THE SOUND OF THE ROCKETS
3 March 1943, 21:45 hours Hammelburg time
He couldn't move. He couldn't see. He couldn't breathe. The darkness pounded into him claustrophobically and there was absolutely nowhere to turn, no room to move. Screaming, sweaty, panicked dark forms hemmed him in on all sides, forcing him into immobility. Frightened beyond belief, he unsuccessfully tried to shift himself away, seeking movement in any and all directions. There was no sensation other than the sounds of harshly echoing screeching cries of pain and fear. There was absolutely no escape as he was backed up against a very hard, very cold, very solid wall. The unseen crowd whipped ever closer in one massive, unstoppable wave, flattening him even more painfully against the wall. He struggled simply to draw breath, as his ribs felt crushed almost to the breaking point.
He felt a hand frantically frisking him, seeking to find and take his. He reached for it desperately but just could not grasp it; it then withdrew as suddenly as it appeared. With heart stopping certainty he suddenly realized who it was and he bolted upright to cry out at the top of his lungs.
The image of her brother's face flashed into her mind as Mavis suddenly recognized the very real danger she was in. She tried to cry out again, her mouth sticky dry with pure fear. She was terrified that she'd never see her older brother again.
I'm goin' to die! Right 'ere in this bloody stairwell, dear God, I'm goin' to die!
She couldn't move, she couldn't see, she could barely breathe. The inexorable press of scores of panicked, sweaty bodies shoved her hard against the wall midway down the stairwell. She could barely maintain herself upright on the rain slicked steps. She flailed her right arm about, seeking to grab onto the side rail but she couldn't find it.
The crowd surged forward, undulating mindlessly and uncontrollably, slamming her even flatter against the unyielding wall. She desperately sought to keep standing, seeking to raise her upper body above the press in order to be able to breathe. Screams, cursing and muffled cries for help sounded all around.
"Peter! Oh God...Peter...," she sobbed. "God 'elp me please." Oh how she desperately wished she had chosen to shelter at Aldgate instead of Bethnal Green this night!
There had been an RAF raid on Berlin a few days before so Mavis wasn't surprised when the wireless went silent a few minutes before 20:00 hours. The Luftwaffe usually exacted its revenge with retaliatory bombings, so she threw on her coat, gathered a few items and made her way towards the bundle shop to pick up her bedding. It had rained quite heavily earlier that day and as a result, she found herself running late from the bundle shop. She finally arrived at the single entrance leading down to the tube and patiently queued up as usual, clutching her bedroll under her arm. She gazed idly at the searchlight that pierced the sky from the next road over and jumped just a little when the air raid siren began wailing. The sound was annoyingly loud for some reason, perhaps because she stood at the top of the stairwell leading down to the tube and it amplified the sound. The crowd quickly increased as the pubs and cinemas emptied, pushing more and more people into the queues gathered to take shelter.
Ten minutes later, she finally made it halfway down the dimly lit, wet steps of the wide, single stairway when she was startled by a sudden loud explosive 'whoosh' followed by a strangely concussive 'bang'. The unearthly sound rang out again, than once again, louder and closer this time. She couldn't tell where it came from and she cried out in fear as she nearly lost her footing.
Apparently she hadn't been the only one frightened by the strange noises as someone shouted, "It's a bomb!" Someone else yelled, "There's bombs! There's bombs! Get down!" The crowd immediately stampeded as one body amidst screams and panicked shouts. The entire mass of people on the stairwell rushed down the stairs as quickly as possible. Something had happened ahead of her, she didn't know what, as the crowd stalled, then swelled to pack on top of itself as people frantically tried to reach safety.
People kept pushing in from the rear as more and more sought shelter, either unaware or unconcerned that something was very wrong at the stairwell landing. She then saw that people were falling to the floor at the foot of the stairwell. The crowd folded onto itself as others were pushed on top and around them. As the crowd continued to surge forward, more people began falling to the floor as others piled on top of them. Still more fell as a result, particularly mothers trying to protect babies and small children. The momentum of the crowd pushed them all with an unyielding will of its own. Those farther down the stairs found themselves unable to avoid trampling those trapped helplessly on the floor.
Mavis cried out in desperation, doing her utmost to keep upright against the wall, terrified of being sucked into the crushing maelstrom of bodies below her.
"Hey shut it will ya?" "Keep it down!" "Tryin' to get some shuteye here buddy!" As sleep was a precious commodity in a prison camp, the men in Barracks Two didn't particularly care to be blasted awake so unexpectedly, especially by one of their own.
Newkirk blinked repeatedly as full consciousness gradually returned. Nearly hyperventilating with panic, he was further dismayed to find himself shaking. He turned onto his right side to find Andrew Carter standing beside his bunk, staring at him in concern.
"What's wrong Peter? Did you have a bad dream?" asked Carter.
"Oui," came a French voice. Louis LeBeau lit a candle before he approached to stand beside Carter. "Are you ill Pierre?"
Kinch's voice suddenly rang out over the rest as he got up to join the others at Newkirk's bunk. "All right, all right! Settle down fellas." He laid a hand on Newkirk's shoulder. "Peter? What's going on? Are you okay?"
"I'm...I'm sorry mates. Sorry mates!" he shakily called out to the room at large. "I don't know...what's come...come over me..."
The door to the Colonel's quarters opened and Colonel Hogan strode out, tying his robe about himself as he approached the group at Newkirk's bunk.
"What's all the commotion fellas?"
"Newkirk just woke up the whole barracks yelling in his sleep!" came an angry retort from the rear of the room.
Kinch sighed and called out over his shoulder, "Just quiet down and go back to sleep!"
Hogan turned to his XO for an explanation, as Newkirk had pulled his blanket up over his face.
"Apparently Peter had a pretty vivid nightmare and he called out loudly."
The Colonel turned to lift up the blanket so as to question his English Corporal. A startled Newkirk frantically swiped at his face and snarled, "Cor Gov! Give a bloke some warnin' will ya?"
Hogan hadn't expected the surly response and felt his own anger rising. He paused to count to ten before he replied, "I'm sorry Newkirk, I didn't realize you were upset."
The Englishman turned away to face the wall whilst he tried to cram his emotions back under control. Hogan beckoned Kinch near and whispered, "Bring him into my quarters when he's settled down."
Kinch nodded and sat down at the common table as the Colonel returned to his quarters. LeBeau bustled about to pour cups of tepid coffee as they waited.
Mavis had no idea how long she remained trapped against that wall, weeping and praying whilst struggling to breathe at the same time. The crowd continued to cascade past her frantically. She felt her legs about to give out when she suddenly felt someone roughly grab hold of her shoulders to pluck her free of the packed crowd. She felt herself hustled back up to street level with no small amount of difficulty. Once there she stumbled and collapsed onto the pavement, completely unaware that she had lost her coat, shoes and bedroll. Thankfully, she had somehow managed to hang onto her pocketbook.
An older woman approached and took her arm to gently lift her up. Mavis saw that she wore the uniform of an air warden. "Come miss, let's get you out of this. 'ere now, yer arms are already turnin' black and blue! Yer a lucky one, you are. Another few minutes and you would've been dead for sure." She spoke in a kindly, soothing voice as Mavis struggled to get up.
Mavis nodded dazedly, still not quite understanding what had just happened, as the warden led her to a bench and sat her down. "Now you jus' stay 'ere and rest. I'll be back."
As she sat trying to regain her wits, she noticed air wardens and bobbies rescuing people from within the massed crowd as they had done for her. Soon though, they were pulling out limp, lifeless bodies, bodies that were crushed, bruised and bloodied to the point of unrecognizability. Mavis gasped as the officials began laying them out onto the pavement in front of her and she couldn't hold back her tears at the sight of so many children and babies amongst the dead.
The occupant of the upper bunk finally calmed down somewhat and Kinch stood up to check on him. "Peter? Are you okay now?" He continued speaking even though he got no answer, "The Colonel wants you to come to his quarters. Come on Peter, let's go."
Newkirk sighed and levered himself down onto the floor, his blanket wrapped tightly around himself. Kinch put a steady hand on the Englishman's back and guided him across the room. He turned to Carter and LeBeau as he opened the door to Colonel Hogan's quarters. "Don't worry fellas. I'm sure he'll be fine."
Kinch closed the door to the Colonel's quarters after he and Newkirk entered. He then ushered Newkirk to sit on the bottom bunk, where he sat down beside him and laid a hand on his shoulder. At a nod from the Colonel, Kinch softly asked, "Peter, can you tell us why this dream has you so disturbed?"
The Englishman lowered his head as the feelings and images flashed back into his mind. He began hyperventilating again as he muttered, "It wasn't just a dream Kinch! Somethin's 'appened to me sister Mave! I just know it…somethin'…somethin' bad's 'appened."
The Colonel knelt down beside the lower bunk and tried to calm his Corporal. "Peter, you have to calm down. You're not helping yourself. Take some deep, slow breaths. C'mon! Do it Corporal, that's an order!"
Hogan hated to have to pull rank with Newkirk being as upset as he was, but it was the only way to reach him right now.
"C'mon Peter, slow down. That's right, deep, slow breaths. Keep it up." The Colonel stood and called Kinch over. "Kinch, send Carter to get Wilson please."
"Right Colonel," nodded Kinch as he headed out to the common room.
Newkirk had closed his eyes whilst he sat trying to re-calm himself. The Colonel gently nudged him on the shoulder, pushing him down to lie flat on the bunk.
There was a quiet knock at the door before Kinch came back into the room with Wilson right behind him. The medic looked at the bottom bunk and then glanced at the Colonel before he knelt down beside Newkirk.
"Peter, Kinch told me you woke up extremely distressed. Can you tell me why?"
Kinch knelt down beside the bunk as well and with his encouragement, Newkirk haltingly recounted each detail of his dream, becoming upset yet again in the process. Wilson put a supportive hand on the Englishman's shoulder before he arose to speak with the Colonel.
"I've never seen him like this, sir. Something's definitely got him all worked up, but I just can't imagine what it could be."
"Could it possibly be anything to do with his sister?"
Wilson shook his head as he replied, "But how on earth would he know Colonel? He's in the middle of Germany and I assume she's in London!"
Hogan pinched his lower lip between his index finger and thumb as he thought. "I know, it does sound crazy, doesn't it?"
Wilson reached for his satchel. "I'd like to give him a very mild sedative so he can at least calm down enough to tell us more."
Hogan glanced down at his RAF Corporal, who had turned onto his stomach and buried his face into the pillow. He then sent a silent query to Kinch, who nodded his agreement, sealing the Colonel's decision.
"Okay Joe," sighed Hogan. "Go ahead."
Wilson nodded and left to return with a cup of water into which he had dissolved a mild sedative. He again knelt beside the bunk and laid a gentle hand on the Englishman's back. "Peter, listen to me. We need you to calm down so we can help you. Drink this cup of water for me, okay?"
Newkirk sat up and drank the water down without any protest at all, further proving just how agitated he really was.
"Good. Now just lie back down and take deep breaths. You'll feel much better shortly."
Newkirk obeyed without complaint and Wilson shrugged his shoulders at Kinch's raised eyebrows. Kinch took the medic aside and whispered, "There's gotta be something seriously wrong for him to cooperate with you like that!"
"Yeah," replied Wilson. "That's what's worrying me."
Mavis still sat on the bench, dazedly staring at the scores of battered bodies lying on the pavement. Ambulances and lorries had finally arrived and the attendants were loading up both the dead and injured as quickly as possible. She shook herself mentally and closed her eyes, opening them when she felt someone tugging at her arm. It was the same air warden, offering her a beaker of hot tea.
"'ere miss. Drink that down and then we'll be gettin' ya to 'ospital. Yer all bruised and banged up. They'll be wantin' to take a look at ya."
Mavis nodded distractedly. Normally she would have protested that she was fine, but since she felt a sharp pain upon each intake of breath decided that perhaps she did need to see a physician. She quickly finished the tea, feeling oddly comforted by its' warmth and then she let the warden guide her over to an ambulance.
The attendant tried to give her some additional comfort with a reassuring smile as he helped her step up into the back of the ambulance and she gave a nod in response. They were soon on the way to the nearest hospital.
Wilson left after trying unsuccessfully to get Newkirk to talk further about what was bothering him. He gave instructions for the men to get the Englishman to sleep if at all possible. Despite their best efforts, Newkirk remained agitated and unsettled through the rest of the night. Fortunately, Hogan was able to convince the Kommandant that Newkirk was too ill to stand roll call the following morning.
The men hurried back into the barracks after roll call, where the Colonel assigned LeBeau and Carter to keep watch over Newkirk whilst he and Kinch went below to contact London. After they sent their enquiry, he left Kinch at the radio to await a reply and headed back up topsides to check on his RAF Corporal.
"Any change Andrew?"
Carter shook his head, "No sir. He drank a little tea that Louis made for him but didn't want anything to eat."
The Colonel laid his hand on Carter's shoulder and steered him towards the door. "Thanks Andrew, I'll take over now."
Carter nodded and gave a quick glance at his English friend before he left. The Colonel sat down at his desk, wondering not for the first time what had happened to cause Newkirk to react this way. He desperately hoped that London would have the answer to their question.
An hour or so later, Kinch quickly climbed up from the tunnel and the bunk entrance slammed shut behind him. He knocked and entered the Colonel's quarters. The Colonel still sat at his desk, staring at Newkirk as he tossed restlessly on the bottom bunk. He turned questioning eyes to his XO.
Kinch shook his head as he reported, "London confirms there were air raid warnings issued for the city last night but no enemy aircraft were sighted. They did say there were reports of multiple casualties at a shelter in the East End."
Hogan frowned at that. "Multiple casualties? With no bombers sighted? How can that be?"
"They didn't say Colonel. When I inquired further, they said that's all the information they could give us at this time." He glanced over at Newkirk and asked, "How's he doing?"
Hogan shook his head sadly. "I don't know. He hasn't slept well, despite the sedative. Something must've happened for him to be that upset. It's almost…almost uncanny. Is there any way we can find out where his sister is and confirm her status?"
Kinch sighed, "I could ask them if there's any record of her being taken to either a hospital or a…." He cut himself off as he remembered Newkirk was right there in the room with them.
The Colonel nodded. "Sounds good. Do that right now Kinch and let me know."
Kinch nodded and left. The Colonel sighed and looked over at Newkirk, who appeared to have finally fallen into an undisturbed sleep.
Several hours passed this time before Kinch returned with an answer. He leaned across the desk and passed a blue piece of paper to his CO. "Good news Colonel. London located Newkirk's sister."
The Colonel read the note out loud, "Mavis Newkirk transported to Bethnal Green Hospital, Cambridge Heath Road. She was treated and released the next day."
A shaky voice interrupted, "M-Mave? You've…you've got news of Mave?"
Both Hogan and Kinch turned to gaze at the bottom bunk. Kinch knelt down and put his hand on Newkirk's shoulder. "Peter? How're you feeling buddy?"
"Bit dozy. Never mind me, what's 'appened to me sister? You said somethin' 'bout 'er bein' in 'ospital?"
The Colonel nodded and continued reading. "She was treated for bruised ribs, as well as numerous cuts and contusions. She was released to recuperate at home."
Newkirk sighed loudly, "Blimey, I knew somethin' bad 'appened. Did they say why she ended up 'avin' ta go to 'ospital?"
Hogan shook his head as he replied, "No, nothing at all. Just that she was treated and released."
"Well…as long as she's…all right…." Newkirk trailed off as he finally allowed himself to fall into a deep, restful sleep. You 'ang on Mave girl...jus' 'ang on. I'll be back soon...
The Colonel motioned to Kinch and the two men left the room to give their English corporal the time he needed to rest. As the door closed, Peter shifted slightly as he finally surrendered to sleep and whispered "Mave".
Mavis shifted slightly as she tried to find a comfortable position on the sofa. The doctors had urged her to take several days' bed rest but she still had to work, didn't she? There's surely no rest for the wicked, she thought wryly. Oh Peter, I'll be so 'appy when all this is over and you'll be comin' 'ome...
"Peter…" She murmured a brief, heartfelt prayer on her brother's behalf and finally slipped into sleep.
This oneshot is based on the real life Bethnal Green tube disaster, the worst British civilian incident of the Second World War. I have sought to be true to the historical and personal accounts and have made liberal use of the following sources:
"The Bethnal Green Tube tragedy saw 173 people crushed to death - making it the war's worst civilian disaster. But why was it censored from history?", by Robert Hardman, Daily Mail, 27 February 2008.
"It happened to me: I survived the Bethnal Green Tube disaster", by Alf Morris, Daily Mail, 24 April 2009.
Wikipedia entry, "Bethnal Green Tube Station".
"The hush-hush catastrophe", The Guardian, 14 February 2003.
Website: stairwaytoheavenmemorial dot org