Harland and Wolff Shipyard in Belfast, Co. Antrim 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, Co. Antrim, Harland and Wolff purchased several other yards in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Southampton.
Planes and Trains
Before the outbreak of the First World 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 World War Two, 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 main line 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 their 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 an 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, Co. Londonderry, which aided the Allies in the Battle of the Atlantic.
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 World War Two. 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 World War Two, 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.