Belfast suffered a series of bombing raids in the spring of 1941, which became known as the ‘Blitz of Belfast’. At the start of World War Two, Belfast had considered itself safe from an aerial attack, as the city’s leaders believed that Belfast was simply too far away for Luftwaffe bombers to reach – assuming that they would have to fly from Nazi Germany. However, the successful Nazi invasion of France in the spring of 1940 ended this belief as Luftwaffe bases in the Cherbourg region of France made a bombing raid on Belfast very possible.
Belfast was home to some very important industries that were vital to the war effort. Harland and Wolff shipyards were based in the city. These employed 35,000 people and destroyers, aircraft carriers and mine sweepers were built here. The aircraft manufacturer Short and Harland employed 20,000 people and was also based in Belfast. Its factories manufactured the Short Stirling bomber, used by Bomber Command, and the Short Sunderland that was used in the campaign against Nazi U-boats in the Atlantic. The city’s dock complex was the last before the journey across the Atlantic and was vital for the landing of American supplies prior to America’s entry to World War Two in December 1941. The first known Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight over Belfast was on November 30th 1940. Reconnaissance flights had given the Luftwaffe very detailed photographs of what factories were where within the city. They also showed where the 22 anti-aircraft guns were and analysis showed that 16 were heavy AA guns while 6 were classed as light. As a comparison, 100 AA guns defended Liverpool. The Luftwaffe concluded that Belfast “was the most poorly defended city in the UK”.
Their conclusion was very accurate. The government of Northern Ireland had long held the view that Belfast was simply too far away for the Luftwaffe to reach. Another belief was that the Luftwaffe would have more important targets on the mainland. The population shared this air of complacency. In the time between the start of the war in September 1939 to the first bombing in April 1941, Belfast had experienced 22 air raid siren alerts – each one a false alert. This cultivated an atmosphere of carelessness among many and this extended to things such as blackouts – strictly enforced on the mainland. “People were careless about their light.” (Jimmy Wilton, Belfast ARP). Only 200 air raid shelters had been built for a population of 500,000. The government in London had to share some of the blame for this as it told politicians in Stormont to concentrate on building air bases as opposed to bomb shelters.
The peace in the city was shattered on April 7th/8th 1941 when the Luftwaffe launched its first raid on the city – a probing raid to test the city’s defences. The attack became known as ‘The Dockside Raid’. More than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from northern France – many headed for Clydeside and Greenock in Scotland. However, 8 bombers veered off to Belfast on what was an exploratory raid to test the city’s defences. Facing minimal defences, they dropped about 800 incendiary bombs on the dock area. They acted as markers for other bombers to attack. Belfast paid a heavy price for its lack of defences. Traditionally, homes of the workers had been built very near to the factories/docks where individuals worked so that travel and time spent getting to work was kept to a minimum. If the bombs missed their targets by only a small degree, then homes would be hit. Consequently, this raid destroyed many homes. The incendiary bombs also set fire to large timber yards. Harland and Wolff dockyards were hit, as was the Rank Flour Mill. Thirteen people were killed in this raid – twelve within the dock area. In what was a probing attack, the Luftwaffe found out what it thought to be true; that Belfast’s defences were “weak and scanty”. The Luftwaffe planned a return raid.
Politicians at Stormont called on London for more defences. However, by the time of the ‘Easter Raid’ – just one week later - Belfast had been given just one extra searchlight, one extra anti-aircraft gun and a smokescreen gun. The city defence’s remained in a perilous state.
The ‘Easter Raid’ took place on April 15th/16th 1941. Prior to the raid, many hundreds of people had walked to the hills that surround Belfast. The people called it ‘ditching’ – similar to ‘trekking’ in England. Between 150 and 160 Luftwaffe bombers attacked Belfast and dropped around 200 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The city only had sixteen heavy calibre anti-aircraft guns it total and they made little impact. Around 56,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. The Luftwaffe first targeted the city’s waterworks. Some thought that the reflection off the reservoir had fooled the pilots into thinking that they were near the docks. In fact, the waterworks had been deliberately targeted. Fire crews found that their hoses were of little use in the inferno because the water pressure was very low.
The damage to the city was so great that the government in Stormont asked the Republic of Ireland for help. They sent thirteen fire appliances manned by 71 volunteers. They stayed for three days to help.
Street shelters were hit in Percy Street and Atlantic Avenue – thirty people were killed in the Percy Street shelter.
Stormont had made preparations for two hundred fatalities. In this raid nearly 1,000 people were killed and 1,500 were injured, 400 seriously. Two hospitals had been hit, which put further pressure on the city’s medical facilities. Bodies were lain out in St. George’s Market to allow for identification. In fact, some remained unidentified and were buried in mass graves.
A real panic went around the city that the Luftwaffe would return to ‘finish off’ the city. The next full moon was on the night of May 4th/5th and it was on this night that the Luftwaffe did return – the so-called ‘Fire Raid’ on Belfast.
Over 250 aircraft attacked Belfast. The sirens started at 24.00 and the first bombs were dropped at 01.00. Over 230 tons of high explosive bombs were dropped and 100,000 incendiary bombs. The main target was the docks. The damage was such that two-thirds of Harland and Wolff shipyards were destroyed and Short and Harland aircraft factories were out of commission for three months. The city centre was also hit. The historic Royal Avenue area suffered major damage. More than 200 were killed in this raid. The Memel Street shelter took a direct hit. It took dockworkers a week of digging to find the first of the thirteen corpses at the site of the shelter.
However, the docks and the factories could not be permanently disabled and Hitler suspended the bombing campaign against the UK so that the Luftwaffe could concentrate on the upcoming invasion of Russia. Belfast’s vital factories may have been put out of action temporarily but they were soon serving the war effort again. The part played by the people of Belfast was recognised by Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the end of the war in Europe when he wrote to Stormont:
“But for the loyalty of Northern Ireland and its devotion to what has now become the cause of thirty governments or nations, we should have been confronted with slavery and death, and the light which now shines so strongly throughout the world would have been quenched.”
Only London suffered more damage and casualties from a one-off raid, such was the intensity of the Easter Raid on Belfast.