Belfast Blitz: A city unprepared for war

Belfast, a city unprepared for war was devastated by the Luftwaffe in 1941. A weak government and insufficient defences were among the contributing factors.

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.

People were careless about their light.

Jimmy Wilton, Air Raid Precaution Warden, Belfast 1941.

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

Lady Londonderry, Belfast 1940.

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?

Stormont during World War Two

A number 26 trolley bus passes by Stormont. The seat of the Northern Ireland government in 1941 was painted black with a mixture of tar and manure to hide it from Luftwaffe bombers. Photo taken on 26th March 1942. Copyright Belfast Telegraph.

Government Attitudes

The Northern Ireland government at Stormont lacked the capacity to deal with the kind of major crisis that war may have brought. There was very little preparation made for engaging in conflict.

James Craig, Lord Craigavon, had been Prime Minister from the founding of the country in 1921 until his death on 24th November 1940. His ill-health and eventual death came at a bad time leaving a leadership vacuum in the cabinet. Reports from the time are far from complimentary towards the politician and his cabinet. 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”. In truth, Lord Craigavon’s fina,l years were ones of constant ill health and exhaustion. By the outbreak of war he 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.

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.

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 Fall of France

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.

A new Prime Minister

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.

Defensive Shortcomings

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.

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.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Docks Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Docks Raid

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7th March 2018

War came to Belfast on 7th-8th April 1941. This event in Belfast's history became known as The Docks Raid, part of what would come to be The Belfast Blitz.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Easter Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Easter Raid

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7th March 2018

On 15th-16th April 1941, Belfast, Co. Antrim came under ferocious attack from the Luftwaffe as the city endured The Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Fire Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Fire Raid

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5th March 2018

On the night of 4th-5th May 1941, Luftwaffe bombers unleashed The Fire Raid of the Belfast Blitz destroying much of the east, north, and the city centre.