What are you like with time-keeping?
Are you always early, often arriving anywhere a full hour before to “get your bearings”, having been there before, blocked out the route, and leaving nothing to chance, just in case?
Are you a bastion of being bang-on-time, scraping in by the skin of your teeth as the clock bongs, lamenting the lateness of others with a tut as each whole minute passes?
Or, are you a notoriously late ninny, not caring how long others have had to wait, as you regale them, all red-faced and flustered with an over-long tale, as you blame someone else?
Whichever you are, maybe it’s time to rethink your relationship with punctuality? As every second of life is precious, and beside, you never know which second… will be your last. What follows is a true story, compiled from archive sources and first-hand accounts, about how a simple momentary hint of hesitation, a split second’s kindness to a stranger, or even an overwhelming desire to jog instead of walk…can be the death of you.
During the Blitz of 1940 to 41, as fifty thousand bombs and over one million incendiary devices rained down from the heavily droning heavens, pockmarking the bustling streets of London with hot pockets of fire, that turned the sunlight black, the night skyline red, and killed forty-three thousand civilians in its wake – a bomb dropped on Soho.
On the 24th September 1940 at 11:38pm, in Orange Yard (a small cul-de-sac between Manette Street and Goslett’s Yard, just to the side of the site formerly occupied by Foyles, where Boardwalk now stands) killing three people.
That bomb was an SC50, a 50kg weapon, containing 25kgs of TNT (high explosive), and was the most common bomb dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War.
Of those three victims*, the first died in a merchant’s building in Orange Yard, as a result of a direct hit. No-one is sure what killed the occupant first, whether he was crushed by falling debris as the structure gave way, whether it was the strength of the blast-wave which blew his arms, legs and head from his torso, or whether it was the intensity of the heat which vaporised his body, either way there was very little for his family to identify his body.
The second victim died on the first floor of no 16 Manette Street. And although the building was only partially occupied at the time, most of the lodgers got away with nothing more than superficial cuts and shock, as much of the blast-wave from the explosion was dissipated by the strength of the walls. Unfortunately, one lady was not so lucky. A piece of shrapnel from the bomb casing - which can travel as far as a kilometre away and up to seven times the speed of sound - pierced the wall and struck her in the head, killing her instantly as she lay in her bed.
Where-as the third victim died on Manette Street (just outside of Foyles), over one hundred feet away. But unlike the others, she had no injuries of any kind; no cuts, no bruises, no grazes, no burns. Her clothes weren’t even ruffled. At first, as she lay there, in the street, passers-by thought that she was asleep, but she wasn’t, she was dead.
Rescue teams during the Blitz referred this kind of injury as “Blast Lung”.
Effectively, as the SC50 bomb exploded, it sent out a massive pressure wave which did untold damage the merchants building which stood in Orange Yard, killing the occupant (Victim #1) instantly. But, as the weakened blast-wave hit 16 Manette Street, it hadn’t got enough strength left to cause any serious damage, but it was the shrapnel which caused the fatality (Victim #2). Where-as, with Victim #3 being beyond the blast radius, away from the scorching heat and with no razor-sharp shrapnel heading her way like white hot bullets, she still wasn’t safe.
With no walls between the blast and the Victim #3 to dissipate the blast, the much weakened blast-wave made its way down the alley of Orange Yard, using the walls like a barrel of a gun, focussing the pressure wave, so that – the by time it hit her – it hadn’t got enough energy to knock her off her feet, but it had just enough left to crush her lungs, squeezing all the life and oxygen out of her body, therefore she keeled over and died of asphyxiation.
No-one knows where Victim #3 was going that night. It’s logical to assume she was on her way to the local air-raid shelter. The nearest to Orange Yard is underneath Soho Square; it held between two to three hundred people, and it’s still there today.
So, what has her time-keeping got to do with this? How can a “simple momentary hint of hesitation, a split second’s kindness to a stranger, or even an overwhelming desire to jog instead of walk” cause her to “almost miss her own death” in an event as random as a bomb being dropped on a city from ten thousand feet up?
According to eye-witness testimony, Victim #3 (who was never formally identified, but it is believed she was “not local”) was last seen walking quickly but carefully across Charing Cross Road towards Manette Street, when she stopped to help a little boy who’d fallen. And then, as the desperate wail of the air-raid sirens grew louder, she quickened her pace - only slightly – but it was enough to ensure she kept her date with destiny.
As the bomb was dropped, both she and the little boy were safe, being shielded as they stood behind the walls of 16 Manette Street. But by the time the bomb had exploded, she had already moved on, between the two walls in the alley of Orange Yard – exposed - away from safety and into the path of a killer blast-wave.
It is approximately eighteen feet between the walls of Orange Yard, which means, if she was running… the difference between her life and her death… was barely two seconds.
That said, if you’re travelling on the tube? It might be worth reading about my blog about The London Underground’s Very Own Serial Killer or to read more about “blitz spirit”in this article, or Malcolm Gladwell's fabulous book 'David & Goliath - The Art of Battling Giants'
* Their names of the victims have been deliberately redacted out of respect.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks.