Belfast Blitz remembered 70 years on
Two Belfast pensioners describe what happened on the night of the blitz - 70 years ago yesterday.
Leo Wilson (89) was just 18 when the German Luftwaffe bombarded Belfast on April 15, 1941. He had been at a ceili in the Ulster Hall with pal, Harry Kavanagh. And, having befriended the premises fire warden the pair were invited onto the roof of the Bedford Street building for a bird’s eye view of the devastation being inflicted right across the city.
“The fire watcher said to us, ‘now be prepared for a shock’,” Mr Wilson 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. Heavy smoke and bombs falling.
“Then, we looked towards the north of the city and York Street must have been pounded to dust because it was in flames too.
“And, we looked to the west where we lived and we could see the big spires of St Peter’s Cathedral outlined against a background of smoke and flames and planes. It might sound harsh and selfish but when we saw St Peter’s outlined against a background of flames we realised there were no flames in front of it and we lived in that parish. That afforded us some feeling of relief.”
Mr Wilson, now a great-grandfather was among hundreds of people attending the St Malachy’s GAC ceili in the Ulster Hall that night. The star of the show was Delia Murphy and the place was packed to the rafters.
“Delia came on to a rapturous reception,” he added. “Those who hadn’t got seats sat on the ground or stood there. She had just finished her last song at about 11.30pm or 11.40pm when there was a bit of a commotion at the main door. Harry and I went down to the door and we noticed there were British soldiers there with rifles. We thought maybe there had been an incident outside on the street.
“But, then a chief warden came on to the stage and said ‘please no need for alarm but we have reports that German aeroplanes have crossed the Co Down coast. He said ‘no one and I mean no one’ would be allowed to leave the hall until this alert was over.”
Mr Wilson said there was little sense of panic because no one believed Belfast would be badly hit.
“There had been alerts before,” he said. “Thirteen people had been killed in east Belfast and Bangor with single planes which convinced the authorities there wouldn’t be a big raid. They thought they were just scaremogers to keep them on their toes.”
Despite the chaos and destruction elsewhere in Belfast. The famous blitz spirit was evident at the Ulster Hall.
“Deliah Murphy went back onto the stage and she began to sing,” said Mr Wilson. “She went through her entire repertoire and each one received more applause than the previous one. And, then she left the stage and came back after a rest and said ‘boys and girls it doesn’t look as if we are going to get out of here until the early morning. But, never mind we’ll all sing this time’. So, we all had a sing song. We even got tired singing so the band struck up and we danced again, and again and again.”
The long walk home took Mr Wilson and his pal through the devastated city centre and along the Grosvenor Road.
“Eventually the air raid ended and our suspence was ended and we made for the doors of the Ulster Hall. We were told we could only leave in small orderly groups and according to where you lived you were given directions along the safest, not necessarily the quickest way, to make your destination.
“Those in east Belfast could only go over the Queen’s Bridge, north Belfast had the worst journey. York Street was devastated and I don’t know how those people got home.
“Harry and I made our way up the Grosvenor Road which was bomb free but we could see the flames blazing all round us. Our only hope was that there were no stray bombs that might have landed where we lived because the Falls Road was decorated with mills. One bomb went astray and hit Cavendish Street and took out about six empty houses. The people had fled.
“Eventually, when I got home. My mother was pregnant with my youngest sister and my father was in England. I was glad to see her and she was twice as glad to see me.
“The next day Harry and I went into town but everywhere you went to go was closed. Every street was closed. So, we went up to the Falls baths and the lorries were arriving with the dead bodies. They were carrying the bodies on stretchers and boards, anything you could carry a body on.”
Leo’s story can be heard as part of the oral archive at the Somme Association. (please keep this line in as they gave me his contact details).
Ken Stanley (78) was only a child when the Germans bombed Belfast, but the Easter Tuesday blitz of April 15, 1941 is firmly imprinted on his memory.
“It was a holiday and although I was only eight-and-a-half, I was allowed to stay up late,” he said.
“We had gone as a family to a show in town and I think we were having some supper and the sirens went.”
Mr Stanley, now a retired a schoolteacher and grandfather-of-three, had been living above his family’s shoe shop at the junction of Antrim Road and Cliftonville Road in the north of the city.
Like many families the Stanely’s decided to stay put during the raid.
They huddled together in the back room of their house and hoped for the best.
He said: “The first thing we noticed after a while was the sound of plane engines and suddenly even through the blackout curtains you could see the area outside being lit up.
“Of course, we realised later on these were the flares being dropped before the actual bombs. And, then the bombs started to fall. The noise was very bad and quite frightening.”
At around 1am the Stanley household was shaken to its core. A parachute landmine detonated outside the property and blew a gaping hole in the front. Fortunately no one was injured.
“Part of the ceiling came down. And, we heard noises from other parts of the house.
“We lived above the shop and we opened the door and saw part of the ceilings were down in the hall. There was masonry everywhere. So, we decided to get out and go to the nearest shelter which was about 100 yards away in the next street up the Antrim Road.
“We went down the stairs which were covered in masonry, through the shop.
“The big plate window of the shop had been shattered and all the contents had been lying outside all over the footpath. I remember my grandfather, who took great pride in his work, kicking the shoes out of the way as we ran to the shelter.
“The footpath was covered in glass and debris and everything. Of course, the noise, the light and everything else. St James’ Church was a mass of flames. It was really going up in flames.”
The full horror of the night did not register with Mr Stanley, who although he was frightened, did not recognise the grave and real danger.
“We ran the 50 or so yards into the shelter and already there were about 50 people there.
“And, as the night more and more came in until the shelter was completely full.
“That was quite exciting because looking back on it now, as an eight-year-old child, I was frightened at first. But, as we went into the shelter and people started to chat to each other and someone started singing. We had a bit of a sing song, some passed round sweets and sandwiches.
“At 4am the all clear siren went and I can still remember coming out of the shelter and the smoke was everywhere.
“The smell of burning wood and the crackling of the wood. On the tramwires was a parachute that had been caught. It was the parachute of the bomb that had blown our house in.
“As it turned out, we were even more lucky. The blast had blown the concrete roof off the air raid shelter and it was about 1cm from falling in. It was condemned the next day. If it had come in it would have killed many people.
“We stayed in Lisburn for about two weeks until some of the rooms in the house were partially fixed up. But, my mother was afraid of more bomb attacks so when a family friend asked if they wanted to send me to Tombebridge she said yes.
“At first we didn’t want to go but before long we were having a ball.
“We lived on a farm, which for city boys was a whole adventure.
“We delighted in feeding the chickens and cows and having fruit. I was there until the schools went back in September.”
Reflecting on his experience Mr Stanley said: “I wouldn’t want to live through it again but as an eight-year-old you don’t fully appreciate the great danger you were in.
“It was an exciting time for us. It must have been much worse for the adults.
“When we got into the shelter and heard about other famliies and what had happened just a few yards up the Antrim Road you realised just how lucky we were.”
Almost 200 German bombers carried out a night raid overnight on April 15, 1941. More than 900 people were killed and a further 1,500 were injured. It was the largest single loss of life in any city outside London during WWII. Half of Belfast’s housing stock was also badly damaged when the 673 bombs and 29,000 incendiaries were dropped.
More than 150 were unidentified and were buried two in mass graves.
Belfast was ill-prepared with too few fire crews, air raid shelters and insufficient anti aircraft guns.
1. A mass grave for unidentified bodies in the City Cemetery on Falls Road contains 154 people.
2. Two unidentified soldiers and seven citizens were also buried in a grave in Milltown Cemetery.
3. There is no publicly recognised memorial for the hundreds of people who died in the Belfast Blitz.
4. Bombs were also dropped on Bangor and Newtownards.
5. The Northern Bank was the only building left standing on Belfast’s High Street.
6. Belfast Corporation tramways run by Belfast City Council continued working despite the blitz.
7. The War Office sent 42 pumps and 400 firemen from Glasgow, Liverpool and Preston to tackle the fires caused by the blitz.
8. The Somme Association has the most detailed oral history archive of the Belfast blitz.