On a Saturday night in March 1941, London’s glamorous Café de Paris – the place to go for a great night of dining, drinking and dancing – was packed as usual. The swank nightclub in the fashionable Piccadilly area had always attracted anyone who wanted to see and be seen, and rub shoulders with the rich and famous.
During the strictly enforced wartime blackout most clubs had been forced to close, for fear of light escaping into the night and giving enemy planes an easy bombing target. But the Café de Paris stood below ground, beneath four storeys of stoutly constructed brickwork, making it as safe as an air-raid shelter for its 700-person capacity, and a lot more fun.
Music and laughter replaced the sound of Nazi planes and bombs in the bleak darkness outside. The swing band with its six-foot-four charismatic young star singer, Ken Snakehips Johnson (pictured above), wowed the revellers. Youthful couples, many in uniform, crowded the dance floor. They danced to forget the hardships and horrors of World War II.
The band was playing the big hit Oh Johnny when a 50kg German bomb exploded through the ceiling. It detonated on the crowded dance floor and blew Johnson’s head off his body where he stood at the microphone. The Nazis had scored a direct hit on the roof of the building above.
The shattered ceiling disintegrated and fell onto the terrified people below. Only one light continued to function in the entire two-storey club. The nightspot that had shimmered like a jewel moments before instantly became the scene of death, darkness and debris.
Thirty-four people died in the nightclub. Hundreds more suffered serious injuries. A 20-year-old young woman who survived unscathed later recounted that when she eventually got home and removed her dress, its fabric was so thickly encrusted with victims’ blood that it stood up by itself.
Sylvia Peterman, a 19-year-old corporal in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, loved to dance. So to make the most of her weekend pass, she went to the Café de Paris that night with a date. But her night out turned into the worst night of her life.
War normalizes insanity – the kind that does not hesitate to annihilate human beings like so many insects, and tears all that is human and humane to shreds. ~ Daisaku Ikeda
“Oh Johnny was one of my favourite tunes,” she said years later in a radio interview, “and I was particularly fond of the big bass, which I was watching when the bomb came. I was dancing one moment, and holding my head in agony on rubble the next.”
“Couples dancing had been flung apart,” the March 10, 1941 London Times reported. “Those able to do so struggled to their feet, and many searched amid the confusion with torches [small flashlights] and lighted matches for their partners of a second before. Girls in dance frocks were carried through debris and tended on the pavement [sidewalk] or in houses near[by] until motor-ambulances, which travelled quickly to and from hospital, could get all the casualties away.”
Corporal Peterman spent three months in hospital, where her right eye was removed to prevent her from going blind. The heavy material of her Air Force uniform saved her left arm from amputation, but extensive damage led to skin-grafting surgery that left it heavily scarred. And for the rest of her life, tiny pieces of shrapnel periodically worked their way to the surface of her face and body, souvenirs of one of the worst bombing raids in London’s history.
She couldn’t help comparing her fate with that of her date that night. The young man she danced with when the bomb exploded walked away from the nightclub without a scratch. And he never came to visit her in hospital.
The psychological scars she bore were almost as bad as the physical ones. Her striking looks had permanently changed, which shook her confidence and self-esteem. From this time on, she rarely posed for a photograph without wearing dark glasses to mask her glass eye.
But life goes on, and so did she. Once out of hospital she went back into active military service and met a tall handsome Scottish Air Force sergeant one night… at a dance. They fell in love, married, and later had two daughters.
Sylvia Innes, my mother, passed away at the age of 79 in an English hospital. She never forgot the horror of that night at the Café de Paris. Nor do I. It spurs me on to work and hope for a world that no longer tolerates or excuses the heartless violence and inhuman cruelty of war. A world that regards life as what it truly is: sacred.