The Belfast Blitz


I should explain the lack of city air raid shelters and defense was not due a lack of preparation. It was because when the war began Belfast was beyond the range of Germany bombers

Tuesday, April 15, 1941, was Easter.  People were enjoying a day off work. The holiday began with beautiful sunshine and unusually warm temperatures for that time of year.  Some people left the city on day trips to the country. Those unable to afford a trip, sat outside their front doors, enjoying the sunshine or watching men go by on their way to an afternoon football match at Windsor Park. The roads and streets had been cleared of the damage caused the previous week, and trams and buses were once again running on time.  For the citizens of Belfast, life had returned to normal.  Or so they thought.

 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 takeoff 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.  Having experienced the danger of bombing a week earlier, people now took the sirens seriously and scrambled to find shelter.  The bombers approached the city from the north, sweeping in low between the Divis and Black Mountains.  The first wave dropped 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. Desperate calls for help went out across the Province. 

Thirteen brigades from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Dundalk and Drogeda raced north to answer the call.  The brave men from the south were unprepared for the destruction confronting them.  They worked tirelessly and with grim determination, but lacking the necessary wartime equipment, they were finally withdrawn. There was also the risk of a fatality, which could cause serious difficulties for the neutral Government of Eire.

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 defence instruction pamphlets, they hung blankets around the table to protect against flying glass and debris.  My three sisters and I huddled in the cramped coalhole under the stairs.

During a lull, Pop muttered something about Percy Street having a shelter, and why didn’t we have one.  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. Very good description, you really feel it happening.

As the first grey streaks of dawn broke over the city, people began crawling from shelters and homes to a scene of devastation.  Some families, anxiously struggling but unable to open warped doors, climbed through broken windows to reached the street. Everyone was caked in filth, dust and debris, some wearing pyjamas 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, and 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.

Incredibly, our clock, which had been on the mantelpiece, still kept time, ticking in a pile of rubble. Ceiling’s plaster had fallen in on the kitchen, coating everything in a film of white powdery dust.  In the bedrooms, daylight flooded through the rafters where few slates remained. 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. Pop, concerned about Aunt Cassie and family, decided to go check on them. My eldest brother Tommy volunteered to go with him. 

As they passed through Dover Street, they came upon Bob Adair’s house. It was wide open, and apparently deserted. Bob was a friend of the family, so they ventured inside looking for some sign of life.  On the kitchen table stood a wire container with six eggs. It seemed careless to have left them there they were so scarce.  Finding no one home, they continued on to Cassie’s house where they learned that everyone had survived the night okay.

On their return journey about 20 minutes later, they passed where Bob Adair’s house should have been. There was nothing left but a pile of rubble. Strangely, in the middle of the wreckage stood the kitchen table, the six eggs still in their container. Pop later learned that a delayed fuse bomb had lodged in the chimney.  Air raid wardens had hastily evacuated the house, but neglected to post a warning sign.  We have no idea how long after Pop and Tommy left the house the detonation occurred; however, it was surely a very close thing.  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, near Cromac Square.  Public funerals had to be held, burying up to 150 bodies at a time. The supply of coffins quickly ran out.

Never Again.  God Bless and keep reading.

About irishroverpei

Author of "Lily & Me", "The Royal Navy & Me" and Chapter XXl Armageddon. Writer, blogger and RN Submariner, antique automobile enthusiast.
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