One of the worst incidents to involve civilians during a Second World War bombing raid took place in South Hallsville School in Agate Street in Canning Town in 1940.
For years, people believed that the highest number of civilian casualties in an air raid had happened in another area of the East End, when an accident at Bethnal Green tube station killed 173 people in 1943. The official casualty rates for the South Hallsville School bomb were 77, but it turned out years later that closer to 600 people may have died, making this the worst civilian tragedy of the war.
The South Hallsville School Disaster
The East End was heavily targeted by German bombs during the London Blitz, due to its docks and key commercial production. The area was heavily populated with locals living close to their places of work; many lost their homes and their lives as bombs rained down on the nearby docks and industrial targets.
In September 1940, local residents were advised to take shelter in South Hallsville School, which had a useful basement that could be used as a bomb shelter. Many of these locals had lost their homes or seen them severely damaged. The building was being used as an evacuation point to get people out of the line of fire and into safer areas; however residents were left in the school for three days, even though it had been flagged as a potential target for bombing due to its location.
Residents waited in the school, having been told that they would be evacuated from the area as soon as buses could arrive to transport them. There was, however, an administrative mix up and the buses went to Camden Town instead of Canning Town. Held up on their way back to the East End, the buses did not arrive in time to evacuate the school as promised.
On September 10th, the school took a direct hit and was reduced to a pile of rubble. The whole school building fell into the basement, leaving hundreds of people dead, dying or trapped. The parachute bomb left a crater that was 20 feet deep on the site. Once recovery attempts were abandoned and all survivors who could be reached were rescued, the government released figures showing that 77 people had died in the bombing raid on the school.
Disputed Casualty Figures
Locals disputed this figure for many years, and eye witnesses who had been in the building but left it shortly before the bomb landed estimated that up to 600 people were in the basement. However, they could not prove that casualty rates had been much higher in the face of official government denials, and not all of the bodies in the basement could be recovered to give accurate data on how many people had died in the blast.
Moreover, it did not suit the British government to release details of such high casualties as this might have hampered their war efforts. As soon as the extent of the tragedy became obvious, the bomb site was cordoned off. Nobody was supposed to see what had happened and a press blackout was ordered so that newspapers could not report specific details about the incident, disclose the location where the bomb hit or print pictures of it.
The war cabinet probably covered up the scale of the disaster in an attempt not to lose morale in the area and the country as a whole. The Blitz was devastating London day after day and people were finding it hard enough to carry on. The government probably also did not want to give the Germans such a massive propaganda boost by admitting that one bomb had killed hundreds of people.
Memorial and Government Cover Up
In 2010, papers in the National Archives painted a different picture to the official line. They seem to back up local residents who believed that the death toll was far higher than was reported at the time and show that the government opted not to release full details of what had happened. The bomb site at the school was eventually tarmacked over and another school was built on the site after the war in 1948. This school, Hallsville Primary, now has a garden and a memorial plaque on site that is dedicated to the victims of the raid.
It is thought that the disaster at South Hallsville School may have forced the government to look at safer places for residents of the East End during bombing raids. Most had few options and congregating in larger buildings, like the school, was now obviously not a safe option. Five days after this bombing raid around 100 East End locals went to the Savoy Hotel and asked for shelter during an air raid as part of a planned protest. Other residents broke into tube stations and used those as shelters. From this point onwards, tube shelters were opened up to locals as air raid shelters, potentially saving many lives.