Bob Saxon was a member of the Home Guard unit who manned the Z-battery (an anti-aircraft rocket system) in Victoria Park. He was on his way to work on the evening of the disaster and he suggested that one rocket had not been primed and fell to the ground, unexploded. Could this be the unfamiliar and unsettling noise that many witnesses heard in the run up to the disaster?
Read the interview SUMMARY online below, or click on the icon to read or download: bob saxon summary.pdf
The summary gives timed sections which direct you to specific parts of the recording.
Click on the icon to read or download the complete TRANSCRIPT: bob saxon transcript- all sections.pdf
You can listen to the interview RECORDINGS below:
Date of Interview:
5 February 2014
Length of interview: 38 minutes
Any other info: Bob has some graphic descriptions about what happened and strong views about the causes and who was to blame.
00 m 40 secs
MONO 001: 7 mins 13 secs
He didn’t go down shelters too often. Didn’t like the smells down there. Spent a lot of time collecting shrapnel. It was all exciting. He remembers the war as a ‘fun time’ but only went down the shelter on one occasion because he didn’t like the smell. He was also a collector of shrapnel like so many other children at the time.
Bob was 16 years old – he’s now 88 – and remembers clearly the events of 23 March 1943 although he only once went down the shelter. On the night of the tragedy he was on his way to the gun battery in Victoria where he worked as a junior member of the Home Guard. He was in uniform at the time.
On 3 March he was on his way to the rocket site. The sirens sounded and “everyone panicked”.
He was on his way to the rocket site when he heard one rocket go off “but it wasn’t in anger”. He was going to the shelter but decided to detour to the rocket site.
The rocket was not primed for height. He knew that from his experience. He believes there was just one rocket, not primed, on the rocket launcher. He details the procedure for firing and knew that when the order came to ‘fire’ the captain pulls the level and about 24 rockets go of simultaneously.
On this occasion he believes one was left on the launcher and was not primed for height. It went off but came down like a big drainpipe. Everyone was getting ready to go down the tube.
“Someone shouted the bombs, the bombs. They’re dropping ‘em. But they weren’t dropping them. They were miles away”. Everyone was rushing about.
“I thought my mother was on the stairs, in this heap. I saw a crowd. There was panic. The rocket came down and “frightened the life out of everybody”. They thought it was a new bomb.
Bob then tells how he saw three ‘fellas holding hands’ trying to keep the people together and ushering them down the stairs. “The truth is there was no central handrail. None at all. The steps were badly made with steps that were badly mad…. Imagine a young mother carrying a child down these steps. He describes how difficult it was to go down these stairs. “They never had a chance”.
He goes on to tell what happened. He saw a policeman. “I came across it just then…copper (policeman) said they want some help here…
Bob to clarifies some of the incidents he saw at that critical moment.
MONO 002: 15mins 56 secs
Bob talks about the three men holding the crowd back and stopping them running around. Half of them were pushing and shoving. “These three fellas couldn’t see what was happening on the stairway in the dark”. But these three men couldn’t see the situation on the stairs.
He describes it as if they were trying to control the people by preventing them entering the shelter.
They took it upon themselves to get some order and then the buses arrived. Everything went quiet. These were not officials but men aged about 20-25.
Policeman said help was wanted; and stretcher-bearers arrived. Ambulances arrived.
The three men disappeared after the crowds got off the buses;
“I went down the stairs. I had to walk on all these bodies. I’ve never done that before. At least three deep…that’s how it was. I walked down saying sorry to everyone. It went through my mind that my mother and family were in that bunch and to make sure and went down and before I did anything ….I ran up the track to see if my family were there…and they weren’t…
“It was so bewildering. All these people dead. You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve just got to keep a stiff upper lip. You just can’t go around crying and moaning and groaning. You’ve just got to get on with what you’re doing…”
Bob helped casualties many with broken legs. They were brought up on stretchers.
Brought them up and laid them out and make a pathway through the bodies. “You just can’t walk on bodies”. Needed a pathway up the stairs.
He describes how the bodies were stacked up like a “sack of carrots”. Doctor came up and told them what to do. Feel for a pulse. They could be dead. There was no immediate medical assistance. He suggests that a lot could have been saved because we know how to do it now but not then.
He then talks again about the lack of a central rail and describes the twelve foot wide stairs. “they were terrible steps”. Sometimes your heel would get caught under the step. That attributed to the carnage. (these are graphic descriptions. Interviewer probes for more reaction to how he felt and reacted as a 16 year old to what he was seeing) He was in Home Guard uniform.
He talks about the rocket that shouldn’t have been fired .. “but it did make a noise”. Always said these rockets killed more people than the Germans (?) It was a terrible noise.
But he does recall hearing a bomber (and gives a sound effect) but no bombs. He heard the rocket go up and come down like a ‘big drainpipe’. The rocket, unprimed, didn’t explode but he heard it hit the ground. Thump…woof..knocked a building down.
“They’re dropping ‘em. They’re dropping ‘em. Some idiot was shouting out. Frightening the life out of people. Of course, after a lull they thought we aren’t going to get anymore. Then all of a sudden there was another air raid”. There was panic.
(Interviewer: Was there another air raid that night?) Bob suggests there was a bomber in the distance ‘moving around’. They never got as far as Bethnal Green.
He’s late for duty. (interviewer then reads out a passage from the account that Bob wrote up several years ago. It describes what happened when Bob finally arrived for duty) So what happened? He was told…
Don’t say anything. Don’t say anything about this because there was a mistake made. There was a rocket left on one of the guns…the Captain came in and pulled the lever and the whole lot goes up .. he panicked …found the lever in a different position…he pulled it…and fired the rockets.
(Interviewer once again presses Bob for clarification of his version of what happened. Was he sure that a mistake was made when a single rocket was fired from the gun battery in Victoria Park? )
He is sure of this story. The lever was pulled and it fired – and when it went up it had nowhere to go because it wasn’t primed. Came down turning like a big drainpipe… (he gives what it sounded like as it fell)
Interviewer says this interesting…what was the NCO saying about this incident. Don’t say nothing said the NCO, everything will be all right. So was this a cover-up for a mistake made at the battery or was it referring to the accident that had just happened at the station. Bob has his theories of this … he believes there was panic and some people were pushed down the stairs…there was a lot of urgency and they fell down like sticks. Some people couldn’t see what was happening. This is the end of MONO 002 (15.57)
MONO-003 (3 mins 53 secs)
Interviewer asks, do you want to talk about it at the time? He was late on duty but his NCO said don’t worry about; we know what’s going on down there (referring to the disaster). Bob thought that the events at the station were ‘funny’; attitudes of his battery site colleagues as well. But someone said…”Don’t say anything. Keep it quiet. It’s propaganda for the Germans. Don’t say nothing”.
People in Bethnal Green talked about it for weeks, especially compensation. He also refers to his mother and father getting the family out of the crowd and taking them to the crypt (in the church?) and saved their lives (not sure what he means by this). He has thought about it lot over the years….(rustling noise..end of MONO 3)
004 3 mins 03 secs
Talks about compensation. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Only a few people knew about what happened and had any experience of the event. He again talks about the ‘three fellas’ who ushered the people down the stairs. (or were they being pushed?)
The talk about compensation took over after the burials, after the shock, the crying and the bereavements. He says some got £2,000 or £1,300 which was a lot of money then. Just a few got some money. You are had fight for the compensation.
There wasn’t a central handrail because they didn’t feel it was necessary. So that handrail went into munitions…to make shells. Old iron men with lorries and carts were running around wanting more metal.
This is an interesting comment because it raises the question about why the Council rejected recommendations to approve safety at the station in the months before the disaster.
MONO 005 8 mins 08 secs
After the war. Bob was nearly 20. He goes on to talk about after the war when he served with the 4th Brigade of the Parachute Regiment in Palestine. This is a period of his life which he remembers with affection.
He volunteered. He wanted to do something after the war and signed on for three years.
It ‘knitted’ into his brain. He thought a lot about Bethnal Green after the war…”You don’t forget it. You even want to try to forget”. He even talks about it to strangers. Strikes up[ a conversation with people when out shopping. Most people don’t know anything about it.
Looking back. Was it a terrible accident or a cover-up?. Are there things which haven’t been explained? He was 17 at the time. At 19 he volunteered for the Army and had been working in ammunitions (as a turner). He wanted to go and find some excitement. (to Palestine)
He has read so many books about it. He gets half-way through and then throws the book away. He claims some accounts are rubbish…people were making it up. It seemed to me that a lot of people not knowing much about it…they weren’t born then. What’s the idiot talking about? Picking someone’s pocket. (reference to the suggestion that a gang was operating and stealing from the bodies)
People did trip or fall down the stairs and they were pushed.
I’m not making anything up. Not more drastic than it was. Everything I am telling you is the truth. The main culprit of it all was that there was no central rail to hold on to. If there had been anything to hang on to it would not have happened.
Recording ends 08m 09s