Ireland’s Wars: The Belfast Blitz

Even before the invention of air planes, the idea of utilising aircraft in a military context had been the focus of theorists and fiction writers alike, many of whom would spend the time before 1905 and the time after prophesising that future wars would see a decisive element in opposing sides massing such aircraft to rein destruction down on the other. After World War One, where aerial bombing was demonstrated in an embryonic state, such thoughts only grew, and by the time the Second World War came about, a significant number of people believed that “strategic bombing”, that is the large-scale bombing of enemy targets, military or civilian, from the air, would actually end wars very quickly, as civilian populations would be unable to withstand such terrors. In the Summer and Autumn of 1940 Germany had attempted to make such a state of affairs come about in a systematic campaign aimed against British cities, but while they caused a great deal of death and destruction, they did not force the United Kingdom to submit. Neither did the Luftwaffe cease their bombing though, and in the Spring of 1941, they extended their targets to include other parts of the United Kingdom, and in so doing they brought the wear directly to the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland had, naturally enough, been a part of the British war effort since the start of the conflict. Aside from contributing men to the military, and hosting regiments, air bases and naval assets, the North contributed in other ways: the Belfast shipyards was a key point for the Royal Navy in terms of the creation of new vessels and the upkeep of existing ones; the Belfast port in a larger sense was a vital launch point for merchant shipping; and different industrialists based in the North produced shells, tanks and planes in large measures. On the face of it, Northern Ireland operated as an equal partner in the United Kingdom when it came to the war.

But underneath the surface, there was definite problems that would take a crisis to become clear. Northern Ireland’s political leadership was in something of a stagnant state: in the most recent election, in 1938, the Ulster Unionist Party has returned 75% of the seats. James Craig had been Prime Minister from 1921 up till his death in 1940, and his administration had become increasingly maligned owing to his perceived lack of political nous and detached circumstances (he had urged London to introduce conscription to Northern Ireland, a policy Westminster wisely declined to pursue, and also encouraged a military invasion of Ireland). Craig’s replacement, J.M Andrews, was not much better, and he led a cabinet of fractured personalities, many of whom were simply not up to the task of forming a wartime government.

This can be seen in the sheer lack of preparations that had been made to mitigate any aerial bombing that Belfast might suffer. There was little in the way of engagement with the British military before or after war was declared in terms of Belfast’s preparedness in the event of an attack, with Home Affairs Minister Dawson Bates later accused of ignoring correspondence on the matter entirely. The city had some of the highest densities of population in the UK at the time, but could claim the fewest amount of publicly provided air-raid shelters: many homes instead bought their own private shelters, usually of the Anderson variety (a corrugated iron structure covered in earth). The city had few searchlights installed, no ability to create smokescreens and only a small number of barrage balloons. No night-fighter cover had been arranged to protect the city, and there were less than two dozen anti-aircraft points installed, many of which were not routinely manned. Most of the city’s youth population, in contrast to other cities in the United Kingdom, had not been evacuated. In essence, Belfast was, in the Spring of 1941, pitifully unready for the kind of aerial destruction that had already been visited upon other parts of the UK. This was not unrecognised either: two prominent parliamentary secretaries had resigned in the 12 months prior to the coming attacks on account of what one viewed as “slack, dilatory and apathetic” war preparations.

The Germans would not be so restrained when it came to their own preparations. In late 1940 Belfast had been the target of reconnaissance flights, which determined the measly state of its anti-aircraft defences in comparison to the numerous industrial targets in the city; plans for a series of bombing raids were made immediately, though the focus of the larger campaign remained on cities like London, Coventry and Manchester. Very limited bombing runs of Belfast took place in the early months of 1941, but these were more than likely not intended, instead possibly bombers aiming at other places, such as Glasgow, that overshot their routes and released their bombs at the first target they could find: strategic bombing was very far from an exact art.

The first larger scale raid of Belfast took place on the night of the 7th April, and also served as part of preparations for a much larger event. Six Heinkel He 111 dropped a mixture of high explosive and incendiaries bombs as well as parachute-mines over the city. The target was the docks, but residential areas nearby were also hit. 13 people were killed – one of them a soldier whose AA gun had misfired – and a Short Stirling bomber factory floor was destroyed: by the standards of destruction being experienced elsewhere, it was a pretty light attack all things considered. One of the German bombers would be shot down over Downpatrick by scrambling RAF fighters: the rest made it back to their bases in Northern France, where they were able to report that Belfast’s defences seemed insufficient to stand up to a much larger attack. It was all that the Luftwaffe leaders needed to hear.

On the 15th April, Easter Tuesday, a single German place was observed in the sky by spectators at a Belfast football match, perhaps a last reconnaissance flight ahead of the greater storm to come. That evening, 150 bombers – a mix of Heinkel’s Junkers Ju 88s and Dornier Do 17s, departing in sequence – took off from bases in Northern France and the Netherlands. The first were over Belfast by 2240, which was when the city’s air raid sirens sounded. What followed was up to six hours of destruction, as wave after wave of bombers arrived, deposited their payloads and turned back.

Accounts of that night can be deemed as confused and contradictory: for example, some claim the Germans first dropped flares to light up the city, others than it was simply the immediate fires that were started. But what is undeniable is the scale of the destruction as the bombs rained down. The first target was the city’s waterworks complex, which for a time was assumed to be an error, the Germans mistaking that complex for the docks, but it has since been realised to be part of German strategy to impede recovery efforts once incendiary bombs were dropped later. The docks, most especially the Harland & Wolff shipyards, would be hit, and several vessels under construction where damaged. But few parts of the city would escape being touched by what was going on.

Among the more prominent buildings to either be destroyed or badly damaged included parts of the City Hall, the Ulster Hospital, the York Road railway station, the Midland Hotel, numerous churches, tram depots and, of course, an enormous amount of housing. Several streets were essentially flattened, and all of their inhabitants killed or injured. What hadn’t been destroyed by the high explosive bombs was often engulfed in flames from the fires started by the incendiaries, with the water pressure of Belfast’s plumbing too low after the attack on the waterworks for fire fighters to be able to do their jobs effectively. The amount of fire reduced the availability of breathable air in the city, and while Belfast avoided the kind of firestorms that were so deadly later in the war it was still a major impediment to both escape and to efforts to quell the blaze.

Worse perhaps, the German bombing was done largely without opposition. The RAF did not interfere with what was happening, and some of the manned AA positions ceased firing in the mistaken belief that friendly planes were also in the sky. Some air raid shelters were hit, and in the panic that naturally engulfed the city others were killed as they went into the open seeking shelter, or as they attempted to flee the urban area entirely. The Luftwaffe would be able to drop their bombs with impunity until around 0500 the following day, when the attack was finally halted. Other cities were also hit that night, presumably by bombers that went off course and dropped their payloads at the first available target: Derry and Bangor both suffered from such attacks, with 20 people killed.

The Minister for Public Security, John McDermott, was paralyzed for a time in terms of response, owing to the destruction and damage to telephone lines, but eventually got through to other government officials, most notably Basil Brooke, the Minister for Agriculture, though he informally held a higher position of prominence than just that portfolio. With the city in flames and local fire fighting staff struggling to do anything to combat the inferno, McDermott received authorisation from Brooke to send a message pleading for help to the Dublin government. We should not underestimate how momentous such a request was: the Belfast government’s previous Prime Minister had called for the British to invade the south only a short time earlier, and Brooke himself had once spoken publicly on his belief that “Catholics are out to destroy Ulster”. But the situation in Belfast that night was desperate.

De Valera received McDermott’s message sometime after 0400 that night, and didn’t hesitate. Fire bridge trucks and personnel in Dublin, Drogheda and Louth were called out and sent north: allegedly crews were asked to volunteer for the assignments, and no one refused. Within a few hours 13 Irish trucks and over 70 men were in Belfast combating the fires. They would stay there for up to three days, many of them operating without food or rest, until relieved by firefighters arriving from other parts of Northern Ireland and Scotland, and prove vital in getting the fires under control. At a time when relations between Belfast and Dublin were difficult, and ahead of worst times to come, the incident is one of the stand-out examples of north/south cooperation since the introduction of partition. One must also acknowledge that the sending of the fire trucks must be viewed as a breach of Ireland’s stated neutrality policy, with Irish resources used to combat damage inflicted by one belligerent by another. De Valera certainly didn’t seem to care, protesting to Berlin about what had happened and giving his famous “they are our people” a few days later. In this we can see that de Valera had a clear political reason for doing what he did, but it is doubtful that the people whose homes and business were saved from the fires would have cared all that much.

Over 900 people had been killed in the bombings, which constituted the largest single day death toll, outside of London, that Britain suffered from such attacks during the war. Thousands of people had been injured. Hospitals were flooded, as were morgues. 50’000 homes, over half of Belfast’s supply, were destroyed or damaged. Over 100’000 people were left homeless for at least a time, while others simply fled the city for fear of further raids. A refugee crisis engulfed the rest of Northern Ireland, and some of the south’s border areas, for a time afterwards as people packed into wherever they could get to, which included countryside barns. It would take some time before many were confident enough to return to Belfast. It would take years to repair the damage.

Three weeks later, Belfast was hit again on the night of the 4/4th May. This raid, known in popular memory as the “Fire Raid” owing to the large number of incendiary bombs used, was less devastating than the first, with air raid sirens going off an hour before German planes arrived, the Luftwaffe dropping their bombs from a greater height than before and with less airplanes involved. Once again the dock area was a major target, and once again residential areas nearby were also hit. 150 people were killed in this raid, and fires re-started that necessitated more aid from the Irish government, which again was offered freely.

The recriminations about what had occurred began almost immediately. The government of Northern Ireland came in for strong criticism from civilians and MPs over the lack of preparation. Andrews’ administration was already not especially well thought of, and the inefficiencies of his cabinet had been badly exposed: he would be forced to leave office before the end of the war, replaced by Brooke. But the anger quickly spread to other targets. Claims from some in the media that German bombers had used the lights of Dublin and railways heading from that city northward to orient their attack inflamed some minds, who were only too willing to blame the south for their troubles and forget any assistance that had been proffered from that quarter: similar minds would later claim that Catholic citizens in Northern Ireland, or the IRA, had helped to guide the bombers from the ground, with no evidence to support such a theory. The IRA lacked the means for such things, and the truth is that even if German radio guidance beams did not extend to Belfast, the city itself, located at the end of Belfast Lough inlet, was not difficult to locate from the air.

The German response was initially celebratory, with the raids an example of the reach of the Luftwaffe in terms of its continued ability to hit major British targets. But the mood changed quickly enough, and within a short time Belfast was no longer mentioned in propaganda broadcasts. No more major attacks against Belfast took place for the remainder of the war. Some have placed the cause for this at the feet of Eamon de Valera, and formal complaints to German ambassadors about the attacks. The theory goes that, fearful of Ireland moving from a neutral status to one of more overt sympathy with the UK, Hitler decided to forgo future attacks on Belfast. He may also have been fearful of Irish-American opinion, given the United States was yet to enter the war. But this is just conjecture: it’s just as likely that the Axis decided they were better served focusing on targets that were closer to continental Europe, and the opening of the Barbarossa campaign the month after the last raid on Belfast was also presumably a factor in terms of available resources. By the end of 1941 the United States had entered the war, and an Allied presence in Northern Ireland was only to grow: Belfast was thus no longer such an obviously easy target.

Belfast would, as stated, avoid major destruction for the remainder of the war, but its role in the conflict would remain far-reaching: we will come to its position as, essentially, a large American base of operations, at some point in the future. For now, we move on, but only in terms of location. The topic will remain German bombing of Irish cities, but in the next entry we will look at a much more controversial, if considerably less deadly, instance of the same. Ireland would avoid wholesale destruction during the Second World War as a consequence of its neutrality policy, but it would not get out unscathed: Dublin would now feel the sting of the Luftwaffe.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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5 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: The Belfast Blitz

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: German Bombing Of Ireland | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The IRA “Northern Campaign” | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Ireland And The Axis | Never Felt Better

  5. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: The 1950’s Arms Raids | Never Felt Better

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