On 15th-16th April 1941, the Luftwaffe launched a major attack on Northern Ireland. While Belfast, Co. Antrim bore the brunt of the Blitz, bombs fell in Derry, Co. Londonderry, and in Newtownards and Bangor, Co. Down.
The City of Derry was of huge strategic importance during World War Two. It was an Allied naval base of considerable size and the surrounding area was hiving with British and American forces. On Easter Tuesday 1941, a single Luftwaffe plane flew high above the city’s barrage balloons. The crew dropped 2 parachute mines in the direction of the River Foyle. The intention was to disrupt shipping but the bombs missed their target.
Instead, they landed in an area of Messines Park where ex-servicemen’s houses stood. The first landed in the front gardens of a row of houses, demolishing 5 of them in the blast. A total of 13 people died in the incident with a further 33 sustaining injuries. The second parachute mine detonated in a sand pit behind Collon Terrace. It caused damage to housing, railway carriages, and Pennyburn Chapel’s Parochial House.
Bombs on Derry
The people of Derry had been enjoying Fis Doire Colmcille, a festival of Irish singing and dancing in the Guildhall. Most of the younger attendees had gone home before 2230hrs but when the sirens sounded at 2240hrs, many people remained. There was little cause for panic as the sirens usually meant nothing more than a plane spotted over the Irish Sea.
Charlie Gallagher was on Air Raid Precautions duty on the corner of Queen Street and James Street. They heard reports of the scale of The Easter Raid in Belfast. Soon, wardens noticed flares in the skies over Derry. Before long, 2 explosions rocked the city and an emergency call requested ambulances for Messines Park.
Smoke hung in the air as the ambulances made their way over sand and rubble to where a naval rescue team had directed searchlights.
After the Raid
Local newspaper The Derry Journal held off publishing the story until Friday 18th April 1941. They focussed on stories of survival such as the 12 year old boy blown out of his bed but left uninjured or 14 year old Daniel Diggin who survived in a pile of rubble.
Another survivor was Stephen Rabbitt who owned a shop near Messines Park. He ran into the kitchen of his home with his parents. They all escaped injury while the blast destroyed the shop and other parts of the house. Bertie Downie also had a shoemaking business nearby. He would later talk to BBC Radio Foyle in April 2001 about his experiences and the loss of his home. Mr. Downie was well-known in the area and the Royal Ulster Constabulary asked him to help identify the bodies of his neighbours.
Hundreds of people fled the area around Messines Park and from around Derry. The road to Buncrana, Co. Donegal saw a steady traffic of evacuees but fortunately, the Luftwaffe would not target Derry again for the rest of the war.