We are now approaching the 80th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz. With ample justification, Jimmy Doherty described it in his book, Post 381: The Memoirs of a Belfast Air Raid Warden, as "the most disastrous event in the history of the city". It was unprecedented, traumatic, tragic and, for most, entirely unexpected. Belfast was ill-prepared when the Blitz began: it had too few shelters and anti-aircraft (AA) guns; fighter aircraft only equipped for daytime operations; no searchlights and few of its citizens had been evacuated.
In part, this was because the city was thought to be too insignificant and remote from Germany to merit elaborate preparations. Its long immunity from attack encouraged the hope that it might escape altogether and there was a feeling that Hitler might respect Ireland's neutrality and so desist from bombing it.
JC MacDermott (the minister responsible for Blitz preparation from June 1940) himself described Belfast as being "less well protected than any major city or port in the United Kingdom".
The blame is often attributed to the incompetence of the Stormont government. But AA guns and searchlights were in short supply throughout the UK, not just in Northern Ireland.
Also, the key decisions about how available supplies should be allocated were made in London, not in Belfast.
However, from mid 1940, there was a growing expectation, certainly among politicians and officials, that Belfast would be attacked. This was because of the city's increasing importance as a munitions and military centre.
The fall of France, in June 1940, dramatically increased its vulnerability. Thereafter, Germany had air bases in northern France and Holland. Also, the Admiralty diverted shipping from Britain's vulnerable Channel ports to Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol and, of course, Belfast.
Local concern was heightened by the emerging pattern of the Blitz on Britain in early 1941; it was increasingly directed at these western ports.
On March 29, 1941, after a massive raid on Clydeside (March 13/14), MacDermott presciently advised Johnny Andrews, the Prime Minister: "Up to now, we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside, until recently. Clydeside got its Blitz during the period of the last moon... The period of the next moon, from, say, the 7th to the 16th of April, may well bring our turn."
There was clear evidence that Luftwaffe activity over the city was rising. There were 22 red alerts in Belfast between October 25, 1940 and early April 1941 and mines were being laid in Belfast Lough almost daily from July 1940. In the first attack, the "Dockside raid" (April 7/8, 1941), 13 people died, 12 in the harbour area. Though popularly referred to as the "wee raid", 500 bombers attacked the UK that night.
Belfast was fortunate; there were at most eight aircraft over the city at any one time. But it seemed certain that the Luftwaffe would return and, in preparation, a smoke screen was set up to obscure the docks and searchlight units arrived on April 10.
Belfast's second raid, on Easter Tuesday night (April 15/16), is the one most deeply embedded in popular memory. Some 180 bombers participated, and dropped 200 tons of high explosives and 30,000 incendiaries.
The most striking feature of the bombardment was that the harbour area sustained so little damage. Instead, it was the working-class streets to the north of the city which suffered most.
The explanation most commonly offered was that the Luftwaffe mistook Belfast's Waterworks for the docks and bombed the district surrounding it.
It is understandable how the bombers might have missed the Harbour Estate. Weather conditions were poor; one-third of the aircraft designated to attack the city, therefore, failed to find it and diverted to targets in Britain.
Military reports also stressed the effectiveness of the smoke screen in obscuring the dock area. In addition, bombing techniques were primitive; Luftwaffe crews attempted to drop their bombs "by sight", despite their visibility difficulties.
Their reports on the raid are revealing. They regarded it as an abject failure; they had little idea what they had hit, but knew full well that they had missed their primary targets - the shipyards and the aircraft factory.
They described it as having been "unsatisfactory", "inconclusive" and "abortive" and predicted that its effect would be "minimal" and results "mediocre".
Writing about this raid (April 15/16, 1941), John Blake, Northern Ireland's official war historian, states: "No other city in the UK, save London, had lost so many of her citizens in one night's raid. No other city, except perhaps Liverpool, ever did."
Sir John Maffey, Britain's "representative" in Dublin, was in Belfast immediately after it and was familiar with the London Blitz.
Comparing the two cities, he said of London after a severe attack, that "things were able to resume their more or less normal course the following morning". He considered that the experience of the raid on Belfast was "more horrifying... because of the number of small dwelling houses of poor people which were destroyed".
Likewise, Doreen Bates, a Londoner who had transferred to work in Belfast in March 1941, described the Easter Tuesday attack as "the worst night I've had. (It was)... worse than (London)... because (Belfast)... is a smaller place. One feels... more part of the target."
During the Easter Tuesday raid, 740 civilians lost their lives in Belfast. The death rate was high, because: so many bombs fell on densely populated areas; shelters were few and underused; virtually no one had been evacuated from the city and its defences were inadequate.
Again, it was likely that the Luftwaffe would return. Their reconnaissance photos proved what the crews already knew - they had failed to hit their targets.
Meanwhile, little could be done to improve the city's defences. "Dangerous" animals in Bellevue Zoo were put down and the number of AA guns increased from 22 to 28.
Belfast's second major attack took place on May 4/5, 1941. It was shorter, more intense and more accurate than on Easter Tuesday.
Over almost three hours, 200 bombers dropped 240 tons of high explosives and 100,000 incendiaries. On this occasion, the Luftwaffe struck all its primary targets in the harbour area. Over 200 fires were ablaze when the raid ended; consequently, it was popularly referred to as the "fire raid".
This time, there were fewer casualties: 192 civilians were killed, primarily because it was the docks and city centre area which suffered most.
There were few people about; it was a Sunday night, many workers had refused to work night shifts after Easter Tuesday and 100,000 people had evacuated following that attack.
Possibly also the shelters were used more and the AA guns were more active, supplemented by those of the aircraft carrier HMS Furious.
Afterwards, the Luftwaffe crews were euphoric. Virtually all reported that they had hit their main strategic targets; some claimed that the city's fires were visible from the coasts of Wales and Lancashire. They had also caused such extensive damage to the city centre that local military reports stated it must have been a target, too.
The "fire raid" was Belfast's last major aerial attack. The bombing of Dublin, the capital of a neutral country, on May 30/31 was to be the last occasion when a significant number of bombs fell on Irish soil.
Four bombs were dropped that night; the last and most devastating, at 02.05am, struck the North Strand area, near Connolly Station. Over 40 people were killed, 100 seriously injured and almost 2,000 made homeless.
Its causes have prompted speculation.
Some blamed the RAF, but the German government eventually accepted culpability and paid compensation.
It was also suggested that the Luftwaffe had attacked Dublin by mistake: that they had intended to bomb Belfast again, but, for some reason, had missed, or the British had "bent" their navigation guidance beams, or that their aircraft were blown across from Britain by unexpectedly strong easterly winds.
Others have argued that the bombing was a calculated act of German retaliation and retribution for Eire's cumulative breaches of neutrality - the "last straw" being the help it had given Belfast after the air raids there.
In support of this conjecture is the fact that, prior to the Easter Tuesday raid, Luftwaffe pilots had been given strict instructions by Hermann Goering, intended to ensure that they did not fly over, let alone bomb, neutral Ireland.
Belfast had fewer air raids than many industrial centres and ports in Britain. It had just four, while Liverpool had 74 and Glasgow 11. But it did experience two attacks which were particularly severe and officially classified as "major".
In a table of the worst affected urban areas in the United Kingdom, compiled by the weight of bombs dropped, it comes 12th. Such was their destructive power that over half of the city's housing stock (56,000 houses) was destroyed, or damaged, and over half of its public elementary schools.
It was the unprecedented and unimagined number of deaths they caused, however, which seared them so indelibly into the collective memory of Belfast's citizens.
They fell indiscriminately on both Catholic and Protestant communities and such was the terror they generated that 220,000 people from both traditions are estimated to have fled from the city by May 1941, while tens of thousands "ditched".
Home Office statistics indicate that over 960 civilians died in the course of the Blitz. But the total number of fatalities was well over 1,000 when military personnel are included (there were 17,000 British troops billeted in the Belfast area at the time).
I was first impelled to write about the Belfast Blitz, because its details were so little known, so little researched. People then thought of the Blitz as being something that had happened in London, or Coventry, not Belfast.
This is no longer the case. Nonetheless, until now it has been inadequately commemorated, with no civic memorial to its victims - unlike those of the Titanic, even though few of those who perished had lived in the city.
But this lamentable omission is being corrected. The City Council has agreed to erect a permanent memorial in remembrance of the civilians and servicemen who lost their lives.
It is an overdue, but very welcome, tribute to those who died.