The London Underground

Because the government believed that once people entered deep shelters like tube stations, they would be hesitant to return to the surface and resume their usual lives, they came to the conclusion that they did not like them.

The government instructed London Transport not to permit civilians to use the tube stations as shelters before the Blitz began. However, the staff of the underground station discovered that it was impossible to prohibit individuals from entering and constructing their own rudimentary shelters underground.

A replica London Underground Air Raid Shelter sign.

Workmen putting the finishing touches to an old tube station (King William Street) which has been converted into an air raid shelter holding 2,000 people. It has air-conditioning and a first aid station, all at a cost of about £20,000. 16th March 1940

Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Although Churchill was happy to use a deserted underground station as a refuge for himself, the Prime Minister was "thinking on authoritarian lines about shelters and talks about forcibly preventing people from going into the underground," according to Churchill's private secretary John Colville, who recorded the statement in his diary.

Governmental orders prohibiting the use of the subterranean as a public shelter were disregarded by the populace. They were quiet, dry, and well-lit. The violent bombing raids occurring above were also not audible. 

11 Nov 1940, Londonn. As raiding German Airmen drone overhead these children sleep in hammocks slung between the rails of the underground railway between Aldwych and Holborn, which has been taken out of service to provide safe shelter for Londoners during air raids.


Herbert Morrison, who was appointed Home Secretary in October 1940, altered government strategy. A brief branch line to Aldwych station was shut down and made accessible to the general public. Three abandoned stations were given special public access.

One enormous shelter with a capacity of roughly 10,000 was created from an unfinished extension that ran from Liverpool Street under the East End.

By the end of September 1940, some 177,000 people were sleeping in the Underground system, with 79 stations in Greater London serving as shelters. ARP wardens, London Transport employees, and volunteers were in charge of overseeing each station.

Those sheltering in the Underground often had to use whatever space they could find.

Hindsight Colouring (

Civilians sheltering in Aldwych Underground station during an air raid,

Royston Leonard /

Each shelter developed a dependable bedtime regimen. People slept on the platforms and in the track tunnels after the power was turned off. The majority of Underground stations had amenities such as chemical restrooms (in some cases only buckets behind screens), drinks, and even libraries in addition to platform sleeping areas or prefabricated bunks. For instance, the libraries in the City of Westminster provided 2,000 books for the borough shelters.

Tea being served to those sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz.

PA Photos 

Passengers encountered issues as a result of the large number of people seeking refuge in underground stations: People of various ages and genders dozed off with their arms outstretched in every possible carefree position, leaving merely a yard-wide trail around the edge of the platform: A few people may be sitting up, some nursing a thermos of tea or boiling a kettle, another attempting to read by using an electric torch. A child's leg stretching out over the path and needing to be gently stepped over.

The heat was intense, and the odour was awful. It appeared chaotic and at times almost Dantesque.

Sheltering in the Underground - photo taken from within the tunnel.

Hindsight Colouring (

A doctor and nurse checking on those sheltering in the underground.

Those who sought refuge in the London Underground, immortalised in works of art by wartime greats like Henry Moore and Edward Ardizzone, may have felt more secure, but they were far from safe from harm. The apparent safety of the underground was not what it seemed. A high explosive bomb could pierce solid ground up to fifty feet deep.

  • On 17th September 1940, a small bomb struck the Marble Arch tunnel directly, killing twenty people. The blast tore the white tiles from the walls as they burst, turning them into deadly projectiles.
  • On 7th October 1940, an explosion caused the concrete and steel escalator case over Trafalgar Square station to collapse, killing seven people and injuring thirty-three.
  • At Bounds Green station the following day, fifty-two people were hurt and 19 people died.
  • 12th November 1940 at Sloane Square Station, A German bomb tilled 37 and injured 79 passengers on a train in the station and destroyed the ticket hall, escalators and the glazed roof over the tracks.
  • On 11th January 1941 during World War II the Central line ticket hall of Bank station suffered a direct hit from a German bomb. The roadway collapsed into the subways and station concourse, killing 56 people.
  • Green Park Station in the City of Westminster also sustained significant damage,

Air raid damage at Sloane Square Underground station, District line. This shot shows the platforms and tracks completely covered in rubble; in the foreground, one of the metal girders from the roof has fallen onto the track at a 45-degree angle. A number of rescue workers can be seen on the right.

198 individuals perished in city Underground stations between September 1940 and May 1941. 

Additionally, a further tragedy occurred almost two years later when 173 people perished in a stampede at Bethnal Green Station on 3rd March 1943. 

One of the most notable tragedies occurred at Balham Station. A 1,400 kg bomb dropped on the road above the northern end of the platform tunnels on the evening of 14th October 1940, creating a sizable hole into which an out-of-service bus crashed. Sixty-six individuals were killed as a result of a sudden flood that was brought on by the northbound platform tunnel partially collapsing and becoming partially filled with dirt and water from the sewers and water mains above.

Children in the underground receiving medication. In mid-September 1940, about 150,000 people a night slept in the Underground, although by the winter and spring months the numbers had declined to 100,000 or less. Noises of battle were muffled and sleep was easier in the deepest stations but many people were killed from direct hits on stations.


People still sought sanctuary in underground stations despite these catastrophes. According to a report in the South London Press, the Elephant and Castle tube station was a "From the platforms to the entrance to the platform was one incumbent mass of humanity.... it took me a quarter of an hour to get from the station entrance to the platform.

Even in the darkened booking hall I stumbled over huddled bodies, bodies that were no safer from bombs than if they had lain in the gutters of the silent streets outside.

Going down the stairs I saw mothers feeding infants at the breast. Little girls and boys lay across their parents' bodies because there was no room on the winding stairs. Hundreds of men and women were partially undressed, while small boys and girls slumbered in the foetid atmosphere absolutely naked...

On the platform, when a train came in, it had to be stopped in a tunnel while police and porters went along pushing in the feet and arms which overhung the line. The sleepers hardly stirred as the train rumbled slowly in."

Those sheltering in the Underground would often sleep wherever there was available space.

Hindsight Colouring (

Local boys play a game of cards in an air raid shelter in south-east London in November 1940.

Imperial War Museum

It could be boring being stuck in the Underground for hours on end so those sheltering there found various ways to pass the time.

Hindsight Colouring (

Only a few hours after passengers had exited the underground, lines of queueing Londoners began to develop outside tube stations as early as ten in the morning. There was a thriving black-market trade in pitches selling for as much as 2s 6d. 

There was no other option but some kind of ticketing. Although 10% of the accommodations were left unallocated so that anybody who happened to be in the vicinity during a raid may use them, shelter marshals and wardens chosen by the several local authorities in whose borough the tube stations were located distributed printed reservation tickets.

A 1938 map of the London Underground.

Early in 1941, local authorities received permission to install chemical toilets and waterborne sanitation in large shelters. The underground stations that were off-limits to trains underwent modifications. The track was boarded over, the walls were painted, the lighting was upgraded, 200 three-tier bunks were added, better restrooms were erected in place of the outdated buckets, and a ticketing system was put in place to guarantee regular shelterers a bunk or designated floor space. 2,000 books from Westminster Library were donated, and educational seminars were scheduled to occur on the underground platforms.

Families celebrating Christmas day together in an underground shelter.

Royston Leonard /

Throughout the winter, the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) presented a number of concerts, as well as film screenings and Shakespearean plays. Classes were offered by the London County Council on a wide range of topics. Additionally, people planned their own entertainment, such as quizzes and sing-alongs. One evening, Glenn Miller and his band, who were rehearsing in a nearby theatre when the air raid siren sounded, gave an impromptu concert to the people taking cover at Marble Arch tube station.

Despite the less-than-ideal conditions, many were able to adapt to sleeping in the Underground.

Hindsight Colouring (

Between 1940 and 1945, bombs were dropped on all of London's mainline overground termini, 23 additional railroad stations, 12 trolleybus and tram stations, and 15 bus stops. In the Blitz, London Transport reported 181 worker fatalities and more than 9,000 different cases of property damage.

Further reading