Trafalgar Square

12 October 1940

By Tabatha Parker

Trafalgar Square WC2 (built between 1830 and 1867) had been prepared for potential air attack following the outbreak of war in September 1939. A brickwork surface air raid shelter for 800 people was constructed at the Square's north wall, along with another opened in the crypt of nearby St Martin-in-the-Fields church. Trafalgar Square Underground Station was also estimated as capable of sheltering 1,600 civilians.

The area around the Square was first damaged one week after the start of the Blitz. On 12 September 1940, a bomb exploded between St Martin-in-the-Fields and South Africa House. The National Gallery was also damaged in separate raids on 12 and 17 October.  

Shortly before 9pm, 12 October 1940, the Square received a direct hit. A 500lb high explosive bomb fell on the roadway at its southern end. Penetrating the road surface, the bomb detonated just above the Underground Station ticket hall, 40 feet below. The blast wave drove downwards, weakening the station's steel and concrete casing, which then collapsed. Tons of earth fell down, burying many who had been taking shelter during the raid. In addition, water from a broken main flowed through the unstable roofing and brought down more showers of earth.

Rescue workers faced the task of extracting victims from this large mound of fallen debris. Some of the shelterers managed to escape but many lay crushed beneath. Above, in the roadway, there appeared to be almost no damage. One stretcher-party car (carrying extra medical supplies) had been informed of a major incident. Arriving, they found a crater but no activity that seemed to match the report. They left the scene to investigate a fire they could see burning in the vicinity. When this proved not to be serious they returned to Trafalgar Square. Here, they discovered the true gravity of the earlier incident.

The rescue work was not completed until midnight. The conditions underground grew steadily worse for those trying to help. More debris and dirt fell upon teams digging below as the ceiling continued to disintegrate. The temperature rose, dangerously.

With new cracks forming on the ceiling, the authorities tried to persuade the Warden in charge to delay the work until engineers could stabilize it and protect the rescue squads. They argued that those trapped under the dirt were likely to have perished. The rescue party refused and continued to work until the last of those trapped were free.

There were forty known casualties at Trafalgar Square on 12 October. Seven of these - including two Norwegians - were listed as fatalities. To get the injured out, stretchers were carried up the escalator with the bodies strapped on. In a train pulled up at one of the station platforms, a doctor worked on treating minor injuries and shock. Throughout the rest of the tunnel, other people were left to sleep. The next morning, one of the four bronze lions around Nelson's Column, designed in 1867 by Sir Edwin Landseer and close to the bomb crater, was seen to be slightly tarnished.

More damage occurred around Trafalgar Square on 7 November 1940, when a building housing the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons was hit. On 14-15 November, Hampton's (a furniture store located between the National Gallery and Whitcomb Street) was wrecked by a high explosive bomb. Villiers Street and St Martin-in-the-Fields church suffered in additional raids. During the rest of 1940-1941, windows in several buildings built next to the Square were blown out by indirect bomb blast. These included Canada House, the Canadian Pacific Building and the Sun-Life Building. 

Photo:Trafalgar Square during Warships Week, 23 March 1942

Trafalgar Square during Warships Week, 23 March 1942

Copyright Westminster City Archives

Photo:Bomb Map: Trafalgar Square

Bomb Map: Trafalgar Square

Copyright Westminster City Archives

HE strike, Trafalgar Square Underground Station, 12 October 1940

This page was added by Tabatha Parker on 09/04/2011.
Comments about this page

My father (James McAllister) died back in 1987 but last year I learnt from his brother that both of them were involved in the rescue of people and retrieving bodies from the bomb that landed on the Trafalgar Square underground station. My father used to talk a lot about his time in Burma & India with the RAF but never mentioned this incident which I think was very traumatic for him…but I’m not surprised that he would get involved and help whatever the risk. He was at the beginning of the war a runner in the Auxiliary Fire Service but I believe that he just happened to be in the vicinity at the time of this incident.

By Allan McAllister
On 29/02/2012

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