The third Luftwaffe attack on Belfast cam on the night of Sunday 4th May 1941. With over 100,000 incendiary and high-explosive bombs dropped in three hours, this became known as “The Fire Raid”.
Within 60 minutes, resulting blazes in central, north, and east Belfast were beyond the resources of local firefighters. By the time an all-clear sounded, over 200 buildings burned.
Air raid sirens first sounded at 2345hrs on Sunday 4th May. At 0010hrs on 5th May, the red alert sounded and within three minutes anti-aircraft gunners stood by their weapons in anticipation.
Local radar screens first plotted the attacking planes at 0047hrs but the hum of approaching Heinkels and Junkers was soon audible in the city.
The sky was clear and lit by a full moon as around 200 planes approached the Co. Down coastline. The Luftwaffe attackers flew in two formations.
The first passed over the Copeland Islands towards Carrickfergus. From there, they followed the northern shore of Belfast Lough to the city centre. A second followed Ireland’s east coast over Carlingford Lough, Rostrevor, Hilltown, and Dromara.
An elite pathfinder squadron of Luftwaffe bombers flew across the east of the city at 0107hrs on Monday 5th May. The target was Queen’s Island and the Harbour Estate.
In the first hour of the attack, 6,000 incendiaries fell on the docks, shipyards, and nearby factories. The fires spread quickly and rising flames guided following bombers attacking between 9,000 and 13,000 feet. It was thought Belfast’s defences were so weak, the Luftwaffe could fly beneath the city’s barrage balloons.
Belfast’s Musgrave and Dufferin docks were hit hard once again. Explosives sank three small manoeuvrable Corvettes nearing completion. A fourth burned in the water and four more sustained damage. Transport ship The Fairhead sank at its mooring. In total, Harland and Wolff lost two-thirds of their premises including workshops, offices, and sheds. Short and Harland were unable to produce aircraft for the following three months.
At around 0230hrs, Abercorn Yard, Queen’s Works, Clarence Works, Alexandra Works, and the Victoria Shipyard fell victim to firebombs.
As bombs fell on the docks, many also impacted in east Belfast. Residential areas around Lower Newtownards Road became engulfed in flames. In Memel Street, a shelter took a direct hit killing all those inside. Rescuers and dockers dug for weeks before recovering the first of thirteen bodies. Another bomb struck the shelter on Avondale Street killing 25 people inside. Bombs devastated areas like Witham Street destroying 35 houses.
Belfast’s city centre also suffered. Fires raged around St. Anne’s Cathedral although the church itself survived. High Street burned from the city centre down to the Albert Memorial Clock. Arnott’s Stores, Athletic Stores, Bank Buildings, Co-Op Buildings, Dunville’s Stores, Gallagher’s Factory, Rosemary Street Presbyterian Church, Royal Avenue St. George’s Church, Thornton’s, Ulster Arcade, Water Commissioner’s Offices and the banqueting room at Belfast’s City Hall were either destroyed or damaged.
In the north of the city, over 300 women and children took refuge in the crypt under the sanctuary and the cellar under the working sacristy at Clonard Monastery on the Lower Falls. Many of those seeking shelter were from the predominantly Protestant Shankill Road area. There, they sang hymns and recited prayers as the bombs fell.
The already damaged York Street Mill suffered once more, while nearby in Greencastle, a pair of parachute mines landed on Barbour Street killing 30 people and leaving only 4 houses standing.
Luftwaffe bombers dropped over 203 metric tonnes of high explosives, 80 parachute mines, and over 800 firebomb canisters. The canisters alone contained more than 96,000 incendiary devices.
A lack of appliances and equipment hindered the work of Belfast’s fire fighters. Bomb damage to water pipes and a low water level at low tide did nothing to help the situation. With Belfast’s fire brigades overwhelmed, help once again came across the border from Ireland. On this occasion, no invite was necessary. On arrival, crews from Ireland were given food and directed to areas in need accompanied by escorts.
Six crews departed from Co. Londonderry to aid their colleagues in Belfast/ Fireman Charlie Gallagher recalled stopping to let his engine cool on the Glenshane Pass on the way to the capital. There, 45 miles from Belfast, fires were visible, pulsating up and down into the night sky.
On 6th May 1941 the Belfast Presbytery thanked Dublin for “invaluable assistance” and “generous help”. Belfast authorities gave five shillings to each man to compensate for the cost of a meal while on duty. Major Comerford implied they would receive suitable recognition from Northern Ireland authorities but this never came.
Casualties were fewer than in the Easter raid with 150 lives lost and another 157 seriously injured. This was due to better advanced warnings and the greater altitude of the bombers. Casualties lessened also as the attack happened later on a Sunday night, focussed mainly on the docks and used more incendiaries than high explosives. As well as this, more residents made use of the public shelters and many others had already fled to the countryside. Unidentified bodies again laid out in St. George’s Market.
Witnesses at the time claimed the bombing was audible in Bangor and Lisburn. The Belfast Telegraph newspaper claimed citizens of Belfast could no longer navigate around the city centre such was the level of damage.
Still, the Northern Ireland government struggled with the realities of the situation. A cabinet meeting shortly after the May fire raid saw an offer of power from the Eire Electricity Board turned down. The cabinet cited “political difficulties of making any such arrangement”.
For the first and only time during World War Two, Belfast made the headlines in the German press. It laid out in graphic detail how major industries had been devastated and the shipyards destroyed. In Belfast there were fears the Luftwaffe would return to finish the job and German radio broadcasts from William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw) had given Belfast warning of further attacks.
Instructions from Joseph Goebbels suggested that further attacks on Belfast and Northern Ireland may provoke the neutral Irish or urge Irish American politicians to have the United States enter the war.
The fire raid lasted 3.5 hours with the all clear sounding at 0425hrs. By dawn, the Luftwaffe planes had gone but fires raged on throughout the city.