On Easter Tuesday, a crowd had gathered to watch a football match at Windsor Park in South Belfast. Those sports fans unaware that their city was about to endure what became known as The Belfast Blitz.
Overhead in the cool April air, a Junkers JU-88 plane circled the city centre. That is an ominous enough sight on its own. That night over 200 bombers left bases in northern France and the Netherlands. The Luftwaffe were bound for Belfast. Heinkel HE-111, Junkers JU-88 and Dornier aircraft made up the squadrons that would bring death and destruction.
Bombs rained down on the Northern Irish capital through the night of the 15th and early morning of 16th April 1941. The first air-raid sirens wailed at 2245hrs. The all-clear was not given until 0500hrs the following morning.
A tactical assault from the Luftwaffe
A primary target of this raid was the Belfast Waterworks. They had already suffered damage during a bombing raid the previous week. For many years, Belfast assumed the Germans mistook the waterworks for the docks. This was a deliberate attack, though. As the city burned under thousands of incendiary devices, the damaged waterworks could not produce the required pressure to battle the flames.
The people of Belfast take shelter
As the incendiaries, bombs and mines fell, panic spread throughout the city. In some cases, people fled towards air-raid shelters. They were few and many of them poorly constructed. Some, like on Hallidays Road, were not capable of withstanding a direct hit. There were no survivors from this particular shelter.
Others took shelter in their own homes. They hid under tables or beneath the stairs. Survivors were pulled from the rubble on occasion, lucky their homes escaped a direct hit or were not ravaged by fire.
In the New Lodge area of North Belfast, residents made a dash for the mills. The sturdy looking buildings appeared to give great shelter against the Nazi bombs. This was not always the case, though. Thirty-five were killed under a collapsing wall at the York Street Mill. The falling wall demolished other buildings on Sussex Street and Vere Street.
In Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road, three-hundred souls took shelter, including many of Protestant backgrounds. They huddled in the underground crypt, singing hymns and reciting prayers as the bombs fell.
A city in ruins
North, West and East Belfast and large sections of the city centre were almost decimated by the Easter raid.
In the north of the city, Antrim Road, Atlantic Avenue, Ballynure Street, Cliftonville Road, Hallidays Road, Hillman Street, Hughenden Avenue, Oldpark Road, Percy Street, Shandarragh Park, Sunningdale Park, Walton Street, Whitewell Road, York Crescent, York Park and York Street bore the brunt of the damage.
Destruction in the east was brought to Newcastle Street, Ravenscroft Avenue, Thorndyke Street and Westbourne Street.
Belfast’s city centre saw devastation to Anne Street, Bridge Street, Callendar Street, Castle Street, Chichester Street, Donegall Street, East Bridge Street, Gloucester Street, High Street, North Street, Rosemary Street, Tomb Street, Victoria Street, Waring Street
The disappearing streets of Belfast
You won’t find places like Annadale Street, Burke Street, Carlisle Street, Eglington Street, Southport Street on a modern map of Belfast. Some were never rebuilt after the blitz while others were demolished in slum clearances during the 1980s.
The Banqueting Hall at City Hall, the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children, Ballymaccarett Library, Strand Public Elementary School, York Road LMS Railway Station, The Midland Hotel and the Salisbury Avenue Tram Depot were all damaged.
As a city Belfast contains many churches of different denominations. Those damaged or destroyed included Macrory Memorial Presbyterian, Duncairn Methodist, Castleton Presbyterian, St Silas’s, St James’s Antrim Road, Newington Presbyterian, Crumlin Road Presbyterian, Holy Trinity on Clifton Street, Clifton Street Presbyterian, York Street Presbyterian, York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian, Newtownards Road Methodist and Rosemary Street Presbyterian which was never rebuilt.
Voices of the Belfast Blitz
From 0145hrs, all telephone lines had been out of action in Belfast. A railway telegraph link still operated between Belfast and Dublin. At 0400hrs, with the city in flames, MacDermott, Minister of Public Security contacted Agriculture Minister Basil Brooke. He request was for permission to seek help from de Valera’s Irish Government. Permission was granted and at 0435hrs a telegram was sent to the Irish Taoiseach.
We went right down into the heart of the area, Annadale Street, Burke Street, Berlin Street. In that area we met death everywhere. Very few casualties – this was a terrible thing. That night, the dead in some areas outnumbered casualties. A terrible thing to see. We moved down into Annadale Street. There the devastation was great. One street was completely wiped out. No survivors in Burke Street.
Jimmy Doherty – ARP, North Belfast, 1941
Death should be dignified, peaceful; Hitler had made even death grotesque. I felt outraged, I should have felt sympathy, grief, but instead feelings of revulsion and disgust assailed me.
Emma Duffin – Nurse, Belfast, 1941
A lack of hospital facilities meant that even at 1400hrs the following day traffic backed up outside the Mater Hospital. Ambulances queued to admit casualties hours after their injuries. Australian Professor Theodore Thompson Flynn, father of the actor Errol Flynn, was a senior physician who took on the role of ‘Head of Casualty Service’ in the wake of the blitz. He spoke of:
casualties due to shock, blast and secondary missiles, such as glass, stones, pieces of piping, etc.
Theodore Thompson Flynn – Head of Casualty Services, Belfast, 1941
Mortuaries across the city overwhelmed
The city mortuaries were completely overwhelmed. They only had emergency plans to deal with 200 bodies. Public baths on the Falls Road and at Peter’s Hill became temporary morgues along with St George’s Market.
Reports from the time talk of over a hundred and fifty bodies lying in the public baths for up to three days. After this time, they were laid to rest in mass graves. More than a hundred and twenty people remained unidentified.
Another two hundred and fifty-five corpses were laid out in St George’s Market. From there, they were transported to the mass graves in Milltown and the City Cemetery.
But 2 of the raids were fearful. You remember Bridge Street. There is not a shop left in it, the bottom of North Street, part of High Street, a big part of York Street, I could not name all, and about 20 churches. They have all damaged buildings knocked down and cleared away. So that place is all cleaned up and nothing to see, only bare places.
Letter from Belfast to Massachusetts – 17th November 1942
The city of Belfast reacts
In the twenty-four hours after the Easter raid, 220,000 people fled the city. Most headed to the countryside, many of them arriving in Fermanagh with only the clothes they had on their backs.
For many, the destination was irrelevant and every means of transport available was made use of. Trains and buses filled to capacity streamed from the smoking ruins of Belfast. Military lorries came into use in the transport of women and children to safety.
Those with no way to get away fled to the hills. In a practice known as “sheughing”, they slept in ditches, the open fields or cowered in barns and sheds. Officially 10,000 people crossed the border to the south. 500 of them received medical care from the Irish Red Cross in Dublin.
Thousands of Belfast’s residents departed for the nearby towns of Newtownards, Bangor, Larne, Carrickfergus, Lisburn and Antrim. They sought refuge with friends or family. Others relied on the kindness of strangers. The small town of Dromara saw its population swell from 500 to over 2,500.
Evacuation is taking on panic proportions. Roads out of town are still one stream of cars, with mattresses and bedding tied on top. Everything on wheels is being pressed into service. People are leaving from all parts of town and not only from the bombed areas. Where they are going, what they will find to eat when they get there, nobody knows.
Moya Woodside – Diarist, Belfast, April 1941.
The Irish Reaction to the Easter Raid
The press in the Republic of Ireland reported of an Ireland brought together by a “national blow”. They spoke of the island’s shared traditions and common home.
By 0600hrs, the Irish government had dispatched 13 fire engines from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dun Laoghaire and Dublin. Around 70 firemen onboard were to assist their struggling colleagues in Belfast. The Irish firemen remained for three days tackling the blazes and devastation across the city. Taoiseach Éamon de Valera formally protested to Berlin.
The fire crews from the South took up their hoses and ladders and headed for home around 1800hrs on 19th April 1941. They were overworked, exhausted and famished. Two crews received refreshments in Banbridge and others were taken care of by the Ancient order of Hibernians in Newry.
Fireman Tom Coleman, attended a reception at Hillsborough Castle on the fiftieth anniversary of the end of the war. There he met HRH Prince Charles and received official recognition for the solidarity of all the emergency responders from the Republic.
The German Reaction to the Easter Raid
News of the Belfast raid was celebrated in Germany. The Luftwaffe claimed the city as a worthy target as Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol or Glasgow.
After the war instructions from Joseph Goebbels were found ordering Belfast not to be mentioned after the blitz. There was a concern that further attacks could bring Ireland from neutrality and encourage the United States to enter the war.
Reminders of the Belfast Blitz
The mass graves at Milltown Cemetery and Belfast’s City Cemetery are the most notable reminders of the Blitz. Large areas of wasteland where houses and buildings once stood still remain scattered around the city. In some cases entire streets and neighbourhoods were wiped from the map. Many buildings in the city centre and Cathedral Quarter still bear the battle scars from those nights in April and May 1941.
In total over 900 people died in Belfast that night. A further 1,500 were seriously injured. 55,000 homes were damaged with 100,000 people left homeless. Stray bombers attacked Londonderry killing 15 and another veered off course, dropping bombs on Bangor killing a further five people. No other city in Ireland, north or south, suffered as badly as Belfast. The memory of Easter 1941 lives on still.