Belfast Telegraph

A city under siege

Britain this week commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Blitz. Seven months later terror from the skies finally visited Belfast with devastating consequences, writes Sean McMahon

As most people who read the newspapers - especially the British ones - know, this autumn is the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, a word derived from the German 'Blitzkrieg' ('lightning war').

As a preliminary to invasion, it had worked well in Rotterdam and the Wehrmacht assumed it would do the same for London, Coventry, Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth and Sheffield.

The raid on Coventry on November 14, 1940 wiped out the centre of the city, killed more than 600 people and gave the Germans a new verb: koventrieren ('obliterate').

For many reasons, however, the Blitz did not work there and after May 1941 it was abandoned until the coming of the V1 and V2 rockets.

The stoicism and heroism of the British was never more clearly demonstrated, but it is important to remember that Ulster - and especially Belfast - had its own ghastly visitations from the Luftwaffe.

It seemed, for a while, that Northern Ireland might escape the terror from the skies and, indeed, many government ministers were perfectly calm, knowing that "we are well out of range".

Typical of the attitude of the Cabinet was the response of Viscount Craigavon, the Prime Minister who, when pressed in Parliament about the safety of civilians, growled: "The country is near; let them take to the ditches."

It was only with the appointment of John MacDermott as Minister of Home Security in 1940 that the province was made to understand the reality of the situation.

Mr MacDermott had visited Coventry and seen the devastation caused to gas and water mains, power lines, telephone communications and sewage pipes and he realised how rapidly the same kind of disaster could overcome Belfast.

It was as strategic a target as Coventry with the shipyards, aircraft factories, heavy engineering works and even ropeworks vital to both navy and airforce.

He also knew how inadequate the ground defences were and how few fighters there were to intercept the Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers.

He knew, too, that underground shelters did not exist because of the city's swampy subsoil and that the surface shelters that he hastened to build would not sustain direct hits from the HE (heavy explosive) bombs.

The first bombs fell on April 8, 1941; the raid by six Heinkel HE III bombers had resulted in 15 fatalities and by chance did severe landmine damage to Shorts aircraft factory.

From the Luftwaffe's point of view, it was a kind of exploratory probe, demonstrating graphically that Ulster was not, as the Government smugly assumed, "out of range".

If the lesson was not learned then it was hammered home with diabolical intensity a few days later on the long night of April 15, when 750 people died and 1,500 were seriously injured.

Apart from London the previous autumn, no city had been pounded so unmercifully with such intensity on a single night.

That raid demonstrated convincingly what the trial run had indicated - that local air-raid precautions (ARP) were totally inadequate.

There was a serious lack of heavy anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons; there were no smokescreen generators and no adequate system of communication.

Members of the formal and informal welfare services worked unselfishly.

Firemen, soldiers, and police responded magnificently to the situation.

They were joined by appliances from Dublin, Dundalk and Drogheda as volunteers wrestled with fires, collapsing buildings and heaps of rubble under which many people still survived.

One group successfully rescued a family from a collapsed building and when the father asked about the odd accents they said, "We're the Dublin Fire Service".

With typical deadpan humour the father replied, "It must have been a helluva bomb".

Those who could abandoned the city to stay with friends and relations. Heroic efforts were made by members of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) and other welfare agencies to house women and children evacuees in the towns and villages of Down and Antrim.

The streams of families from working class districts revealed all the visible signs of social neglect: malnutrition, physical debility and lack of even basic clothing.

As Craigavon had foretold, there were ditches and each evening those who preferred to stay in the city took to the fields and hedgerows nearest their homes. The twilight exodus continued for many months because fear was now part of every psyche and each dawn was a blessed relief.

Things were quiet for just under three weeks and then at, 10 o' clock on the evening of Sunday, May 4, the Luftwaffe returned.

An air armada of 214 bombers headed for the Belfast harbour estate with its docks, shipyards and plane factories as prime targets.

A mixed flotilla of Heinkels and Junkers dropped 100,000 incendiaries that had proved to be more devastating and long-lasting in their effects than that of the HEs.

A dry night wind caused a firestorm that tore through the wooden structures of the shipyards.

There was also a deliberate intention to strike at the commercial centre of the city; from Donegall Place to Dublin Road was a single conflagration.

The north end of Royal Avenue and its feeder streets looked like terminally diseased human mouths, riddled with caries and showing only a few decayed rotten stumps.

There were no more raids, but the exhausted citizens of Belfast (and Derry that also had a raid on April 15) had no way of knowing this and 'ditching' continued until the late autumn.

By then Hitler's attention was directed east towards Moscow. For the city of Belfast, the aerial war was over.

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