Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Queen’s Road, Belfast

Today, the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard is known for its iconic cranes in Belfast. During the Second World War, it was a vital shipbuilding firm.

Harland and Wolff

Queen's Road

Belfast

BT3 9DU

Northern Ireland

Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast was one of the largest shipbuilding yards in the world. There, Belfast yardmen built White Star Line ships like RMS Olympic and the infamous RMS Titanic.

Belfast has a long history of shipbuilding dating back to 1636 when clergymen constructed ‘The Eagle’s Wing’ to sail to America. In 1791, William Ritchie of Saltcoats, Ayrshire brought large-scale shipbuilding to the River Lagan. This paved the way for firms such as McIlwaine and Coll, Workman Clark, and Harland Wolff.

Edward Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff founded their famous yard on 11th April 1861. They became profitable due to Wolff’s connections through his uncle Gustav Schwabe of Hamburg, Germany.

After the death of Edward Harland in 1895, William James Pirrie ran the company. During this time, they made vessels for the White Star Line including the infamous unsinkable Titanic. With political instability increasing in Belfast, Harland and Wolff purchased several other yards in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Southampton.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Belfast

Imperial War Museum Photo: (A 28022) (Part of the Admiralty Official Collection). Aerial view of the Musgrave Channel at Harland and Wolff's shipyard in Belfast. Construction of two new carriers in underway, HMS Magnificent and HMS Powerful. Photo taken in November 1944.

Planes and Trains

Before the outbreak of The Great War, over 25,000 men worked in the Belfast yards but this dropped to fewer than 3,000 by 1933. The outbreak of The Great War saw business boom for the Belfast-based shipyard. Times were not always good on Queen’s Island though and sectarian tension often led to the expulsion of Catholic workers.

An economic slump following the war coupled with a global recession in the 1920s brought an end to the Workman Clark yard. By 1931 at Harland and Wolff, there was an overdraft of £2.3 million. Employment fell to between 2,000 and 3,000. Over the course of the 1930s, the firm diversified and by 1934 employment reached 10,000. In 1935, they produced a world record of tonnage and 1938 saw more production than any other UK based yard. When Britain declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, Harland and Wolff was the only shipyard left in the city.

Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Harland and Wolff was a progressive company in another field. Along with Armstrong Whitworth in Northumberland, they pioneered work on diesel rail traction. History has all but forgotten these achievements. Harland and Wolff ran mainline diesel engines more than a decade before the London Midland and Scottish Railway No. 10000. It would take another 20 years for more well-known rail companies such as Brush Traction and English Electric to catch up.

Harland and Wolff’s aim in developing diesel locomotives was to broaden the yard’s market and to increase sales throughout the hungry 1930s. With the onset of war, attention switched to ship and tank building, aircraft manufacture, and the production of armaments. The Belfast company abandoned its railway initiative. Therefore, the output was just 8 complete locomotives in 5 years from 1933 to 1938.

They built diesel-electric trains for the Belfast and Co. Down Railway, locomotives for export to America and Australia, oil pipeline engines in The Middle East, and grain silos. They also produced steel structures for shops, theatres, and cinemas. By 1939, with war on the horizon, there were 18,000 workers although still relatively few Admiralty contracts. The United Kingdom government had reservations over Ulster’s productivity and how prone to strikes the workforce was.

In 1936, the threat of war already hung in the air over Europe. The rise of fascism across the continent lead to unease between nations. Against this background, Harland and Wolff began manufacturing aircraft with Short Brothers. The first Short and Harland order was from the Royal Air Force for 189 Handley Page Hereford Bombers. During the Second World War, this factory became synonymous with the Short Stirling Bomber. Throughout wartime, Short and Harland produced around 1,200 Short Stirling Bombers and 125 Short Sunderland Flying Boats. Short Stirling N6101 of the Royal Air Force’s No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit was one of the first to roll off the production line during wartime. In 1941, Harland and Wolff opened a repair base in Derry, which aided the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Harland and Wolff Trains

Image copyright Harland and Wolff. TheYard.info.

Second World War in the Shipyards

In the lead up to the Second World War, work in the Belfast shipyard intensified. Throughout the war, Harland and Wolff Shipyard began producing vessels at a rate not seen since The Great War or since the Golden Age of Victorian shipbuilding. As orders from the British Admiralty rolled in, employment rose again to over 20,000 men. Their output included gunboats, depot ships, monitors, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, patrol boats, trawlers, minesweepers, corvettes, tankers, and assault ships. As well as boats, Harland and Wolff made tanks and guns in the early years of the Second World War. With such prolific output fuelling the war effort, surely the Belfast shipyard would make a prime target for Nazi bombs.

For the Royal Navy, they constructed aircraft carriers such as HMS Formidable and HMS Unicorn. They also built around 110 other vessels including the cruiser HMS Belfast that saw action during the war. During the Second World War, around 35,000 people worked in the Harland and Wolff yard. In the early years of the war, they carried out repairs to over 22,000 vessels. As well as building works, the employees of Harland and Wolff contributed to the war effort through fundraising such as contributions to the Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund.

The Tanks of East Belfast

In September 1939, a request was made to Harland and Wolff to design a large infantry tank. Their design was the A20, an early prototype for what would become the Churchill tank. The first design anticipated trench warfare but by the fall of France in 1940, it was clear this war would be different from the last.

Vauxhall Engineering Works enhanced the design into the A22, the Churchill. Harland and Wolff continued to manufacture the tanks until May 1943. As well as the Churchill, they produced Matildas and Centaurs, around 550 tanks in total. Tanks built in Northern Ireland saw effective use throughout Europe and North Africa.

During the Belfast Blitz, Harland and Wolff moved its tank production facilities to the Woodburn Road, Carrickfergus. Today, the Co. Antrim coastal town proudly displays one of the Harland and Wolff built Churchill tanks belonging to the North Irish Horse Regiment.

Photos copyright Harland and Wolff.

Harland and Wolff in the Belfast Blitz

Authorities noted Queen’s Island as a vulnerable point as early as 1929. Mandatory provision of air raid shelters for factory workers only came into practise in the harbour area of Belfast. Westminster stated this was not ample provision, however Stormont still worried about the costs to industry. By 1940, Short and Harland could shelter its entire workforce and Harland and Wolff had provision to shelter 16,000 workers. These shelters were important as these factories had many employees working late at night and early in the morning when Luftwaffe attacks were likely.

Despite these provisions, Belfast was not prepared for what was to come.

The Luftwaffe Attacks

Luftwaffe bombs fell on the Harland and Wolff Shipyard during the Belfast Blitz. The incendiary and high-explosive devices caused severe damage on 7th-8th April 1941 during The Docks Raid. A total of 13 people died in the Docks and Queen’s Island area on that night including several Firewatchers at the shipyard.

The yards came under attack again during The Easter Raid of 15th-16th April 1941. While undergoing repairs, 3 Royal Navy ships sustained further damage by Luftwaffe bombs. Cranes toppled as blasts decimated Queen’s Yard, a boiler factory, and a power station. After the Belfast Blitz, the workload at Harland Wolff intensified. They built 6 aircraft carriers, 2 cruisers, and 131 other ships for the Royal Navy.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Docks Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Docks Raid

By

7th March 2018

The Belfast Blitz was the name given to a series of Luftwaffe raids on Northern Ireland in 1941. The Docks Raid came on the night of 7th-8th April 1941.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Easter Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Easter Raid

By

7th March 2018

On 15th-16th April 1941, Belfast, Co. Antrim came under ferocious attack from the Luftwaffe as the city endured The Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz.

Featured image for Belfast Blitz: The Fire Raid

Belfast Blitz: The Fire Raid

By

5th March 2018

On the night of 4th-5th May 1941, Luftwaffe bombers wreaked havoc across much of north, east, and central Belfast in what became known as The Fire Raid.

Harland and Wolff Fire Engine

Photo copyright Harland and Wolff. TheYard.info.

Harland and Wolff, Belfast

Belfast Telegraph Photo AR 103: Scenes of destruction at the famous Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Belfast after the Belfast Blitz raids of April and May 1941.

In the years after the Second World War, attention moved to the skies and jet-powered airliners led to a decline in ocean liner trade. The following decades saw further sectarian trouble in the yard and a steady decline in the number of ships built. In recent years, Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries was an industrial company. They specialised in ship repair, conversion, and offshore construction.

Belfast’s shipyards remain a recognisable part of the city with the giant yellow Samson and Goliath cranes towering over the east of the city. In recent years, a thriving television and movie industry has begun to flourish in the shadow of the giants. The Norwegian ownership of Harland and Wolff Industries went into administration on 5th August 2019. On 1st October 2019, London-based energy firm InfraStrata announced their purchase of the yard, preserving jobs and future industry on the historic site.

This post was part of my Shipyard Stories: From the Blitz to the Beachheads talk at EastSide Visitor Centre.

Harland and Wolff's wartime ships

Construction of the vessels below took place in Belfast's most famous shipyard. They all saw action with the Royal Navy between 1st September 1939 and 2nd September 1945.

Ship No. Name Type Launch Date Delivery Date Tonnage
482 HMS Glorious Light Battle Cruiser 20th April 1916 31st December 1916 22354
485 HMS M29 Coastal Monitor 22nd May 1915 20th June 1915
487 HMS M31 Coastal Monitor 24th June 1915 9th July 1915 360
489 HMS M33 Coastal Monitor 22nd May 1915 26th June 1915 360
492 HMS Erebus Monitor 19th June 1916 2nd September 1916 8022
493 HMS Terror Monitor 18th May 1916 6th August 1916 8022
500 HMS Vindictive Seaplane Carrier 17th January 1918 19th October 1918 7764
552 HMS St Aubin Tug 27th June 1918 21st August 1918 468
563 HMS St Mellons Tug 30th November 1918 30th December 1918 421
564 HMS St Olaves Tug 27th December 1918 4th March 1919 468
940 HMS Penelope Arethusa - class cruiser 15th October 1935 13th November 1936 5050
1000 HMS Belfast Southampton-class cruiser 17th March 1938 3rd August 1939 10173
1007 HMS Formidable lllustrious-class aircraft carrier 17th August 1939 24th November 1940 28094
1023 HMS Adamant Submarine depot ship 30th November 1940 28th February 1942 12500
1031 HMS Unicorn Aircraft maintenance 12th December 1939 9th March 1940 14750
1037 HMS Elm Tree-class trawler 12th December 1939 9th March 1940 530
1038 HMS Fir Tree-class Trawler 27th January 1940 30th April 1940 530
1039 HMS Bangor Bangor-class Minesweeper 23rd May 1940 4th November 1940 656
1040 HMS Blackpool Bangor-class Minesweeper 4th July 1940 7th February 1941 656
1041 HMS Coreopsis Flower-class corvette 23rd May 1940 17th August 1940 925
1042 HMS Crocus Flower-class corvette 26th June 1940 20th October 1940 925
1046 HMS Black Ranger Range-class Tanker 22nd August 1940 27th January 1941 3417
1047 HMS Blue Ranger Range-class Tanker 29th January 1941 6th June 1941 3417
1048 HMS Brown Ranger Range-class Tanker 12th December 1940 11th April 1941 3417
1049 HMS Black Prince Dido-class Cruiser 27th August 1942 20th November 1943 5950
1054 HMS Rumba Dance-class trawler 31st July 1940 12th November 1940 530
1055 HMS Sarabande Dance-class trawler 29th August 1940 2nd January 1941 530
1056 HMS Spirea Flower-class corvette 31st October 1940 27th February 1941 724
1057 HMS Starwort Flower-class corvette 12th February 1941 26th May 1941 724
1058 HMS Arabis Flower-class corvette 14th February 1940 5th April 1940 724
1059 HMS Periwinkle Flower-class corvette 24th February 1940 8th April 1940 724
1060 HMS Clarkia Flower-class corvette 7th March 1940 22nd April 1940 724
1061 HMS Calendula Flower-class corvette 21st March 1940 6th May 1940 724
1062 HMS Hibiscus Flower-class corvette 6th April 1940 21st May 1940 724
1063 HMS Heartsease Flower-class corvette 20th April 1940 4th June 1940 724
1064 HMS Camelia Flower-class corvette 4th May 1940 18th June 1940 724
1065 HMS Mallow Flower-class corvette 22nd May 1940 2nd July 1940 722
1066 HMS Peony Flower-class corvette 4th June 1940 2nd August 1940 722
1067 HMS Erica Flower-class corvette 18th June 1940 9th August 1940 722
1068 HMS Gloxinia Flower-class corvette 2nd July 1940 22nd August 1940 722
1069 HMS Picotee Flower-class corvette 19th July 1940 5th September 1940 724
1070 HMS Gentian Flower-class corvette 6th August 1940 22nd September 1940 723
1071 HMS Hyacinth Flower-class corvette 19th August 1940 3rd October 1940 723
1072 HMS Rhododendron Flower-class corvette 2nd September 1940 18th October 1940 724
1073 HMS Heather Flower-class corvette 17th September 1940 1st November 1940 724
1074 HMS Freesia Flower-class corvette 3rd October 1940 19th November 1940 724
1075 HMS Orchid Flower-class corvette 15th October 1940 29th November 1940 724
1076 HMS Kingcup Flower-class corvette 31st October 1940 3rd January 1941 724
1077 HMS Pimpernel Flower-class corvette 16th November 1940 9th January 1941 724
1084 HMS Romeo Shakespearian-class trawler 20th March 1941 28th June 1941 545
1085 HMS Rosalind Shakespearian-class trawler 3rd May 1941 20th October 1941 545
1086 HMS Oxslip Flower-class corvette 28th August 1941 27th December 1941 724
1087 HMS Pennywort Flower-class corvette 18th October 1941 5th March 1942 724
1091 HMS Campania Escort Aircraft carrier 17th June 1943 7th March 1944 12450
1095 HMS Abelia Flower-class corvette 28th November 1940 3rd February 1941 724
1096 HMS Alisma Flower-class corvette 17th December 1940 13th February 1941 724
1097 HMS Anchusa Flower-class corvette 15th January 1941 1st March 1941 808
1098 HMS Armeria Flower-class corvette 16th January 1941 28th March 1941 808
1099 HMS Aster Flower-class corvette 12th February 1941 11th April 1941 808
1100 HMS Bergamot Flower-class corvette 15th February 1941 9th May 1941 808
1101 HMS Vervian Flower-class corvette 12th March 1941 09th June 1941 808
1102 HMS Bryony Flower-class corvette 15th March 1941 16th June 1942 808
1103 HMS Buttercup Flower-class corvette 10th April 1941 24th April 1942 808
1105 HMS Cowslip Flower-class corvette 28th May 1941 9th August 1941 811
1106 HMS Eglantine Flower-class corvette 11th June 1941 27th August 1941 811
1107 HMS Fritillary Flower-class corvette 22nd July 1941 31st October 1941 811
1108 HMS Genista Flower-class corvette 24th July 1941 18th December 1941 811
1123 HMS Stronsay Isles-class Trawler 4th March 1942 24th April 1942 545
1124 HMS Switha Isles-class Trawler 3rd April 1942 15th June 1942 545
1132 HMS Algerine Algerian-class Minesweeper 22nd December 1941 24th March 1942 1054
1133 HMS Alarm Algerian-class Minesweeper 5th February 1942 16th May 1942 1054
1134 HMS Albacor Algerian-class Minesweeper 2nd April 1943 16th June 1942 1054
1135 HMS Acute Algerian-class Minesweeper 14th April 1943 30th July 1942 1054
1136 HMS Cadmus Algerian-class Minesweeper 27th May 1943 September 1942 1054
1137 HMS Circe Algerian-class Minesweeper 27th June 1943 16th October 1942 1053
1138 HMS Espiegle Algerian-class Minesweeper 12th August 1943 December 1942 1053
1139 HMS Fantome Algerian-class Minesweeper 22nd September 1943 22nd January 1943 1053
1140 HMS Mutine Algerian-class Minesweeper 10th October 1943 26th February 1943 1053
1141 HMS Onyx Algerian-class Minesweeper 27th October 1943 26th March 1943 1053
1142 HMS Rattler Algerian-class Minesweeper 9th December 1943 22nd April 1943 1053
1143 HMS Ready Algerian-class Minesweeper 11th January 1944 21st May 1943 1053
1144 HMS Rinaldo Algerian-class Minesweeper 20th March 1944 18th June 1943 1053
1145 HMS Rosario Algerian-class Minesweeper 3rd April 1944 9th July 1943 1053
1146 HMS Spenaker Algerian-class Minesweeper 20th April 1944 20th August 1943 1053
1147 HMS Vestal Algerian-class Minesweeper 19th June 1944 September 1943 1053
1153 HMS Thruster Landing Ship Tank 24th September 1943 14th March 1943 5593
1154 HMS Bruiser Landing Ship Tank 24th October 1943 2nd April 1943 5596
1155 HMS Boxer Landing Ship Tank 12th December 1942 1st May 1943 5596
1162 HMS Kale River-class corvette 24th June 1942 4th December 1942 1370
1170 HMS Tweed River-class corvette 24th November 1942 28th April 1943 1370
1172 HMS Oxna Isles-class Trawler 26th January 1943 22nd May 1943 545
1185 HMS Helmsdale River-class corvette 5th June 1943 15th October 1943 1370
1186 HMS Meon River-class corvette 4th August 1943 31st December 1943 1460
1191 HMS Glory Colossus class 27th November 1943 2nd April 1945 13190
1201 HMS Pickle Algerian-class Minesweeper 3rd August 1943 15th October 1943 1083
1202 HMS Pincher Algerian-class Minesweeper 19th August 1943 12th November 1943 1084
1203 HMS Plucky Algerian-class Minesweeper 29th September 1943 10th December 1943 1084
1204 HMS Recruit Algerian-class Minesweeper 26th October 1943 14th January 1944 1084
1205 HMS Rifleman Algerian-class Minesweeper 25th November 1943 11th February 1944 1084
1206 HMS Squirrel Algerian-class Minesweeper 20th April 1944 16th August 1944 1084
1207 HMS Chameleon Algerian-class Minesweeper 6th May 1944 14th September 1944 1084
1208 HMS Cheerful Algerian-class Minesweeper 22nd May 1944 13th October 1944 1084
1209 HMS Hare Algerian-class Minesweeper 20th June 1944 10th November 1944 1084
1210 HMS Jewel Algerian-class Minesweeper 20th July 1944 9th December 1944 1084
1211 HMS Liberty Algerine-class minesweeper 22nd August 1944 18th January 1945 1084
1226 HMS Halladale River-class corvette 28th January 1944 11th May 1944 1370
1235 HMS Humberstone Castle-class corvette 12th April 1944 20th September 1944 1100
1236 HMS Oakham Castle Castle-class corvette 20th July 1944 10th December 1944 1100
1238 HMS Oxford Castle Castle-class corvette 11th December 1943 10th March 1944 1100
1239 HMS Pevesney Castle Castle-class corvette 11th January 1944 10th June 1944 1100
1246 HMS Loch Craggie Loch-class frigate 23rd May 1944 15th June 1944 1435
1247 HMS Loch Gorm Loch-class frigate 8th June 1944 7th July 1944 1435
1248 HMS Loch Killisport Loch-class frigate 6th July 1944 9th September 1945 1435
1249 HMS St Austell Bay Bay-class frigate 18th November 1944 29th May 1945 1600
1259 HMS Widemouth Bay Bay-class frigate 19th October 1944 13th April 1945 1600
1261 HMS Whitesand Bay Bay-class frigate 16th December 1944 30th July 1945 1600