escalator (Photo: Imperial War Museums)
Passengers sleeping on an escalator
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Medical and first aid posts were established to ensure the well-being of the shelterers and prevent the spread of infectious diseases. These posts numbered 86 in total and cost £12,590 including equipment, which amounts to over $850,000 in today's money.

One Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden checks first aid supplies whilst two others bandage the ankle of an injured civilian.  (Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)
One Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden checks first aid supplies whilst two others bandage the ankle of an injured civilian. 
(Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)

The LPTB provided ”Elsan” portable toilets and buckets for the shelterers, although their numbers were often inadequate for the number of people present. At Holburn, for example, only four Elsans and four buckets were available for a station that could hold 4,600 people. As one survivor remembered: “The stench was unbearable. The smell was so bad, I don’t know how people did not die from suffocation. So many bodies and no fresh air coming in.” Later, they installed devices called “hoppers,” which used compressed air to push the waste up into the sewers.

Gentlemen’s lavatory beneath the Underground arches (Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)
Gentlemen’s lavatory beneath the Underground arches
(Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection) 

24,000 bunks were installed across various stations, and cigarette machines were also placed in some locations. Another unpleasant experience of sheltering underground was the presence of mosquitoes. By February 1941, good progress was being made on the delivery of sprays and compressors for aerial disinfection, with particular attention given to the elimination of flying pests.
 
Refreshment services were established, with the first opening at Hyde Park station on October 29, 1940. By November 11, 40-50 gallons (150-190 liters) of drinks were being sold nightly, and 124 platform canteen points had been established at 71 stations by December 7, serving approximately 112,000 people. However, as the demand for drinks and sandwiches grew higher and higher, a new form of catering was introduced with refreshment trains making trips up and down the lines.

Canteens usually served tea, water, bread and sandwiches (Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)
Canteens usually served tea, water, bread and sandwiches
(Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)

Not all refreshments were up to the shelterers' standards. A report from 1946 explains that a chemical reaction between tea leaves and the copper of the tea kettles was causing a discoloration of the tea and the crowd complained. The solution was to add a small portion of citric acid to the water. After careful scientific examination it was concluded that 0.039 oz per gallon (0.3 g/l) is the perfect percentage to keep the tea at the desired color. The last refreshment was served on May 3, 1945. 545,454 gallons (2,064,768 liters) of tea were served to thirsty Londoners beneath the ground over the course of four and a half years!

Cooking in the shelter (Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)
Cooking in the shelter
(Photo: Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection)

Shelterers were provided with or encouraged to enjoy entertainment, such as playing gramophone records, and buskers would occasionally perform. Legendary swing musician Glenn Miller himself (Read our earlier article – The soundtrack of the Greatest Generation) made an appearance with a small band one time. People tried to maintain their spirits despite the war raging above, especially for the sake of the estimated 25,000 children who stayed in the stations nightly at the height of the conflict. Some stations even held children's parties, and a part of Gloucester Road station was transformed into a playground. Theresa Griffin, who was a child during the Blitz, said in an interview in 2017: “There used to be a lot of singing going on…and drinking… and a Christmas tree…there were carols and laughing and talking... By the time we'd finished we didn't hear what was going on upstairs.” The local authorities also provided 11,000 toys for children who had to spend the Christmas Eve of 1940 in the Tube.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Warden serving tea for kids resting in hammocks between the rails
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

 Some stations took both direct and indirect hits. On October 12, 1940, Trafalgar Square station was hit, resulting in seven fatalities. The following night, 19 people lost their lives as Bounds Green station was hit. Les Gaskin, one former shelterer at Bound Green station, recalled the night: "We got bedded down where we were near this entrance and next thing I remember is waking up and it was very dark and dusty. Luckily the emergency lights stayed on... Noise and shouting and hollering... We were shoved up against a wall. A lot of ARP [Air Raid Precautions] people and police were holding people back so they could bring people who were injured off. I do remember my mother saying, ‘don't look, don't look.’ And then my dad came to find us and saying to my mum, "thank God you're here girl."
 
The iconic photograph below was taken after a chaotic accident which took place near Balham station in south London. At 8:02 p.m. on October 14, 1940, a 3000 pound (1400 kg) semi-armor piercing fragmentation bomb fell on the road above the northern end of the platform tunnels, creating a large crater. Seconds later, one of London’s signature double-decker buses crashed into it. The bus ruptured the sewer and the water main, the water flooded into the station and around 60 people, civilians and London Transport staff were drowned.

Belham Station bus crash (Photo: public domain)
Belham Station bus crash
(Photo: public domain)

Not all casualties were caused by bombs. On March 3, 1943, an air-raid warning sounded, and locals raced for cover at Bethnal Green station. The Blitz had finished in the previous year, but the Allies had been bombing Berlin and reprisal attacks were expected. Confusion and panic conspired to trap hundreds on the staircase entrance. A woman tripping led to a domino effect and the ensuing accident killed 173 people, including 62 children, and injured over 60.
 
The last night of sheltering was on May 6, 1945. Allied victory in Europe was about to be announced and only 344 people went below ground for the last air raid alarm. During the war, an average of 150,000 people took shelter in London's Tube stations every night. Although the British had to encounter a lot of horror and destruction, the belief in their chances for victory never wavered and the overall morale remained high. According to a Gallup poll conducted in May 1940, only 3% of Britons believed that they would lose the war. Furthermore, Churchill enjoyed a high level of approval, with an 88% approval rating in July and 89% support for his leadership in October, as found by two separate polls in 1941. In response to major damage to the infrastructure, aircraft losses and limited industrial capacity, more civilians volunteered to become unpaid Local Defence Volunteers, while workers worked longer shifts and over weekends.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
First train of the day pulling in. Many would get up and go straight to work from here.
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The shelters were gradually closed after World War II, and many of them were repurposed for other uses, such as storage or archives. All the shelters, with the exception of Chancery Lane, were sold by the government in 1998 to Transport for London, the company responsible for most of the public transportation network in London. The Clapham Common shelter was leased in 2014 by the Zero Carbon Food company, who use the shelter as a hydroponic farm. However, some of the tunnels and stations have been preserved as historic sites, and visitors can take tours to learn about the history of the shelter and the experiences of the people who took refuge there during the war. If you want to know more about London and the Battle of Britain, join us on our Britain at War tour.

Beaches of Normandy Tours
Underground hydroponic farm in an abandoned Tube station
(Photo: Christoffer Rudquist, wired.com)
Book your tour
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.
*|IFNOT:ARCHIVE_PAGE|* *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|*

Our mailing address is:
*|HTML:LIST_ADDRESS_HTML|* *|END:IF|*

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

*|IF:REWARDS|* *|HTML:REWARDS|* *|END:IF|*
Plan
yourtour
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"This tour was so moving, I was brought to tears"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend this tour to anyone without hesitation"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would definitely recommend this tour to everybody who enjoys history."Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Total:
4.8 - 82 reviews