Belfast Blitz: The unknown Protestants and Catholics united in death
Easter Tuesday 1941. Belfast had been basking in spring sunshine. The stands at Windsor Park had been crammed for a clash between Linfield and Distillery. And thousands of families had been making the most of the last day of their holidays.
But, as the population prepared to bed down for the night, the air raid sirens — nicknamed ‘Moaning Minnies’ — sounded, signalling the start of the worst night in Belfast’s bloody history.
It was 10.40pm.
With only enough air raid shelters for a quarter of the population, thousands of people, particularly the working class, were forced to find their own form of shelter and hunkered down under tables, below the stairs or in their coal bunkers.
The Luftwaffe were pinpointing their targets — the waterworks, the gasworks, the shipyards and Shorts’ aircraft manufacturing hub.
Minutes later the heavens opened. The sound of explosions reverberated right across the city — from the Newtownards Road in the east to the Cliftonville Road in the north. Boom, boom, boom.
Almost 200 German bombers pelted an ill-prepared Belfast with wave after wave of high explosives, parachute landmines and incendiaries.
Huge swathes of the city were completely flattened. And what wasn’t reduced to rubble went up in flames.
Tragically, the RAF did not come to Belfast’s rescue.
It wasn’t until the sun came up that the bombing halted and the magnitude of the devastation could be comprehended.
The death toll stood at over 900. More than 1,500 people were injured and 56,000 houses had been badly damaged.
Dead bodies were collected into temporary morgues in St George’s Market and the Falls Road public baths.
They lay for three days and those that weren’t identified were buried in mass graves.
Attempts were made to determine the religion of those killed using jewellery or other symbols.
Nine people, believed to be Catholic, were buried in a plot in Milltown Cemetery, while 154 others were laid to rest in a mass grave in the non-denominational City Cemetery.
No-one knows if the identifications were correct. However, Protestant and Catholic were united in death.