Belfast Blitz – A city unprepared for war

7th March 2018

In April and May 1941 the Nazi Luftwaffe attacked the unprepared city of Belfast in Northern Ireland. Under guidance from an inept government, the city was unprepared.

Like many cities across the United Kingdom, 1941 brought blitzkrieg to the skies over the unprepared city of Belfast.

London bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe attacks of course. It’s a lesser known fact that Belfast was the UK’s second hardest hit city. The Northern Irish capital endured two devastating attacks on 15th April and 4th May 1941.

James Craig - Lord Craigavon

James Craig – Lord Craigavon became the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921 and was still in charge when the Nazis planned their Blitz in 1940. Photo from PRONI.

The UK ready for war

In the early years of World War Two, mainland UK expected an aerial attack from Germany. The government concerned themselves with defending strategic cities as well as their coastlines.

Belfast, however, thought itself less prone to attack. The city’s engineering and shipbuilding traditions meant that the port city contributed in a big way to the war effort.

The manufacture of ships, planes, and ammunitions would be crucial for Allied victory. For this reason, the Luftwaffe deemed Belfast a viable target.

Belfast’s lack of preparation

Saying Belfast was unprepared is something of an understatement. James Craig, Lord Craigavon, was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland from 1921 until his death on 24th November 1940. Reports from the time suggest Craig was partly senile, while Home Affairs Minister Richard Dawson Bates was a heavy drinker. Neither were capable of giving directions on policy. Lord Craigavon believed the relatively new country was ready for war. When informed by the UK government that Belfast was a viable target for the Luftwaffe, Bates did not even enter communications with the military.

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

James Craig, Lord Craigavon – Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1941

Following the Belfast Blitz, there were several government resignations. They included the Chief Whip from the Ministry of Home Affairs.

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. The city had expanded greatly in the early 20th century. Despite its population density, though, it had the lowest population of public air-raid shelters.

In the unprepared city of Belfast, there were fewer than 200 shelters for public use. A further 4,000 householders erected their own Anderson shelters of corrugated iron and packed earth.  These were not the greatest defence against the torrents of Nazi bombs that fell in April and May 1941.

It’s reported that Belfast had no searchlights in position before the Nazi’s attacked. Around the city were 22 anti-aircraft guns. Details emerged that only seven of these were briefly used against the German bombers. The fear was that friendly fire would strafe the RAF fighters but none had been scrambled from RAF Sydenham.

John Miller Andrews, aged 70, succeeded Lord Craigavon on his death in November 1940. Would he handle the wartime situation any better than his predecessor? Northern Ireland was not ready for war.

The German Luftwaffe, however, were well-prepared.

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