Belfast Blitz: The Docks Raid

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.

The Belfast Blitz is a name given to a series of four Luftwaffe attacks on the capital city of Northern Ireland. In April and May 1941, a total of 1,100 people died and 56,000 houses suffered damage. The first attack on 7th-8th April 1941 became known as The Docks Raid.

On 7th April 1941, more than 500 Luftwaffe bombers and escorts took off from Soesterberg, Netherlands. Their targets for the evening were Greenock and Dumbarton on Scotland’s River Clyde. Secondary targets were set as Liverpool and Newcastle in the north of England.

The period of the next moon, say, the 7th to the 16th of April, may well bring our turn.

John MacDermott, Minister of Public Security – 24th March 1941

Between 6 and 8 Heinkel HE111 bombers from Kampfgruppe 26 broke ranks with navigation lights on. At around midnight, they diverted across the Irish Sea. Their new route was towards Belfast dropping incendiaries and high explosives from around 7,000 feet. The Luftwaffe identified targets in the capital of Northern Ireland the previous year. This Docks Raid tested Belfast’s minimal defences.

Suddenly I heard a long roaring whine and the next moment a hell of a thud. I knew it was our first raid.

William McCready, Belfast Resident

Luftwaffe Heinkel HE111

Imperial War Museum Photo: MH 6547 (Part of Term 318955 Collection). Heinkel HE111 bombers in formation. The HE111 was the mainstay of the German Luftwaffe bomber force in 1940. Approximately 500 aircraft served in 17 'Kampfgruppen' during the Battle of Britain. Photo used under Fair Dealing.

Belfast Under Attack

The first Luftwaffe bombers dropped around 800 incendiary devices in the docks area. Fires spread and acted as a reference point for other bombers to attack. Waves of bombers attacked the city in half-hour intervals until around 0330hrs. A low half-moon allowed the Luftwaffe to attack with great accuracy as they flew low over the limited barrage balloon cover.

Shipyards and timber yards in Belfast burned into the night. Harland and Wolff shipyard suffered severe damage. Fires also devastated the Rank Flour Mill. Bombs also damaged the 4.5 acre Short and Harland factory where workers built fuselages for Short Stirling bombers. Explosives destroyed around 50 bombers under construction.

Many workers on the docks and nearby factories lived in neighbourhoods close to their workplaces. As bombs fell, many of those off-target hit the small terraced houses of East Belfast. The people of the city were not ready for the attack. The air raid sirens sounded only after the first bombs fell.

A total of 13 people died in The Docks Raid on 7th-8th April 1941. Of those who died, 12 were in the docks area including 6 in one building.

The Auxiliary Fire Service worked through the night to bring fires under control. Of their number, 2 men died in the McCue, Dick and Co. timber yard in Duncrue Street. A parachute mine exploded, damaging the building and killing the firefighters. Archibald McDonald of Dundonald and Brice Harkness of Cookstown were among the earliest victims of the Belfast Blitz. A soldier died at Balmoral Golf Club in the south of the city as his anti-aircraft gun misfired.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard, East Belfast

Imperial War Museum Photo: A 28022 (Part of the Admiralty Official Collection). An aerial view of the Harland and Wolff Musgrave shipyard shows two new carriers HMS Magnificent and HMS Powerful, and a cruiser on the stocks. Photo taken in November 1944 by Royal Navy official photographer.

Reaction to The Docks Raid

The Docks Raid lasted over 3.5 hours. Attacks took place on London, Liverpool, Bristol, Glasgow and Great Yarmouth the same night. The Luftwaffe reported back to Berlin on Belfast’s defences.

Inferior in quality, scanty, and insufficient.

The Royal Air Force put a more positive spin on the attack. They claimed Squadron Leader JWC Simpson shot down a Heinkel HE111 bomber over Downpatrick, Co. Down.

Following the attack, Stormont appealed to London for further defences. The UK government obliged with one searchlight, one anti-aircraft gun, and one smokescreen gun.

The Luftwaffe planned further raids with William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw issuing threats over the airwaves. Belfast would come under attack three more times in 1941; on 15th-16th April, 4th-5th May, and 5th-6th May.

Newsletter Signup

If you'd like to hear more from WartimeNI, you can sign up for regular free updates to your inbox. Just enter your email address below.