Leo Wilson was 18 when the German Luftwaffe bombed Belfast on April 15, 1941. He had been at a dance in the Ulster Hall where a friendly fire warden allowed him onto the roof to view the devastation being inflicted across the city.
Seventy years later, the sight was still imprinted on his memory. “The fire watcher said to us, ‘now be prepared for a shock’,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “The planes were buzzing round like nobody’s business. We looked over towards east Belfast and it was like Dante’s inferno. The whole place seemed to be blazing away. There didn’t seem to be any place that wasn’t on fire.’’
Leo was not alone in his shock. Belfast had been hopelessly unprepared for the Blitz.
It should not have been, for the city was home to some very important industries that were vital to Britain’s war effort. Yet the government at Stormont seemed oblivious to the danger.
An exception was John MacDermott who, in mid-1940, was appointed Minister of Public Security. From his first day in office he was convinced that Belfast would be a target and appalled to discover that the Home Affairs Ministry had been returning fire-fighting equipment to Britain on the assumption that it would not be needed.
The Luftwaffe made its first-known reconnaissance flight over Belfast shortly after MacDermott’s appointment. Further flights revealed the city’s vulnerability. Belfast was protected by just 22 anti-aircraft guns and only 16 of these were effective, heavy weapons. Liverpool by comparison had 100 heavy AA guns.
In March 1941, MacDermott wrote to Prime Minister John Andrews highlighting in the “strongest possible terms” the lack of night-fighters, the shortages of anti-aircraft guns and the non-existence of searchlights. He concluded that the position was “not satisfactory” and that it was “doubtful whether Belfast was as well defended as any comparable city or port in any other part of the United Kingdom”.
He finished with an eerily accurate prediction: “Up to now, we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside until recently. Clydeside got its blitz during the period of the last moon. There are certain technical reasons which probably give us some ground for thinking that at present the enemy 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 raid came on the night of April 7. It was a minor affair compared with what would follow but it still caused 13 deaths. Eight nights later came the Blitz that Leo Wilson witnessed.
Some 180 aircraft took part in the five-hour assault on Easter Tuesday night, bringing death and destruction on a vast scale to the almost defenceless city.
More than 900 people were killed and a further 1,500 were injured. It was the largest loss of life in a single raid on any city outside London. John Maffey, the British ambassador in Dublin, who passed through Belfast on the morning after, found the scenes “more horrifying than London because of the numbers of small dwelling houses of poor people which were destroyed”.
Half of Belfast’s housing stock was badly damaged and the Northern Bank was the only building left standing in High Street.
The bombers came back with the next full moon on the night of May 4. The main target was the docks. Two-thirds of the Harland and Wolff shipyard was destroyed and Short and Harland’s aircraft factory was put out of commission for three months. The city centre was also hit, with Royal Avenue suffering major damage. More than 200 people were killed.
Belfast bore this terror with fortitude. The abiding memory of those who lived through it is of the good humour of their
fellow citizens, the helpfulness of neighbours, the determination not to be beaten by the Nazis.
The bravery of Belfast was recognised by Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the end of the war in Europe when he wrote to Stormont: “But for the loyalty of Northern Ireland and its devotion to what has now become the cause of thirty governments or nations, we should have been confronted with slavery and death, and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched.”
In fact the Blitz would prove to be something of a turning point in Northern Ireland’s history. Its legacy was warmer relations between Stormont and Westminster, paving the way for some of Belfast’s best years in the 1950s and 1960s.
When bombs next came to the city they were self-inflicted.
The post-war years were relatively placid in Belfast, but sectarian tensions and resentment among the Catholic population at discrimination and lack of civil rights festered below the surface. The city erupted into violence in August 1969. The IRA, which had been inactive for a decade, split and its Provisional wing launched a sustained and savage campaign. The introduction of internment without trial led to intensified violence with rival paramilitary groups being formed on both sides. Bombing, assassination and street violence formed a backdrop to life throughout the Troubles.
Loyalist paramilitaries, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) retaliated against the IRA campaign by killing Catholics at random from around August 1972 onward.
This was not the Blitz. The Troubles lasted longer and were nastier in that they so often seemed to be pitting neighbour against neighbour. But though the city’s infrastructure was severely damaged, its spirit was not.
And out of it all emerged a remarkable peace, which has seen former political foes sharing power and Belfast with Lord Mayors drawn from the SDLP and Sinn Fein as well as the unionist parties.
The city has been rebuilt. It has new restaurants, new theatres, a new waterfront and an international attraction in the outstanding Titanic centre.
Recent disturbances over restrictions on flying the Union flag have shown that the normality other cities take for granted still has to be handled with care in Belfast.
But there is good reason to be hopeful. This 400-year-old town has seen enough of war. It’s time to give peace a chance.