A Luftwaffe bomb kills thirteen people in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on the night of April 7, 1941. Ultimately, the city is devastated by air raids. Seven hundred people are killed and 400 seriously injured in what becomes known as the Belfast Blitz. The Blitz consists of four German air raids on strategic targets in Belfast, in April and May 1941 during World War II.
There had been a number of small bombings, probably by planes that missed their targets over the River Clyde in Glasgow or the cities of North West England. On March 24, 1941, John MacDermott, Minister for Public Security, writes to the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, John Andrews, expressing his concerns that Belfast is so poorly protected. “Up to now we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside until recently. Clydeside got its blitz during the period of the last moon. There [is] ground for thinking that the … enemy could not easily reach Belfast in force except during a period of moonlight. The period of the next moon from say the 7th to the 16th of April may well bring our turn.” MacDermott is proved right.
The first deliberate raid takes place on the night of April 7. It targets the docks. Neighbouring residential areas are also hit. Six Heinkel He 111 bombers, from Kampfgruppe 26, flying at 7,000 feet, drop incendiaries, high explosive and parachute mines. By British mainland blitz standards, casualties are light. Thirteen die, including a soldier killed when an anti-aircraft gun at the Balmoral show-grounds misfires. The most significant loss is a 4.5-acre factory floor for manufacturing the fuselages of Short Stirling bombers. The Royal Air Force (RAF) announces that Squadron Leader J.W.C. Simpson shot down one of the Heinkels over Downpatrick. The Luftwaffe crews return to their base in Northern France and report that Belfast’s defences are “inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient.” This raid overall causes relatively little damage, but a lot is revealed about Belfast’s inadequate defences.
On Easter Tuesday, April 15, 1941, spectators watching a football match at Windsor Park notice a lone Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 aircraft circling overhead. That evening over 150 bombers leave their bases in northern France and the Netherlands and head for Belfast. There are Heinkel He 111s, Junkers Ju 88s and Dornier Do 17s. At 10:40 p.m. the air-raid sirens sound. Accounts differ as to when flares are dropped to light up the city. The first attack is against the city’s waterworks, which had been attacked in the previous raid. High explosives are dropped. Initially it is thought that the Germans had mistaken this reservoir for the harbour and shipyards, where many ships, including HMS Ark Royal are being repaired. However, that attack is not an error. Three vessels nearing completion at Harland & Wolff are hit as is its power station. Wave after wave of bombers drop their incendiaries, high explosives and landmines. When incendiaries are dropped, the city burns as water pressure is too low for effective firefighting. There is no opposition. In the mistaken belief that they might damage RAF fighters, the anti-aircraft batteries cease firing. But the RAF does not respond. The bombs continued to fall until 5:00 a.m.
Outside of London, with some 900 dead, this is the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Blitz. A stray bomber attacks Derry, killing fifteeen. Another attacks Bangor, County Down, killing five. By 4:00 a.m. the entire city seems to be in flames. At 4:15 a.m., John MacDermott, the Minister of Public Security, manages to contact Minister of Agriculture Basil Brooke seeking permission to seek help from the Irish government. Brooke notes in his diary, “I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency.” Since 1:45 a.m. all telephones have been cut. Fortunately, the railway telegraphy link between Belfast and Dublin is still operational. The telegram is sent at 4:35 a.m. asking the Irish Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, for assistance.
By 6:00 a.m., within two hours of the request for assistance, 71 firemen with 13 fire tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire are on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. In each station volunteers are requested, as it is beyond their normal duties. In every instance, all step forward. They remain in Belfast for three days, until they are sent back by the Northern Ireland government. By then 250 firemen from Clydeside have arrived.
Taoiseach Éamon de Valera formally protests to Berlin. Frank Aiken, the Irish Minister for the Co-ordination of Defensive Measures, is in Boston, Massachusetts, at the time. He gives an interview saying, “the people of Belfast are Irish people too.”
There is a second massive air raid on Belfast on Sunday, May 4-5, 1941, three weeks after the Easter Tuesday raid. Around 1:00 a.m., Luftwaffe bombers fly over the city, concentrating their attack on the Harbour Estate and Queen’s Island. Nearby residential areas in east Belfast are also hit when “203 metric tonnes of high explosive bombs, 80 land mines attached to parachutes, and 800 firebomb canisters containing 96,000 incendiary bombs” are dropped. Over 150 people die in what becomes known as the “Fire Blitz.” Casualties are lower than at Easter, partly because the sirens sound at 11:45 p.m. while the Luftwaffe attack more cautiously from a greater height. St. George’s Church in High Street is damaged by fire. Again, the Irish emergency services cross the border, this time without waiting for an invitation.
(Pictured: Rescue workers search through the rubble of Eglington Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after a German Luftwaffe air raid, May 7, 1941)