The London Blitz, Balham Tube Station

Under The Stairs As far as I was concerned I could never be bothered to get out of bed unless the bombing was so heavy my mother insisted and then she and I sat in the cupboard under the stairs. It was there that I witnessed real fear, almost to the point of terror for the first time. My mother had always been a cool customer in all circumstance. Whatever her emotions, and I have seen her white round the mouth with sheer anger; she was always dignified, usually kept her own council and apart for some slight indication as I have just described, one would not know her real reactions. On many nights when she insisted I join her, in what she referred to as the ‘cubby-hole’, we would hear bombs falling, windows rattling, but on only one occasion when I was at home did a stick of bombs actually threaten us. There were about six in a row. We could hear each explode with barely a second between them, which seemed an age, and there was a steady increase in the vibration of the explosion and in the noise each made. Inexorably they came, as steady as time itself and we were both sure one would hit us. It was then I saw my mother, she was white knuckled, rigid with such a fixed look on her face that I was more worried for her than where the next bomb might fall. It landed beyond us and the house shook. In the light of the torch, with the drama increased by the oblique shadows and sharp contrasts cast by it, I saw her slowly relax, but it was some time before she fully recovered.

The Balham Tube Station Disaster A considerable number of people in London generally, and our district in particular, took shelter from the blitz in the underground railway stations, sleeping on the platforms. There were other shelters, there were brick structures with heavy reinforced concrete roofs, a very common sight on the street corners of Belfast when I arrived there in ’42. Some people used Anderson shelters, made from corrugated steel and provided by the ARP for the householder to erect. You had to dig a hole about half the depth of the shelter height, then the body of the shelter which was like a tiny Nissan hut was put in place and covered with sandbags. The idea was fine if the base of the shelter could be drained and water prevented from getting in, otherwise within months of being erected they were useless. My grandmother was issued with a Morrison shelter some way through the war. This was nothing other than a dining table made from steel and capable of supporting beams and similar debris, should the house be damage. The idea was that the family slept under this thing every night.

It is only as the years have gone by that the true price, of what the Continentals and Russians paid in the Hitler War, has come to light. It dwarfs what I write here, but at the time we, on the receiving end, thought ourselves hard done by. On the night in question my friends and I had been off somewhere and were on our way home when we heard the air raid siren wail. Almost as soon as the guns opened up we heard the most awful bang and reckoned rightly that a bomb had fallen in Balham High Road, but we didn’t hang around to find out what had happened, for once discretion took over. It was therefore the following day before we heard of the disaster and the full extent of what had happened. The story we heard was that the bomb had fallen in the centre of the High Road over the platform area of the tube station, but that was all the damage that was done at that moment. Unhappily though, almost immediately, one of the last buses of the evening ran straight into the hole left by the bomb and burst a huge water main, this in turn poured gallons of water into the tunnel.

It was a disaster contrived by contributing circumstances, each of which, while serious would not have been catastrophic. The authorities knowing about the water main, had taken it into account in the planning. They had assumed that if the pipe received a direct hit the water would flood the street and then descend the escalator, so to avoid that eventuality they had installed water-tight doors which were shut at night. Coupled with this the station was at the lowest part of the line so that any water entering the station could not flow out, and last but not least, it had been designed as a station in peace-time, it was therefore merely an emergency measure, not a purposely designed air raid shelter in the accepted sense. I don’t remember the death toll, it is a matter of record, but most people knew someone who had experienced that awful night or perhaps perished.

40 thoughts on “The London Blitz, Balham Tube Station

  1. I lived in Balham during the war and remember well the 88 bus driving into the bomb crater. Also the loss of life of those sleeping on the Underground station.
    This 14th October was the 75th anniversary of this event and a small ceremony took place,I noted that I was the only person present who had actually lived in Balham during the war present.

  2. My novel “In Loving Memory” will be published in July 2016 and some of it centers around the events of the evening of October 14, 1940 at Balham tube station. In fact it was likely a combination of water, sludge, sewage, debris, gravel and ballast from the roadway above that killed the 60-odd shelterers on the platform that night. All of these things cascaded in through the crater caused by the bomb. The ceiling of the tunnel collapsed where the bomb dropped, and those who were killed were likely directly in the path of the mountain of debris and the torrents of water and sewage. There were also broken gas mains. “Atonement” was a highly stylized depiction of what might have happened. In reality, the majority of the shelterers had time to escape once the watertight doors were opened. The station was plunged into complete darkness by the bomb, which must have rendered the situation even more terrifying. There are a few very good photos of the aftermath of the bombing on the London Transport Museum website, including a number from inside the station at platform level, showing the mountains of debris and how far they travelled down the northbound platform. Hope this helps!

  3. I live in a flat in balham opposite the tube and recently came across pictures of the bombing and as I was investigating the photo of the bus in the hole in the road… I realised that it is exactly where I live that was bombed. My flat, in its previous incarnation, a hole at the edge of the road. So thought provoking.

  4. Researching this story, as my Father, prompted by a recent montage of photos in the Daily Express, recalls that my Grandfather was returning home on this bus, after teaching evening classes in Regent Street. He arrived home very late and with some injuries. The passengers were helped up a ladder to the back of the bus (fortunately the exit in those days) and ‘patched up’. Dad would have been 11 at the time and was possibly not made aware of the tragedy that had happened.

  5. Last night I watched the PBS show on Underground London – very interesting, since my husband and I have been to London and toured the War Room building where Churchill and his War Ministers met.
    It mentioned in the show a tubestation where many wonderful and historical treasures were found in an off-room. I immediately thought of the tubestation in ATONEMENT where Celia died during the blitz. I immediately Googled the movie to see the name of the station where she died (not the same one I was watching on PBS), but I had to find out if the one in the movie had actually happened, though the book and movie had said that it was true.
    Sorry that I am so wordy but read the book first, and sobbed at the final truth re: Robbie and Celia, and loved the movie as well, sobbing in the theater though I knew what was coming.
    Thank you for this blog. Unlike a few of you, I loved the book AND the movie.

  6. Well several years after most previous posts I saw Atonement for the first time last night. All the way through the film both my wife and myself were saying what a boring and depressing film it was but felt unable to turn it off, it somehow was fascinating at the same time. The death scene talked about here had a significant effect on me as I was previously unaware of such dangers in the underground shelters. Unusually most Internet pages agree on the salient facts,; a large bomb fell on the road above one end of the platform, a bus drove into the hole damaging both water, and perhaps even more terrifying, sewage pipes. The doors meant to protect the station from external flooding actually stopped the sludge being dispersed. Around 400 people escaped but an undetermined number of people died, probably around 65 – 68. Some bodies were not discovered for nearly three months after the event. Sad.

  7. My mother and father,Grace and Jack Potter, and my 18 month old brother Lionel were sheltering on the station platform that evening and were among the ones fortunate to survive.I was born 2 weeks later on 1st November my mother having suffered no serius or lasting injuries during her lucky escape.

  8. I live in Toronto Canada now but I lived at the top of Balham Hill near Tooting Bec Common and I just watched Atonemnet on TV! I ran to the internet to see if the story was true as well. It is amazing that we have such access to information, and, I loved the movie! It made me cry to watch the Dunkirk scenes thinking of my dad and what he must have witnessed during the war. He has been dead quite a few years now but the memory of his face came to me so clearly watching the film.

  9. Another latecomer arriving via Atonement (book and film – outstanding both). I couldn’t find the film mentioned by Lynda Hennell but I did find some amazing photographs on the London Transport Museum website, e.g.

    http://www.ltmcollection.org/photos/photo/link.html?IXinv=1998/29592

    (Search for “Balham” in the photo section.) Seeing these, it’s easy to understand why so many died. In fact, they mention 111 dead, though this may included people killed above ground.

  10. The power of film! Yes, Atonement was on last night and at the end I was surpised by the Balham reference as it is a station I use quite frequently. Today I rushed home with the intention of finding out if it was true and low and behold the world and his wife have all done the same :0). I will be going to the station tomorrow to look for the plaque and do some more research into the history of Balham.

  11. We have a family story related by my maternal grandmother. Her brother (my great uncle) was a station porter at Balham Tube station and was on duty the night of 14th October 1940. The family were told that he was found drowned in silt still hanging on to the telephone trying to get help. A terrible family tragedy as he was only 35 years old. His name was Mornington Trudgill and he appears on the official casualty and death list, so this story is indeed true. Today reading this blog I have just discovered that the film Atonement is about this horror in part. I hadn’t read the book and the film sits on my bookhelf unwatched. I now must watch it. I have already seen a small part of a film made by The British Transport Museum about the event in a series about transport in wartime. So shocked to see it I couldn’t get to the TV remote to record it. I haven’t been able to find any reference anywhere to this film so far. It was in the nineties. Anyone seen this or know how I can see it again? I emailed BTM but had no response. Funny what find on the web. I was actually looking for something about Wandsworth for my husband!!!

  12. This is a message for Chris Warburton. I’m interested in your mother’s story about the Balham Disaster.

    Would you be able to contact me at newsdesk@itvlondon.com marking your email for the attention of George?

    I would be most grateful.

    Many Thanks.

    George.

  13. Yet another late-to-the-game Atonement viewer. What a marvelous, heart-breaking movie. I also rushed to the Web to find out more about the Balham Tube disaster.

    Thank you so much for your blog. It’s wonderful to have access to so much eye-witness history without having to dig through library stacks.

  14. Im a little late in the game, but after just watching Atonement (ah, yes… yet another Atonement fan) this afternoon on cable I was compelled to research the Balham story and am quite horrified to find that it’s true. Thank you for the great information. Very detailed.

  15. I heard about this disaster on a TV show about the war, & did a bit of research, as I live close by, in Clapham, and often walk to Balham to do some shopping & catch the tube… it shocked me that such a horrific disaster happened in a place I know quite well! From what I have read, the official toll is 64, but it’s believed there were 4 more unaccounted for at the end of the recovery process, which took about 3 months… it must have been horrific – & apparently the sewer line broke too, so the search team had to deal with that as well!

    I just hope & pray we never have to face anything like this in London again – or anywhere in the world, for that matter!

  16. Before he died my father related a story of his being in an Anderson shelter during an air raid.

    His father, my grandad, was a soldier of the first world war and with the exception of being gassed at Ypres survived pretty much unscathed. He never used the Anderson shelter saying that after years of being shelled in the trenches if the Germans couldn’t kill him then he’d be damned if he was going to sleep in a hole in the garden now.

    At my grandmothers insistance however he built the Anderson shelter for her and the younger children (his two eldest sons were serving soldiers).

    They lived in Clapham in the East End of London and one night durung a raid their street was bombed. My father related how one bomb landed so close the shock wave in the soil bounced a bottle of milk off the floor of the Anderson shelter and hit his sister on the head knocking her unconcious.

    After the raid they came out to find both the house next door and their own badly damaged. Fearing the worst for my Grandad they eventally found him in the demolished house with barely a scratch on him. Evidently my Grandmother was so relieved to see him all she could say was “You silly b*gger”.

    They were bombed out of three houses during the war and ended up in Maidstone. Where I live today. My father as a young lad used to poach rabbits for meat on the North Downs during the war; some stories of which he sometimes related to me. His ashes are now scattered on the Downs where he was so happy.

    • Clapham is in South London not the east end, mate. My mother told me about Balham Station. Her family lived in Balham. She always reckoned there was a cover up. She was under a house in Victoria/Pimlico for three days with my aunt(her sister) they were 20 and 22. As the house collapsed Auntie Jo was putting flowers in a vase. Now in the dark and in some pain and shock,she was soaking wet. “Pat? Pat?” “I’m ok!” said Mummy. “I’m bleeding Pat…” “where? Where, where r u…I’m coming over..” “I don’t know…” “well where does it hurt?” Auntie Jo snaps, “all over, you silly cow…”as panic starts to appear in her tone of voice. By now mummy had crept close and was straddling her elder sister. She began to undo Jo’s Wren uniform to find the wound. ” Don’t you bloody die on me…” ” it’s ok, Pat! STOP! I just remembered…it’s the water from the bloody vase…”. “oh, you silly bitch…” and they then collapsed into hysterical giggling that was a characteristic of the sisters together when I knew them from the mid 1960s. Auntie Jo said that after that initial fright and recovery they handled banging on the pipes for three days and finding stuff to drink and eat without collapsing their cave was a bit of an adventure and not frightening. My word! Proper Londoners.

  17. My mother and her own mother were on the Southbound platform on the night when the bomb fell – they were very lucky to escape and were near the stairs on the particular night. This is something my mother attributes to a premonition on the part of my grandmother as they usually \tucked down\ further down the platform nearer to the tunnel!

    • My Grandfather, Robert Barritt worked on the underground as an escalator operator at Clapham South. He was in some way involved in the Balham bombing, probably clearing up wreckage afterwards. He became ill and was invalided out.

      I would be fascinated to contact anyone who knew him and could give me information about him? My e-mail address is: hardyfamilycoddenham@btinternet.come

      thanks, Colin Hardy

  18. I guess Laura and I watched Atonement at the same time. I knew I was in for some seriously depressing content before watching it. It was beautifully done and beautifully tragic. I googled the tube incident first thing this morning too. Wow. There are simply no words for such tragic events. It reminds me of the movie Hope and Glory. That is one British WWII film that I remembering watching when I was a child and still will watch whenever it comes on. WWII England was a time and place that I cannot fathom to the degree of its realities.

    Atonement will stick with me for a long time, most especially because of the depictions of the tube station tragedy as much as for the tragic love story.

  19. It would appear that I am a bit behind the times, having only just watched Atonement this evening, having read the book last month. I too headed for the internet to investigate Balham tube station. The blog above is very informative and what a disaster it was, how horible for those people sheltering from the bombings to die in a place they regarded as safe. War is an ugly thing, lets hope, with films such as Atonement memories are kept alive and those of us fortunate enough to have be born post-war never forget the sacrifices everyone made for us.

  20. I lived in Balham during WW2, Rossiter Road, just along from the Bedford.

    The Balham Station bomb in 1940 was, more or less, outside the front of Woolworths and it is ironic that in 1944 a V1 flying bomb fell in Culmore Cross, at the back of Woolworths, about 50 yards from the 1940 bomb, also taking a lot of lives and completely destroying Culmore Cross.

  21. @Dom – It was Senate House (part of UCL in Bloomsbury) that was the reference point for the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s future headquarters.

    It was also the Ministry of Love in 1984.

  22. As a long term Balham inhabitant I can confirm that there is a plaque dedicated to the unfortunate people who died in this disaster in the tube station. It’s on the wall on the left hand side of the station as you come off the top of the escalators (as if you’re heading off the escalators and out of the station, before you hit the ticket barriers).

    There is also large iron pole on a pedestrian island outside “The Bedford” (a well known pub in Balham) nestling amongst, and towering above, the street lighting which I’ve been told used to support the local air raid siren during the war. I can’t confirm it’s true, but an interesting story none the less.

    Finally on the Balham front, there is a large Art Deco building on the high road (also near to the station) called Du Cane Court. Various WWII rumours about Du Cane court exist such as German bomber pilots using it as a reference point to plot courses into and out of London, and the rumour that Hitler wanted to turn it into his official residence once he had invaded England!

  23. I am one of those who insist on reading the book before seeing the movie. I am now re-reading the book.

    I too wanted to check on the facts regarding Balham Tube Station. I have an extensive library but have yet to really read about the bombing that took place in England.

    This is a wonderful blog and is now on my favorites. Please keep posting what you remember because it is wonderful to get stories first-hand.

    Jade

  24. Look on the WW 2 sites where they give information on the station in a fairly concise manner. There are several sites dedicated to British cilivan losses.

  25. …Another Atonement victim…

    Great information, though I’m still dubious to the events at Balham station. I’m sure people may have perished in the rushing water. But the image of Kiera Knightly drowned in the completely filled station is sensational? Surely?

    Does anybody know of where I can get documented evidence of this?

    Thanks

  26. Thank you so much for this.
    Add me to the above people, it was Atonement for me that sparked my interest, (I’m also with Anne H on how it was crushingly depressing), I found the tube station disaster so horrifying on screen, I went straight to Google to see if it were true. Heartbreaking, war.

  27. Hasn’t anyone actually READ Atonement? I didn’t even know a film had been made of it until very recently – but the book is thrillingly well written and much more cpmplex than what is able to be conveyed by the film.

    • Yes, I have read “Atonement” and agree with you that it is a well-written, evocative, thought-provoking book. Folks who just watch movies and do not read the books that the movies are based on miss out on a lot.

  28. Jemm, i agree. Movies that spark curiousity are great. Although the movie was crushingly depressing, it was beautiful, full of beautiful images and interesting music.
    The concept of people drowning in the underground is such a vivid horrifying one. i, too, immediately ran to my computer to find if it was based on truth. Aren’t computers great? Arent’ search engines great? I spend all day, finding questions without answers, but they’re only a click away!

  29. I too, have seen Atonement (and I think it is one of the best films I’ve ever seen, sorry you disagree, Dave). As an Aussie, I was blissfully unaware of Belham St station, and though it was fiction. But quick google and here I am. So thank you.
    By the way, I think films like Atonement are wonderful if they kindle interest in a subject like this….

  30. well, let’s make it 4 for 4 (atonement). I, as well, went to find out about the tube disaster. Never heard of that one before. Only thing in the movie that was interesting, btw.

  31. I thirdly have seen the film Atonement and wondered the exact same thing. I immediately came home and checked out the story online as my mother who was a war baby had never heard the sad tale. I am happy to have found your blog on here, your stories are incredibly interesting!

  32. I also saw the film ‘Atonment’ and couldn’t really believe that a burst water pipe would have been able to fill up a tube station and drown people. But thanks to the internet and this article and now know that this disaster was indeed a true one and not a piece of fiction used to make a film more dramatic and tragiv. I now understand that i wasn’t just the soliders away on foreign soil that were in tremendous amounts of danger but the people at home also who didn’t really comprehend the danger that was right on their doorstep.

  33. Just seen the film ‘Atonement’ and couldn’t understand how people could drown on a tube station platform, thought it must be a fairytale as the water would surely run off down the line. Thanks to your website now understand about the closing of the watertight doors. How awful, no escape.
    Great to read your story, I was born in 1940 so remember nothing of the war itself, though I do remember taking my sweet ration coupons to the shop later on. My mum did tell me that we spent several nights in the fields when the bombing hit Nottingham and Sheffield. My father who was too old for the army spent the war ferrying bombs and ammunition from the dumps in Sherwood Forest to the various airfields in Lincolnshire, he became friendly with some Americans, and I remember they used to come to the house with a suitcase and stay over, so we were never short of canned meat, fruit, etc.!!

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