The Belfast Blitz is an unusual story, the city was never prepared for air attacks. Although a major British industrial centre it was not listed as a priority simply because in 1939 when war began we were beyond the range of the German bombers. That all changed in the summer of 1940 when the Germans marched into France,Belgium and the Low Countries.
Tuesday, April 15, 1941, was Easter. The people of Belfast were enjoying a day off work.
That afternoon it’s unlikely anyone noticed the lone German reconnaissance plane flying high overhead, a harbinger of things to come in the relaxed city below enjoying the holiday. Just hours away in occupied Europe, the winds of war were turning in our direction as more than two hundred planes prepared for take off on runways in France and the lowlands of Holland. Pilots anxiously awaited the signal to go, their target that fateful night, Belfast.
The advancing bombers were made up of Heinkel 111s, Junkers 88s and Dorniers. The Junkers alone could carry in excess of a 3,000-pound bomb load. City sirens began wailing shortly after ten thirty that evening. The bombers approached the city from the north, sweeping in low between the Divis and Black Mountains. The first wave dropped incendiary flares across the city, lighting up the intended targets. They were relentlessly followed by wave after wave of bombers. The air was suddenly filled with incendiaries, high explosives and mines. The shipyards put up a huge smokescreen, attempting to disguise their location. A Royal Naval cruiser, repairing in the yard, joined the defence of the city, her guns blazing into the night. All night and into the early dawn the bombs rained down. The Germans methodically razed factories, mills, and homes. Telephone communications were knocked out and gas supplies were cut off as fires erupted. Leaking gas mains sent towering flames shooting high into the sky. The local fire brigades were soon overwhelmed, with water pressure too weak to stem the blazing inferno.
This night of bombing wasn’t restricted solely to Belfast. The towns of Londonderry, Newtownards and Bangor were also hit, but none as badly as Belfast.
Northumberland Street was just one of many without air raid shelters. People had to find their own means of protection. Pop and my two brothers sheltered under our heavy wooden kitchen table. Following civil defense instruction pamphlets, they hung blankets around the table to protect against flying glass and debris. My three sisters and I huddled in the cramped coal hole under the stairs. That dreadful night seemed to be unending, explosion after explosion crashing around us, sometimes far away, sometimes right outside our door. Each explosion was followed by a tremendous shock wave blasting heat and debris in its path. We heard breaking glass, and the rumble of walls collapsing while houses trembled and shook. The air was choked with smoke and dust from fires roaring everywhere. The night was filled with a thousand noises we couldn’t identify, buildings slowly caving in, bricks and beams tumbling into the streets. My terrified sisters were sure we would not survive the night. I suffered the least. I was afraid of course, but too young to really understand the danger. Bombs fell on the hapless city all night long. When the last bomber disappeared and the all clear sounded, it was after 5 am. The city had been under attack for more than six hours.
As the first grey streaks of dawn broke over the city, people began crawling from shelters and homes to a scene of devastation. Everyone was caked in filth, dust and debris, some wearing pajamas or nightshirts, blankets draped over their shoulders. They stood exhausted and trembling, children crying at their sides. Bewildered, they gazed in disbelief at the sight confronting them. Whole areas where once had stood familiar houses and buildings were now gone. All that remained were piles of smoking wreckage. Everywhere buildings blazed, a pall of smoke hung over the city blackening out the sky. It was difficult to breathe the smoke and dust-laden air. People tied cloths or rags over their noses in an attempt to avoid the smoke. The streets were littered with bricks, bits of concrete, shards of glass and wood splinters. We took stock of our house, or what was left of it. The front door still opened and closed, but no windows had survived. Remnants of torn curtains fluttered in the breeze; dishes, picture frames and ornaments lay smashed on the floor.
Ceiling plaster had fallen in on the kitchen, coating everything in a film of white powdery dust that was mixed with chimney soot. We were unable to brew a pot of tea; there was neither gas nor water. As people assessed their damage, news began to filter through from other parts of the city. A passing air raid warden told of a direct hit on the Percy Street shelter, where some 60 souls had died instantly. Stories such as this, all similar, all telling the same fateful tales, continued to pour in.
Belfast was given little time to recover as more nightly raids continued through the month of April and into the first days of May.
Over 900 people were killed, thousands more injured. The city was a catastrophe; it would take weeks and months to reach a semblance of order. Streets and roads were blocked, businesses closed, and services almost non-existent. No trams were running, water and gas supplies were cut off. The few shops that survived attempted to serve a starving population. Hospitals still able to function worked with wonderful efficiency, treating thousands of injuries under the most trying conditions. Mortuaries overflowed with the dead. Corpses were stacked in the Falls Road public baths and at St George’s Market. Public funerals had to be held, burying up to 150 bodies at a time. The supply of coffins quickly ran out.
In the early morning hours of May 4th the last and most savage raid set the entire city on fire. More bombs were dropped than in any previous raid. A Berlin radio announcer flying in one of the planes later stated that it was like looking down into a sea of flames. Of all British cities bombed during the war, the Belfast raids were the heaviest recorded. Only the city of London, suffered heavier and more sustained attacks.
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Born in Belfast N.Ireland in January 1939.
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