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London’s Underground: Air Raid Shelters

London Underground Air raid shelter
© Public Domain

The London Underground is a major transport network, handling up to five million passenger journeys every day. It opened in 1863 and during its 155-year history, the rail system has transported millions of people along its 402km of tracks.

It was a different story during the dark days of World War II, when the Tube was used as an unofficial air raid shelter by thousands of frightened Londoners who were trying to stay safe from the devastating bombings of the Blitz.

As well as people sheltering from the air raids in the Underground, the network of tunnels and stations also served as an operations base for the government, storage space for historic artefacts, and even as a production centre for weapons.

Air raid shelter

What many people may not realise is that the Underground had served as an air raid shelter prior to the start of the Blitz in 1940. During World War I, London had been under attack from German Zeppelins and Gotha aircraft, prompting residents to take shelter underground.

During the 1914 to 1918 war, the rail lines had been owned by separate companies, which were merged with London’s bus system in 1933 to create one transport network. Prior to World War II, the government had taken the stance that the use of the stations as air raid shelters should be discouraged.

The government preferred people to use official air raid shelters across London, which were being built by the Ministry of Home Security, but only eight were completed and three were used by the government. Only five were opened for public use, so people flocked to the Underground in their droves for safety.

Unfortunately, the highest civilian loss of life during World War II occurred in the Underground on 3rd March 1943, when tests of the anti-aircraft missiles and air raid sirens led to mass panic. As people rushed to Bethnal Green Station, 173 people died in the crush.

Shelters regulated

The government continued to try to prevent the use of the stations as shelters, but eventually, it had to relent, as thousands of people ignored the advice and continued using them anyway. The government had to accept that the practice would continue and began regulating and policing the Tube to prevent dangerous overcrowding.

Some areas were made into official shelters, so families from across London could descend the stairs every night as they tried to stay safe, while the bombing continued overhead. Many of the shelters are still intact in disused areas of the Underground and have remained untouched since the war, or have been used for storage.

Transport for London, the organisation that manages the London Underground, has been looking into reopening some of them for visitors. The Clapham South air raid shelter today resembles an anonymous public toilet at ground level, but behind its closed doors, the concrete bunker can be entered using a long, spiral staircase of 120 steps.

Inside, there are long corridors containing thousands of 1940s beds, with the occasional sign and graffiti reminding the modern generation of the people who met there every night more than 70 years ago.

“Festive” atmosphere

During the war, Clapham South shelter had room for 8,000 people, with each person having their own bed. Reports from the time reveal music was played over the station’s loudspeaker system to try and keep people calm. Often, the atmosphere was described as “festive” as the occupants had sing-alongs and even dancing.

Tea was served, though at two pence a cup, it was twice as expensive as the tea at ground level, which caused some complaints.

Eventually, the government followed the people’s lead and started using some Tube stations for administration offices and for the military. Brompton Road Tube Station, which had closed down in 1934, became a station for the 1st Anti-Aircraft Division to defend London. The front of the station was transformed into offices and the tunnels were the division’s operational centre.

When the TV show Blue Peter visited the station in 2000, they discovered war memorabilia including maps still in place there.

Underground factories

The Underground also had other uses – the American troops used some parts of the Tube as their base, including Goodge Street Station, which was used by General Eisenhower. The government stored equipment relating to the study of bombs and also ran a signalling school at South Kensington Station.

When the Blitz seriously damaged factories, some of them were relocated to the Underground, with several stations being used to manufacture aircraft components and other items needed for the war effort.

The Plessey munitions factory of Redbridge in East London occupied an entire section of the Underground, between Gants Hill and Leytonstone stations, moving workers and components along the tracks.

The majority of the 2,000-strong workforce were women, who occupied a five-mile stretch of Tube tunnels. The factory premises opened in 1942 and included canteens, escalators, air conditioning and a miniature railway.

Women made various components for the Armed Forces and defence equipment, such as aircraft parts, shell cases and radio equipment. The factory received the royal seal of approval from King George, who visited as a mark of respect for the war work being carried out there.

Historic treasures

The disused Aldwych station was used as safe storage space for historic treasures from the British Museum, including the Elgin Marbles, to protect them from bomb damage.

The Underground aided Britain’s war effort in many ways, but the entrances to the old air raid shelters have been bricked up today and it’s reported that nobody is 100% certain where they all connected. In some London Underground stations, the entrance to a wartime air raid shelter could be just a brick wall away!

This year’s remembrance services, including the two-minute silence at 11am, will be particularly poignant since they are commemorating the 101st anniversary of the end of World War I.

LH-PLC joins the nation in paying tribute to the bravery of those who made the ultimate sacrifice, so that future generations could live in freedom.

We will remember them.

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