Belfast Blitz



Extracts from an article on The Belfast Blitz, 1941. By Jonathan Bardon.

Lecturer of History, Queens University, Belfast.


As war approached Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland since is inception in 1921, claimed; ‘Ulster is ready when we get the word and always will be.’  On Monday 4th September 1939, Tommy Henderson, the Independent MP for the Shankill, asked the prime minister if the government realized ‘that these fast bombers can come to Northern Ireland in two and three quarter hours’. Craigavon evaded the question and replied in general terms; ‘We here today are in a state of war and we are prepared with the rest of the United Kingdom and empire to face all the responsibilities that imposes on the Ulster people. There is no slacking in our loyalty.’ Lady Londonderry, who had corresponded with Hitler and entertained foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at Mountstewart, wrote to her husband in London: ‘All sorts of rot going on here. Air raid warnings and black-outs! As if anyone cared or wished to bomb Belfast’.

          There is ample evidence that the political leaders lacked the will, energy and capacity to cope with a major crisis when it came. ‘He is the one politician who can win an election without leaving his fireside’, the Daily Express had observed of Craigavon just before his 1938 election victory. Sir Wilfred Spender, the cabinet secretary’ thought he 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. Bates’ Parliamentary Secretary, Edmond Warnock, for all his righteous indignation later, showed little energy in preparing people for civil defense.

          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 only member of the government recognizing the nature of the crisis was Sir Basil Brooke, the Minister of Agriculture, who threw himself into the task of making Northern Ireland a major supplier of food to Britain in her time of danger.

          By the beginning of 1941 there were only four public air-raid shelters made of sandbags round the City Hall, together with underground toilets at Shaftsbury Square and Donegal Square North. Belfast Corporation was so lacking in any real sense of urgency that vital pipe fittings for fire-fighting appliances and building materials for shelters were not available when Hitler turned his forces westward in 1940. The city had no fighter squadrons, no balloon barrage and only 21 anti-aircraft guns when the war began, and only around 2,000 civil defense volunteers had been trained.

          Craigavon had a habit of beginning many of his speeches with the words ‘We, here in Ulster’, but he was only speaking for two-thirds of the population of Northern Ireland. About a quarter of Belfast’s citizens were Catholics who had been given few incentives to put themselves out on behalf of the war effort.

          In the spring of 1940 the vortex of total war suddenly swung westwards. Then, as the shattered remains of the British army gathered on the Dunkirk beaches, Churchill is said to have remarked gloomily in his map room that the only properly armed and disciplined force left in the United Kingdom was the Ulster Special Constabulary. As Britain’s plight became ever more desperate Churchill sought drastic political solutions including an offer of a declaration in favour of the reunification of Ireland in return for British use of the Treaty ports. Craigavon fired off a series of apoplectic cipher telegrams before deValera rejected the offer on 7th July 1940. Eire’s neutrality and the German occupation of France forced Britain to divert its convoys around the headlands of Co. Donegal and into the North Channel. Northern Ireland now had a crucial role to play as U-boats continued to wreak havoc on merchant shipping in the western approaches.

          ‘I have heard speeches about Ulster pulling her weight but they have never carried conviction,’ Warnock said, announcing his resignation from the Northern Ireland government in May 1940. A fortnight later, Lt. Col. Alexander Gordon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, also resigned, explaining to the Commons that the government was ‘quite unfitted to sustain the people in the ordeal we have to face.’ The Labour MP, Jack Beattie, described the prime minister as having reached his ‘doting stage’. The cabinet secretary was understandably irritated that his valuable time was being used to telephone London to order marmalade from Fortnum & Mason for Lady Craigavon or to run out to buy tobacco and cigarettes. In September, Warnock introduced a vote of censure, calling for a complete change in the government’s composition. Craigavon’s simple response to all demands to revamp his government was; ‘My answer is that I am not going to do it.’  On Sunday 24th November 1940, just after listening to the six o’clock news on the wireless, Craigavon died in his armchair. He was succeeded by John Andrews, who was no more capable of dealing with the situation than his predecessor.

          On a fine Saturday afternoon, 30th November 1940, a single, unobserved German plane flew high across the Ards Peninsula towards Belfast. The crew brought back photographs of suitable targets, the entire city of Belfast, the Germans discovered, was defended by only seven anti-aircraft batteries, it did not possess a single searchlight. On the night of 7th/ 8th April 1941 in bright moonlight a small squadron of German bombers, led by a pathfinder Heinkel 111 from Kampfgruppe 26, raided Belfast, and completely destroyed the four-and-a half-acre Harland and Wolff fuselage factory, reduced a major timber yard to ashes, and delivering damaging blows to the docks. The attack was a small one, but the people of Northern Ireland now knew they were vulnerable after all.

          On the evening of Easter Tuesday, 15th April 1941 a large group of German bombers returned to Belfast. Casting intense light, hundreds of flares drifted down, then incendiaries, high explosive bombs and parachute mines rained on the city. It was not the industrial heartland but the congested housing north of the city centre that received the full force of the attack. The result was a fearful carnage in the New Lodge, the Lower Shankill and the Antrim Road. Suspended from green artificial parachutes, 76 landmines slowly drifted down. During the raid the popular singer Delia Murphy was performing in the Ulster Hall, she kept performing right through the raid.

          At 1-45 a.m. a bomb fell at the corner of Oxford Street and East Bridge Street, wrecking the city’s central telephone exchange. All contact with Britain and the anti-aircraft operations room was cut off. For another two hours the Luftwaffe attacked Belfast completely unopposed. Altogether 203 metric tons of bombs and 800 firebomb canisters were dropped on the city. After the raid a Luftwaffe pilot gave this description on German Radio.


  “We were in exceptional good humour knowing that we were going for a new target, one of England’s last hiding places. Wherever Churchill is hiding his war material we will go…Belfast is as worthy a target as Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol or Glasgow.”


          Around 140 fires now raged in Belfast and several of these spread into conflagrations. Just as the Auxiliary Fire Service arrived to fight the inferno sweeping across the Antrim Road, the water pressure fell away- the mains had been cracked in 20 places. The Ministry of Public Security requested help from civil defense regions throughout Northern Ireland and the War Office responded promptly to a call for aid, sending a total of 42 pumps and 400 firemen from Glasgow, Liverpool and Preston.

          From his house near Stormont, MacDermott watched the flames enveloping the city. At 4.15 a.m. he crawled under his desk and telephoned Brooke who was staying nearby. The line was still working, MacDermott asked permission to request fire engines from Eire. ‘I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency’, Brooke noted in his diary. At 4.35 a.m. a telegram was sent by railway telegraph, because the telephone lines to Dublin had been cut. deValera agreed without hesitation to send help. Altogether 70 men and 13 fire engines from Dun Laoghaire, Dublin, Drogheda and Dundalk sped northwards. ‘I had to sit on my hands to keep them from getting numb,’ one volunteer remembered; ‘There were no landmarks on the way up; we reached our destination by following the telephone lines.’

          As they approached the city outskirts the southern fireman saw smoke and flames rising hundreds of feet into the air. Horrified at the carnage, John Smith, Belfast’s chief fire officer, was found beneath a table in Chichester Street fire station, weeping and refusing to come out. There was little the firemen could do to fight the flames – hoses were cut by falling buildings; fittings were often the incorrect diameter, and the water pressure had fallen too far. There were numerous individual acts of heroism but both Spender and MacDermott felt that firemen and civil defense workers had performed badly. An American; seconded to the Short and Harland factory by the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation; was not impressed by his fellow workers; in a letter to his parents in California he wrote.

          “You have heard how tough the Irish are-well all I can say is that the tough Irish must come from the South of Ireland because the boys up in Northern Ireland are a bunch of chicken shit yellow bastards – 90% of them left everything and ran like hell. Short and Harland’s the Aircraft factory that builds Sterling here had 300 Volunteer fire fighters in the plant, after the raid they were lucky to get 90 of them”.


          Over 900 people were killed, Emma Duffin a nurse who was on duty recorded in her diary:


No attendant nurse had soothed the last moments of these victim’s, no gently reverent hand had closed their eyes or crossed their hands. With tangled hair, staring eyes, contorted limbs, their grey-green faces covered with dust, they lay bundled into coffins, half-shrouded in rugs or blankets or on an occasional sheet, still wearing their dirty, torn, twisted garments.


After this raid, thousands of refugees fled to the rural areas, some 6,000 making their way to Dublin. The military authorities were deeply unimpressed by the unco-ordinated rescue work and troops were disgusted by wide spread looting and the refusal of young men sightseeing to lend a hand. At 9.45p.m. on Sunday 4th May 1941 the first squadron of a total force of 204 German bombers took off from Northern France and about an hour after midnight a further raid took place. This time much of the damage was inflicted on the city centre. That night almost 300 people, many from the Shankill, took refuge in Clonard Monastery in the Falls Road.

          The crypt under the sanctuary, also the cellar under the working sacristy, has been fitted out and is opened to the people, women and children only, as an air-raid shelter. This act of ours is very much appreciated by all, Protestants included. Prayers are said and hymns sung by the occupants during the bombing. By the end of May some 220,000 people had left the city going to the rural towns and farm houses. And what was the government doing? The ministers at a cabinet meeting only a short time was given to the air attack; much more time was given to an offer from the Eire Electricity Board to supply electricity to Northern Ireland. The decision on this was no, because of ‘political difficulties of making any such arrangement’.

          During the first heavy raid the military worked with much enthusiasm and devotion to duty. At the end of the second heavy raid . . it was apparent that the military had not the same zest in the work. I heard several complaints of soldiers at work being watched by large crowds of idle but able bodied men. . . the difficulty in getting the Council to develop the civil defense with sufficient promptitude led to the transfer of civil defense functions to a separate body. Tommy Henderson, the flamboyant house painter and independent unionist MP for the Shankill complained bitterly in Stormont at the lack of action taken by the government after the blitz. His fury would have been much more intense had he known how much time the Northern Ireland Government would devote to arranging camouflage for the Stormont Parliament Buildings

 (They were heavily painted all over with bitumen and the approach roads covered with black cinders) and to protecting the bronze statue of Carson in its grounds from possible bomb damage. On three occasions the protection of the statue was discussed as a major item at cabinet meetings. At the first, on 17th June 1941, Andrews said it would cost ’an expenditure of some hundred pounds … to provide protection by sandbags, etc., over the entire monument’. A confused correspondence between ministers and civil servants followed over whether or not a decision had been made. The topic was debated again with enthusiasm on 19th August 1941. The most protracted discussion on the issue took place at the cabinet meeting of 23rd September. This was during a period when tens of thousands of Belfast citizens were still without the protection of air-raid shelters.

Richard Dawson Bates in a memorandum tersely outlined the desperate situation. In what for him must have been the most liberal observation of his career he stated, ‘My officials inform me that various authorities in Eire are, they believe, prepared to co-operate very generously…In the event of an immediate emergency co-operation with these authorities would appear to be the only course available and we should take advantage of it.’  Soon after, Andrews was ousted by Brooke, who came to power as the Americans who had arrived in Northern Ireland to train for the Normandy landings.







Account of the Belfast Blitz {1941} from a history of

 “THE DUBLIN FIRE BRIGADE.” By Tom Geraghty & Trevor Whitehead.


In Belfast for financial rather than security reasons, necessary orders for fire fighting equipment had been cancelled and manpower in the full-time fire service at 230 men left Belfast with fewer resources to deal with a major bombing raid than any other city in the United Kingdom. With roads impassable and one extensive fire extending into the next, buildings collapsing, water-mains smashed and gas escaping from fractured pipes, help was summoned from each of the civil defense regions in Northern Ireland.

          As the night blazed on, and the city faced total destruction, ever more fire pumps and crews were called for. At 4.25 as the bombs still rained down, an urgent telegram was sent to Westminster for assistance for the stricken city. Eventually forty-two pumps with 400 firemen would be dispatched by destroyer from Liverpool and by Admiralty ferry from Glasgow. Sometime after 4a.m. a momentous political decision was made. Brian Barton in his book The Blitz: Belfast in the war Years maintains that the original urgent message was sent by the Belfast Commissioner of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the War Room at Stormont to seek assistance from Dublin.

          With the approval of Sir Basil Brooke the request was telegraphed to P.J. Hernon, the Dublin City manager. The request was relayed to An Taoiseach-Eamon deValera, who said, ‘Go ahead and give every assistance possible’. Within half-an-hour of receiving the message Major Comerford, The Chief Fire Officer was addressing the Dublin firemen gathered from all stations at a meeting in Tara Street station. He told the assembled firemen that Belfast had been heavily bombed, causing death and injury to large numbers of civilians, and that deValera had instructed him to give as much assistance as they possibly could to their unfortunate fellow countrymen. Some of those present remembered the name of Cardinal MacRory being mentioned in the request. The major went on to state that because “they were being asked to perform tasks outside their agreed terms of duty, he was asking for volunteers but he hoped the men would not disgrace the great traditions of the Dublin Fire Service. Practically everyone on duty responded to the Chief Officers request for volunteers.

          Major Comerford then personally rang Dun Laogaire, Drogheda and Dundalk, requesting them “to prepare to send fire fighting appliances to Belfast to assist at fighting fires as a result of an air raid of incendiary and H.E. bombs” and telling the officers in these stations that, “An Taoiseach has given permission for any available appliance to be sent to Belfast”. Some small gear had been removed from the pumps to allow for stowage of extra hose. Two portable pumps loaded with hose had been hitched to two of the motors for the journey to Belfast.

          The firemen clung to their open vehicles thundering at 60 mph through the chilly morning on a journey of the brave into the unknown. The drivers kept their hands warm by sitting on one hand at a time while driving with the other and changing over when the driving hand became frozen, while the crew alternated stuffing a hand inside their jackets while holding on with the other. Apart from the fact that none of the men could comprehend the extent of the destructive mayhem they faced hardly any of them had been to Belfast before. Very little talk took place on this epic journey as each man kept his own council, apprehensive as to what he would encounter. From Killeen Border Post the pumps were escorted by military motorcycles right through to Belfast.

The Dublin firemen arrived in Belfast just before 10am but there was a long delay before they were eventually taken to Chichester fire station. Even there it was hard to find a senior officer to give them instructions on where they would be deployed. Eventually Dublin and other Eire fire crews were assigned to work in various parts of the stricken city. The men were later to describe the conditions they faced on that terrible day as a widespread pall of dense grey smoke locked out the sunshine and they toiled to the sounds of ambulance bells, random explosions of delayed action bombs and the voracious roar of flames devouring all in their path. They listened to the heavy thuds as massive walls collapsed and everywhere there was the stench of smoke and leaking gas and the frantic calls of rescuers as they tried to extricate injured or dead from smoldering mounds of masonry, timber and slates. It was like a city struck by some awful man-made earthquake.

          Among those who toiled that day grew the story of the unfortunate woman dug from the ruins of her house who, hearing the strange accents, inquired if she had been captured by the Germans. No, she was told; they are the Dublin Fire Brigade, to which she cried, “Oh God, I’ve been blown to Dublin”. No proper arrangements were put in place to provide food or rest periods for the Dublin crews. Begrimed, hungry and thirsty, they kept the pumps charged with water relays from rivers as town pressure often dropped to zero. In some areas provisions were provided by grateful civilians, but in the chaos of the day many simply went without.

 Sometime after 6pm the fire crews from Eire began making up their hose and ladders to head for home. As each crew was ready it left the stricken city. By then most of the major fires were under control and the British firemen were arriving. The return journey to the Border from what had been hell was itself something of a nightmare. Apart from the cold then affecting the exhausted bodies of the famished men, the southern fire engines were not equipped with black-out covers for their headlamps and after sunset they had to drive in the dark following the tail lights of a motor cycle dispatch rider. They needed to remain a wake, so there was much talk and singing as they headed through the night for Dublin. Two of the crews received refreshments in Banbridge before they sped on to the Border; others were entertained in the Ancient Order of Hibernians hall in Newry. It had been a long day, one that none of them ever forgot.

          The Irish Times editorial writer was inspired to produce the following on 17th April 1941.

Humanity knows no borders, no politics, no differences of religious belief. Yesterday for once the people of Ireland were united under the shadow of a national blow. Has it taken bursting bombs to remind the people of this little country that they have common tradition, a common genius and a common home? Yesterday the hand of good-fellowship was reached across the Border. Men from the South worked with men from the North in the universal cause of the relief of suffering.

Seventy-one firemen with their fire engines from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Drogheda and Dundalk had travelled into the unknown in spite of the risks, to help their colleagues and the distressed of Belfast. Val Walsh, second officer in the Dublin Fire Brigade, followed his crews to Belfast later in the day to check on their welfare.

          The Northern Whig on 17th April 1941 reported on the role of the fire fighters from the south: “It was confirmed in Dublin this morning that units of fire – fighting and ambulance services from some towns in Eire assisted to put out fires resulting from Northern Ireland’s blitz”. In Castlebar on 19th April 1941 deValera expressed public sympathy with the victims of the Belfast air attack.

          This is the first time I have spoken in public since the disaster in Belfast and I know you will wish me to express on your behalf and on behalf of the Government our sympathy with the people who are suffering there … they are all our people, they are one and the same people, and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows. I want to say that any help we can give them in the present time we will give to them wholeheartedly believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help wholeheartedly.

          Two days later the Irish government minister Frank Aiken justified his government’s position to journalists in Boston and asserted that the people of Belfast ‘are Irish people too’.

On 4th May 1941 a second major air raid took place on Belfast, once again on request all available units from Dublin were dispatched to help. These attending crews were organized to work along side local firemen and were immediately on arrival given food before being directed with escorts to various areas in the city. On 6th May 1941 the Belfast Presbytery thanked Dublin “for its invaluable assistance and generous help in the emergency just passed”. The men who braved that first terrible night were later given five shillings each, said to have come from the Belfast authorities to compensate them for the cost of a meal while on duty in that city. They were told, by Major Comerford that some time in the future they would receive a suitable recognition from the Northern Ireland authorities for the great assistance they provided, but whatever he was referring to never came. However much they might have been subsequently overlooked or ignored by the Belfast establishment the famous journeys led to social contact between the firemen of both cities and as a result an annual football match was played between the two brigades. Belatedly in 1995 on the fiftieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War an invitation was received by the Dublin Fire Brigade addressed to any survivors of those two historic days to attend a function at Hillsborough Castle and meet Prince Charles. Only four of those who were there were still known to be alive at that time, one Tom Coleman, travelled north to receive some recognition for his colleagues’ solidarity at such a critical time.