14 October, 2010

Day 97 - Battle of Britain

At 20.02hrs a 1400kg semi armour piercing bomb penetrates 32 feet underground into Balham tube station in South London. It explodes just above the cross passage between the two platforms causing debris partially to fill the tunnels where about 500 people are sheltering. Water pours in from fractured water mains and sewers. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), sixty-seven people in the station are killed - although some sources report 68 - and more than seventy injured.

Above, the High Street collapses into the void, leaving a huge crater into which a No.88 double-decker bus, travelling in blackout conditions, plunges. Huge damage is caused to surrounding buildings, leaving them in a perilous state, some close to collapse.

As with the other major shelter disaster, news of the event is kept under wraps, the government fearing that the grisly death of so many would be a huge propaganda blow and possibly put civilians off using the underground as shelter. Word of mouth spread about the deaths, however, and the highly visible work to open the station again takes until January 1941, the last bodies being found at the end of December.

The picture of the bus in the crater later becomes an iconic representation of the Blitz, but not just yet. But is it on small part of the violence of which visited the citizens of London on the Saturday night continued through into Sunday night and even into the early hours of Monday morning. So intense and savage is the bombing that some see it as a new wave of what is being labelled more widely as "the Blitz".

But it is difficult to gauge the ferocity of the bombing from the newspaper coverage.  As so often when the country has taken a hurt, the headline stories focus on the derring-do of the RAF - as we see from the headlines of today's Yorkshire Post.  The difference now, from the earlier part of the battle, is that the bombers, rather than Fighter Command, tend to be in the news.

The technique is predictable, and in retrospect, obvious - the emphasis is on the "good" news, even if it has to be fabricated, while the bad news is buried or omitted altogether. This much can be seen again and again, as with the lead story in the Manchester Guardian for this morning - a witness account of last week's raid on Cherbourg. The Berlin raid gets a two-column centre spot, while the overnight bombing of Britain gets a single column with an anodyne, uninformative headline.

A different technique is used in the Daily Express, where cross-page headline is "Duce masses troops for a new invasion" - early warning of an invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece. The Daily Mirror, on the other hand, offers an account of a naval action in Maltese waters as its front-page lead story - which is actually of some importance. Also getting front-page treatment is the debut broadcast by princess Elizabeth, the queen-to-be, with the full text of her address on the BBC.

Nowhere is there any mention of Stoke Newington. That 173 people die in a single bombing incident, trapped in a wholly inadequate shelter, is a non-event.  The censor has been hard at work. But is this to keep information from the Germans, in the interests of security, or is the news being withheld to protect the government from criticism?

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