Operation Blitz on Belfast

The 'Blitz on Belfast' was a series of four German air raids on strategic targets in the city of Belfast in Northern Ireland (7 April/6 May 1941).

The first raid took place on the night of 7/8 April 1941, and was a relatively small-scale attack probably intended only to test Belfast’s defences. The next took place on 15 April, when 200 Luftwaffe bombers attacked military and manufacturing targets in the city of Belfast. Some 900 people died as a result of the bombing and 1,500 were injured. High explosive bombs predominated in this raid. Apart from those on London, this was the greatest loss of life in any night raid during 'The Blitz'. The third raid on Belfast took place over the evening and morning of 4/5 May 1941 in which 150 persons were killed in an attack in which incendiary bombs predominated. The fourth raid took place on the following night, 5/6 May. In total over 1,300 houses were destroyed, some 5,000 were badly damaged, nearly 30,000 were slightly damaged and 20,000 required some repairs.

As the UK was preparing for war, Belfast’s factories and shipyards were developing their capabilities and, in the event, made a considerable contribution towards the Allied war effort, producing many naval ships and aircraft as well as large quantities of munitions. The city was therefore deemed a suitable bombing target by the Luftwaffe.

Unlike Northern Ireland, the Irish Free State was no longer part of the UK and, under the leadership of Éamon de Valera, had declared itself to be neutral. Although it arrested German spies detected by the police and military intelligence services, the state did not sever diplomatic relations with the Axis nations, and the German legation in Dublin remained open throughout the war.

The government of Northern Ireland lacked the will, energy and capacity to cope with the major crisis when it arrived. James Craig, Lord Craigavon, had been prime minister of Northern Ireland since its inception in 1921 up until his death in 1940. His death and the state of poor health which preceded it came at a bad time and resulted in a vacuum of leadership. Richard Dawson Bates was the minister for home affairs, and Sir Basil Brooke the minister of agriculture, was the only active minister and successfully busied himself with the task of making Northern Ireland a major supplier of food to the rest of the UK. John Clarke MacDermott, the minister of public security, after the first bombing, initiated the 'Hiram Plan' to evacuate the city and to return Belfast to 'normality' as quickly as possible, and MacDermott sent a telegram to de Valera seeking assistance. There was unease with the complacent attitude of the government, which led to the resignations of two senior civil servants.

Craigavon died on 24 November 1940 and was succeeded by J. M. Andrews, then 69 years old and who, as events were to prove, was no capable of dealing with the situation than had been his predecessor. On 28 April 1943, six members of the government threatened to resign, forcing Andrews from office and his succession by the 54 year old Brooke on 1 May.

In Belfast, Harland and Wolff was one of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. It had constructed many ships for the White Star Line (including Titanic and Olympic) and for the Royal Navy, the latter including aircraft carriers such as Formidable and the later aircraft carrier depot ship Unicorn, the light cruisers Belfast and Penelope, and 131 other naval vessels. The company employed up to 35,000 people. During the war years, Belfast shipyards built or converted more than 3,000 navy vessels, repaired more than 22,000 ships and launched more than 500,000 tons of merchant shipping in the form of more than 140 vessels.

Short Brothers manufactured aircraft. The company’s best known products were the Sunderland flying boat and the Stirling four-engined long-range heavy bomber, and the company employed as many as 20,000 people. The factory was re-equipping as early as 1936 for the manufacture of 189 Handley Page Hereford twin-engined medium bombers.

James Mackie & Sons were re-equipped in 1938, and the company was the primary supplier of Bofors anti-aircraft shells.

Harland’s Engineering works built tanks, and designed the Churchill infantry tank.

Linen for covering aircraft, such as the Hawker Hurricane single-engined fighter and military gliders, was manufactured by a number of Belfast flax spinning mills, such as The York Street Flax Spinning Co., the Brookfield Spinning Co., Wm. Ewart’s Rosebank Weaving Co. and the Linen Thread Co.

Other Belfast factories manufactured gun mountings, pieces of artillery, aircraft parts and ammunition.

War materials and food were sent by sea from Belfast to the rest of the UK, some under the protection of the neutral Irish tricolour: Munster, for example, operated by the Belfast Steamship Company, plied between Belfast and Liverpool under the tricolour, until she struck a mine and sank outside Liverpool.

There was little major preparation for the forthcoming conflict with Germany, but at the time Craigavon said that 'Ulster is ready when we get the word and always will be.' He was asked, in the Northern Ireland parliament, 'if the government realized ''that these fast bombers can come to Northern Ireland in two and three quarter hours''', to which he replied that 'We here today are in a state of war and we are prepared with the rest of the United Kingdom and Empire to face all the responsibilities that imposes on the Ulster people. There is no slacking in our loyalty.' Bates, the minister for home affairs, apparently refused to reply to army correspondence and when the ministry of home affairs was informed by imperial defence experts in 1939 that Belfast was regarded as 'a very definite German objective', little was done other than the provision of shelters in the harbour area. The city with the highest population density in the UK at the time, Belfast also had the lowest proportion of public air raid shelters. Before the 'Blitz on Belfast', there were only 200 public shelters in the city, although around 4,000 households had built their own private shelters. These private air raid shelters were Anderson shelters, constructed of sheets of corrugated galvanised iron covered with earth. Since most casualties were caused by falling masonry rather than by blast, they provided effective shelter for those who had them.

No searchlights were set up in the city at the time, and these arrived only on 10 April 1941. There was no smokescreen capability, however, but there were some tactically sited barrage balloons. Given Belfast’s geographical position, it was considered to be at the fringe of the German bomber force’s operational range, so there was no provision for night-fighter cover. Indeed, on the night of the first raid, no RAF aircraft took to the air to intercept the German bombers. On the ground, there were only 22 anti-aircraft guns (16 heavy and six light) positioned round the city, and on the first night raid only seven of these were manned and operational.

Few children had been evacuated. The 'Hiram Plan' initiated by Bates had failed to materialise, and in the vent fewer than 4,000 women and children were evacuated, leaving 80,000 more in Belfast. Even the children of soldiers had not been evacuated, with calamitous results when the married quarters of Victoria Barracks received a direct hit.

From documents recovered after the war, it is known that a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight over Belfast took place on 30 November 1940. The Germans established that Belfast was defended by only seven anti-aircraft batteries, which made it the most poorly defended city in the UK, and the flight’s photographs, the Germans identified suitable targets including Harland and Wolff shipyard and engineering works, the Short Brothers and Harland aircraft factory, Belfast power station, the Rank & Co. mill, Belfast waterworks and the Victoria Barracks

Before the 'Blitz on Belfast', there had been a number of small bombings, probably by aircraft which missed their targets over the Clyde river in Glasgow or the cities of north-western England. On 24 March 1941, MacDermott wrote to Andrews expressing his concerns that Belfast was so poorly protected: 'Up to now we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside until recently. Clydeside got its blitz during the period of the last moon. There [is] ground for thinking that the [Germans] could not easily reach Belfast in force except during a period of moonlight. The period of the next moon from say the 7th to the 16th of April may well bring our turn.'

The first deliberate German raid took place on the night of 7 April, and targeted the docks, although nearby residential areas were also hit. Six Heinkel He 111 twin-engined medium bombers, of the Kampfgruppe 26, flying at 6,890 ft (2100 m), dropped incendiaries, high explosive bombs and parachute mines. By British mainland 'blitz' standards, the resulting casualties were light: 13 persons died, these including a soldier killed when an anti-aircraft gun, at the Balmoral show-grounds, misfired. The most significant loss was a 4.5-acre (1.8-hectare) factory floor for manufacturing the fuselages of Stirling bombers. The RAF announced that Squadron Leader J. W. C. Simpson had shot down one of the bombers over Downpatrick. The Luftwaffe crews returned to their base in north-western France and reported that Belfast’s defences were 'inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient'. In overall terms, this raid caused relatively little damage or casualties, but revealed much about the inadequacies of Belfast’s defences.

On Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, spectators watching a football match at Windsor Park noticed a lone Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined aeroplane circling overhead. That evening more than 150 bombers left their bases in northern France and the Netherlands and headed for Belfast. The bombers were He 111, Ju 88 and Dornier Do 17 twin-engined medium bombers. At 22.40 the air raid sirens sounded. Accounts differ as to when flares were dropped to light up the city. The first attack was against the city’s waterworks, which had been attacked in the previous raid. High explosives were dropped. Initially it was thought that the Germans had mistaken this reservoir for the harbour and shipyards, where many ships, including the aircraft carrier Ark Royal were under repair. However that attack was not an error. Three vessels nearing completion at Harland and Wolff’s yard were hit, as was its power station. Waves of bombers dropped their incendiaries, high explosives and land mines, the first causing the city to catch fire as its water pressure was too low for effective firefighting.

Public buildings destroyed or badly damaged included Belfast City Hall’s banqueting hall, the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children and Ballymacarrett library. Strand public elementary school, York Road railway station, the adjacent Midland Hotel on York Road, and Salisbury Avenue tram depot were all hit. Churches destroyed or wrecked included Macrory Memorial Presbyterian in Duncairn Gardens; Duncairn Methodist and Castleton Presbyterian on York Road; St Silas’s on the Oldpark Road; St James’s on the Antrim Road; Newington Presbyterian on Limestone Road; Crumlin Road Presbyterian; Holy Trinity on Clifton Street and Clifton Street Presbyterian; York Street Presbyterian and York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian; and Newtownards Road Methodist and Rosemary Street Presbyterian.

Streets heavily bombed in the city centre included the High Street, Ann Street, Callender Street, Chichester Street, Castle Street, Tomb Street, Bridge Street (effectively obliterated), Rosemary Street, Waring Street, North Street, Victoria Street, Donegall Street, York Street, Gloucester Street and East Bridge Street. In the east of the city, Westbourne and Newcastle Streets on the Newtownards Road, Thorndyke Street off the Albertbridge Road and Ravenscroft Avenue were destroyed or damaged. In the west and north of the city, streets heavily bombed included Percy Street, York Park, York Crescent, Eglinton Street, Carlisle Street, Ballyclare, Ballycastle and Ballynure Streets off the Oldpark Road; Southport Street, Walton Street, Antrim Road, Annadale Street, Cliftonville Road, Hillman Street, Atlantic Avenue, Hallidays Road, Hughenden Avenue, Sunningdale Park, Shandarragh Park and Whitewell Road. Burke Street, which ran between Annadale and Dawson Streets, in the New Lodge area, was completely destroyed with all its 20 houses flattened and all of the occupants killed.[16]

There was no opposition. In the mistaken belief that they might damage RAF fighters, the anti-aircraft batteries ceased firing. But the RAF had not responded. The bombs continued to fall until 05.00.

Some 55,000 houses were damaged, leaving 100,000 persons at least temporarily homeless. Outside London, with some 900 dead this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during 'The Blitz'. A stray bomber attacked Derry, killing 15 people, and another attacked Bangor, killing five persons. By 04.00 the entire city seemed to be in flames, and at 04.15 MacDermott managed to contact Brooke, then the minister of agriculture, seeking permission to seek help from the Irish government. Brooke noted in his diary 'I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency'. Since 01.45 all telephone connections had been cut but, fortunately, the railway telegraph link between Belfast and Dublin was still operational. The telegram was sent at 04.35, asking Valera for assistance.

More than 900 people died and 1,500 people were injured, 400 of them seriously. 50,000 houses, more than half the city’s housing stock, had been damaged. Eleven churches, two hospitals and two schools had been destroyed.

As noted above, there were few bomb shelters, and a shelter on Hallidays Road received a direct hit, killing all those in it. Many people who were dug out of the rubble alive had taken shelter underneath their stairs and were fortunate that their homes had not received a direct hit or caught fire. In the New Lodge area people had taken refuge in a mill, where 35 of them were crushed to death when the mill wall collapsed. In another building, the York Street Mill, one of its massive sidewalls collapsed onto Sussex and Vere Streets, killing all those who remained in their homes.

That night almost 300 people, many from the Protestant Shankill area, took refuge in the Clonard Monastery in the Catholic Falls Road. The crypt under the sanctuary and the cellar under the working sacristy had been fitted out and opened to the public as an air raid shelter. The city’s mortuary services had emergency plans to deal with only 200 bodies. Thus 150 corpses remained in the Falls Road baths for three days before they were buried in a mass grave, with 123 still unidentified. Some 255 corpses were laid out in St George’s Market, and many bodies and body parts could not be identified. Mass graves for the unclaimed bodies were dug in the Milltown and Belfast City Cemeteries.

Some 220,000 people fled the city. Many 'arrived in Fermanagh having nothing with them only night shirts. About 10,000 people 'officially' crossed the border, and more than 500 received care from the Irish Red Cross in Dublin. The town of Dromara saw its population increase from 500 to 2,500. In Newtownards, Bangor, Larne, Carrickfergus, Lisburn and Antrim many thousands of Belfast citizens took refuge either with friends or even with strangers.

Bates informed the cabinet of the rack-renting of barns, and over 30 people per house in some areas.

By 06.00, and this within two hours of the request for assistance, 71 firemen with 13 fire tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. In each station volunteers there was a call for volunteers, as it was beyond the men’s normal duties. In every instance, all stepped forward. They remained for three days, until they were sent back by the Northern Ireland government. By then 250 firemen from Clydeside had arrived.

Initial German radio broadcasts celebrated the raid. A Luftwaffe pilot gave the description that 'We were in exceptional good humour knowing that we were going for a new target, one of England’s last hiding places. Wherever Churchill is hiding his war material we will go … Belfast is as worthy a target as Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol or Glasgow.' William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw') announced that 'The Führer will give you time to bury your dead before the next attack…Tuesday was only a sample.' Belfast was not mentioned again, however, and after the war instructions by Dr Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, were discovered ordering the bombing not to be mentioned. It would appear that Adolf Hitler, in view of de Valera’s negative reaction, was concerned that de Valera and Irish American politicians might encourage the USA to enter the war on the side of the British.

Eduard Hempel, the German minister to Ireland, visited the Irish ministry for external affairs to offer sympathy and attempt an explanation. J. P. Walshe, the ministry’s assistant secretary, recorded that Hempel was 'clearly distressed by the news of the severe raid on Belfast and especially of the number of civilian casualties'. He stated that 'he would once more tell his government how he felt about the matter and he would ask them to confine the operations to military objectives as far as it was humanly possible. He believed that this was being done already but it was inevitable that a certain number of civilian lives should be lost in the course of heavy bombing from the air.'

The Northern Ireland government was blamed by some for the total inadequacy of the precautions. Tommy Henderson, an Independent Unionist MP in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, summed up the feeling when he invited the minister of home affairs to Hannahstown and the Falls Road, saying 'The Catholics and the Protestants are going up there mixed and they are talking to one another. They are sleeping in the same sheugh [ditch], below the same tree or in the same barn. They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.'

After three days, the Irish fire crews from south of the border began taking up their hoses and ladders to head for home. By then most of the major fires were under control and the firemen from Clydeside and other British cities were arriving. Some had received food, others were famished. All were exhausted. Two of the crews received refreshments in Banbridge; others were entertained in the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Newry.

A second major raid was flown against Belfast on 4/5 May 1941, three weeks after that of Easter Tuesday. At about 01.00, Luftwaffe bombers flew over the city, concentrating their attack on the Harbour Estate and Queen’s Island. Nearby residential areas in east Belfast were also hit when '203 metric tonnes of high explosive bombs, 80 land mines attached to parachutes, and 800 firebomb canisters containing 96,000 incendiary bombs' were dropped. More than 150 people died in what became known as the 'Fire Blitz', but the casualties were fewer than they had been at Easter, partly because the sirens had sounded at 23.45 while the Luftwaffe attacked more cautiously from a greater height. St George’s Church in High Street was damaged by fire. Again the Irish emergency services crossed the border, this time without waiting for an invitation.