Belfast Blitz Remembered
The impact of the Belfast Blitz on Duncairn Gardens

5th/6th May marks the 80th anniversary of the final Luftwaffe raid on Belfast. During the previous four weeks, following the first surprise attack on 7th/8th April, the city had sustained significant damage and loss of life. Until 1941, perhaps by virtue of its peripheral geography, Northern Ireland had eluded German bombers. The four raids on Belfast in April/May were some of the most intensive aerial bombings in the UK, second only to London in terms of damage and death toll.

The heavily industrialised North and East of the city, packed with terraced housing, were badly affected. In North Belfast the bombing destroyed dozens of houses and businesses along the Antrim and Crumlin roads. Hundreds more were severely damaged. Hogarth Street, off Duncairn Gardens, was virtually flattened and forty-five residents lost their lives.[1] One of North Belfast’s largest employers, the York Street Mill, was completely destroyed by incendiary bombs. Thirty-five were killed instantly as one of the walls collapsed into the adjoining Sussex Street. Nearby St Anne’s Cathedral miraculously incurred only minor damage despite widespread destruction in neighbouring streets.

The death toll was extensive. The chronicle for St Patrick’s Church, Donegall Street, recorded that 130 of its parishioners had perished.[2] Father Brendan McGee, who went on to become Assistant Curate at the church, walked through the bombed streets to St Malachy’s School following the Easter Tuesday raid. Interviewed by the Irish News, he recalled ‘buildings, they weren’t burning, but steam was rising from the bricks … The green fire brigades had come up from Dundalk, Drogheda and Dublin. [Irish Taoiseach] De Valera sent them up to help with fighting the flames. I saw firemen sitting on the fenders, with a terrible look of exhaustion on their faces’.[3]

Map showing severity and extent of bomb damage during the four aerial raids. Image courtesy and copyright of PRONI. Ref: CAB/3/A/68.

St George’s Market was turned over for use as temporary mortuary. Many bodies went unidentified and were conveyed to mass burial sites before ‘great crowds of sympathisers [who] lined the streets as military lorries carried the coffins’.[4] Contemporary eyewitness accounts can be found in Éire newspapers, where censorship restrictions were more lax compared to the UK. Many titles are viewable via the Irish Newspaper Archive website.[5] A Clonmel man, writing to The Nationalist newspaper (Tipperary), described scenes of ‘entire rows of terraced houses being levelled like packs of cards’ and of German bombers ‘flying at such low altitudes … they were almost touching the rooftops’.[6]

Unknown to citizens at the time, Belfast’s Blitz experience ended on 5th/6th May 1941. The city had been caught off-guard and local authorities ramped up air raid precautions in subsequent weeks. The Belfast Blitz claimed over 900 lives, left thousands homeless and caused severe damage to the city’s infrastructure, with some repairs left until after the war. The events of April/May 1941 became etched into Belfast’s civic consciousness. As the number of Blitz survivors dwindles, it remains important to reflect on their experiences and recount their stories.

Footnotes:

[1] Joe Baker, The Belfast Blitz (Belfast, 2011), p. 8.

[2] https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/archive/events/belfast-blitz-the-most-disastrous-event-in-citys-history-31273532.html

[3] https://www.irishnews.com/news/2016/04/13/news/priest-91-recalls-belfast-blitz-as-st-patrick-s-church-prepares-to-remember-its-dead-484264/

[4] Belfast Newsletter, 22 April 1941.

[5] https://www.irishnewsarchive.com/

[6] The Nationalist, 23 April 1941.

Members Involved

YEAR: 1833

Location: Antrim Road

YEAR: 1934

Location: Donegall Street

YEAR: 1899

Location: Donegall Street