The Belfast blitz: remembering the victims

After almost seventy years, it looks like Belfast may erect a public memorial to the victims of WWII bombing raids on the city.

Most people in present-day Belfast are probably vaguely aware that it was bombed during the war, but a memorial may help to prompt more understanding of the actual scale of the devastation wreaked by the Luftwaffe’s bombs.

On the night of Easter Tuesday, 15th April 1941, two hundred Nazi bombers attacked the city. With over 900 people killed, apart from London, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid on any UK city during the blitz. In terms of property damage, half of the houses in Belfast were damaged, with a reported 100,000 people out of a total population of 425,000 left homeless.

While the Nazis bear the responsibility for the deaths, an incompetent Northern Ireland government also deserves a portion of the blame for the lack of protection offered to ordinary people.

After an raid eight days earlier, Luftwaffe crews had returned to their base in northern France and reported that Belfast’s defences were, “inferior in quality, scanty and insufficient”.And so they were. As Jonathon Bardon has put it:

There is ample evidence that the political leaders lacked the will, energy and capacity to cope with a major crisis when it came…  Sir Wilfred Spender, the cabinet secretary’ thought he [Lord Craigavon] was a Premier whom ‘true friends would advise to retire now’ for he was incapable of doing ‘more than one hour’s constructive work’ in a day. Lady Londonderry confided to Sir Samuel Hoare, the Home Secretary, that Craigavon had become ‘ga-ga’. According to Spender, Richard Dawson Bates, the Home Affairs Minister, was ‘incapable of giving his responsible officers coherent directions on policy’ -‘ actually, by this time, he was drunk for most of each day.
[…] Dawson Bates simply refused to reply to army correspondence and when the Ministry of Home Affairs was informed by imperial defense experts that Belfast was a certain Luftwaffe target, nothing was done.

The  cabinet minutes of Craigavon’s successor John Andrews’ show more discussion about protecting the bronze statue of Carson than the provision of air-raid shelters.

The fact is, the people of Belfast (and other cities and towns across Northern Ireland) were largely left to the mercy of the Luftwaffe.

Afterwards, the dead were laid out in St George’s Market and Falls Baths. Tens of thousands of survivors, now homeless, fled to the outskirts of the city or to the countryside or across the border to Dublin. Without homes or confidence that the government would or could protect them, according to Bardon, by the end of May some 220,000 people had left the city.

Tommy Henderson, independent unionist MP for the Shankill at Stormont, undoubtedly summed up the feelings of many when he invited the Minister of Home Affairs to Hannahstown and the Falls Road, saying: “The Catholics and the Protestants are going up there mixed and they are talking to one another. They are sleeping in the same sheugh, below the same tree or in the same barn. They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.”

So, let us remember the dead civilians of Belfast (and Coventry and Dresden and Hiroshima and …). Let us remember the cost of war. Let us remember the cost of bad government.

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