The Café de Paris was a London nightclub in Coventry Street W1 near Leicester Square which opened in 1924 but closed permanently in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. After receiving a direct hit during the Blitz, it was reported in newspapers but due to censorship the full story only became known several years after the war.
On the night of 8 March 1941, the Café de Paris which had a maximum capacity of 700 people was described as heaving with couples dancing to Ken ‘Snake hips’ Johnson’s big band. Twenty-six-year old Ken Johnson was from British Ghana and had just started playing when according to one of the few survivors there was an immense blue flash. Two bombs entered the night club down a ventilation shaft from the roof and exploded in front of the band. Ken Johnson’s head was blown from his shoulders and the legs of dancer’s were sheared off. Due to the confined space the blast was magnified and burst the lungs of diners as they sat at their tables and killed them instantly.
When rescuers arrived one tripped over a girl’s head on the floor, looked up and saw her torso still sitting in a chair. The dead and dying where heaped everywhere.
The number of fatalities determined by body parts is not known and numbers varying considerably but this was not uncommon during the Blitz.
The German blitz on cities during the Battle of Britain is well documented but the first aerial bombardment of Britain took place 25 years previously and according to some historians was the first ‘modern’ military attack which breeched the traditional boundary between soldiers on the battlefield by targeting civilians.
On the morning of 19 January 1915 two Zeppelins, L3 and L4, took off from their base in Hamburg and headed towards Yorkshire in northern England but due to bad weather over Norfolk L3 turned towards Great Yarmouth and L4 headed towards Kings Lynn.
Whilst flying over what newspapers called “the working-class district of St Peters Plain in Great Yarmouth,” L3 dropped its bombs and two civilians were killed: Samuel Smith, a 53-year-old shoemaker, became the first British civilian to be killed during a German air raid and the subsequent enquiry said he was standing on the street when the bombs were dropped. Martha Taylor, 72, was the next to be killed after her home was hit and the area was extensively damaged.
Meanwhile, whilst L3 was bombing St Peters Plain L4 was dropping incendiary bombs over Sheringham, Brancaster, Dersingham, Grimston before arriving over Kings Lynn at 10.50 pm where it released its bombs.
There was no air raid warning before 26-year-old Alice Gazeley whose husband had been killed three months earlier whilst fighting in France, and Percy Goate aged 14 were killed in their homes.
The mother of Percy Goate later told the inquest, “I saw a bomb drop through the skylight and strike the pillow where Percy was lying… I tried to wake him but he was dead… The house fell in. I don’t remember anymore”
St Peters Plain
13 others were also injured during this raid which was the start of a twelve-month bombing campaign mainly against civilian targets consisting of 52 raids across the country.
On 13 June 1917 during a daylight raid a bomb hit Upper North Street School in Poplar London. The school building was full of children when a bomb fell through the roof, crashed through the top floor classroom which was being used by girls, then crashed through the second floor which was a boy’s classroom before exploding on the ground floor which was a classroom full of infants.
Eighteen children were killed, sixteen of which were aged between 4 and six and 15 children who could not be identified were later buried in a mass grave at the East End Cemetery, the other three had private graves and national newspapers called the German Air Force the baby killers.
During 1917, 163 civilians were killed and 432 injured
According to official statistics this first strategic bombing campaign caused 5,000 civilian casualties of which1, 413 were killed.
On 7 March 1918, 4 houses were destroyed in Warrington Crescent London W9 during which 12 were killed and 33 injured.