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 2/2 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.
It’s 16th April 1941, and in East Belfast, Miss Doreen Bates is recalling the terror of the previous night’s devastating Luftwaffe raid on the city. 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.
Several times the bed swayed like a cot being rocked; doors and windows rattled; shrapnel patted on the shed roof outside; I could see against the Blackout the glare of the fires. The most nerve-wracking thing to me was when the Germans glided in silently and only the crump of the bombs. I went over poems in my head, they seemed even lovelier and more permanent in that inferno. Having exhausted those I could remember, I went onto hymns and psalms, but I could remember fewer of those.
While some like Doreen Bates turned to their faith, others turned to a different kind of spirit. In Elmwood Avenue in South Belfast, Moya Woodside attempted to settle her nerves with a stiff drink.
At 3 a.m. I could stand it no longer and feeling desperately frightened and somewhat hysterical, put on a dressing gown and went down to join my husband in his vigil below the stairs. I grabbed the whiskey decanter, and with shaking hands drank off about a quarter tumbler neat to try and pull myself together. (Usually I dislike whiskey and I never touch it.) We then sat down in the pantry under the stairs, and just waited. After a while, I recovered my self-control, and began to reflect mournfully that this – this was civilisation in 1941. Sitting, shivering, bored and frightened in a cubby hole at 3.30 a.m.
At that time, the raid was at its peak but bombs would continue to fall across the city for another couple of hours. Emma Duffin wrote the following morning:
We realised this was a real Blitz but not ‘til the next day did we know how severe it had been. The night seemed interminable. It was not ‘til nearly 6 a.m. that we heard the welcome sound of the All Clear. When we emerged, we saw the sky red with the reflection from fires, and realised there must be a good deal of damage.
The following morning, those who survived the horrific attack realised their good fortune. In the east of the city, Doreen Bates soon learned that it was homes and businesses on the other side of the River Lagan that suffered the most that night.
This morning it was good to be alive and I enjoyed every crumb of breakfast. I listened to the 08.00 news to hear what the family would learn and decided to write, reassuring them at once. It was amazing after that noise to find not a tile off or window broken ‘til I had gone some distance to the office towards Belfast.
The raid left hundreds dead and many more injured. Across the city, thousands would become homeless as a result of the heavy bombing. For key workers such as Emma Duffin, life had to continue as normal.
Everyone went on duty as usual next day. One girl came back, with a green face and eyes like saucers, her home was gone, her people at a rest centre, but she had seen the dead body of a child carried from the ruins of a house and it had shaken her. Bit by bit, news of the extensive damage reached us, Harland Wolff, Victoria Barracks, Ewart’s Mill, Dixon’s Timber Yard. Some reports were exaggerated, but it was obvious a good deal of damage had been done…
Even those in roles such as nursing were unprepared for what followed. In her diary, Emma Duffin spoke of a conversation with a fellow nurse.
One poor child, who also came from Éire, looked dazed and shaken. ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing’, she said, ‘and the Sister of the wards has been recalled to another hospital where there are casualties. Oh, am I glad to see you.’
‘You’ll have to keep calm. If Sister’s gone, they’ll depend on you’, I said, but I felt a bit worried about her. She had been ill recently and her very agitated and funny mother had arrived from Queen’s County. She referred to her always as ‘Bubbles’ and spoke of how marvellous ‘Bubbles’ had been in air raids at Bristol and what a wonderful nurse she was.
Actually, she was unsuited to be a nurse, as she was untidy and messy, and never got good reports, though she was a nice child to speak to and meant well. I began to wonder whether poor ‘Bubbles’ had stood up to the air raids in Bristol as well as her fond mother imagined.
She was going to out house to tea the next day, so I slipped round after tea to see how she was. She still looked dazed, and her clothes were pit on anyway, her shoes were filthy and even her hands looked dirty, She told me she had felt cold and shivery ever since the Blitz so, as she had a half day, I advised her to go to bed with a hot drink and hot water bag.
This was the reality of the aftermath of such a large raid. There had not yet been time to fully process the damage or high mortality rate. In fact, in some areas, air raid shelters had taken direct hits and it would be several weeks before a full assessment could be carried out as bodies emerged from the debris.
Moya Woodside ventured into the city centre on 16th April 1941. She had already noted a difference of attitude in the hours following the attack.
Went downtown on my bike shopping. Atmosphere completely different from the morning after our previous ‘sample’ raid last week. People are quiet and look harassed and weary. ‘Isn’t it awful’ is the most frequent comment. There seems less tendency to dilate our personal experiences. Everyone is asking; ‘why don’t we have a proper barrage. They did just as they liked’.
Passed railway station after lunch on my way to the refugee committee. I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of people crowding in, cars, buses, carts, and lorries, bath chairs, women pushing prams, and go-karts with anything up to six or eight children trailing along, belongings in blankets, pillowcases, baskets, and boxes.
Coming back from the committee at 4.00 p.m., found that the station doors had been shut. Crowds were waiting outside, mothers and children sitting on the pavement al round, constant streams of people arriving on foot and on buses, many looking exhausted. It was a heartbreaking sight.
Went up to see some friends, living on the road which leads out of town. Such an exodus, on foot, in trams, lorries, trailers, cattle floats bicycles, delivery vans, anything that would move would be utilised. Private cars streamed past laden with women and children, with mattresses tied on top and all sorts of paraphernalia roped on behind. Hundreds were waiting at the main bus stops. Anxiety on every face.
What became known as The Fire Raid occurred on the night of 4th-5th May 1941. The city fell victim to tens of thousands of Incendiary Bombs. Our storytellers agree that the severity of the attack was much greater than The Easter Raid.
Doreen Bates in Sydenham begins:
I caught the 6.00 p.m. train from Dublin and came from Belfast by tram reaching the house at 11.55. Three quarters of an hour later the siren went and I felt the contrast between peace and war in all its force.
Moya Woodside in South Belfast picks up the narrative as the sirens sounded. Her change in attitude is noticeable, disbelief and fear replaced by boredom.
Sirens went at midnight and at 12.30 it started. I stayed in bed ’til the noise became too shattering, and then put on slacks and dressing gown and came down to join the maid in the kitchen. We got under the table with pillows, rugs, and eiderdowns, and stayed there, uncomfortable, cold and scared, ’til about 4.30 a.m. How boring it is – unutterably boring – thus to spend one’s nights. Bombs and barrage both were louder and nearer than on the 15th but perhaps sounded worse in the imagination, as windows and roof remained intact.
The heavy bombing in East Belfast caused minor damage to Bates’ ground floor flat.
It was the worst Blitz I have experienced. Our side of the river got it this time (while the other side got it on Easter Tuesday). The half-hour from 1.00 a.m. was the worst. We were in the dining room and the windows were blown out; I saw a piece of wood fly across the room and huge clouds of soot and smoke from the fire, before the gas went out. We migrated to my sitting room (which has three inside walls – I had selected it as the safest room in the house before and it was the only room with unbroken windows the next day). We had an oil lamp as the fire had not been lighted. The ceiling of the larder and some moulding from my bedroom ceiling came down. The noise was terrific. It went on without a lull at all ’til 2.30 and gradually abated ’til 4.00. We went to bed at ten to five with the sky light with fires.
Also in agreement regarding the barbarity of the attack was Emma Duffin at Stranmillis Military Hospital.
I do not know how the others reacted but having seen those pathetic streets smashed to dust, those distorted bodies, the horror was brought home to me more, but I’m glad to say, though I felt horrified, I did not feel fear. None of the V.A.Ds nor maids showed signs of panic, though I sensed a slight shudder as bomb after bomb dropped. The barrage this time was terrific. We soon realised it was an even worse Blitz than the last.
I looked with something like despair at the town. The sky was red above it, great clouds of smoke rose eddying and billowing from the direction of the lough. I thought of the people who had already endured the last Blitz, cowering in terror in the shelters in the already shattered areas.
About 4 o’clock it ended and we came back to the quarters. The smell of burning was in the air, the grass was strewn with… papers. There was a sheet from some child’s essay book. On the top page I read ‘The End of the World’. It seemed appropriate. This was the end of the world as we knew it…
The following morning, Moya Woodside stepped outside into the city streets noting the juxtaposition between the bright spring morning and the terror of the previous night.
Saw several women garbed in slacks and fur coats, looking very strange in the beautiful May sunshine. One can’t believe to look at green trees and white blossom and birds singing that these nights of horror are not some evil dream.
It was far from some evil dream. In many ways, Emma Duffin called it correctly when she stated it was the end of the world as we knew it. In just under a month, the Luftwaffe had decimated large areas of the city. Hundreds died as a result, many thousands more nursed injuries, lost their homes, or fled from the city.
As the dust began to settle in the city following the Luftwaffe raids, there were many varying reactions to the horror. Following the Fire Raid of 5th-6th May 1941, Doreen Bates’ diary provides the most modern of reactions. It is easy to imagine her complaints of everyday inconveniences popping up on her social media today:
Belfast has begun to return to normal, more quickly than after Easter Tuesday. Buses, few and sporadic, were running on much diverted routes but I managed to go and come fairly well.
On the Antrim side of the river, services are normal. The Telegraph office was packed and telegrams were being accepted only at sender’s risk. No English papers since Sunday and the shop where I am registered for bacon and cheese and jam has disappeared.
The following day, she added:
Spent most of lunchtime going to the Food Office to ask where to get rations of cheese, bacon, and jam now that my shop is burnt down. I was given four alternative shops and got some bacon after a long wait at Liptons. Aso for the first time in N.I., I got lamb cutlets for my meat ration.
These everyday writings provide such a personal glimpse into the aftermath of the attacks. In April 1941, Moya Woodside write of the difficulties of getting around the city:
Road most of the way was inches deep in subsoil, mud thrown up from the craters, and at one point I skidded and fell flat on my face with the bike on top. A kindly policeman picked me up, and led me into a bombed house, where he found some water and wiped the mud off with his handkerchief.
It was a peculiar experience to stand in someone else’s scullery in the gathering darkness, surrounded by debris and have a policeman direct the removal of mud from one’s face. Mirrors, of course, were all shattered.
Continued my ride somewhat shaken, through more mud and passed fresh fires and crashing slates. Found two weary-eyed friends at home. We opened some wine rather than let Hitler have it and drank a bottle before collapsing into bed.
It took some time of the effects of the air raids to sink in. Following the Easter Tuesday raid, Moya Woodside wrote:
It has now been discovered that what we had was as severe as Coventry or Glasgow. Hundreds of planes were used, Everyone I meet has some terrible story of death and damage and disorganisation.
Another entry stated:
Only now three days afterwards are people beginning to realise the results of the raid. Paper is full of cancellations, notices of changes of addresses, lists of names under ‘by enemy action’ in obituary columns, instructions to homeless, etc. Unidentified bodies have been collected at the market and there is talk of a mass funeral…
Many of the dead lay in public baths around the city but also in St. George’s Market, which doubled as a temporary morgue for hundreds of unclaimed bodies. V.A.D. Commandant Emma Duffin’s diary entry relating to one visit to the market place makes for rather harrowing reading in places but is an astonishing piece of writing:
Saturday afternoon, the fifth day after the Blitz, I went to the Market. Will I ever bring myself to buy flowers and vegetables there again?
The gates were guarded by police, but at the sight of my uniform, they opened them. Molly, poor thing, had already been there and, to a certain extent, prepared me for what I was to see. The place was full of coffins, some varnished but the majority plain…
At the end of the hall was a Salvation Army Mobile Canteen, and beside it was a rough table where some men with papers took particulars. Red Cross and St. John nurses and some civilian volunteers met and went round with relatives, two men went round with each group and opened the coffins, lifting the lids. There were two doctors in attendance. A man watered the ground with disinfectant from a watering pot, a wise precaution as the place smelt.
It was a lofty airy place fortunately but a bitter cold wind whistled through the gates, and the disinfectant had soaked and made puddles on the floor. It was a hideous nightmare.
Only small groups were allowed in at a time, mercifully. I went with a man and his wife first. They looked desolate, exhausted, with red-rimmed eyes, and haggard faces. They were looking for a sister-in-law. They had seen all the coffins but more were being brought in and they hung around waiting. I found a Mrs. Lindsay, a St. John member and she and I went round with another group. There was a certain amount of organisation, the men’s coffins were together, and the women’s and children’s at the other side of the hall. As each was identified, it was our duty to put the names of the body and the identifier in the coffin, and men moved it to the side, were they were put ’til the relatives removed them for burial. Particulars were handed to the men at the desks. In some of the coffins, rough notes were written in chalk. The name of the street where the body had been found, a rough description; ‘middle-aged woman, grey hair’, ‘young girl, dark hair’, ‘young girl wearing necklace’… All the way to the place I had told myself I was bound to see horrible sights, but only when seen could the full horror be realised.
I had seen many dead, but they had died in hospital beds, their eyes had been reverently closed, their hands crossed on their breasts, death had to a certain extent been glossed over, made decent. It was solemn, tragic, dignified, but here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible. No attendant nurse had soothes the last moments of these victims, no gentle reverent hands had closed those eyes, not crossed these arms. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, contorted limbs, their grey-green faces covered with dirt, they lay, bundled into the coffins, half shrouded in rugs or blankets or an occasional sheet, still wearing their dirty, torn, twisted garments. Death should be dignified, peaceful. Hitler had made even death grotesque!
I felt outraged. I should have felt pity, sympathy, grief, but instead feelings of repulsion and disgust assailed me. The men who were moving the coffins by means of dirty strips of calico slipped beneath them, were of the roughest, coarsest type. One was disfigured by a skin disease. They shouted to each other as they worked. God knows it was a distasteful enough job and they had been at it for five days, enough to stifle feelings in more sensitive people. A youngish girl stood in a group dressed in Red Cross uniform. She was chewing sweets. ‘We’ve been on since 9.30 this morning, it’s an awful job, we’re just about fed up’, she said in a common voice. I was sorry for her but shuddered to think of grieving relatives searching amongst those gruesome remains for someone they loved, being accompanied by a girl of that type. It was no job for a girl and nobody should have been kept at it for more than a few hours at a time.
Mrs. Lindsay and I found to our horror a child about seven or eight seated on a chair, waiting for her mother. How anyone could have allowed a child to enter that hall of death I do not know. Mercifully, someone had set her behind a screen, but she could not but have seen the coffins when she entered, and she must have known the terrible errand that had brought her mother there. What impression would she carry through life of that day?
We got her some tea, a bun, and biscuits from the Salvation Army Canteen and left her there, though the thought of anybody eating in that place filled me with nausea. One group of people consisting of six relatives seemed to be touring the lines of coffins over and over again.
One of the girls, of a very low looking type, had lost a brother and was looking for another relative. Beside her, a strange, repulsive creature shuffled, her shabby hat perched on the very top of her head, her twisted hands clasped in front of her. She mumbled and murmured words I could not catch, retelling horrors and, I could not help feeling, perhaps unjustly, enjoying a certain amount of satisfaction from being included in the drama and tragedy.
The woman was looking in vain for her mother and sister; she had been up from the country on this awful quest three days running. She was wrapped in a shawl and her husband looked a rough type, but her brother who had just arrived from Dublin, hoping to carry his mother and sister off to safety and had instead been brought here to search for their bodies, was very well dressed in a good pilot overcoat and soft hat. He was in a terrible state… I wanted to get him a hot drink, but found the Mobile Canteen gone. I asked a policeman where there was a restaurant, but he said they were closed round here as they’d run out of food after the Blitz.
My two hours duty drew to an end. The place was closing down ’til the next day, Sunday, the last day. After that, any unclaimed bodies were to be buried in a common grave.
I came away, drawing deep breaths of fresh air. So this was the result of a Blitz. I had heard of it, pictured it, now seen it. I prayed I should never see it again. I saw in my mind’s eye the grey-green faces of children, one in a coffin with its mother, and the bare foot of a little child, and I heard the voice of a woman in my ear, asking for a child, a little boy in ‘velvet trousers’. I tried not to think of it, and think of ‘whatsoever things are good, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report’; birds, flowers, beautiful skies, and seas. Hitler could not distort those.
While this was the reality faced by many in the city, the media reporting came under severe criticism, particularly from Woodside.
Press reports of the raids are nauseating. Of course they are hampered by not being allowed to mention any street or building by name, but even so, it shouldn’t be necessary to turn out all the journalistic cliché and claptrap about ‘stricken mothers’, ‘citizens’, ‘courage and stoicism’, ‘traders carrying on with a smile’, etc. Truth is that people are dazed, worn out, many despairing, nerves and instability everywhere, evacuation and rest centres a mess of conflicting instructions and overwhelmed by sheer numbers; thousands walk out of town every night to sleep in the fields and suburbs, local authorities were almost totally unprepared to cope with such a situation. (As I was one of the ones who wishful-thinkingly held the theory we wouldn’t be bombed, I am in no position to criticise. The foregoing is merely a statement of fact).
This was her thoughts on what has since become known as “Blitz Spirit”.
Everyone is quoting Lord Haw-Haw! He said this or he said that. He will give us time to bury the dead before the next attack. Tuesday was only a sample. People living in such and such a district will have their turn. The harbour is entirely destroyed, and so on. How much is truth, and how much is colourful and panic imagination I’m not in a position to say. No one I asked has actually heard Haw-Haw say these things himself, it was always ‘they say’.
The beauty of these personal records is the mix of the mundane everyday life in the midst of the atrocities. To this diary entry, Woodside added:
Left my shopping to rather late in the afternoon and found there was no bread left and hardly any biscuits.
Like much of the news we have experienced over the last number of years, from Trump, to Brexit, to COVID-19, people soon began to tire of the Blitz. Woodside wrote in April 1941:
Raid – raid – raid – How sick I am of hearing it. No other subject of conversation exists. At customary family gathering today, it went on and on, being discussed from every angle, each newcomer contributing something fresh, ’til I reached the stage of feeling I should scream.
The series of air raids that became known as the Belfast Blitz left a lasting impact on the city. Even today, one can still see the literal scars. Damaged brickwork on the old Belfast Telegraph building and Public Library are a visual reminder of the bombing. At Stormont Parliament Buildings, a large crater remains from an explosion 80 years ago.
Across the city, streets simply disappeared from maps. Records suggest that every single resident of Burke Street died as a result of the Luftwaffe attack, the houses demolished, and the street never rebuilt.
In the city centre, at Bridge Street and High Street, it would be some 20 years before buildings re-emerged on bombed-out sites. The old Buoy Park next to St. Anne’s Cathedral is another remnant of the clearances that followed.
In June 1941, Woodside noted how difficult it would be for the city to move on from such an event as she visited a working-class neighbourhood in the north of the city:
The place is still in a terrible mess, with whole slabs of street lying in disorderly ruins. Not much chance of forgetting things if you lived there, I thought.
As well as the damage caused to the structure of the city, the effects of the 1941 bombings left a last impression on those who survived. Among our storytellers, two would go on to continue work in welfare, with a particular focus on the working class. While Moya Woodside’s later career controversially focussed on the field of eugenics, Emma Duffin was seen as a much more caring figure in Northern Ireland.
That’s not to say Woodside was unsympathetic to the needs of those who survived the events of the Belfast Blitz. She keenly observed the impact the bombings had on the city’s poor.
Visited a woman in the Poor Law Infirmary who has been there since April 15th Blitz, suffering from burns and a broken leg. All of her four children had been killed, but she was still in ignorance of this and believed them to have been evacuated. The Sister told me that the woman’s husband has not plucked up courage to tell her yet; and that he was supposed to have returned to work in England last Saturday.
[She] described her experiences to me, saying how the last thing she remembered was being pinned under a mass of bricks and hearing the children screaming that they were being burnt. Curiously enough, she scarcely made any enquiries about them, which made the interview much easier than I had anticipated.
And then I think of people I know with cars and friends and house in the country, who have comfortably evacuated themselves and now complain loudly of inconvenience or slow trains of a few broken windows.
More than 80 years on from the horrific events of April and May 1941, there remains a huge discrepancy in society. Many pieces of writing, presentations, and talks will focus on those who died as a result of the Belfast Blitz. Historians will argue over statistics, facts, and figures. Online debate will often be reduced to sectarian point-scoring.
While we must remember and share the stories of all that happened, it is important not to forget those who lived the experience. The stories of Moya Woodside, Emma Duffin, and Doreen Bates are vital in the accurate telling of the events. Women who lived and breathed the terror of those four nights in 1941, and whose lives would be impacted for many years.
Many thousands of people in Northern Ireland found their lives turned upside down following the raids, but one group was more affected than any other. The final words go to Moya Woodside who, when visiting a family in north Belfast, ruefully observed:
They are awaiting £50 compensation for their old house and in the meantime have literally only what they stand up in, bedclothes, whatever, some makeshift furniture, and a borrowed saucepan. The man’s job has gone too, from earning £4.15 a week, they are reduced to Unemployment Benefit. And nobody cares. War affects everyone but as usual, the very poor are the worst sufferers.
To cover the entirety of the Belfast Blitz in a podcast episode or even two is impossible. These stories simply highlight some of the events, the thoughts, the feelings, the emotions of people in the city in 1941.
We must remember too that Bangor, Newtownards, and Derry/Londonderry suffered under Luftwaffe bombs in April 1941. There are many more stories from the well-known arrival of the Irish firefighters, Sheila the Elephant, the Delia Murphy concert in the Ulster Hall, the fleeing of thousands of evacuees, and possibly many more tales yet to be uncovered.
While stories from the time are often understandably heavy going, I’ll leave you with an anecdotal tale from somewhere in the city in April 1941. An elderly couple left their home at the height of the raid, scurrying to a nearby shelter. Halfway down the street, the woman stops in her tracks and begins running for home. Her husband shouts after her. She screams up the street: “I can’t go on. I haven’t got my teeth in!” A weary husband replies: “It’s bombs they’re dropping, not sandwiches!”
And that folks, is Blitz Spirit in Belfast.
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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