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…