By Jack Holland
These last couple of weeks have seen three major anniversaries in Ireland, at least two of which — the 85th anniversary of the 1916 Rising and 20th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike — have been well noted. But the third has not received anything like comparable coverage. I am referring to the series of Nazi bombing raids on Belfast in April and May 1941. There were four of them, though only two can be regarded as serious.
The first was on the night of April 7-8, when it seems that a few German planes detached themselves from the blitz of the Clydeside to bomb Belfast. It was more of a probing raid, involving about six bombers. From the Nazi’s point of view it proved well worth the excursion: their pilots discovered that the city was almost completely unprotected. According to Chris McGimpsey’s book "Bombs On Belfast: The Blitz 1941," the North’s capital had "only one-half of the anti-aircraft cover approved of for the city." The whole of Northern Ireland had to depend for protection on 24 heavy anti-aircraft guns, and 12 light anti-aircraft guns. The population was denser than in any other city in the UK, yet it had the lowest air raid shelter provision for a city of its size. When the British offered to distribute new shelters to the North, the Unionist government decided they were not yet needed. This attitude is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that Belfast made a likely target. It was an important industrial site, building war ships and aircraft. As well, its docks and harbor were needed for allied shipping.
The vast majority of people in Belfast thought it was too far north to be blitzed, even after the Nazis overran France and the Low Countries in the summer of 1940. While cities in the rest of the UK were being pulverized, attempts to get Belfast people to take part in evacuation exercises were dismal failures. So when the second, the most serious air raid occurred, on the night of April 15-16, Belfast and its people found themselves more vulnerable to Nazi bombs than any city and population in Great Britain.
Just how vulnerable they were was brought home to me at an early age. My home near the city center backed on to Gloucester Street, which runs into Victoria Street, not too far from the Albert Memorial — the leaning clock tower that is still one of Belfast’s most prominent monuments. When I was a small child, I remember picking my way over a large waste ground that covered almost half of Gloucester Street. All that was left standing on it was a sweetie shop at one corner, where I used to go for cones full of boiled sweets. On the night of the first major raid, a bomb hit the street, narrowly missing our home, which was on the premises of a carting company where my grandfather was the caretaker. He had stayed behind, refusing to go to a shelter, to look after the dray horses, which he knew would be panicked by the sounds of the explosions. My father and uncle were in the voluntary fire service during the war, and raced to the scene of the nearby disaster to help dig out the bodies.
My father once told me: "They were like burned toast."
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My grandmother (on my mother’s side) hide in the coal shed in the backyard with her fingers stuck in her ears. But when a piece of shrapnel crashed onto the shed roof, she was scared back into the house.
To a child, growing up in Belfast in the 1950s, the blitz was made real by other artifacts. There was an old air raid shelter near the top of the Shankill Road still standing. Then there were some people who had kept their blackout blinds. An old bachelor who lived up the street from me never got rid of his. It kept out prying eyes, but it earned the lonely man the reputation of being a bit odd.
The blitz of April 15-16 killed almost 900 people and injured 1,500, 400 of them seriously. Inaccurate bombing from a high level meant that most of the strategic targets were missed, and the bombs fell in streets in North and East Belfast, and in and around High Street in the city center.
The mortuaries were unable to handle the number of corpses. Among the places opened up to house them was the Falls Baths. McGimpsey recounts the experience of a "volunteer in the Falls Baths" who was presented with a "particularly large and odd-shaped shroud . . . labeled, ‘Believed to be a mother and her five children.’ "
A week after the blitz there was a mass funeral for 150 of the dead, which was attended by thousands of people, both Protestant and Catholic. It went up the Falls Road to the City and Milltown Cemeteries, where those who could be identified as either Protestant or Catholic were laid to rest. Many could not be identified at all.
Another raid followed on the night of May 4-5, dropping 96,000 incendiary bombs and 200 metric tons of explosives. This time, the Nazi bombers were more accurate, hitting ship-building works, aircraft factories and the city docks. A correspondent flying with the Germans reported seeing "a sea of flame such as none of us had seen before. In Belfast there was not a large number of conflagrations but just one enormous conflagration . . . " Fortunately, the citizens of Belfast had already left the city in droves, so casualties were far fewer than before. Two nights later, the Luftwaffe came back to the city for the last time, with a handful of bombers which apparently had strayed from another raid on Clydeside. The two May raids had killed about 200 people and seriously injured 186.
Unlike the 1916 Rising and the hunger strikes of 1981, the Belfast blitz can be remembered as an event that brought Irish people together, uniting Protestant and Catholic in a way that is possibly unique in recent Irish history. They slept in the same ditches and barns, and huddled together in the same shelters. My mother remembers a Protestant minister, the Rev. Wiley Blue, who wore his hair long and (in spite of his name) white. He opened the crypt of his church on May Street to the Catholics from the nearby Markets area. As the bombs rained down on Belfast, sectarian differences were seen for what they were — an irrelevance in the larger scheme of things.