Another Blitz — 15 April 1941

Hillman Street, Belfast on April 16 1941

The Bombing of Belfast

Just a bit of history from across the water:

On 15 April 1941 22:40–05:00, the Belfast Blitz began, with bombers returning twice. 200 Heinkel, Junkers and Dornier bombers flew from occupied France and the Netherlands and attacked infrastructure, public buildings and housing. There was no response for the fire from AA batteries for fear of damaging RAF aircraft that were never sent.

Belfast was targeted mainly to damage and destroy its shipyards and arsenals, which had created more than 150 Royal Navy ships, as well as refitting, converting and repairing many more ships for both the Royal and Merchant Navies. Food and supplies were also often transferred using this shipping across the Irish Sea to England.

In the first night, 900 people were killed and 1,500 injured. 55,000 houses were damaged leaving 100,000 without homes. It was the highest death toll of any single bombing campaign outside of London in the Blitz. People crowded into air raid shelters, under their stairs or in basements or made for relative safety of the countryside.

Damage wrought by successive bombing between April and May 1941

Bryce Miller remembers the scene inside one shelter where opposing groups of young Protestants and Catholics took it in turn singing songs like The Sash and The Soldier’s Song as the bombs rained down. But he said there was a deadly silence as the blasts got closer and after one wave the strains of Nearer My God To Thee could be heard coming from the entire crowd.

A second major attack launched on Sunday 4/5 May where incendiary and high explosive bombs were dropped killing 150. The final death toll was close to 1,200 when the bombing ceased.

Help from the South

The help provided by Dublin and the firefighters from the Irish Free State should be mentioned:

On the night of the first raid on April 15, a request was sent at 04:35 to the Taoiseach in Dublin for aid and by 6am, 71 firemen with 13 tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. In each station volunteers were asked for, as it was beyond their normal duties. In every instance, all stepped forward.

They remained for three days, with two of the crews staying in Banbridge; others were entertained in the Ancient Order of Hibernians hall in Newry, until they were sent back by the Northern Ireland government. By that point, 250 firemen from Glasgow’s Clydeside, had arrived and most of the major fires were under control, with firemen from Clydeside and other British cities were arriving.

On the night of the 4/5 May with the incendiary attack, again the Irish emergency services crossed the border, this time without waiting for an invitation.

A Belfast Street after the Blitz

In 1995 on the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War an invitation was received by the Dublin Fire Brigade for any survivors of that time to attend a function at Hillsborough Castle and meet Prince Charles. Only four were known still to be alive; one, Tom Coleman, attended to receive recognition for his colleagues’ solidarity at such a critical time.

The Importance of Irish Support

The importance of this voluntary aid cannot be overstated. Firstly, the defence of Belfast was woefully under prepared with only four air raid shelters and Belfast itself was described as “the most undefended city in the United Kingdom”. The British government in Belfast in advance of the bombing showed a clear lack of preparedness by not increasing the defence of the city and its shipyards even with the increased production coming under German scrutiny. There were far too few firemen to cope with the blaze and those that were present often did not have any relevant training on how to use their fire extinguishers. The Irish aid helped to reduce the damage done by fires that otherwise would have remained out of control until the Scots arrived from Glasgow three days later.

Secondly, Taoiseach Éamon de Valera’s speech in opposition to the attacks persuaded Hitler that attacking Northern Ireland much further could sway the Irish in Ireland and the strong Irish bloc in the US to join the war on the side of the Allies. While that didn’t turn into the catalyst he feared, the US did join the war less than 9 months later.

“In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people — we are one and the same people — and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly …”

— Taoiseach de Valera’s “they are our people” speech, made in Castlebar, County Mayo, on Sunday 20 April 1941 (Quoted in the Dundalk Democrat dated Saturday 26 April 1941)

With an often Anglo-centric, and more specifically London-centric view often taken by the British media, events like these are usually not given the airtime they deserve. The time taken by Belfast to recover and the help provided by the Irish is definitely worthy of being aired and I recommend reading further into it.


Originally published on 15 April 2015 at www.dcxiii.com.

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