75th anniversary of the Blitz: Belfast City Council considering a permanent memorial…

There were pockets of the UK where the war barely reached. Belfast was one of them until the night of Tuesday, April 15, 1941, when more than a quarter of the people who died in the whole of the Troubles perished in one bombing raid.

The city was particularly ill prepared since it was assumed it was too far north for the German bombers to go. The docks area took a hammering: whole neighbourhoods were almost wiped out at the lower end of Duncairn Gardens.

Even in places where people had assumed they’d be relatively safe many took to the surrounding hills, away from the main industrial targets, and falling masonry. Neighbours hid under each others stairs saying prayers or singing hymns or whatever came easiest to hand.

Parts of the commercial fabric of the city were shredded. My own mother much later recalled to the News Letter seeing a log book from Arnotts lying amongst the debris on the lawn of the City Hospital – where she was training to be a nurse – over a mile away from the site of the once famous store.

Then there was the possibly apocryphal story our old science teacher used to tell us (when he should have been teaching us physics or chemistry) of the old lady plucked from the wreckage in Sandy Row by a big Dublin fireman asking if she’d been blown all the way to the south.

I’ve heard from others that swimming pools around the city were drained and acted as a makeshift morgue to take the enormous numbers of the dead, including the bodies of many children and babies.

It was a small taste of what the great industrial cities of England and large swathes of continental Europe went through, and – it has to be said – both of which subsequently recovered from in a remarkably short time. As Councillor Graham Craig puts it

On those terrible nights in April and May 1941 the death and destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe was shared equally by unionists and nationalists.

Seventy-five years later, Belfast City Council is now considering erecting a memorial of those terrible nights…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • the rich get richer

    Were there many atheists under the stairs.

    The bravery of atheists is hugely underestimated . Its tough when you don’t have prayers or hymns against dropping bombs.

    Atheists are the real heroes.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    It was not much of a subject that I ever considered or knew much about until I attended a Loyalist Rememberance Service in Belfast City Centre back in November 2011 and listened to a speech and tone which was so unusal considering the audiance that is was being delivered to that after the service I went up to the speaker and asked could he give me a copy which he handed to me. Here it is below.
    We remember this morning the German Bombings 70 years ago of the city of Belfast with the most destructive being the Easter Tuesday Blitz on 15th April 1941.
    Two Hundred Bombers of the German Luftwaffe attacked the city damaging half the houses of Belfast and killing nearly a thousand people. Roughly 100,000 people of a total population of 400,000 were left homeless.
    Outside the city of London this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the blitz.
    At 10.40pm the air raid sirens sounded. Wave after wave of bombers dropped their incendiaries, high explosives and land mines. Altogether 203 metric tons of high explosive bombs, 80 landmines attached to parachutes and 800 firebomb canisters containing 96,000 incendiary bombs were dropped on the city.
    By 4am the entire city was in flames. The first attack was against the city’s waterworks, this was deliberate, when incendiaries were dropped and the city burned the water pressure was too low for firefighting.
    By 6am within two hours of the request for assistance, 71 Firemen with 13 Fire Tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin & Dun Laoghaire arrived in the city to assist their Belfast Colleagues. They remained for three days until they were relieved by 250 Firemen from Glasgow.
    The Irish Times wrote ” Humanity knows No Borders, No Politics, No Differences of Religious Belief. Men from the South worked with men from the North in the universal cause of the relief of the suffering”
    In answer to your question “Belfast City Council considering a permanent Memorial ?” Most Definately !

  • ted hagan

    Robert Fisk’s book In Time of War gives a good account of the Belfast Blitz and the myths that went with it.

  • Korhomme

    There was a short piece on the radio on Saturday; I think it was the Today programme.

    The story abut draining the public baths was mentioned, as were the 13 firefighting units from the South; apparently, there was a personal appeal to Dev for help.

    And a tart comment indicating that there were very few air raid precautions, searchlights, shelters etc. The Stormont government was described as being never knowingly pro-active; plus ça change.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Mick, I believe my grandmother worked as a nurse in city hospital during the raid.

    She would sometimes casually talk of unspeakable horror as a prelude to offer ring tea.

  • Ernekid

    No need for the dig against those who aren’t theistically inclined. It’s rather off topic and a little bit pathetic.

  • mickfealty

    That News Letter interview was the first I heard she’d even been there. Reading back I think it was the distress of the relatives that may have stayed with her as much as the horror itself.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    They shot the dangerous animals at Bellevue, I discovered watching the little cartoon history the other night on the iPlayer.

    My Dad lived up near the Cavehill and used to tell me about seeing the bombers coming in. My Mum’s whole school was evacuated in the aftermath.

    They should absolutely have a memorial, it’s amazing they don’t. Single most shattering night in the city’s history.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Isn’t that what granny’s are for? ” It was terrible, blood everywhere! Have another scone, they’ve got strawberry jam on them. ”

    We are going with a ‘memorial trail’ in Sheffield which seems like a decent idea.



    Over 2,000 were killed in the Sheffield blitz, they published a replica copy of the local ‘Star’ newspaper of the time giving details of the deaths, extremely poignant, there were a number of instances where grandparents, mother and children all perished together, no man in the house as he would have been in the forces.

  • ted hagan

    Certainly not Stormont’s finest hour, although they did hold three top level Cabinet meetings to discuss how to protect Edward Carson’s statue against the onslaught. Very important that.

  • the rich get richer

    I thought I was being pro the atheists and I am sure many atheists died or were casualties.

    Apologies for any offence caused.

  • Gopher

    A relative had the job off putting the dead on their trucks because they were a motorized unit, a dead little girl dead without a mark on her stood out in his memory I suppose it would given the violence of the raid. That little girl has always been my memorial. According to my father he went to Belfast the next day to check on family and he observed complete panic when a high flying Luftwaffe recon aircraft over flew the scene. The night of the raid he found the best vantage point he could and watched the raid which was all too much for some of the old home guards mens nerves who watched with him. The air raid siren in particular he recounted had a very strong effect on the older men that were in his company when it ever went off.
    Another relative was arguing with a co worker to the point of coming to blows as who would be on fire watch at Shorts when the raid began as you got extra money for the duty. It ended the argument immediately,. To avoid going through the streets other relatives recounted walking the railway lines from the factories home some as far as Bangor when the all clear sounded.

    The impression I took from all the stories is it was all very ad hoc which is not unique in disasters just look at our Titanic. My relatives that spoke of the war had all dug their own air raid shelters probably not an option in a Belfast terrace.

    Should there be a memorial? I have mine, I can’t visualise her religion if any, I don’t know if she would have lived had she had an air raid shelter or cities closer to German airbases that were bombed more frequently had their defences stripped to protect Belfast. I don’t know if she would have lived if Stormont was competent, if Dublin had a blackout. But I can visualise her unmarked as my relative described her on top of mangled bodies in the back of a Bedford truck.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    ” It was terrible, blood everywhere! Have another scone, they’ve got strawberry jam on them. ”

    You were there!?

    I imagine Sheffield would have been quite an important target what with the foundries etc?

    There’s an awful lot of stories that must have been buried over the years as that generation was more about ‘getting on with it’ than ‘sharing experiences’ as is the fashion these days, honestly, the number of these non-celebrities releasing biographies when yer typical granny or Granda who were young in the war would have a lot more to tell (in fact, a men’s magazine once had a series of agony uncles who served in the trenches in WWI – it was hilarious reading people who were wanting to know how to dump their girlfriend only for a hundred year old man to tell them to grow a pair and to stop whinging).

  • MainlandUlsterman

    the stuff that generation played back to me about the war (my Mum who is still with us was aged 9-15 during WW2), was always an interesting cornucopia and was rarely about any of the main news events. Number one topic: rationing. Bloody hell, the number of times my Mum referred to rationing, while serving me dinners in the 1980s. I’d be sitting there in my best Bryan Robson Man Utd away shirt listening to tales of the rarity value of chicken in the 1940s. I can’t say I was gripped. Number two topic was American soldiers giving away chocolate and getting off with local lasses (though my auntie seemed to have more insight into that than my Mum).

    My Dad had a story about a plane crashing into the Cavehill and one about his primary school teacher who had visited Nazi Germany in the 30s and came back hugely impressed. My own nearest equivalent was the deputy head coming into our class in P5 after the 1979 election and saying what a good thing it was that Thatcher had won. Right wing teachers aren’t what they used to be, eh …

  • Korhomme

    Ah yes, priorities.

    And thanks for that gem of information!

  • Anglo-Irish

    Yes Sheffield was targeted mainly because of the steel works which were to the east of the city.

    The bombs actually fell mainly in the city centre causing major loss of life and structural damage.

    The odd un-exploded bomb kept turning up for years afterward requiring action by the bomb disposal experts.

    A match at Bramall Lane was cancelled in 1985 when a 2,200 lb ‘Tall Boy’ bomb was found close to the ground.

    As a mate of mine said at the time ” Pity really, it was our only real chance of going up this season. ”

    My mother had moved from Clare to Sheffield just before the war and was there to experience the ‘excitement’.

    Memorials are good in that these things shouldn’t be forgotten, but it would be even better if some reconciliation was included.

    The victims of war include thousands of innocents who had little choice in the matter.

    Twinning a memorial with one in a city in Germany or Austria would be a gesture in acknowledgement of shared suffering.

    Belfast should have a memorial to that tragedy which was suffered by all it’s inhabitants at the time. No discrimination took place and those who died and were injured were simply Belfast people.

    Incidentally, what do you call natives of Belfast?

    Most cities have a name for their inhabitants, Belfasts doesn’t spring to mind.

  • Thomas Barber

    Talking about Cavehill MU I had an old aunt who passed away about two years back she had lived and worked in America most of her life and came back here to retire I remember writing to her once and her address was Pennsylvania avenue Washington DC she was a very intelligent woman and she never married. When she died I went to her house in Glengormely and was amazed to see pictures of her with numerous American presidents and even more amazed when the parish priest at St Bernards explained to everyone present that he wanted to tell the unknown story of this amazing woman from Belfast who at 16 left Belfast for London where she educated herself and ended up working for NAAFI, from there she went to the British war office and was posted to Berlin at the end of the war, then South Africa and eventually ending up in the Whitehouse where she worked as a private sectretary under I dont know how many Presidents until she retired. I wish I had of known her story before she died I would have tortued her for some scandal but im sure the parish priest knows a lot more she was very religious and often had long talks with him.

  • Mac an Aistrigh

    Just recently heard it suggested that the German bombing of Dublin was a warning to Eire to back off, following fire fighting assistance to Belfast. I had always thought these bombs were dropped accidentally due to navigational errors etc.

    Quick check of Wikipedia suggests some bombs did fall on the South prior to the Belfast blitz; but does anyone have any idea whether there were any deliberate attacks?

  • MalikHills

    Again the Stormont government gets the blame despite the fact that it was not primarily in a position to do much about defence of the city as that was a matter for the government in Westminster who deployed anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights, the RAF and radar.

    The only forces that the Stormont government had at its disposal was the RUC and the B Specials, I am not entirely convinced that those fine bodies of men would have had much effect against the Luftwaffe. Maybe they could have shot the bombers down with their Lee-Enfield rifles and Webley revolvers but first and foremost the defence against bombers is usually fighters and ack-ack guns and they were in the hands of the RAF and British Army, not Stormont.

    As regards shelters etc I don’t think the authorities in Belfast were caught any less flat-footed than those in London, Liverpool, Coventry, Clydebank, Portsmouth or any of the other half a hundred British cities when they were first hit by the Blitzkrieg in late 1940 or early 1941.

  • MalikHills

    Actually it was Fisk’s In Time of War that convinced me that I must always take what he writes with a substantial pinch of salt, if I take a line through what he writes about a place I know about, Northern Ireland, then I can judge him when he writes about somewhere like Israel and Palestine.

    In Fisk’s book all the Unionist/British figures are portrayed as bigoted, blinkered, unimaginative, blustering, incompetent, cowardly, lazy and deceitful cartoon characters, whilst all the Irish figures cited are of course, insightful, brave, shrewd, nuanced and generally good blokes.

    In no situation is everyone always right while the other side is so obviously always wrong, so if Fisk cannot write Irish history dispassionately and accurately without letting his own prejudices shine through, how can we rely on him to do so when he writes about Middle Eastern politics and history?

  • ted hagan

    Well, indeed, the unionist leadership of the time was a fine, upstanding noble body of men who did all within their power to protect its citizens and who did their capital city proud.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Do you have a theory as to why Robert Fisk took that particular point of view?

    After all, he is an Englishman, an Anglican and the son of a WW! veteran.

    He holds more British and international journalism awards than any other foreign correspondent. He has also been voted British international journalist of the year on seven occasions.

    He is also an author with a number of highly regarded books to his name.

    So why, in your opinion, would an intelligent well educated Englishman with no apparent axe to grind take the view that the Unionists and British figures involved with the situation in Northern Ireland tended to be unimaginative bigots?

    And what evidence do you have of those peoples imaginative liberal evenhandedness to prove that he was incorrect in adopting such a view?

    Or is it simply that he disagrees with your viewpoint, so he must be wrong?

  • Cosmo

    Memorial yes – but please make it green – a Stand of trees or something of Nature, in the City.

  • ted hagan

    Surprised to hear about the TV crews during the blitz.

  • Gopher

    I would doubt very much there were any deliberate attacks on the South as Irish Neutrality was strategically important to the German Maritime war. Hitler sacrificed whole army groups in Tunisia and Courland to keep the UBoat threat current, I doubt very much he would have “tickled” the South or risked giving Britain a casus belli to occupy her and extend their coverage in the Atlantic or Biscay. In 1945 in daylight with the most modern navigation aids available a Bomber group of the USAF set out to bomb Dresden and bombed Prague by mistake. In 1940/41 with no night flying training the Luftwaffe was asked to bomb Britain into submission before Barbarossa, operational losses far exceeded those of combat. Logic suggests any bombing of the Republic was accidental especially when the Luftwaffe were operating against the clock given the upcoming attack on Russia.

  • Gopher

    The story is based around what a schoolboy is alleged to have heard on the radio from Lord Haw Haw linking the cattle trade to Britain to a couple of bombs falling on Dundalk. It is pretty weak. The Luftwaffe also bombed a farm at the Six Road Ends in North Down disrupting the supply of eggs to my Grandfathers shop for about two days. All it sheds light on is the author discounts the bloody obvious to write drivel but if you believe the Luftwaffe had nothing better to do than bomb Dundalk then knock yourself out with it.

  • MalikHills

    Fisk is well liked by those who support his very obviously politically slanted viewpoint.

    He has long had an axe to grind when it comes to Israel and Northern Ireland.

    Fair enough, but that should always be borne in mind when reading his stuff, very much so with regard to his journalism and especially so when it comes to his history.

    It is not simply his take on the Unionist government in his Time of War book, it’s his contemptuous portrayal of the entire Unionist community in Northern Ireland. By selective use of quotations he dismisses the Northern Ireland people, ordinary people, as shirkers, lazy, cowardly, bigoted etc and generally as people without merit.

    The people of the South on the other hand, not simply the politicians, are of course noble, poetic, brave, imaginative etc. These are caricatures, no people are all universally bad nor universally good.

    Even individuals are not black and white, was Churchill a complete and utter pig-headed buffoon compared to the clever, reflective De Valera? Come now, both men had faults and both men had virtues, it is bad history to portray them in such simplistic terms.

    As to why Fisk would write the way he does you seem to slip into the weird idea that all English people of a certain background must ipso facto think exactly the same way, like some sort of Stepford clones, that is absurd. Fisk is a passionately political writer with an absolutely clear political position with regard to Israel and to a lesser extent the state of Northern Ireland.

    That’s fine, he is entitled to his opinion but for heaven’s sake let’s not pretend he is an objective, neutral, balanced observer with no political agenda of his own that he wants to progress.

    Having a father who served in WWI or being an Anglican does not automatically absolve one of all political biases and automatically imbue one with Solomon-like objectivity you know.

  • MalikHills

    What relevance are the B Specials and their beating up TV crews (when did this happen by the way?) to the objectivity or otherwise of a particular history book relating to WWII?

  • Anglo-Irish

    Yes I know, I also know that as you say people are not black and white, there tend to be shades of grey.

    On the other hand, if someone starts out from a neutral position, whereby their background isn’t one that would mean that they were raised in a ‘themmuns’ and ‘usunns’ biased situation, it then means that they presumably reached their conclusions by means of looking at the evidence.

    Perhaps Fisk took into consideration the manner in which Unionists handled the authority which they had been presented with by means of the manufactured majority they had inherited?

    Maybe he also had a view on how they went about increasing that advantage by further internal gerrymandering within Northern Ireland?

    Abolishing Proportional Representation as a voting system because it gave too much of a democratic and fair view of peoples wishes may not have impressed him.

    It may have been that he thought discrimination in jobs and housing were unfair.

    Perhaps he was aware of the reaction of Belfast City Council to the awarding of the VC to James Magennis during WW2?


    As for Solomon like objectivity I would imagine that it is a lot easier to obtain if you don’t come from a background which is entirely one sided and cannot see the mote in their own eye whilst eager to point to those in someone elses.

    Robert Fisk came to the conclusion that he did without – as far as I’m aware – having any reason other than examining the facts as they were.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Most Englishmen that I know – and I know a lot, seeing as I live in England and am 50% English – are not particularly well informed about Irish history.

    ” Load of mad Paddy’s ” tends to be the general consensus.

    However, just about every Englishman that I have discussed the history with who has known the details has accepted that the Irish have every cause to feel aggrieved.

    In fact, there tends to be a certain amount of embarrassment as to how it all came to be allowed and indeed actioned by the British authorities.

    Facts, when viewed objectively, have that effect upon the sensible.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Not so sure about that. I’m a firm believer in facts, and accepting them whether or not they agree with what you would wish the case to be.

    As a great man once said ” Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own fact. ”

    The continuous clinging on to myths which support a biased view does not help in reconciliation.

    As an example, the timeline of the latest Troubles has been linked to on numerous occasions on this forum.

    The facts are indisputable, and show clearly which party started the violence.

    Despite which some people argue the case, usually by either attempting – against all evidence – to make out that there was a serious threat from the other side or alternatively by trying to convince everyone that the Troubles didn’t start until three years after the reality.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Time will be the thing that finally brings some perspective and acceptance.

    Whilst I may wish people would look at the facts and accept them in a dispassionate way I fully accept that it is too much to expect from those who lived through the Troubles and were personally effected.

    There is a program about to start on Sky 501 at 9 pm in which NI people born after the GFA are being given the opportunity to explain their viewpoint to local politicians.

    Won’t be able to watch it myself but will be interested to hear what others think afterward.

  • Brendan Heading

    The government failed to organise a proper evacuation and failed to build adequate air raid shelters.

    It was the Unionist MP Tommy Henderson who said it best : “people are saying the Government is no good”.

  • Gopher

    You don’t bomb farms at the Six Road Ends on purpose. Fisk has to sell books so he needs conspiracies, an emotional Churchill and if your book is about Irish neutrality the Dundalk cattle trade becomes the crucible of a World War and that Britain irrationally “obsessed” about Ireland. Obviously the book buying Americas are not mentioned nor the access Irish citizens had to radio transmitters. Don’t worry about the most complex military operation up to that date “sure it will be fine lads” Have they put up a statue down south yet to the Irish Army deserter who was one of the first men to land on DDay? Hard to take Mr Fisk seriously on the basis of that piece as I said if anyone wants to believe it be my guest.

  • Gopher

    Well Hitler did win Time magazine “Man of the year award” so forgive me if I’m underwhelmed by press awards. I think the only time Belfast burned was when as stated in this thread the Germans made it so. Nothern Ireland’s borders are accepted by treaty by every party in the British Isles with a mandate, so I think Mr Fisk is howling at the moon. As for the Israeli situation unfortunately I’m no expert so I can’t comment on Mr Fisks views for or against but after that comedic piece I don’t think I would be impressed, I would probably find another source to educate myself. With my limited understanding I am therefore open to any rational solution. As for Jimmy Carter I believe it was with some embarrassment the US Navy had to name a ship after him every other President gets the honour of an aircraft carrier poor Jimmy got a Submarine and the word was he was lucky to get that.

  • MalikHills

    London also failed to provide adequate shelters for their citizens such that thousands were forced to sleep in the Underground, political activists led marches from the East End demanding shelter in the hotels of the West End. In many places basic facilities collapsed and collapsed and citizens were left bereft and desperately unprotected.

    Similar scenes of chaos were repeated all across the UK as might be expected would be the result of aerial bombardment. Belfast was in no way unique.

    If anything Belfast was particularly vulnerable as the government in Westminster did not regard it as a likely target and provided fewer facilities than “front-line” targets received.

    The Stormont government can be rightly blamed for many things but the Blitz and the necessary measures to cope with it lay slap dab in London’s lap.

  • MalikHills

    So if Robert Fisk implies, using nothing more than anecdotal tales, without any substantive sources to back them up, that the Belfast fire brigade were guilty of cowardice during the night of the blitz while the Dublin fire brigade hurtled proudly and heroically into the gap, we must accept that generalised implication because Fisk’s dad fought in WWI and he himself is a member of the Anglican communion and therefore must be a sound chap who would never possibly manipulate evidence to produce a narrative that suits his own agenda?

    And because the Unionist government abolished PR in the 1920s then that in itself is conclusive evidence that the people of Northern Ireland, the people mark you not the government, were workshy, lazy, incompetent, cowardly whingers during WWII, while the people of the South were all a fine upstanding lot. It’s a bit of a stretch, no?

    Conor Cruise O’Brien had absolutely no familial connection with Israel and yet he came to precisely the opposite conclusion on that state than did Fisk, so, if the basis of judgment in a political dispute is what do outside writers think, how is one to judge which is correct on Israel, Fisk or Cruise O’Brien? Or do we just accept that neither is “objective” or “neutral” and we must take both men’s narratives as being politically biased?

    Like I say, Fisk is a fine writer but an objective, dispassionate observer he most certainly is not (and in fairness would never claim to be), so one must always treat his “facts” with caution.

  • Anglo-Irish

    Pointing out that someone may be influenced by their personal background is perfectly legitimate when discussing their expressed views.

    Likewise, it is also perfectly acceptable to point out that someone has no axe to grind, at least as far as personal involvement is concerned.

    That does not mean that their opinions have to be taken as gospel or can’t be challenged.

    It does however beg the question, if they don’t come from a background where they may have learned bias at their mothers knee how did they come by the views that they hold?

    I find it hard to believe that Fisk would have used the words cowardly to describe Belfast firemen.

    There was general condemnation of the unpreparedness of the NI authorities and it resulted in resignations and threats of further resignations in protest.


    My point as to how Fisk may have come to the conclusion that NI was a bad idea stands.

    The behaviour of those in positions of authority in NI from the inception of partition up until the GFA was unacceptable and a major reason for the Troubles.

  • Gopher

    I believe the Navy first tried for a landing ship. I have only read the article you posted and it’s easy to deconstruct so I hope his middle eastern stuff is better. Forgive me for not offering an opinion on the Israel and all that as I have stated I don’t have the background knowledge and I would be committing the sins of Mr Fisk in your WWII article if I espoused a position and tried to defend it from a position of ignorance..

  • Gopher

    The Belfast Blitz ends up with Jimmy Carter, life is strange indeed. Perhaps Jimmy Carter is seen by the Americans unjustly or not as the American Chamberlain and the Iranian Hostage saga with the bungled rescue attempt as the nadir of the downward spiral of American prestige post Vietnam.. Just as Chamberlain raising income tax to pay for rearmament and crucially supporting Churchill against Halifax on the issue of peace feelers whilst terminally ill, Camp David Accords appear to have no resonance with the wider American public, it’s burning wrecks of Helicopters in the desert just like a “scrap of paper” promising peace in our time becomes your legacy. Political life can be cruel. I feel we have moved too far from the OP now.

  • Gopher

    Nope like Churchill I see it as civilisations “finest hour” when men and women risked all to stand up to tyranny that threatened the whole world.

  • Gopher

    I think you will find Nazi tyranny was of a more immediate and final kind driven by pseudo scientific method than anything you care to compare it with real or imagined. Nope It needed men and women to make make their stand in 1940 to save the world “Never in the field of human conflict” and all that.