Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Blitz: Recalling the fear, death and horror of nights Nazi warplanes bombed city

Survivors remember explosions, destruction and the loss of life during service to mark the 75th anniversary of the Blitz

By Linda Stewart

Belfast was "like fairyland" as German flares began to drop from the skies on the night of April 15, 1941, according to Blitz survivor Alec Murray.

But those eerie lights were helping the Luftwaffe exact a terrible toll on Belfast on that Easter Tuesday night - 900 deaths, 1,500 injuries and the greatest loss of life in any night raid during the Blitz outside London.

Yesterday, people came together from across Northern Ireland - and beyond - as Belfast city remembered those who died in the air raid 75 years ago.

A thousand shimmering candles were lit in St Anne's Cathedral as an ecumenical service was led by the Dean of Belfast, the Very Rev John Mann, and the Administrator of St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street, Fr Michael Sheehan.

The service was attended by Belfast Lord Mayor Arder Carson, Lord Lieutenant of Belfast, Finnouala Jay-O'Boyle, and representatives of the Fire Service in Dublin and Drogheda, who sent engines to the burning city.

Two of the original Merryweather Engines, which provided aid in the wake of the 1941 bombing raid, were parked in Writer's Square, just outside the cathedral.

In his sermon, Fr Sheehan recalled a "darkness which brought its own horror, suffering, heartbreak and pain; a darkness which brought, degradation, torture and death; a darkness which threatened to engulf goodness, honour, life and love and which threatened the very foundation of our humanity; a darkness which in so many places across the continent destroyed innocence".

But he said: "People emerge in every darkness who demonstrate through their actions God's goodness; people who come to ease and strengthen, support and defend the innocent, the wounded and the survivor.

"We give thanks for those lights which demonstrated courage, care, kindness and honour. The ambulance service, fire and rescue, wardens and defence units as well as ordinary good neighbours from across our divide."

The first raid of the Belfast Blitz took place on the night of April 7-8, 1941, a small attack probably designed to test the city's defences.

It was followed by a devastating raid on Easter Tuesday, in which 200 Luftwaffe bombers attacked military and manufacturing targets across the city using high explosive bombs, claiming 900 lives.

It was followed by a raid on May 4-5 which claimed the lives of 150 people, before the final attack on May 5-6.

Although Belfast was the city with the highest population density, it had the lowest proportion of air shelters, with only 200 built prior to the Belfast Blitz.

Fewer than 4,000 women and children had been evacuated ahead of the raids, leaving more than 80,000 in the city.

Papers recovered after the war revealed that a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight over Belfast in November 1940 had established that the city was defended by only seven anti-aircraft batteries, making it the most poorly defended city in the UK.

Survivor Alec Murray from the Shankill was just 10 when the Luftwaffe attacked. He lived close to the Percy Street air raid shelter which collapsed in the raid, killing many people.

"A landmine came down - a lot of people saw it coming down on a parachute," he said.

"It was like fairyland, but it was the flares that were dropping. The sirens had gone off about half an hour before."

Alec says in the days before the attack, the Nazi propagandist William Joyce - better known as traitor Lord Haw-Haw - had issued a horrifying warning to the people of Belfast.

"He said people in Belfast will not be rolling their Easter Eggs down the Cave Hill - they will be coming from the sky," Alec said.

"When we came back to the house, the roof was off it. We heard that so many places were wrecked. Falls Baths was used as a mortuary - they brought a lot of bodies there.

"We went out to Percy Street the next morning. We saw a lot of dead bodies - I saw men and women just lying there."

Yesterday, a specially written prayer was read by Allan Kilgore, who was born on May 7, 1941 during what his parents referred to as the "wee Blitz".

"My father, who worked at Doagh Flax Spinning Company in Mayo Street, was on watch duty on the roof of the factory on the night of May 7/8," Allan said.

"When he went home for breakfast he called into the Royal Maternity Hospital to see if I had arrived - and I had. But he couldn't get in because the hospital was on emergency lockdown.

"A matron or a nurse held me up at the window on one of the upper storeys.

"We had a little photograph of a white blob which was the matron or nurse and a smaller white blob and that was me."

Violet Sloan was 16 and was sent by her mother to take refuge with a neighbour who lived alone in Spamount Street, where New Lodge is now.

"The sirens went and when the bombs started to drop, she got me out into her backyard into a big tin bath and she hid us in below," she said.

"The whistling of the bombs got so bad that she said 'I think we'd better go in' and we hid in the coal house beneath the stairs. Before long we heard the most awful whistling and crash - the house at our back had taken a direct hit.

"We could hear the wee dog crying when the sirens went for the all clear. Mrs Walsh lived there and she and her daughter were dead - her husband and the dog survived."

Violet's mother didn't know if she had survived because of the damage to the street.

"The kitchen and the scullery had fallen in in the house next door," she said.

"When we went outside, everybody was running about crying and everywhere there was fire. There was all rubble and bricks and mortar everywhere."

They left Belfast for four or five weeks and returned to find their house had been badly damaged.

"It had gone right through the ceiling and the bedrooms and burned the hall out," Violet said.

Joanne Andrew-Steer was just under a year old and living in Alliance Avenue with her mum, brother, her mum's best friend and her two children on the night the bombs came.

"After the third lot of bombing, she decided to take us to Dromara to relative safety," she said.

"As a tiny girl I remember us living in a two-bedroom house and you were always sleeping with half a dozen people in the bed.

"I remember whenever there was thunder my mother always hid under the bed. The blackout was on then and I thought everybody had black windows.

"I'm so grateful to have lived and I went on to become president of the Royal British Legion, representing Northern Ireland in London."

Meanwhile, Harry Gilmour witnessed the Belfast Blitz at the age of 10 from his home in the rural townland of Aughrim.

"We were wakened by the sound of the planes coming overhead but we didn't know what it was. We were all at the bedroom window," he says.

"I could see Belfast on fire at that time - I could see every bomb that was dropped. We could hardly believe it was happening. We were all scared to death.

"The whole countryside was in darkness and all I saw was a glow in the sky. We could see the flash of every bomb that went off.

"I remember the evacuees arriving the next morning up from Belfast. Anybody that had any room around the country took one or two. The blacksmith's wife took in six evacuees.

"They came to our school, Aughrim Public Elementary School and we had to have desks up in the corridors because there were so many people there. They were arriving on milkfloats and everything - it was terrible."

Dean Mann said the indiscriminate bombing of the people of Belfast in 1941 was commemorated with an anguish that is still real.

"The image of St Anne's amidst the smouldering ruins after a night of destruction from the air is more powerful than many words for me," he said.

"The indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Belfast, or anywhere for that matter, is something we commemorate with an anguish that is still real these 75 years on. 

"We recall the fear, the death, the injury, the ruination, the many, to this day, whose lives were affected by those few nights that obliterated parts of our city."

The Northern Ireland War Memorial is recording the memories of those involved in the attacks as part of its Belfast Blitz 75 project. Dr Susan Kelly can be contacted at 028 9032 0392 ext 2 or through www.niwarmemorial.org.

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