Although the Republic of Ireland was neutral and was left largely unscathed during the war, Northern Ireland as part of the UK was not that lucky.
Belfast being the biggest city of Northern Ireland was hit by German bombers 4 times, between the 7th of April and 6th of May 1941.
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.
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.
William Joyce (known as “Lord Haw-Haw”) announced in radio broadcasts from Hamburg that there will be “Easter eggs for Belfast”.
On Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941, spectators watching a football match at Windsor Park noticed a lone Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-88 aircraft circling overhead.
That evening up to 200 bombers left their bases in northern France and the Netherlands and headed for Belfast. There were Heinkel He 111s, Junkers Ju 88s and Dorniers. At 10:40 pm the air raid sirens sounded.
Accounts differ as to when flares were dropped to light up the city. The first attack was against the city’s waterworks, which had been attacked in the previous raid. High explosives were dropped. Initially it was thought that the Germans had mistaken this reservoir for the harbour and shipyards, where many ships, including HMS Ark Royal were being repaired.
However that attack was not an error. Three vessels nearing completion at Harland and Wolff’s were hit as was its power station. Wave after wave of bombers dropped their incendiaries, high explosives and land-mines. When incendiaries were dropped, the city burned as water pressure was too low for effective firefighting.
Public buildings destroyed or badly damaged included Belfast City Hall’s Banqueting Hall, the Ulster Hospital for Women and Children and Ballymacarrett library, (the last two being located on Templemore Avenue). Strand Public Elementary school, the LMS railway station, the adjacent Midland Hotel on York Road, and Salisbury Avenue tram depot were all hit. Churches destroyed or wrecked included Macrory Memorial Presbyterian in Duncairn Gardens; Duncairn Methodist, Castleton Presbyterian on York Road; St Silas’s on the Oldpark Road; St James’s on the Antrim Road; Newington Presbyterian on Limestone Road; Crumlin Road Presbyterian; Holy Trinity on Clifton Street and Clifton Street Presbyterian; York Street Presbyterian and York Street Non-Subscribing Presbyterian; Newtownards Road Methodist and Rosemary Street Presbyterian (the last of which was not rebuilt).
Streets heavily bombed in the city centre included High Street, Ann Street, Callender Street, Chichester Street, Castle Street, Tomb Street, Bridge Street (effectively obliterated), Rosemary Street, Waring Street, North Street, Victoria Street, Donegall Street, York Street, Gloucester Street, and East Bridge Street. In the east of the city, Westbourne and Newcastle Streets on the Newtownards Road, Thorndyke Street off the Albertbridge Road and Ravenscroft Avenue were destroyed or damaged. In the west and north of the city, streets heavily bombed included Percy Street, York Park, York Crescent, Eglinton Street, Carlisle Street, Ballyclare, Ballycastle and Ballynure Streets off the Oldpark Road; Southport Street, Walton Street, Antrim Road, Annadale Street, Cliftonville Road, Hillman Street, Atlantic Avenue, Hallidays Road, Hughenden Avenue, Sunningdale Park, Shandarragh Park, and Whitewell Road. Burke Street which ran between Annadale and Dawson streets in the New Lodge area, was completely wiped off the map with all its 20 houses flattened and all of the occupants killed.
There was no opposition. In the mistaken belief that they might damage RAF fighters, the seven anti-aircraft batteries ceased firing. But the RAF had not responded. The bombs continued to fall until 5am.
Fifty-five thousand houses were damaged leaving 100,000 temporarily homeless. Outside of London, with some 900 dead, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Blitz.A stray bomber attacked Derry, killing 15. Another attacked Bangor, killing five. By 4 am the entire city seemed to be in flames. At 4.15am John MacDermott, the Minister of Public Security, managed to contact Basil Brooke (then Agriculture Minister), seeking permission to seek help from the Irish government. Brooke noted in his diary “I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency”. Since 1.45am all telephones had been cut. Fortunately, the railway telegraphy link between Belfast and Dublin was still operational. The telegram was sent at 4.35am, asking the Irish Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera for assistance.
For decades now it has been part of unionist and loyalist lore that the then Fianna Fáil government was partly to blame for the Belfast Blitz due to a decision not to black out neutral Irish towns and cities at night.
Over 900 lives were lost, 1,500 people were injured, 400 of them seriously. Fifty-thousand houses, more than half the houses in the city, were damaged. Eleven churches, two hospitals and two schools were destroyed.