The Belfast blitz: remembering the victims

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After almost seventy years, it looks like Belfast may erect a public memorial to the victims of WWII bombing raids on the city.

Most people in present-day Belfast are probably vaguely aware that it was bombed during the war, but a memorial may help to prompt more understanding of the actual scale of the devastation wreaked by the Luftwaffe’s bombs.

On the night of Easter Tuesday, 15th April 1941, two hundred Nazi bombers attacked the city. With over 900 people killed, apart from London, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid on any UK city during the blitz. In terms of property damage, half of the houses in Belfast were damaged, with a reported 100,000 people out of a total population of 425,000 left homeless.

While the Nazis bear the responsibility for the deaths, an incompetent Northern Ireland government also deserves a portion of the blame for the lack of protection offered to ordinary people.

After an raid eight days earlier, Luftwaffe crews had returned to their base in northern France and reported that Belfast’s defences were, “inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient”.And so they were. As Jonathon Bardon has put it:

There is ample evidence that the political leaders lacked the will, energy and capacity to cope with a major crisis when it came…  Sir Wilfred Spender, the cabinet secretary’ thought he [Lord Craigavon] was a Premier whom ‘true friends would advise to retire now’ for he was incapable of doing ‘more than one hour’s constructive work’ in a day. Lady Londonderry confided to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, that Craigavon had become ‘ga-ga’. According to Spender, Richard Dawson Bates, the Home Affairs Minister, was ‘incapable of giving his responsible officers coherent directions on policy’ -’ actually, by this time, he was drunk for most of each day.
[…] Dawson Bates simply refused to reply to army correspondence and when the Ministry of Home Affairs was informed by imperial defense experts that Belfast was a certain Luftwaffe target, nothing was done.

The  cabinet minutes of Craigavon’s successor John Andrews’ show more discussion about protecting the bronze statue of Carson than the provision of air-raid shelters.

The fact is, the people of Belfast (and other cities and towns across Northern Ireland) were largely left to the mercy of the Luftwaffe.

Afterwards, the dead were laid out in St George’s Market and Falls Baths. Tens of thousands of survivors, now homeless, fled to the outskirts of the city or to the countryside or across the border to Dublin. Without homes or confidence that the government would or could protect them, according to Bardon, by the end of May some 220,000 people had left the city.

Tommy Henderson, independent unionist MP for the Shankill at Stormont, undoubtedly summed up the feelings of many when he invited the Minister of Home Affairs to Hannahstown and the Falls Road, saying: “The Catholics and the Protestants are going up there mixed and they are talking to one another. They are sleeping in the same sheugh, below the same tree or in the same barn. They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.”

So, let us remember the dead civilians of Belfast (and Coventry and Dresden and Hiroshima and …). Let us remember the cost of war. Let us remember the cost of bad government.

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  • Drumlins Rock

    Patrick, you seem to have decided attacking the government of the day warrants 90% of your post and only 10% is actually about “remembering the victims”, probably they had alot to answer for, but I think you might have got the balance a bit wrong and are playing politics with their remembrance.
    I know Belfast was quite a bit smaller in those days but half the houses damaged or destroyed is hard to imagine, and strangly is often forgotten, It is something that should be commerated and not forgotten.
    I remember my granny telling me about the whistling bombs going past their house in the Craigantlet Hills above Stomont, and landing in the next field, but not exploding, and she also mentioned all the people spending the nights in the hills and going into the city to work during the day, I think she said it was quite a warm year.
    Would I be exagerating to say the city suffered more in that one night than in the 30 yrs of troubles?

  • Squall23

    It should be mentioned that there was also a raid on the nights of 4-5th may 1941 and a later bombing in Dublin on the 31st May, although their damage paled in comparison. Commemoration could represent a rarity in Northern Ireland, a rememberance not tainted by political creeds.

  • Squall23

    @Drumlinsrock,

    The main areas of destruction was in North Belfast, but there was also significant damage in the Shaftsbury square area, the falls, and shankill. The government response was inadequate to say the least, a symptom of a general insufficient NI contribution to the British war effort, at least until Brookeborough came in.

  • http://moochinphotoman.tumblr.com/ Moochin Photoman

    The anti aircraft batterys were afraid to open up on the luftwaffe in case they shot down British aircraft. There was only 10 ack ack guns to defend Belfast.
    When the Waterworks were bombed people at the time thought it to be a mistake (they thought they had over flown the shipyard. It wasn’t a mistake as they knew what they were doing by reducing the amount of water available to fight the resulting fires.
    There are also stories of folks from the Shankill and the Falls sheltering in the crypt at Clonard Monastery.
    Percy street got hit the hardest with a direct hit on an air raid shelter.
    During the raids an awful lot of folks spent the nights at the bog meadows (near Broadway Roundabout)

  • Wabbits

    As a small footnote. Derry was bombed on the same night (Easter Tuesday 15th April). Two parachute bombs landed at Messines Park in the Pennyburn area close to St Patricks Church, Killing 15 people, men women and children. My Da and my Granda watched them float down from the sky.

    Either this was a bomber gone somewhat astray from the Belfast mission or the Luftwaffe were doing a short dry run to see if they could reach the headquarters for the Battle of the North Atlantic.

    As it was this was the only occasion when Derry was attacked during WW2. Presumably it was discovered by the Luftwaffe that the city was out of range for a successful return to northern France.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Despite it being the most reported and recreated period of history we actually dont know alot about WW2 in NI, bits a pieces here and there but the big picture is missing, however the Blitz memorial would be a good place to start.

  • Mark McGregor

    I heard some old English sounding guy that has been active on this campaign on Evening Extra yesterday (apologies, didn’t catch his name).

    He seemed to think BCC was going to reject a memorial at City Hall (he had suggested a pillar like at the gates) as an inappropriate location.

    While I’m sure nationalists think there is more than enough British remembrance at City Hall that has no Nationalist counterbalance, I don’t see how remembering the by far largest slaughter of civilians in Belfast deserves commemoration in any other place than the heart of the city.

    It is inexplicable that this is not remembered physically and more generally – and a key factor of Belfast’s history across the spectrum.

  • Frame

    Until the Nazis took over the Low Countries and France in 1940, it was considered that Belfast was out of range of German bombers which partly explains the relatively few defences the city had in April 1941.

    Brian Moore’s novel ‘Emperor of Ice Cream’ is an excellent and readable account of wartime Belfast. It is semi-autobiographical. He was in the ARP and saw the raids of 1941.

    I have to agree with Drumlins Rock that the statistic of half the houses in Belfast being damaged is dubious as is the bias in the Wikipedia article where Patrick is getting his facts.

    Having said that, my parents told me of an incendiary on their roof having to be put out and several families being killed by an explosive bomb down the road.

    Like the people of London, if they could, my mother went to the nearby countryside and hills at night thereafter and my sister was evacuated.

  • Chris Donnelly

    DR
    If memory recalls you’re not exactly an old-timer, so I’m surprised to hear you suggest people here know little about WW2.

    From experience as a pupil and teacher, it is an area heavily covered in primary and post-primary school classrooms, and the excellent BBC Spywatch series produced some years ago provided a wonderful accompaniment to the teaching of the subject in the classroom.

    And to see the faces of the children when they are informed that Stormont was covered in sh!te to camouflage the then grand ol’ house of unionism is priceless….

  • http://thoughts-in-exile.blogspot.com/ al

    “an incompetent Northern Ireland government also deserves a portion of the blame…”

    Some things never change.

  • pippakin

    Of course there should be a memorial.

  • Mark McGregor

    Pip,

    But where? Down the near St Anne’s Cathedral unseen? Or front and centre at City Hall?

  • http://blogs.amnesty.org.uk/blogs.asp?bid=25 Patrick Corrigan

    DR and Frame – you can doubt the veracity or the source of the facts about the scale of the damage to Belfast’s housing, but this post is actually inspired by my recent reading of the Jonathan Bardon’s great tome, A History of Ulster.

    I think I’m pretty well read on most aspects of our history, but his chapter on Wartime Ulster and the actions / inactions of our NI government actually shocked me.
    I would thoroughly recommend you read his chapter if you want a fuller account of the Belfast blitz and I hope that, by being better acquainted with the facts, we are all better placed to remember the victims.

    Frame, I take your point about the lesser threat to Belfast before the German occupation of northern France and Holland, but, as per my quote from Bardon in the original post, the NI government did subsequently receive plenty of warnings about the threat to Belfast, but chose not to act.

    By the way, on the point of detail you query, on page 570 of my edition, Bardon writes: “By now [early May 1941] 53.5 per cent of Belfast’s housing stock had been destroyed or badly damaged…”.

    Anyway, I’m glad that we all seem to be agreed that a public memorial to the victims is a good idea. As I understand it from Cllr Niall Kelly (thanks), Wednesday’s Council meeting (minutes not yet online) decided to back the proposal (from the NI War Memorial) for a memorial but to discuss with them the Council’s preferred location of Cathedral Gardens beside St Anne’s and the UU Belfast campus.

    There’s a lot more background information on the proposals and the Council’s deliberations contained in this briefing note from their December 10 meeting.

  • pippakin

    Mark McGregor

    Donegall Sq or Victoria St.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Thanks for a bit of proper history Patrick.

    I too was amazed when I read JB’s History of Ulster. Not just the war but frankly WW2 in NI has to be read to be believed.

    Frame is right of course, why else would Short Bros re-locate from Rochester? (Pg 548 in my 1st ed.) but as Chris pointed out the Stormont administration had a rather skewed set of priorities.

    If you want to know how skewed check this out:

    http://www.scotchirish.net/forum/index.php?showtopic=4116

  • Drumlins Rock

    Patrick, I wasn’t questioning the 50%, just trying to picture it, thought maybe it covered minor damage, ie broken windows, but it seems it was one those severely damaged.
    Chris, I learnt about the war ok, but in was more the big picture or campaign fronts, or else the small picture or rationing etc. it is the middle bit, ie. NI and Irelands role that i cant remember!
    As for the memorial location, I think it should be a substancial monument, and city hall is too cluttered already, possibly the cathedral quarter would be best.

  • John Ó Néill

    Between 3-4 % of the city’s housing stock had to be replaced after the 1941 raids. It was estimated that 53.5% or so of the city’s houses received some damage (Bardon just doesn’t qualify the statement very well) – but that extended from losing a few slates and a broken window to maybe losing the whole roof etc, so it’s hard to quantify what that means in real terms. Even a cursory look at the photographs of damaged streets (as opposed to the destroyed streets that make up the 3-4 % houses that needed replaced) shows that most of the houses survived fairly intact.

    The relative scale of the death toll, 955, on 15-16th April for a single raid (being second only to London as Patrick points out) becomes more stark when you consider that the raid barely registers in the top ten in terms of the volume of bombs dropped on a city in a single night raid. But whether that reflects the population density of the target areas, or the inadequacy of the defences, or somewhere between the two, is a matter of historical debate.

    As to awareness – fair enough, I went to primary school in Newington in the late 70s and early 80s beside the Waterworks so everyone knew about the blitz, it used to be on the secondary history curriculum as well (in first or second year) – and that was before the WWII history industry really took off in the late 1990s.

    If there was to be a memorial – perhaps, given that North Belfast bore the brunt of the damage, better locations would be the Waterworks or on top of Cavehill (where many fled overnight for the weeks and months afterwards).

  • edgeoftheunion

    I see there is no reference for the 53.5% figure. I wonder where it came from?

  • edgeoftheunion

    Probably from here:

    http://applications.proni.gov.uk/LL_DCAL_PRONI_ECATNI/ResultDetails.aspx

    Anyone know how to access this since PRONI is closed to the public?

  • Frame

    For your diary – 27 April 2011 at 1pm. Talk on ‘The Blitz on Belfast’ by Mr Ian Montgomery, Public Record Office of Northern Ireland. Free of charge in the Performance Area of the Linenhall Library. Everyone welcome.

    PRONI has numerous files on the subject
    http://www.proni.gov.uk/historical_topics_series_-_02_-_the_belfast_blitz.pdf

    e.g. LA/65/3AG/2 Casualty lists for raids on Belfast April-May 1941

    The Cabinet papers in PRONI record dozens of government discussions on air raid precautions prior to the blitz so lack of activity was not as gross as is so often described.

    One web source adds that in the four raids known as the Belfast Blitz, 955 people were killed, 56,885 houses were damaged, 3,200 of which were completely destroyed, and 2,436 people injured.

    Geoffrey Fields gives Belfast some context: “In part, government inaction reflected a continuing hope that war could be avoided or that Britain’s own bomber force would act as a deterrent to indiscriminate raids. Much of civil defence preparations was left in the hands of local authorities without clear guarantees that their outlays would be covered. Some, as a result, moved slowly, so that when war came the supply of shelters was seriously deficient in towns like Birmingham and Coventry, while in April 1941 Belfast still had spaces for only a quarter of its population. Cost of providing deep bomb-proof shelters (i.e., capable of sustaining a direct hit) was considered prohibitive.”

  • Reader

    Frame: Much of civil defence preparations was left in the hands of local authorities without clear guarantees that their outlays would be covered.
    Bangor certainly had some air raid shelters. After the war they were dismantled and dumped on Luke’s Point as (very untidy) sea defences. They are mostly covered over by landscaping now, but still visible. As it happens, the Royal Navy did more damage to Bangor than the Luftwaffe.
    Frame: Cost of providing deep bomb-proof shelters (i.e., capable of sustaining a direct hit) was considered prohibitive
    It certainly was. In general, air raid shelters were just meant to protect people from shrapnel, blast and collapsing or burning houses. The Germans did build Flak towers for absolute protection from bombing, but for that sort of project it helps to have access to tens of thousands of slave labourers.

  • Alf

    “They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.”

    If only they’d had Connor Murphy and Catriona Ruane eh?

  • edgeoftheunion

    Cheers Frame

    The day after my birthday so easy to remember.

    Alf

    Single party rule or compulsory D’Hondt, it all adds up to the same. If you can’t vote them out they will run amok.

    How would you structure the Govt of Our Wee Country so that you can get rid of useless politicians? It beats me.

  • Alf

    Edge,

    That is above my pay grade. I think though that the minority cannot be pampered indefinitely.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Which minority is that?

    An old friend of mine, now very sadly deceased had this quip:

    “It’s only a small minority of the people here who cause all the trouble – The problem is we keep voting for them”

    Thanks Richard

  • Alf

    Edge,

    The ones who want to remove us from the UK.

  • Harry Flashman

    Whilst it may be fair to put the blame for lack of air raid shelters on the Stormont government they can hardly be blamed for the anti-aircraft defences described as “inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient” by the Luftwaffe.

    Anti-aircraft provision would have been provided by the War Office in London, a certain Mr WS Churchill in charge I believe, if they felt there was no particular urgency to defend Belfast, and they were the experts after all, is it not reasonable to assume that the devolved regional government might follow their example?

  • Alf

    Harry,

    That would mess up the approved narrative somewhat.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Harry

    You are correct in both points. Which is one of the reasons why a Labour landslide happened in 1945. Sadly then, as now, there was no way an incompetent Government could be removed at Stormont. They had to wait until Craigavon died in his chair.

  • edgeoftheunion

    Alf
    “The ones who want to remove us from the UK.”

    I thought you meant the minority who voted against the Good Friday Agreement

  • Alf

    Edge,

    I can’t see the relevance? Can you explain please?

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    I think there should be some memorial, or several of them – and put them in the main areas bombed.
    I think people on all sides have long accepted the NI government of the time was rubbish – it’s not a political issue really.
    Also, my dad claimed to have seen a German bomber crash into Cave Hill (he lived off the Antrim Road at the time) – anyone know anything about that?