We didn’t know it then, but our turn was coming. The failure to sufficiently protect the city was about to be realised. Belfast still lacked sufficient anti-aircraft defence, fighter cover, searchlights or shelters. When the sirens first sounded on the night of April 7, 1941, people tended to ignore the danger. Some actually climbed the surrounding hills to watch the display. The first bombs began falling on Belfast just after midnight. The raid consisted of six Heinkel 111 bombers, each carrying a payload of over one thousand kilos. They dropped waves of incendiaries, high explosives, and parachute bombs. Major fires were started in residential areas of East Belfast. Factories and businesses around the city suffered moderate damage. The shipyards were hit hardest, causing severe damage.
When the all clear sounded at approximately 3:30 am, 13 people were dead, 23 were seriously injured, and many others suffered a variety of minor injuries.
Belfast had been lucky, getting off lightly on that first night of bombing. But from this first raid it seems certain the German pilots reported how vulnerable the city was, and no one imagined what lay in store just one week later.
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. Ceilings 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.
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