On 7th April 1941, a total of 517 Luftwaffe planes departed for the skies over the United Kingdom. They flew from bases in northern France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Norway, taking off in good visibility and moderate winds. They expected weather over the north of England and Scotland to be similar. By 2300hrs, crews over these regions found almost total cloud cover and chaos reigned on the radios.
Less than half of those 517 bomber crews located their primary objectives. Most headed for secondary targets including London, Bristol, Plymouth… and possibly Belfast. The Luftwaffe may have by chance taken advantage of the near-perfect conditions over Northern Ireland.
A light wind blew from the southeast, keeping the skies clear up to a height of 20,000 feet. Over Belfast Lough and the east coast of Northern Ireland, authorities plotted 13 instances of bombers. A report from the Royal Navy states, that Heinkel HE111s, in groups of less than 8 each time, attacked the city in 7 distinct assaults.
Eyewitnesses recorded the leading bombers flying north between Ardglass and Bangor, Co. Down before turning west and following the well-lit waters of Belfast Lough. Not only did a half-moon illuminate the way, but lighthouses around the Lough continued to operate despite the blackout.
Among this first wave of planes was a Heinkel HE111 of the elite Pathfinder Kampfgruppe 26 base at Poix in northern France. Crew reports suggest they arrived over Belfast at 2250hrs, flying at between 1,200 and 3,500 metres. Although still within the range of their sophisticated radio equipment, the crew bombed by sight. Throughout the night they dropped a single 500kg High Explosive Bomb and 432 Incendiary Bombs. The firebombs and flares would light the way for following crews.
Shortly after midnight on 8th April 1941, the first bombs fell on Belfast. Members of R.A.F. No 968 Barrage Ballon Squadron reported a raid developing from 0001hrs. The first High Explosive Bombs and Incendiary Bombs fell around 5 minutes later. Further out of the city, 5th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers at Knock, Belfast noted the raid commencing at 0015hrs.
I was in Keadyville Avenue about midnight and I was sitting at the table trying to calculate how much Income Tax I would pay in the next financial year. Suddenly, I heard a long roaring whine and next moment, a hell of a heavy thud. I went upstairs to the attic and standing on a box, opened the skylight. Something in my stomach seemed to drop, for the whole length of the shipyard, for two to three miles, was ablaze with stark, white light like the flash when taking a flash photograph.
Then guns, all over the city, began to roar. I knew it was our first raid. From the timber yards, about a mile from our house, flares were soon leaping into the sky. I was fascinated. A feeling of despair came over me - at last, I thought, it’s our turn now, but I found myself engrossed by the spectacle. Closing the skylight, I went downstairs to make sure the girls were all right - and then went out into the street, crossed York Road and went up Premier Drive which is a good deal higher than the main road. The whole sky in every direction was a mass of flame. The German planes taking part had now disappeared, but in half an hour, I again heard the drone, very high in the sky, and many explosions followed.
At 0300hrs, the Luftwaffe crew of Oberleutnant Siegfried Röthke arrived over Belfast Lough. They witnessed the fires spreading outwards from the site of the McCue, Dick, and Co. Ltd. timber yard.
At 0322hrs, Röthke’s crew dropped a pair of parachute mines over Queens Island. The second missed the Short and Harland Ltd. aircraft factory. It carried in the wind across the Musgrave Channel, landing on the roof of the nearby Alexandra Works Aeroplane Fuselage Factory. The Harland and Wolff Ltd. building collapsed as a result of the blast. At the shipyard, 6 night-shift workers died as a result of the explosion, with one more succumbing to his injuries on 20th April 1941. The Luftwaffe crew left the target area, with Röthke noting that flames remained visible for up to 20 minutes.
Soon, the fires across Queens Island began to merge. Firefighters scaled gantries to combat the flames from a height. The crew at the Fuselage factory successfully stopped the spread of that fire from reaching a nearby paint shop.
After attacks on Belfast and other cities and towns across the United Kingdom, the All Clear sounded at 0500hrs on 8th April 1941. Authorities declared the skies over Great Britain and Northern Ireland clear of all enemy planes.