Eric Waugh: As war loomed, politicians left Belfast open to enemy air raids
Published 01/09/2009 | 12:58
The key fact about 1939 is that 1918 was a mere 21 years away.
Put yourself in the people's shoes and it was as if the last war ended in 1988. So, subconsciously, they expected the same. The Army would go to France. The Jerries would be stopped. The Navy would rule the waves. Ministers, though, were nervous of the coming air war.
This day 70 years ago, the kids were getting ready to go back to school. It was a Friday. Businessmen, solicitors, clergymen and doctors had returned from their month's holiday in the north Antrim resorts the previous evening, having enjoyed temporary golf memberships at a pound and occupied their usual seaside bungalows for a rent of £18 — both for the month.
It had not been a great summer. July had been the wettest of the century, punctuated by thunderstorms which turned lawns into lakes. August had been very mixed. Some prudent wives had stopped at the Maypole Dairy Company in Coleraine on the way home to put brown paper parcels of extra tea, sugar and butter on the floor of the car at their feet. Their Morris, Austin and Hillman saloons had no wireless; but their menfolk had read out the news from Thursday's papers over breakfast.
Schoolchildren were being evacuated from Paris. The French army had taken over the railways for mobilisation. What trains there were, were packed with English holidaymakers rushing to Calais. Scores of English motorists abandoned their cars on the quay.
There were German troop movements on the Polish frontier and Poland had called up its reserves. On the Friday, bills posted outside the offices of this newspaper announced: “Poland invaded — Official.” The papers were full of the ‘attack' the night before on a regional radio station at Gleiwitz, just inside the German frontier, by ‘Polish' soldiers, who had taken it over and broadcast insults to the Reich which were heard over a wide area.
But the ‘Poles' were men of the Nazi SS, wearing Polish uniforms, carrying Polish weapons and briefed to respond to Polish commands, who eventually withdrew, leaving 12 dead. The dead, it transpired, were concentration camp prisoners, killed by lethal injection and then shot, also wearing Polish uniforms. It was Obergruppenfuhrer Heydrich's idea. Answering this ‘provocation', the panzers of the Wehrmacht crossed the Polish border at 4.45 on Friday morning.
So it was going to be a new kind of war, sprung from a regime of nastiness unparalleled in modern times. On the Friday, a blackout was imposed and conscription applied — but not in Northern Ireland — to men aged between 18 and 41.
BBC Television at Alexandra Palace closed down indefinitely in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon; and at 6.58pm Broadcasting House merged its |national and regional sound programmes in a single Home Service, which had the effect of mothballing the recently-completed Northern Ireland headquarters in Belfast for six long years.
On the Friday night — the first of the blackout — lights blazed from hundreds of west Belfast homes, from Divis Street to Andersonstown; bonfires were lit, street lamps turned back on and the |police greeted by shouts of ‘Up Hitler!'
The ferries from Glasgow, Liverpool and Fishguard to Belfast and Dublin were crowded with passengers (mostly, but by no means all, Irish) fleeing the war. This reflected the widespread view that the island would be ‘safe' from the worst of it, an assumption fatally shared by Lord Craigavon's Cabinet.
Politicians pressed Whitehall for more arms contracts and, after a slow start, they were forthcoming. The enemy ensconced a few months later on the northern and western shores of France and, with an espionage post at their legation in Dublin, began to regard Belfast as a target area.
Edmond Warnock, the KC who was junior minister at Home Affairs, advised Craigavon not to |follow the Whitehall proposal that factories must provide shelters for their employees, pooh-poohing |the dangers of any attack.
The effective little back-garden Anderson shelters, widely distributed in Britain, were denied to Belfast and the Stormont Cabinet seemed disinclined to push for these — and for more fire-fighting equipment — until it was decided which administration would pay.
At one stage Warnock actually sent fire-fighting equipment back to the mainland. The result was that, when the Blitz began in Britain, it was too late to move; and Northern Ireland was left to face the Luftwaffe with 24 heavy anti-aircraft guns, 14 lighter ones, a single squadron of Hurricanes at RAF Aldergrove, one bomb disposal unit and two balloon barrages; but no night fighters and no searchlights.
On Sunday morning, the announcement delayed by dithering in Paris, the Anglo-French guarantee to Poland was honoured and war was declared. At lunchtime there was |a thunderstorm over Belfast, |measured as yielding nearly two inches of rain.
Nemesis was near.