The Blitz is a chapter of the Second World War (WWII) many of us will be familiar with or will have at least heard of. We may have parents, grandparents or aunts and uncles who lived through the German bombing raids of the British Isles between 7 September 1940 and 11 May 1941 which claimed the lives of over 43,000 civilians. Although aerial attacks took place before and after these dates, the period known as the Blitz was the most sustained and intense period of bombing. My grandmother’s home near Southampton Docks was damaged during a raid in early 1941 leading the family to leave the city for the relative safety of a nearby town. Learning more about this event in my family history has piqued my interest in the Blitz and the home front during WWII.
While so many incidents from the Blitz could be discussed at length, not least the many acts of bravery conducted by the emergency services, civil defence workers and ordinary civilians, one particular event has caught my attention. Tomorrow marks the 80th anniversary of the bombing of the Café de Paris. Located at 3 Coventry Street in London’s West End, the club come restaurant was hit by two bombs (one of which failed to explode) during a bombing raid which claimed the lives of at least 34 people and injured scores more. This exciting and lively venue was extremely popular in the early stages of the war, not least for the live music on offer, and was populated by people of all different nationalities on the fateful night of 8 March 1941. Here are some of the stories of those caught up in the event:
One of the most well-known individuals present was Kenrick Reginald Hijmans Johnson, known as Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson, the famous bandleader and dancer. Ken was born in British Guyana, now Guyana, in 1914 and settled in England before WWII to continue his education. In 1939 Ken was living in Camden, London and was an orchestra leader, according to the 1939 Register. His extremely popular band was largely made up of musicians from the Caribbean known as the West Indian Dance Orchestra, who held a residency at the Café de Paris. Ken was killed performing on stage when the café was hit. Ken’s partner Gerald Hamilton, not present at the café on 8 March, was left devastated by the incident.
Trinidadian saxophonist Dave ‘Baba’ Williams, also a member of Ken’s band, lost his life in the bombing. In 1939 Dave was living with fellow band member Carl Barriteau, a clarinet and saxophone player also born in Trinidad; Carl survived the blast but was badly injured. Cardiff-born Guitarist Jose William ‘Joe’ Deniz, the son of a sailor from the Cape Verde Islands, survived the bombing but was also injured.
Another casualty was the club’s Danish owner Martinus ‘Martin’ Poulsen, seen here in the London Electoral Registers at 3 Coventry Street, the address of Café de Paris. An Associated Press newspaper article circulated in local American newspapers in March 1941 indicated that Poulsen arrived in England earlier in the century with a Danish Olympic team. He remained in the country finding work as a waiter before his meteoric rise to the owner of the Café de Paris. Affectionately referred to as the ‘smiling waiter’, Martin was 51 years old when he died.
The UK, World War II Civilian Deaths, 1939-1945 collection available on Ancestry is full of poignant entries for civilians who tragically lost their lives during WWII. Casualties from the bombing of the Café de Paris can be found by searching within, including entries for Air Raid Precautions Wardens Edith Maud Elizabeth Wybrow and Norma Gullick, and Meg Hargorve, who was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service and the Women’s Voluntary Service. It is not clear if all three women were off duty or died in-service. Further research may provide the answers.
The heroics of those caught inside the club when the bombs fell are exemplified in a Canadian newspaper article, published in the Nanaimo Daily News, British Columbia. Canadian Nursing sister Helen Marie Stevens of Ontario helped tend the wounded; her uniform blotted with blood, she ministered to the injured for more than an hour while fellow Canadian Lieutenant Gluny ‘moved ahead with the glimmering light, seeking injured under the debris.’ Nursing Sister Stevens modestly stated: ‘“I did what any Canadian nurse would be proud to do”’. Her Commendation for Distinguished Conduct can be viewed on Ancestry and provides further insight into her selfless actions on 8 March 1941. A photograph of Nursing Sister Stevens can be seen in an article re-produced in the Canadian newspaper the Calgary Herald in April 1943 announcing her marriage to Canadian War Correspondent Ross Munro; the couple met when Munro interviewed Stevens following the bombing of the Café de Paris.
Amongst the throng of emergency services and civil defence personnel who attended the scene was Ballard Blascheck, also known as Ballard Berkeley. Berkeley was an actor by trade but also a Special Constable during WWII and attended the scene on 8 March 1941. Berkeley is perhaps most recognisable as the Major in the sitcom Fawlty Towers. In Joshua Levine’s Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle For Britain, Berkeley describes the bombing as the ‘most horrifying sight I saw’.
Although the period known as the Blitz ended on 11 May 1941, the British Isles continued to suffer aerial attacks from the Luftwaffe and from the dreaded VI and VII rockets until the latter stages of the war.
Stephen Bourne, 2020, Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime 1939–45.
Joshua Levine, 2010, Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle For Britain: A New History in the Words of the Men and Women on Both Sides.