Belfast Blitz: A city unprepared for war

In 1941, the city of Belfast remained unprepared for the arrival of war to its doorstep. On 7th April 1941, the Luftwaffe arrived and everything changed.

Luftwaffe raids on Britain intensified in 1940 and 1941. London bore the brunt of the attacks. In 1941, many factors contributed towards making Belfast a city unprepared for the attacks that became known as the Belfast Blitz.

Beginning in 1939, Great Britain began preparing for war. The government expected an aerial attack from the German Luftwaffe. They concerned themselves with establishing defences of strategic cities, airfields, and the coast. The Northern Irish government at Stormont believed Belfast was less prone to such a raid.

People thought nothing of asking me to lunch and talking the whole afternoon. Being half an hour late for an appointment did not matter in the slightest, and perhaps the most curious shock of all is seeing men lying about in the morning on the grass outside the City Hall or sleeping with their feet up in the backs of cars.

Tom Harrison, Wartime Observer, Belfast 1941.

Life in Northern Ireland remained unchanged for most in the early years of the war. Food rationing was in place but many of the population had access to farms and fresh produce from fields and gardens. The region seemed far removed from occupied Europe where so many suffered under Nazi oppression.

In the first 2 years of World War Two, the population of Belfast developed an air of apathy. Before April 1941, there had been 22 soundings of the air raid sirens – each one a false alarm. People began to care less about the potential threat and became careless with civil defence, wearing gas masks, and blackout restrictions.

Documents uncovered after the war suggest that Belfast had always been a viable Luftwaffe target. The city’s engineering and shipbuilding contributed towards the war effort. Manufacture of ships, planes, and ammunition would be crucial to helping the Allies to victory. Why then was Belfast city so unprepared for the devastating Belfast Blitz raids?

Issues with Craig's Government

The Stormont Government was inadequately prepared for the kind of major crises that unfold during wartime. James Craig, Lord Craigavon, had been Prime Minister from the founding of the country in 1921. By 1940, he was old and suffering from ill-health. Reports from the time are far from complimentary towards the Prime Minister and his Government.

Lady Londonderry described him as “ga-ga” in a confidential message to Sir Samuel Hoare, Home Secretary at Westminster. British Labour MP Jack Beattie described the Northern Irish Prime Minister as “doting”. Sir Wilfred Spender suggested that illness had left Craig “senile” suggesting he was “too unwell to carry on”. By the outbreak of World War Two, Craig was capable of only an hour’s work per day and was prone to making hasty decisions. Spender also implied that Home Affairs Minister Richard Dawson Bates was a heavy drinker.

Despite government failings, Lord Craigavon believed Northern Ireland to be ready for war. His responses in times of crisis were full of patriotism and rhetoric.

Ulster is ready when we get the word and always will be.

Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland

The fall of France in the summer of 1940 increased the threat to Northern Ireland. Luftwaffe bases in the north of France were much closer and enabled German bombers to make the journey in 2.75 hours. When asked by Tommy Henderson, an independent MP for Shankill, if his government realised this, Lord Craigavon stated:

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.

While Minister of Agriculture Sir Basil Brooke was proactive in ensuring the country became a provider of food to Britain, little real preparations were made for war.

Many believed the government to be too complacent in their attitudes. Resignations from senior members of the cabinet highlighted the unease. On 25th May 1940, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, John Edmond Warnock, resigned.

I have heard speeches about Ulster pulling her weight but they have never carried conviction… The government has been slack, dilatory, and apathetic.

John Edmond Warnock, Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs – 25th May 1940.

On 13th June 1940, Parliamentary and Financial Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gordon, followed.

Issues with Andrews' Government

Lord Craigavon died at his home on 24th November 1940. His final parliamentary speech on 29th October 1940 had been a routine anti-Nationalist put-down of a motion in support of Irish unity.

Lord Abercorn, Governor of Northern Ireland appointed his successor. John Miller Andrews was almost 70 years old and no more capable of running a country on the brink of war than his predecessor. He had been Minister of Finance under Craig.

Minutes taken from early cabinet meetings show failings in Andrews’ plans. His cabinet spent a huge amount of time discussing ways to protect the bronze sculpture of Sir Edward Carson at Stormont. In comparison, little thought went to providing air raid shelters for the people of the city.

The Hiram Plan

Only John Clarke MacDemott, Minister of Public Security, seemed to have initiated any sort of strategy. The “Hiram Plan” was to evacuate the city and return Belfast to a state of “normality”. He also sent a telegram to Eamon de Valera asking for help from the neutral Republic of Ireland. The Hiram Plan never came to fruition. Of the more than 80,000 women and children in Belfast, fewer than 4,000 left the city before Hitler attacked.

This was one of many reasons why Belfast suffered so many casualties and deaths in the 1941 attacks. Despite its population density, it had few public air raid shelters. Prime Minister Andrews voiced his concerns about the lack of infrastructure two months before the Belfast Blitz.

The Blackout

As in other parts of the United Kingdom, the blackout came into effect in Northern Ireland on 1st September 1939, days before the declaration of war. The Archives of Clonard Monastery on Falls Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim noted the event.

September the 2nd 1939. A complete blackout has been ordered in the six counties. This causing not a little inconvenience to the community here in Clonard. From sunset to sunrise, all internal lights are to be concealed.

Clonard Monastery Chronicles.

Civil Defence Volunteers working the streets of the city also noted the apathy of the population as they attempted to enforce blackout restrictions.

People were careless about their light.

Jimmy Wilton, Air Raid Precaution Warden, Belfast 1941.

Lady Londonderry summed up the public opinion on the blackout and air raid warnings in 1940.

All sorts of rot going on here. Air raid warnings and black-outs. As if anyone wished to bomb Belfast.

Lady Londonderry, Belfast 1940.

Defensive Shortcomings

In 1939, imperial defence experts informed the Ministry of Home Affairs that the city of Belfast was a viable Luftwaffe target. Even then, Richard Dawson Bates refused to reply to military correspondence. Other than the erection of some air raid shelters in the docks area, no action took place.

Some blame must also fall on the government in Westminster, London. They prioritised building air bases in Northern Ireland ahead of building shelters for the population.

On 25th June 1940, the government appointed John Clarke MacDermott Minister of Public Security. This would be a rare positive move on their part. He warned of inadequate defences and his words of March 1941 were prophetic.

Up to now we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside until recently. Clydeside got its Blitz during the period of the last moon. There is ground for thinking that the enemy could not easily reach Belfast in force except during a period of moonlight. The period of the next moon from say the 7th to the 16th of April may well bring our turn.

John Clarke McDermott, Minister for Security, 24th March 1941.

In the unprepared city of Belfast, there were fewer than 200 shelters for public use. These included 4 shelters made of sandbags at Belfast City Hall and converted underground toilets at Shaftesbury Square and Donegall Square North. Even if fully utilised, they provided shelter for less than a quarter of the city’s inhabitants. A further 4,000 householders erected their own Anderson shelters of corrugated iron and packed earth. These were not the greatest defence against the Nazi bombs that fell in April and May 1941.

Searchlights arrived in Belfast on 10th April 1941. These were not operational before the Easter Raid of 14th – 15th April 1941. Belfast also lacked a smokescreen.

By September 1940, Belfast and Derry had a light balloon barrage. Numbers increased in March 1941. By Spring 1941, anti-aircraft weaponry across Northern Ireland consisted of 24 heavy guns and 14 light guns. Sixteen heavy and 6 light guns were in Belfast. The remaining four guns were at Corrody and Galliagh, Co. Londonderry. More anti-aircraft weapons were due to arrive from Cardiff but the German planes came first.

Of the Belfast guns, only seven fired for a short time at the Luftwaffe bombers. There was a fear that RAF fighter jets may get hit by friendly fire. The truth was that no planes scrambled from RAF Aldergrove during the raids. RAF 245 Squadron arrived from RAF Turnhouse, Edinburgh on 20th July 1940. While thought dictated Luftwaffe attacks would come by night, their Hawker Hurricane fighter operated best in daylight.

When it came to casualties of the Belfast Blitz, government provisions were once again inadequate. Mortuary services in the city could handle 200 bodies, while authorities could care for around 10,000 homeless.

Firefighting Equipment

The Belfast Fire Brigade was well-equipped for peacetime with 7 normal-sized engines and a turntable ladder. They were, however, ill-prepared for the devastation that Luftwaffe bombs could bring. The Stormont Government had cancelled an order for additional equipment.

Donegall Square East, Belfast

Three air raid shelters stand where the Metro bus stops now on Donegall Square East. Photo taken from the corner with Donegall Square South. Kerbs and lamp posts around Belfast City Hall are painted with white stripes to prevent blackout accidents. Photo taken on 3rd November 1942. Copyright Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

As predicated by MacDermott, the first Luftwaffe raid came in the period of the next full moon. German planes launched an attack on the docks, the industrial heart of the city, but worse would follow.

Despite the apathy and unreadiness of the time, the city of Belfast contained many prime targets. Works such as the Harland and Wolff Shipyard or the Short and Harland Aircraft Factory were important to the war effort. The city of Belfast remained unready for the arrival of Nazi bombers but the Luftwaffe was much more prepared.

Belfast Blitz: A viable Luftwaffe target

Belfast Blitz: A viable Luftwaffe target

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30th November 2017

On 30th November 1940, a German plane flew a solo reconnaissance flight over Belfast, Co. Antrim proving the city to be an under-defended Luftwaffe target.

Associated Places

Map showing Clonard Monastery, Clonard Gardens, Belfast

Clonard Monastery, Clonard Gardens, Belfast

1 Clonard Gardens, Belfast, Co. Antrim

During the Belfast Blitz in May 1941, Protestants from the Shankill Road joined their Catholic neighbours in the shelter of the crypt of Clonard Monastery.

Map showing Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Queen’s Road, Belfast

Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Queen’s Road, Belfast

Queen's Road, Belfast

Today, the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard is known for its iconic cranes in Belfast. During the Second World War, it was a vital shipbuilding firm.

Map showing Short and Harland, Airport Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Short and Harland, Airport Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim

2 Airport Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim

The Short and Harland factory site in Belfast is now the home of Bombardier Aerospace. During World War Two it was a vital aircraft manufacturing firm.

Map showing Stormont Parliament Buildings, Newtownards Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Stormont Parliament Buildings, Newtownards Road, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, Co. Down

During World War Two, a layer of pitch and manure blacked out the distinctive facade of Stormont Parliament Buildings to protect it from Luftwaffe attack.