The current cold snap that we are experiencing brings to mind last year's snow which paralysed public transport in London and led to hysterical headlines in some of the tabloids that a few centimetres of snow had achieved what Hermann Goering had failed to do in 1940 - i.e. to stop London's buses!
Taking aside the usual hysteria associated with certain parts of the tabloid press, on this occasion they did have a point, because during the entire period of the Blitz, the Luftwaffe never managed to completely stop London's transport system, although naturally on occasions severe dislocation and disruption did take place.
In 1940, public transport in London was administered and operated by London Transport, a nationalised body responsible for London's buses, tubes, trams and trolleybuses. The suburban railways were run by the so called 'Big Four' railway companies - the Southern, Great Western, London Midland & Scottish and London and Northeastern Railway Companies - although in wartime they were effectively nationalised under the Railway Executive Committee's aegis. For the purposes of this article, we shall concentrate on the services operated by London Transport and how they were affected by enemy action and how they rose to the challenges posed by the war.
The first precautions taken actually came during the Munich Crisis of 1938 when minds were quickly concentrated by the prospect of war and the danger posed by enemy bombing. It was quickly realised that the tube tunnels under the River Thames were vulnerable to bombs and that a single lucky hit on any one of these tunnels could flood half of the Underground system. As a result of this realisation, a network of flood gates was designed and installed at all of the strategically placed tunnels under the Thames and were in place in time for the commencement of the Blitz in September 1940. These gates could be operated manually from each of the actual locations but were more normally controlled from a Central Control Room at Leicester Square Station, from where it was also possible to monitor the state of the tides so that it was not always necessary to close all of the gates when an alert sounded. When the gates were closed during an alert, signals were automatically changed to danger to stop trains being trapped and a replacement bus service was operated wherever possible to link the cross river sections closed off. During the entire war, only one of the under river tunnels was breached by a German bomb and this was a disused tunnel on the Hampstead Branch of the Northern Line at Charing Cross. Fortunately, nothing had been left to chance and this particular tunnel had been sealed with concrete before war was declared.
Despite their depth, even the tubes were not invulnerable to bombing and we have covered the use of London's Tube stations as shelters within a previous article on this blog but suffice to say that Bank, Balham, Bounds Green, Moorgate and Sloane Square Stations were severely damaged with serious loss of life. On many other occasions, stations were near missed and lines were blocked but despite the damage and loss of life, services were always restored, sometimes within hours, sometimes within weeks but even in these extreme cases, alternatives were always available and disruption was kept to a minimum.
All of this seems improbable in today's health and safety obsessed culture, when even a light snowfall can cause all of London's buses to be taken off the road, so perhaps it seems even more improbable to observers seventy years on to note that during Air Raid alerts in 1940, it was left to the bus or tram driver's discretion whether to carry on or not. What would normally happen when the Alert sounded was that the driver would give his passengers the opportunity to disembark but would then normally continue unless the bombing became very adjacent, at which time he would stop at the nearest public shelter to disgorge his passengers until the bombers had passed. Occasionally though, the drivers would heroically press on regardless of the bombing and one of these occasions was reported by Stan Collins, a tram driver who recounted his experiences in his book 'The Wheels Used to Talk To Us.'
"We were at Kennington on the 18s when bang went the sirens, so I stopped the tram and turned around and said 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the sirens are going. Anyone who wants to go down the shelter, there's one just up the road.' One old boy asked me if I was going down the shelter. 'I am not,' I said, 'I am going to fight my way home.' 'Good, the driver's going on, the driver's going on.' he told everyone. He was ever so excited, just like a little schoolboy. Nobody got off, so we tootled along Brixton Road, dropping them off, dropping them off. When I stopped at the bottom of Brixton Hill, the old chap asked me if he could get out of the front door. He wasn't supposed to in the blackout but the tram was still full and he couldn't get through the back, so I opened the air door and let him off the at the front. Just as he's getting off he puts a pound in my hand and says 'There you are driver, this is for a drink and thank you for getting me home.' When we were reversing at the end of the journey, I told Alf (my conductor) and gave him half but Alf told me that the old chap had run around the back and given him a pound as well. They used to be pleased to get home."
Despite this effort, Collins also recounted another occasion when things didn't go quite so smoothly when he was driving a tram during another air raid in the Battersea and Clapham areas.
"I took it very steady. I'd got the wind up, little butterflies in my stomach and very gently we came around the curve (into Cedars Road.) We took it very gently up Cedars Road in case the switches blew out and onto the level. I said to old Alf, 'Thats it, we're in the clear now' but halfway along Long Road, we came up behind a string of trams, about ten of them, right upto Clapham, so we were stuck. There was nothing we could do, we couldn't go back, we'd have to see it out. I could have cried. Anyway, we walked along this line of trams but couldn't see any drivers or conductors until we came to the cafe at the Plough which was open all night. By then it was getting on for 2 a.m. and we were stuck there until the All Clear went at about 5 a.m. that morning."
There were countless similar stories both above and below ground level, some heroic and some more mundane but all of them showed London Transport's workers, both male and female to be truly dedicated towards helping keeping London moving despite the worst that could be thrown at them. London Transport truly carried on.
London Transport at War 1939-45 - Charles Graves, Almark Publishing 1974
The Wheels Used to Talk To Us - Stan Collins and Terence Cooper, Tallis Publishing 1977
Routes to Recovery - Ken Glazier, Capital Transport, 2000