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Northern Ireland and the Second World War In one crucial respect, the Second World War was unlike its 1914-18 predecessor: History Essay, TCD, Ireland

University Trinity College Dublin (TCD)
Subject History

Northern Ireland and the Second World War – The Belfast Blitz

In one crucial respect, the Second World War was unlike its 1914-18 predecessor: air power was to play an important part.

In the spring of 1940 the Panzer units swept through the Low Countries the Ardennes, and France fell in June.

Now that Hitler had control of airfields in northern France, it became increasingly clear that major cities in the United Kingdom were within reach of German aircraft. But few in Belfast believed there was much chance of their being bombed.

I was aged just seven and a half at the time of the first air raid on Belfast and I then lived with my family at No 16 Richmond Street, just off Agnes Street in the Shankill area of the city. Of course my memories are those of a tiny tot and are sketchy to say the least.

The Big Raid of Easter Tuesday, the 15th April 1941, which began that night and with the sound of the all clear siren, ended at 4.10 am on 16th April. The Luftwaffe came in over Newtownards carrying incendiary and other highly explosive bombs.

On that evening, 180 German bombers attacked Belfast and continued for several hours, dropping a total of 203 metric tons of bombs and 800 firebomb canisters on the city. All contact with a squadron of Hurricanes was lost and the Luftwaffe did not sustain a single loss.

Although things are now a bit hazy I remember after an exhausting day spent playing football up in Woodvale Park with my chums.

At bedtime I was really tired and was ready for bed and it was not long before sleep had overtaken me. At some time during the night I was awakened by my grandmother shouting, “Get up the house is on fire!” I remember very vividly replying, “Leave me alone, I want to sleep,” not knowing that our house had been hit by an incendiary bomb dropped from the marauding German bombers.

After much trouble my grandmother eventually got me up and we ran out into the street which was brilliantly illuminated by the many flares dropped from the enemy planes, there were many of our neighbours standing in groups probably discussing the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe.

The men when hearing my grandmother’s cry for help then dashed down the street to our house and after some difficulty extinguished the fire, using their water buckets, stirrup pumps and sand bags before it created too much damage.

The rest of the night was spent in what was considered the safest part of the house the coalhole situated below the stairs in my aunt’s house which was across the street.

About a thousand people were killed. No city, save London, suffered more loss of life in one night’s raid on the United Kingdom. I recall that a B17 bomber ploughed into the Cave hill and exploded with the loss of all the air crew. The Belfast Telegraph ran a photo of an infant, still in its cot, hanging out of what was left of a first floor bedroom somewhere in Belfast.

People were caught unaware. ‘On the night of the 15th and the morning of the 16th April, great havoc and destruction was spread over the city, where
over 700 persons were killed and 134 injured. In Belfast on that one night many people died and thousands more were injured. It was the highest number of people killed in one air raid outside London. Indeed more than half of the fatalities were women and children who should have been evacuated. North Belfast suffered serious damage with many people perishing in their own homes.

One of the more tragic events of the blitz was the devastation and carnage caused in Percy Street …. The Shankill Road largely escaped the worst of the night’s devastation, but for this one major incident that resulted in appalling carnage and that burned itself indelibly into the popular recollections of earth shattering events.

Percy Street which ran from the Shankill Road down to the Falls Road was lined with well kept terrace houses with a maze of side

streets running to and fro from it. An Auxiliary Fire Service worker, was standing on the flat roof of a mill on North Howard Street when he seen a parachute with a landmine attached floating through the illuminated sky and land within a short distance of a crowded shelter in Percy Street.

The resulting deafening explosion caused the shelter which could not withstand the blast to disintegrate; the huge concrete roof was lifted of killing many people and pinning others beneath the wreckage. People became confused and dazed; they came out of their damaged homes exposing themselves to even more danger.

That night almost 300 people, many from the Shankill, took refuge in Clonard Monastery in Falls Road. The crypt under the sanctuary and the cellar under the working store had been fitted out and opened to the people, as an air-raid shelter. Prayers were said and hymns sung by the, mainly Protestant women and children, during the bombing.

I remember the next morning people crying at the news of the catastrophe which had struck a short distance away. Stories abounded about some of the tragedies which occurred the previous night such as the man who was at the Gaiety cinema a short distance down the road from Percy Street when it was flashed on the screen that the blitz had started rushed home to his family and
found them in the shelter were he joined them with tragic results. He and his complete family were fatal casualties of the blast.

This is another story about the family who wanted to go into the Percy Street air-raid shelter but then decided not to. Instead, they and their kids went into the house of their daughter boyfriend’s sister, a decision which was to save their lives.

Later on in the day a few friends and myself went down the short distance to see for ourselves the devastation caused by the German bombers the previous night. On reaching Percy Street we were confronted by the police and army who had the area cordoned off, probably still searching for casualties from the previous night’s disaster.

All the people of the Shankill grieved sorely at the terrible loss of life as most of them had friends and neighbours who had been killed or seriously injured. Rescue attempts started straight away while bombs continued to rain down on Belfast. People recalled that the volunteers who were assigned to look for survivors pulled limbs from the debris; hands with wedding rings were found.

Bodies were strewn around the bomb site; whole streets had collapsed. Many dignitaries and their entourages were constantly visiting the devastated area gauging the damage and loss of life which had struck the Shankill community.

The Duke of Gloucester was one of the more distinguished visitors to inspect the grief stricken area. Premises in Agnes Street which is a busy thoroughfare running from the Shankill to the Crumlin Road were hit with a bomb which
failed to explode.

The area affected was between Meenan Street and Brennan Street and consisted of three shops namely Kelly’s which was then a large grocery shop, Diamond’s off license and a sweetie shop whose name I cannot recall. The authorities cordoned the damaged shops off and placed restriction notices around the building with the unexploded bomb.

Several days later the bomb experts were drafted in to perform a controlled explosion. During this time I was happily playing in the Hammer playground
which was a short distance away when the bomb was exploded.

The ground underneath my feet seemed to ripple and a great shower of debris plummeted above the skyline to be followed by a billowing cloud of thick black smoke which floated upwards to mingle and merge with the existing dark clouds.

The area of the shops destroyed in this attack was later cleared and a square brick structure was built as a water tank. This construction was filled with water which was to be used in case of further incendiary bomb attacks but as time went by all sorts of rubbish was dumped into it.

During the winter months when the frost was prevalent the water was frozen and became a mass of ice, people were seen walking on it which was extremely dangerous.

‘Bomber after Bomber came over the city to press home the enemy assault. A heavy bomb, narrowly missing a public shelter at the junction of Oxford Street and East Bridge Street, played havoc with the city’s system of telephone communications. This put an end to any effective resistance.’ So the citizens were exposed for more than three hours to the full force of the enemy attack.

Not until dawn broke did they hear the welcome all clear of the city sirens
Industries, such as Ewart’s weaving mill on the Crumlin road, businesses, churches and housing suffered serious damage. A total of thirty business premises, although most but not all were involved in making textiles and clothing, rather than munitions. In addition seven garages, seven stores, two banks, two cinemas, two tram depots and eleven other buildings were hit. Firms to the north and west of the city bore a substantial part of the destruction and dislocation

The Crumlin Road, Antrim Road and York Road were all on fire. Some parts of the east of the city also experienced some damage, but not comparable to the stricken north of the city. The Oval football stands were demolished, the pitch was severely crated and a wing of the Ulster hospital on Templemore Avenue was damaged.

There are some moments which I can still recall with great happiness even in those times of danger. Food shortages and clothing were scarce as the country had to import most of these commodities, so the government had to introduce rationing.

Each family was allocated a fixed amount of butter, sugar, bread, meat and confectionery per week along with clothing coupons which were handed over the counter when purchasing items of clothing.

The family always looked forward to seeing my uncle Jimmy Fortune who was in the merchant navy coming home on leave. He always came home with a bag full of goodies which were greatly appreciated by the family, the large catering tins of Apricot Jam stick in my mind as they seemed to last for ages.

On another occasion he opened his kitbag plunged his hand into it and out popped a very large coconut. My eyes must have lit up with excitement as a smile appeared on his face and as he handed it over to me he said, “Have you ever seen a coconut as large as that?” To tell the truth I hadn’t seen a coconut for years due to the food shortages.

For the rest of the day I must have been the most popular lad in the area as all my friends gathered round me wanting share or wishing to have a drink of the milky liquid which flowed from the coconut. On another time he also presented me with the famous Australian hat known as the” Slouch Hat.”….It was usually worn with the brim turned down all round and gave the wearer a somewhat fearsome appearance, particularly if he sported a large droopy moustache so typical of the times.

A happier boy you could not have met in Belfast, I was the envy of all the kids from far and wide who descended on Richmond Street just to catch a glimpse of this famous Australian hat. I could be found riding my imaginary horse up and down the street (minus a droopy moustache) singing that world famous Aussie song Waltzing Matilda with great gusto.

A month later Hitler began his invasion of Russia along a 900-mile front, and the Germans did not return to Northern Ireland. Because of its geographical position, Northern Ireland played a crucial role in the protection of convoys and Londonderry became the biggest anti-submarine base in the Atlantic. One hundred thousand people became refugees after the blitz. It took years to
rebuild the lost buildings, reconstruct the lost homes and replace the industrial targets the Germans had so accurately pinpointed.

The effect on the city would be felt for years to come though it struggled bravely to return to normal. It is worth mentioning that Belfast suffered many more times the devastation in the spring of 1941 than it would in the entire 30 years of the Troubles which would follow.

This story is taken from an interview with Mary Mulligan. The interviewer was David Reid, and the transcription was by Bruce Logan.

I remember just before, I don’t think I ever told you this. When we were at school, before, when the war broke out in ’38-39, when we were at school and we tried gas masks. They came into school, and we had to get gas masks and all. Somebody was just saying, they had one the other day, and I don’t know where they got it. And it was like a smell of asbestos in it — you weren’t allowed to wear it too long.

One of the plays that they’re doing at the moment, one of the schools, and they’ve got the gas masks. For the children they were like Mickey Mouse faces the childrens’ ones were funny faces ones. There was a big one that you put babies into. We had one of those.

But when they’re a wee bit older, they’re maybe a year old. They were funny, like Mickey Mouse faces on those. Because we had 2 of them in our house.
And you had to carry them when you went to school.

And all the ration books — I got rid of all of those about 5-6 years ago. The sweet coupons, clothing coupons. And especially now when my grand-nieces and nephews are asking me, what happened during the war? And my sister and I were in the same house during the war, and she tells a completely different story from me. You wouldn’t think the 2 of us lived in the same house. She told her grandson one thing, and I said to him “I’ll tell you the right way of it”.

I remember mummy putting our Gerard, god bless him he’s dead now, down the stairs and putting the leg out of his pajamas…. And the back door blowing in, and the pram was between the back door and the kitchen, and the baby then was 6 wks old, and the back door came in. And you were afraid to go up the stairs to the bathroom in case the windows come in on you. That was the Easter Tuesday one.

The next one, we went to the neighbours next door. My father was in the night shift at Shorts. We went in and sat under the table and under the stairs in the house next door. That was the usual places.

And the ARP wardens said when they went in — you know the wee songs, the wee war songs? Well, I used to be a wee one, and we were talking about gas masks?

“I’ve a wee gas mask, and I’m working out a plan, / and all the kiddies think that I’m a bogeyman. / The girls all smile, and bring their friends to see / the nicest looking warden in the ARP! / When there’s a raid on, listen to the cry. / An aeroplane, an aeroplane, a way up in the sky! / I go helter-skelter, don’t come after me. / For you’ll not get in my shelter cause it’s far too wee!” Now that was their song.

Did anyone tell you that the sound of the warning was different from the sound of the all-clear? When they were warning you it was a big wailing, up and down. But when it was all over it just went straight. It went straight, that was the all-clear.

If you slept through the warning, you’d wake up for the all clear. As I was telling your, our Kathy was married on Easter Monday 1941, that was the first of the sirens. And our Kathleen’s husband says “Mum, we’ll get the children up to the country”. He says “that’s a warning”. It was the sirens that went, but it might have been, he said it was reconnaissance planes that went.

Taking photographs. A plane taking photographs. And that’s what it was. [how many times did the sirens go off?] Oh, just the once. Then the next thing you heard was the bombs dropping. Oh aye, but we did have warnings and nothing happened.

That Easter Monday, it was during the day it went. But they think it was a plane taking photographs, what they call a reconnaissance flight. And you’d have known the sound of a German plane. Its engine was completely different to a British one. It had also a very steady hum, you know? And you could easily have … Well, that was during the raid. You could recognise them, you know?

This story was input by Robbie Meredith of BBC Northern Ireland’s ‘Big Yellow Bus’ on behalf of Pat Dykes, the author.

I can remember the first night bombs fell on Belfast. My father had passed away not long before, so it was a traumatic year for us as a family. We lived just off the Grosvenor Road near the centre of Belfast, and when we heard the sirens we left the house to go to the air raid shelters, which were in the fields near Roden Street.

It was a terrifying experience, but the shelters were very basic, so we just came home and sheltered as a family as best we could in the house. We gathered close and held each other – me, my mother and my brothers and sisters. We had the blackout curtains in the house and everything, but we were still terrified. We tried to shelter under the staircase as we thought that it might be the safest place in the house.

It was a strange experience the next day. It was all anyone in the street talked about, but although the bombing was going on at night, people tried to live as normally as possible during the day, going about their normal business, getting on with their lives.

Myself and my two older brothers tried to support our mother by trying to make sure that my younger brother and sisters were as calm as possible.

The war was difficult for us all. As I was fifteen I stayed in Belfast with my mother to go to work, but my younger brother and sisters were evacuated to the country. It’s difficult to explain now just what it was like living in the city at the time. The bombing didn’t happen nightly, but for a year or two you went to bed not knowing what might happen during the night.

This story is taken from an interview with Billy McKnight at the Ballymena Servicemen’s Association, and has been added to the site with his permission. The interviewer was David Reid, and the transcription was by Bruce Logan.

After the raids, you see, at that time all the fire stations were in Belfast. There was no full-time fire brigade, only in Belfast and Derry.

The rest was all AFS stations or council, like Ballymena, run by the council. They blew the Mill horn and the auld boy went and got the horse out the road and brought it in, that kind of thing. Then they nationalised the Fire Service, and they said — instead of having all the stations in the city, they’re going to get hit. So they moved out. They opened full-time stations in Larne, Newry,
Coleraine, Newtownards, Lisburn, Ballymena, Portadown. And I was one of the first boys shifted to Larne. We opened Larne station.

If they did start to bomb, we could come in, instead of trying to get out.
That would have been ’43, I would say. The end of ‘42 to ‘43. And then they started in the city, where there was a big lot of buildings knocked down. There was a big one down in High Street, near where the Whig offices used to be. And they built these big water tanks that hold so many thousand gallons of water.

You know, big concrete tanks. And they had a big lot of them over the city – here, there and everywhere. Wherever there was a space. Because if the mains got hit, then we threw the suction into these and you could have got water out of these tanks. And as well as that we had Canvas dams, which held quite a lot of water too. Because when the bombs was falling, if the mains got hit, then you had no water.

I went to Larne. Then I went from Larne to Ballymena. Then I went from Ballymena to Lisburn. Lisburn to Newtownards. Newtownards to Portadown.
And then when, the end of 41, when the Japs hit Pearl harbour in December. Then America came into the war, and we used to get the American boats coming in. At that time Hitler had a go at Russia, and they were getting it bad. Then Churchill started this aid to Russia fun, and these American boats was coming in to Pollock up. And they were loading them with the Hi-ex TNT, you see? We had to go down and stand by them while they all loaded this ship. And everybody had to wear rubber boots and all, in case there was a spark or anything. You’d have ended up on the Cave Hill.

These auld ships, they called them “Liberty ships”, and the Americans built one every week. But there was about half of them broke in 2 before they got to Russia. They still got a big load through. You could see them, we could see them in the Lough there, gathering up the convoys. Maybe 60 or 70 ships, you know? But that was the biggest raids.

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