Authored byJonathan BardonWriter and historian
Firebombed, flattened and forsaken
Belfast was one of 16 cities across the UK to suffer under the bombardment of the German Air Force in World War Two. The Luftwaffe carried out four raids on the city between 7 April and 6 May 1941, leaving over 1,000 people dead.
Tens of thousands more fled. Several sites of strategic importance to the Allied war effort were also hit. In short, the Blitz had a devastating effect on Belfast, which had been utterly unprepared for such a major attack.
Before the Blitz
Not ready for war
William Vandivert/LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Northern Ireland was ill prepared for the Luftwaffe's arrival. Ministers felt it unlikely that the bombers could reach Belfast.
There were only four public air raid shelters in Belfast, and most of the city's searchlights had been sent back to England. There were plans to evacuate 70,000 children from Belfast, but little over 10% of that number actually left. When an unobserved German plane flew over Belfast to identify targets in November 1940, it saw a city defended by only seven anti-aircraft batteries. By March 1941, Northern Ireland's minister of public security was close to panic – with some justification.
The period of the next moon, say, the 7th to the 16th of April, may well bring our turn.
7 April 1941
The first raid
Imperial War Museum
Around midnight on Monday 7 April 1941, seven German planes began bombing Belfast targets that had been identified the previous year.
The moon, half-full, enabled the Germans to attack by sight as they flew low, just above the barrage balloons. In half-hour intervals, the Luftwaffe bombed the docks and shipyards with alarming accuracy. The fuselage factory at Harland and Wolff was hit by a parachute mine, destroying 50 Sterling bombers. Incendiary bombs and high explosives also destroyed houses in north and east Belfast. By the time the raid ended at around 3.30am, 13 people had been killed.
Suddenly I heard a long roaring whine and the next moment a hell of a thud. I knew it was our first raid.
15 April 1941
An unhappy Easter
The government seemed not to realise that the air raid of 7 April had been a very small one. The Germans had only been testing Belfast's defences.
On Easter Tuesday, the bombers arrived in force. At 10.40pm, the air raid sirens began to wail in Belfast as 180 Luftwaffe aircraft dropped a barrage of incendiaries, high explosive bombs and parachute mines, with the congested housing north of the city taking the full force of the attack. A strike on the telephone exchange hampered anti-aircraft operations and left Belfast entirely at the mercy of the Luftwaffe's assault. At 4.55am on 16 April, the all clear sounded.
I don't think any of us noticed the dawn, for in a sense it had never been night.
16 April 1941
At dawn, a thick yellow pall covered Belfast. Men tore at the smouldering rubble in an attempt to bring the trapped, dead and injured to the surface.
Army lorries were piled high with corpses. St George's Market and the Falls Road public baths became makeshift morgues. On Monday 21 April, great numbers of unclaimed dead were buried in mass graves. Official figures were 745 dead. The actual number was at least 900 – the largest number lost in the UK outside London in a single air raid. Panic and chaos ensued. The city suffered from widespread looting, while tens of thousands of people poured out to the countryside in an attempt to find safety.
Death should be dignified, peaceful; Hitler had made death grotesque. I felt outraged.
17 April 1941
Survivors flee Belfast
After the Easter Tuesday assault, around 70,000 people in Belfast had to be given meals in emergency feeding centres. Many left the city altogether.
The Northern Whig newspaper reported that the scenes "were like the pictures of American pioneers". Towns close to Belfast were overwhelmed. By the beginning of May, Cabinet Secretary Sir Wilfred Spender estimated that 100,000 people (around a quarter of the city's population) had fled Belfast. This mass migration brought into the open the extreme deprivation of those now bombed out of congested streets who had endured many years of unemployment and neglect.
An exodus on foot, trams, lorries, trailers, cattle floats, bicycles, delivery vans ... Hundreds were waiting at bus stops. Anxiety on every face.
4 May 1941
May brings more bombs
The skies were clear and the moon was full when over 200 German bombers approached the County Down coast during the last hour of Sunday 4 May.
At 10 minutes past midnight, Belfast's sirens sounded a red alert. The elite pathfinder squadron led the attack at 1.07am. Over the next few hours, the Germans dropped almost 100,000 incendiary bombs and 237 tons of high explosives. Luftwaffe crews reported a "picture of destruction none of us will forget". The main targets were industrial, but the city centre was also badly damaged. The death toll was 191, and by now over half of Belfast's houses had been destroyed or badly damaged.
Belfast shipyard and industry have been completely destroyed.
31 May 1941
Flight, fear and fallout
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The Belfast Blitz ended on 6 May 1941 when a few German bombers struck the city during a general raid across the United Kingdom.
The impact of the Blitz continued to be felt, though. By the end of May 1941, 220,000 people had left Belfast. For the great majority, evacuation involved hardship, particularly for those who now had to commute each day to work in the city. Those who remained feared further attack, with around 150,000 still without access to air raid shelters. The mood did at least stifle any sectarian tensions, with Protestants and Catholics united in contempt for the government's ineptitude and complacency.
The Catholics and Protestants... all say the same thing, that the government is no good.