There have been many stories told of the Belfast Blitz. When the Luftwaffe attacked Northern Ireland in April and May 1941, the women of Belfast were on hand to witness. This episode tells the stories of Civil Servant Doreen Bates, Health Visitor Moya Woodside, and V.A.D. Commandant Emma Duffin. This is their narrative of a turbulent time in wartime Belfast. Part 1/2 of a Women's History Month Special.
Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode, we are joined by some of my friends who will lend their voices to people who lived through a turbulent time in wartime Belfast. These are the women of the Belfast Blitz.
Belfast in 1941 was in many ways a vastly different city to that which I call home today. The Second World War had begun with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany on 3rd September 1939. Yet, throughout Northern Ireland, relative peace existed. Many believed Ulster to be of little significance to Hitler. Others assumed that geographically, the state established less than two decades earlier was beyond the reach of the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht. Across the country, life continued as normal for most but the ongoing conflict played on some people’s conscience. On 7th March 1940, Mass Observation diarist Moya Woodside wrote:
Here in Ireland is probably the pleasantest place in Europe at the present time – we are unbombed, we have no conscription, there is still plenty to eat, life is reasonably normal. Sufferings such as… hunger, disease, separation, appalling conditions, and inhumanity – are unknown to anyone, in fact, they are inconceivable. Yet, for the greater part of the time, one is conscious of positive inconveniences or drawbacks, and only remembers intermittently and with a sense of guilt the negative blessings – the things which are not happening.
In other ways, the Belfast of 1941 was little different from that of today. Society was divided, along religious and political lines but also between the rich and poor. On a walk through the north of the city, Doreen Bates, another Mass Observationist noted:
First through small squalid houses and across a dismal bog with engineering works on it. Hundreds of small children – some pretty, not stupid looking and all dirty were playing in the streets. I counted eighty-two in two in two minutes. I have never seen so many tramps in such a small area.
The economic slump of what became known as The Hungry 30s had left many in the city out of work, struggling to get by. They lived in inadequate housing in slum districts. For many in working-class areas in the north and east of the city, life would get much worse.
April 1941 brought the Second World War to Northern Ireland. The Belfast Blitz was a series of four aerial attacks from the Luftwaffe – the German Air Force – during the course of April and May 1941.
The first attack came on the night of 7th April 1941. Most believe this small scale raid was to test Belfast’s defences in preparation for the more earnest attacks to come.
In much of the published works relating to the Belfast Blitz, the focus is often on statistics. The dates and times of events are in many ways irrelevant. The number of High Explosive Bombs, Parachute Mines, and Incendiary Devices dropped on the city was huge. The damage inflicted to industry, business premises, homes, churches, and schools was heavy. There are many places to discover the facts and figures of the Belfast Blitz but for me, the real story lies with the people who experienced those nights of terror.
Their stories paint a picture of fear, disbelief, loss, and anguish. They show up the fallacy of Blitz Spirit, they mock the morale boosting of the media and authorities. More than anything, they provide a narrative dictated by the general public, by those who lived through the events.
In Belfast, much of what we can learn is told by the city’s women. From workers, to nurses, to civil servants, and welfare officers, their story is the real story of the Belfast Blitz. Their words highlight the plight of the working-classes, the devastation of the city, and the hardships faced when the last All Clear sounded.
1940 had seen an upscaling of Nazi aggression. That was the summer the British Expeditionary Force made their famous retreat from Dunkirk. It was the year that saw the Battle of Britain fought in the skies over the United Kingdom. It saw the Luftwaffe launch a series of catastrophic raids over cities such as London, Liverpool, Coventry, Southampton, and Clydebank.
Yet, in Northern Ireland, life went on as normal. There was an all-round failure to adequately prepare for an imminent attack. The blame lay with many who refused to believe the Luftwaffe would have any interest in Northern Ireland. In 1940, Lady Londonderry wrote:
All sorts of rot going on here. Air raid warnings and black-outs. As if anyone wished to bomb Belfast.
The blame lay too with the lackadaisical attitudes of the general public. Air Raid Precautions Wardens spoke of how people were “careless with their light” during the blackout.
In March 1941, only a month before the first raid, Doreen Bates documented her mundane commute to work. Doreen was a Civil Servant from London, and her personal life story is a fascinating one. She came to Belfast as an unwed pregnant woman in 1941 to escape the horrors of the Blitz settling at Victoria Road in Sydenham. Less than complimentary about her adopted hometown, her journey to the office took her by the shipyard:
Belfast is a hideous place. I go to the office on a really old tram (for 1d) along streets without one building worth looking at – except perhaps the new B.B.C. building. It still surprises to see unbroken windows. There are plenty of surface shelters and a few balloons to protect Harland and Wolff shipbuilding yards.
Harland and Wolff Ltd. and other industries put measures into place to help protect their workforces. In terms of public security, the general consensus was that Lord Craigavon’s government at Stormont had not done even a bare minimum.
Recruitment to the Civil Defence Services including Air Raid Wardens and Firefighters was poor. On a trip to the cinema in August 1940, Moya Woodside noted the apathy greeting the recruitment drive. Born in 1907 Woodside worked as a Home Visitor and Health Inspector for the Belfast Welfare Committee and contributed to the British Government’s Mass Observation Project:
At the pictures last night. The Universal newsreel was too stale and boring for words – nine items out of a total of ten showed military or A.R.P. activities, all accompanied by facetious commentary. It was received in apathetic silence except for the customary claps when King and Queen appeared. The whole effect was of complete unreality, where everyone in the audience knew that air raids are of daily occurrence and creating havoc in the usual routine of life, yet they were not so much as mentioned.
Many people, however, did enlist and these numbers would increase following the first raids. Many anecdotal tales from family members talk of our ancestors doing their bit.
Later that month, Woodside commented on the construction of Public Air Raid Shelters on Elmwood Avenue. By this time, the city had scarcely enough shelters for a quarter of its civilian population. Foremost in Woodside’s mind however, was the safety of the women of Belfast. Unfortunately, over 80 years later, we remain a society where women fear for their safety while simply walking down their streets.
The construction of air raid shelters at the end of the avenue continues apace, but from their position, it is obvious that there will be many traffic accidents during the winter black-out. My maid comments on the openings to the shelter, and says it is a good thing they face towards the centre of the avenue, as otherwise coming home at night after dark, she might expect to be pulled inside off the pavement and embraced. It seems shelters are now very popular for courting couples, as well as providing opportunities for ill-disposed men.
Of comparatively sized cities across the United Kingdom, Belfast was the worst defended. Whether due to an inept government, or a belief that the country was unreachable, the number of Anti-Aircraft guns defending Belfast and Derry was too few. The city’s first searchlights arrived on 10th April 1941, three days after the first attack. They remained unused even by the time of the Easter Raid.
Prime Minister Lord Craigavon died in November 1940, his position falling to fellow cabinet member John Miller Andrews. The majority of the government remained unchanged, as did their attitude towards the potential threat of Nazi attack. France had fallen in June 1940, leaving Ulster within easier reach of bombers flying from Pas-de-Calais, Normandy, and the low countries.
Around this time, some ministers began to question the government’s complacency. Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, John Edmond Warnock was first to go stating his doubts as to whether Ulster was pulling its weight, referring to the government as slack, dilatory, and apathetic. On 13th June 1940, Parliamentary and Financial Secretary at the Ministry of Finance, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Gordon, followed.
Only John Clarke MacDemott, Minister of Public Security, seemed to have initiated any sort of strategy. His “Hiram Plan” was to evacuate the city and return Belfast to a state of “normality” soon after a potential raid. This plan never really came to fruition. Of the more than 80,000 women and children in Belfast, fewer than 4,000 left the city before Hitler attacked. In August 1940, Woodside commented in her journal:
The local press reports an improved response to the second Belfast evacuation scheme, the first having been a complete flop with less than ten percent even registering.
The failings of government to plan for what seemed an inevitable attack lay not just at Stormont but also at Westminster. London prioritised the construction of airfields in Northern Ireland rather than the building of Public Air Raid Shelters. However, it is the out-of-touch attitudes of the Stormont government that remain in people’s memories. Documents reveal a shocking amount of time spent by Andrews’ cabinet in discussing the best methods to protect the statue of Sir Edward Carson outside the Parliament Buildings. Any concern shown for the city’s working-class seemed scant in comparison.
On 9th January 1941, Moya Woodside wrote:
We had an ‘alert’ at lunchtime today. The sky was clear and sun shining, so it was obvious that no vast force of enemy raiders could be approaching, but nevertheless, watching at the window, I could see our warden rushing aimlessly up and down the street, clad in heavy mackintosh, tin hat, gas mask, and other paraphernalia. (This man is an elderly, retired police inspector, cordially loathed in the district for his officiousness). We sat down to lunch and soon there was a loud knock at the door.
My maid answered, there were sounds of argument, and then she came into the dining room and said we were ordered to put out a bucket of water during an alert and this was the only house that had not done so, so HE says scornfully. It was the first I had heard of such a regulation. What use would a couple of buckets of water be in an air raid anyway?
By the time the maid had reluctantly fetched a bucket, the All Clear had started sounding. She said to me afterwards; ‘People aren’t allowed private lives anymore. It’s nothing but muddling and interference from old fuss pots like HIM with nothing else to do.
In Belfast, some progress was being made to prepare the public for a raid. Across the border in neutral Éire, things remained unchanged. Another common cliché you will encounter when it comes to the Belfast Blitz is that “Dublin left the lights on”. Of course, as a neutral city, Dublin had no legal requirement to observe a blackout. But to be clear, the Luftwaffe had flown many reconnaissance sorties over Belfast. They knew the city, had plotted targets, and worked from detailed maps and aerial photography. We have also heard that people in Northern Ireland were “careless with their light” and there are suggestions that lighthouses around Belfast Lough remained operational throughout the period.
Some Pilots and Navigators may have used the lights of Dublin as a guide. This has not definitively been proven or disproven. However, the Luftwaffe knew their way to the city with or without guiding lights and they had the maps to prove it.
Following the Second World War, documents uncovered at German Airfields showed the level of detail the Luftwaffe held about the city. They identified primary targets, mapped out areas for bombing, and noted any defences or lack thereof.
Among the main targets outlined by the Luftwaffe in 1940 were:
The first of those targets would come under attack on the night of 7th-8th April 1941.
Reports of that first attack on the city, The Docks Raid, come from the Mass Observation diarists Moya Woodside and Doreen Bates on 8th April 1941.
Doreen Bates, in a rented ground floor flat at 20 Victoria Road, Sydenham takes up the story, bemoaning the Luftwaffe disturbing her slumber.
Last night I heard the siren again… had just fallen asleep when gunfire awoke me and a few minutes later, the sirens went. I considered and decided there was no point in getting up. There are two bay windows in my ground floor bedroom but the bed is in the far corner. I heard the Bennetts above me getting up and she was excited. I hadn’t heard the planes come over.
Also unable to hear the planes from her home at 8 Elmwood Avenue in the south of the city was Moya Woodside.
Belfast had its first raid last night – and I would not believe it was on! I was just falling asleep when I heard thumps and lumps and a loud bang, followed by the sirens. My husband came in and said: ‘They’re dropping bombs, better come down to the kitchen’. We have had so many false alarms that, in my drowsy state, I muttered something about it being only anti-aircraft fire, and stayed where I was. Banging and distant thumping continued, for all the world like a magnificent Guy Fawkes celebration. I could not hear any planes and came to the conclusion that the din was just some sort of ‘practice’.
Damage in the city was mainly confined to the north-east with the docks and shipyard heavily hit. The total number of civilian deaths was 13 including volunteer firefighters Brice Harkness and Archibald McDonald. Woodside remained shocked that the raid had occurred:
This morning, I was astonished to hear from my husband that there had been a genuine raid, and that he had been called to the hospital as additional staff to help the large numbers of injured. They got a number of places by the docks. We only live about one and a half miles from there; it seems amazing that all this can have happened so near, while I lay calmly in bed (and I am not by any means deaf!).
An astute Miss Bates received reliable information about a large fire that spread throughout the McCue, Dick, and Co. Timber Yard. She also noted the inaccuracies of local gossip when it came to casualties and reported on the downing of a Luftwaffe bomber by Squadron Leader J.W.C. Simpson based at R.A.F. Aldergrove.
Mrs. Bennett reported that there was a big fire (which I heard today was a timber yard). The A.A. sounded very poppety and shallow after the heavy London barrage. The earlier planes kept high but later they evidently found that the A.A. was not much risk and they flew lower. There were long intervals when I must have slept but several times bombs and planes and gunfire awoke me. They dropped three landmines – two fell in the Lough but one hit a spare parts factory and killed workmen rumoured to number from six to one hundred. The alert was 12.15 – 04.15. One plane was brought down by a fighter near Larne, exploded in the air.
In the days following the raids, Woodside contemplates the aftermath of a raid, lambasts the media’s cavalier Blitz Spirit attitude, and observes the most common reactions of the public.
Local newspaper reports said, almost as if it occurred in Timbuktu, ‘some damage to houses’; interview with rector of bombed church (unidentified), write-ups of heroism in dealing with incendiaries, etc. No suggestion anywhere that anything of importance was hit, or that anyone was unpleasantly wounded. I suppose it is ‘keeping up morale’ for the general public to be lulled into ignorance, and for them not to know about men with both legs blown off, backs broken, half their faces gone – or worse.
Later, she writes:
It would seem there are three main types of reaction to raids.
Those whose whole life seems conditioned by the possibility of a raid; who are constantly thinking about it; constantly unable to sleep or sleep badly; won’t go out in the evenings; run around at night filling baths and buckets and turning off taps etc.; talking about the certainty of more and worse raids, with a sort of eager gloom.
Those who do not bother with raids or precautions in the daytime; but who become hysterical and lose their nerve (and indeed their common sense) if a raid actually occurs.
Those who adopt a fatalistic attitude to the whole thing; who take no precautions and remain calm, resolutely quelling what imagination they possess.
Attitudes in the city would change somewhat with the Luftwaffe’s return the following week.
The bombs that fell on Belfast on the night of 15th-16th April 1941 claimed the lives of several hundred people. Among them were many women and children living in working-class areas in the north and east of the city. Estimates range from 600-700 but may be higher.
The writings of both Moya Woodside and Duffin agree on the beginning of the raid. This time around, the air raid sirens sounded across the city. The following morning, Woodside wrote:
Where to begin? Dazed and mentally battered after five and a half hours of Blitz last night, one does not feel at one’s most coherent. Sirens went about 10.30 p.m. as I was in the bath and the bombs started falling at 10.45. I went to bed and tried to sleep, but this proved impossible.
After an hour or so, one started listening and waiting for the bombs, wondering why the barrage wasn’t louder and trying to analyse peculiar sounds. Nazi planes kept coming back, for all the world like some giant swarm of insects, whose drone was only ineffectually interrupted by bangs and crashes. For lengthy periods, no noise could be heard but the planes kept flying about. One fretted ‘why don’t they fire at them’ and ‘where are our fighters?’
On the sounding of the sirens, the Anti-Aircraft Gun barrage began. At Stranmillis Military Hospital, Emma Duffin observed:
I was wakened by the siren at 10.45 and almost instantaneously the Anti-Aircraft Guns roared out. I hustled into my clothes and ran down the corridors to see that the girls were all awake and dressing and that the blackouts were up. I turned off the electricity at base every night, so that there was no possibility of anyone switching on an uncovered light.
The barrage grew more intense and the girls seemed to me incredibly slow about dressing, but dressing by torchlight with rather trembling fingers is not easy. At last, the Sergeants and I had assured ourselves that all bedrooms were empty, and we followed the rest up to the kitchen and half-underground passages of Stranmillis House… It was an old-fashioned, well-built stone house, and the kitchen had steel beams across the ceiling, which was rather reassuring.
The girls soon settled down. Some lay on shelves, others on tables, or the floor wrapped in their blankets. The Day Sisters had gone on duty but the V.A.D.s instructions were to wait for orders… To my surprise, Matron remained with us. I had thought her place would have been in the main hospital. I could well have done without her… Although the blackouts were up, she said they fitted badly. She was, I must admit, right there for I could see the light of the flares the German planes were dropping through the cracks. On the other hand, it was a beautiful moonlit night and light as day outside.
The Easter Tuesday raid lasted around 5 hours. During this time, the Luftwaffe attacked in waves dropping High Explosive Bombs, Incendiary Bombs, and Parachute Mines. In Sydenham, Doreen Bates mistakenly believed the Royal Air Force fighters were in action.
From 11.00 to 04.00, with scarcely a break of ten minutes, German planes kept coming over dropping heavy stuff and must have been heavy having regard to the degree of vibration and the distance, which was sufficient to prevent the windows here in the neighbourhood from being broken. The A.A. kept up a continuous barrage but it could not even keep them high. You could hear them dive before releasing their bombs. Our fighters were up and at times, there was incessant machine gunning. It was the worst night I have had here or at Purley. The Bennetts came down to my room and I made tea. At 01.20 I went to bed, thinking I was safe there as anywhere, and though it was impossible to sleep, I should be resting physically.
Miss Bates’ writings the day after the raid are for me the most evocative. I currently live within a few hundred yards of the house she resided in in 1941. What she witnessed and felt would have been my experience during the attack, but that’s a story for another day. Join us next time for more tales of Belfast during the Blitz.
Thank you to everyone who helped make this episode of ‘A Wee Bit Of War’, in particular to Cassie Jane Buckley who read as Doreen Bates, Clare Galway who read as Emma Duffin, and Anna Jane Gale who read as Moya Woodside.
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