Last week’s column featured the spectacular rise from being a pupil at Sir William Borlase’s School to international fame as bandleader and dancer – Ken “Snakehips” Johnson.

By 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, he was a worldwide star, but the bombs falling almost nightly curtailed the activities of most London music venues. One that was allowed to continue in business was The Café de Paris on Coventry Street.

It was one of the most popular places for affluent Londoners to relax at night during the Blitz.

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At 20 feet below ground and with thick concrete roof it was considered the “safest restaurant in town”.

Also, very few night clubs were given a licence to operate by Westminster Council during the Blitz because of the strict blackout regulations.

But officials believed the Cafe de Paris to be safe as it was felt that light would not escape from underground.

The Cafe de Paris had opened in 1924 with a luxurious interior modelled on the Titanic, and became a place of escape, particularly for army officers and RAF personnel based in or around London.

“Snakehips” Johnson and his West Indian Dance Orchestra were one of the most popular attractions, and they were top of the bill on Saturday, March 8 1941 with the place crowded with dancers and diners in full evening dress.

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Most of them felt just as safe as if they were in their own local air raid shelters.

That March night, even though a heavy raid (130 tons of high explosive and 30,000 incendiaries) was taking place over London, those in the club were determined to enjoy the music.

The band had just launched into the opening bars of the Andrews Sisters’ hit “Oh, Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!” and the dance floor was packed.

hen came a blinding blue flash.

Two 110lb bombs had struck the Rialto Cinema above the club.

They punched though the concrete roof, one exploding on the gallery above the band. ‘

Snakehips’ and most of his orchestra, together with restaurateur M. Poulsen and the Club’s head waiter, were killed outright.

The Cafe de Paris’ troupe of ten glamorous dancers - due on stage when the bombs struck - were saved because they were still waiting in the wings and protected from the blast.

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Thirty-four staff, band members and patrons were killed, one of the most infamous stories of the London Blitz.

Between 80 and 100 others suffered injuries, including the daughter of the former Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

One of the policemen who responded to the scene was Ballard Berkeley, a Special Constable in the Blitz but later famous for playing Major Gowen in the classic 1970’s BBC television comedy Fawlty Towers.

As was usual during the War the Press were instructed to downplay the incident, merely describing it as “bomb damage to a London restaurant”.

Requests for information on the victims were still being received a month later.

“Snakehips” was cremated at Golders Green, a service, despite the War, attended by several hundred musicians.

Without any publicity his ashes were returned to the Chapel at Sir William Borlase’s School at the request of the family.

Exactly where in the Chapel remained a mystery until the 1980s when Rod Hamer, Art Master by day, jazz musician by night, unscrewed a wooden panel, probably without prior permission, and discovered a small urn behind.

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Some time after, Mr Hamer blew a trumpet solo when a commemorative plaque was unveiled on the school wall in West Street, a ceremony also attended by Pam Moores and Kath Page who were mentioned in last week’s column.

Contact Michael at or 01628 486571