Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Queen’s Road, Belfast, Co. Down

The famous Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast is known for its iconic cranes Samson and Goliath. During World War Two it was a vital shipbuilding firm.

Harland and Wolff

Queen's Road

Belfast

Co. Down

United Kingdom

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.

Harland and Wolff Shipyard, Belfast, Co. Down

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, Co. Down. 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 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.

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 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.

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.

Harland and Wolff Fire Engine

Photo copyright Harland and Wolff. TheYard.info.

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.NameTypeLaunch DateDelivery DateTonnage
482HMS GloriousLight Battle Cruiser20th April 191631st December 191622354
485HMS M29Coastal Monitor22nd May 191520th June 1915
487HMS M31Coastal Monitor24th June 19159th July 1915360
489HMS M33Coastal Monitor22nd May 191526th June 1915360
492HMS ErebusMonitor19th June 19162nd September 19168022
493HMS TerrorMonitor18th May 19166th August 19168022
500HMS VindictiveSeaplane Carrier17th January 191819th October 19187764
552HMS St AubinTug27th June 191821st August 1918468
563HMS St MellonsTug30th November 191830th December 1918421
564HMS St OlavesTug27th December 19184th March 1919468
940HMS PenelopeArethusa - class cruiser15th October 193513th November 19365050
1000HMS BelfastSouthampton-class cruiser17th March 19383rd August 193910173
1007HMS Formidablelllustrious-class aircraft carrier17th August 193924th November 194028094
1023HMS AdamantSubmarine depot ship30th November 194028th February 194212500
1031HMS UnicornAircraft maintenance12th December 19399th March 194014750
1037HMS ElmTree-class trawler12th December 19399th March 1940530
1038HMS FirTree-class Trawler27th January 194030th April 1940530
1039HMS BangorBangor-class Minesweeper23rd May 19404th November 1940656
1040HMS BlackpoolBangor-class Minesweeper4th July 19407th February 1941656
1041HMS CoreopsisFlower-class corvette23rd May 194017th August 1940925
1042HMS CrocusFlower-class corvette26th June 194020th October 1940925
1046HMS Black RangerRange-class Tanker22nd August 194027th January 19413417
1047HMS Blue RangerRange-class Tanker29th January 19416th June 19413417
1048HMS Brown RangerRange-class Tanker12th December 194011th April 19413417
1049HMS Black PrinceDido-class Cruiser27th August 194220th November 19435950
1054HMS RumbaDance-class trawler31st July 194012th November 1940530
1055HMS SarabandeDance-class trawler29th August 19402nd January 1941530
1056HMS SpireaFlower-class corvette31st October 194027th February 1941724
1057HMS StarwortFlower-class corvette12th February 194126th May 1941724
1058HMS ArabisFlower-class corvette14th February 19405th April 1940724
1059HMS PeriwinkleFlower-class corvette24th February 19408th April 1940724
1060HMS ClarkiaFlower-class corvette7th March 194022nd April 1940724
1061HMS CalendulaFlower-class corvette21st March 19406th May 1940724
1062HMS HibiscusFlower-class corvette6th April 194021st May 1940724
1063HMS HeartseaseFlower-class corvette20th April 19404th June 1940724
1064HMS CameliaFlower-class corvette4th May 194018th June 1940724
1065HMS MallowFlower-class corvette22nd May 19402nd July 1940722
1066HMS PeonyFlower-class corvette4th June 19402nd August 1940722
1067HMS EricaFlower-class corvette18th June 19409th August 1940722
1068HMS GloxiniaFlower-class corvette2nd July 194022nd August 1940722
1069HMS PicoteeFlower-class corvette19th July 19405th September 1940724
1070HMS GentianFlower-class corvette6th August 194022nd September 1940723
1071HMS HyacinthFlower-class corvette19th August 19403rd October 1940723
1072HMS RhododendronFlower-class corvette2nd September 194018th October 1940724
1073HMS HeatherFlower-class corvette17th September 19401st November 1940724
1074HMS FreesiaFlower-class corvette3rd October 194019th November 1940724
1075HMS OrchidFlower-class corvette15th October 194029th November 1940724
1076HMS KingcupFlower-class corvette31st October 19403rd January 1941724
1077HMS PimpernelFlower-class corvette16th November 19409th January 1941724
1084HMS RomeoShakespearian-class trawler20th March 194128th June 1941545
1085HMS RosalindShakespearian-class trawler3rd May 194120th October 1941545
1086HMS OxslipFlower-class corvette28th August 194127th December 1941724
1087HMS PennywortFlower-class corvette18th October 19415th March 1942724
1091HMS CampaniaEscort Aircraft carrier17th June 19437th March 194412450
1095HMS AbeliaFlower-class corvette28th November 19403rd February 1941724
1096HMS AlismaFlower-class corvette17th December 194013th February 1941724
1097HMS AnchusaFlower-class corvette15th January 19411st March 1941808
1098HMS ArmeriaFlower-class corvette16th January 194128th March 1941808
1099HMS AsterFlower-class corvette12th February 194111th April 1941808
1100HMS BergamotFlower-class corvette15th February 19419th May 1941808
1101HMS VervianFlower-class corvette12th March 194109th June 1941808
1102HMS BryonyFlower-class corvette15th March 194116th June 1942808
1103HMS ButtercupFlower-class corvette10th April 194124th April 1942808
1105HMS CowslipFlower-class corvette28th May 19419th August 1941811
1106HMS EglantineFlower-class corvette11th June 194127th August 1941811
1107HMS FritillaryFlower-class corvette22nd July 194131st October 1941811
1108HMS GenistaFlower-class corvette24th July 194118th December 1941811
1123HMS StronsayIsles-class Trawler4th March 194224th April 1942545
1124HMS SwithaIsles-class Trawler3rd April 194215th June 1942545
1132HMS AlgerineAlgerian-class Minesweeper22nd December 194124th March 19421054
1133HMS AlarmAlgerian-class Minesweeper5th February 194216th May 19421054
1134HMS AlbacorAlgerian-class Minesweeper2nd April 194316th June 19421054
1135HMS AcuteAlgerian-class Minesweeper14th April 194330th July 19421054
1136HMS CadmusAlgerian-class Minesweeper27th May 1943September 19421054
1137HMS CirceAlgerian-class Minesweeper27th June 194316th October 19421053
1138HMS EspiegleAlgerian-class Minesweeper12th August 1943December 19421053
1139HMS FantomeAlgerian-class Minesweeper22nd September 194322nd January 19431053
1140HMS MutineAlgerian-class Minesweeper10th October 194326th February 19431053
1141HMS OnyxAlgerian-class Minesweeper27th October 194326th March 19431053
1142HMS RattlerAlgerian-class Minesweeper9th December 194322nd April 19431053
1143HMS ReadyAlgerian-class Minesweeper11th January 194421st May 19431053
1144HMS RinaldoAlgerian-class Minesweeper20th March 194418th June 19431053
1145HMS RosarioAlgerian-class Minesweeper3rd April 19449th July 19431053
1146HMS SpenakerAlgerian-class Minesweeper20th April 194420th August 19431053
1147HMS VestalAlgerian-class Minesweeper19th June 1944September 19431053
1153HMS ThrusterLanding Ship Tank24th September 194314th March 19435593
1154HMS BruiserLanding Ship Tank24th October 19432nd April 19435596
1155HMS BoxerLanding Ship Tank12th December 19421st May 19435596
1162HMS KaleRiver-class corvette24th June 19424th December 19421370
1170HMS TweedRiver-class corvette24th November 194228th April 19431370
1172HMS OxnaIsles-class Trawler26th January 194322nd May 1943545
1185HMS HelmsdaleRiver-class corvette5th June 194315th October 19431370
1186HMS MeonRiver-class corvette4th August 194331st December 19431460
1191HMS GloryColossus class27th November 19432nd April 194513190
1201HMS PickleAlgerian-class Minesweeper3rd August 194315th October 19431083
1202HMS PincherAlgerian-class Minesweeper19th August 194312th November 19431084
1203HMS PluckyAlgerian-class Minesweeper29th September 194310th December 19431084
1204HMS RecruitAlgerian-class Minesweeper26th October 194314th January 19441084
1205HMS RiflemanAlgerian-class Minesweeper25th November 194311th February 19441084
1206HMS SquirrelAlgerian-class Minesweeper20th April 194416th August 19441084
1207HMS ChameleonAlgerian-class Minesweeper6th May 194414th September 19441084
1208HMS CheerfulAlgerian-class Minesweeper22nd May 194413th October 19441084
1209HMS HareAlgerian-class Minesweeper20th June 194410th November 19441084
1210HMS JewelAlgerian-class Minesweeper20th July 19449th December 19441084
1211HMS LibertyAlgerine-class minesweeper22nd August 194418th January 19451084
1226HMS HalladaleRiver-class corvette28th January 194411th May 19441370
1235HMS HumberstoneCastle-class corvette12th April 194420th September 19441100
1236HMS Oakham CastleCastle-class corvette20th July 194410th December 19441100
1238HMS Oxford CastleCastle-class corvette11th December 194310th March 19441100
1239HMS Pevesney CastleCastle-class corvette11th January 194410th June 19441100
1246HMS Loch CraggieLoch-class frigate23rd May 194415th June 19441435
1247HMS Loch GormLoch-class frigate8th June 19447th July 19441435
1248HMS Loch KillisportLoch-class frigate6th July 19449th September 19451435
1249HMS St Austell BayBay-class frigate18th November 194429th May 19451600
1259HMS Widemouth BayBay-class frigate19th October 194413th April 19451600
1261HMS Whitesand BayBay-class frigate16th December 194430th July 19451600
Harland and Wolff, Belfast, Co. Antrim

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

In the years after World War Two, 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.

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

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