The Belfast Blitz: the city in the war years

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2016), Reviews

Ulster Historical Foundation
ISBN 9781909556324

Reviewed by: Geoffrey Roberts


At the core of this book is a compelling account of the Luftwaffe’s blitz on Belfast in April–May 1941. When war broke out in 1939 the city did not expect to be attacked by German bombers: it was geographically remote and deemed a relatively unimportant target. That calculation changed when France fell in June 1940 and Britain came under siege. Belfast’s port, shipyards and factories became an obvious strategic target for the Luftwaffe in its campaign to cripple Britain’s capacity to resist. Of particular importance was the role of Belfast and Northern Ireland as a crucial base and staging post in the battle for control of the Atlantic.

The 1941 raids on Belfast were not unexpected but the city’s preparations for attack were woefully inadequate. The active defences of the city (anti-aircraft batteries, searchlights and air cover) were weak, while its passive defences (air-raid shelters, civil defence and emergency services) were underdeveloped. Another problem was popular disbelief that the city would ever be attacked.

There were four Luftwaffe raids on Belfast but only two of significance. On the night of 15–16 April (Easter Tuesday) an estimated 150–200 bombers dropped 750 bombs and 29,000 incendiaries on the city. The Luftwaffe’s target was the port area, but poor visibility led to densely populated residential areas in west and north Belfast being hit. The result was hundreds of civilian deaths. According to Barton, the devastation was spread over 500 streets, with thousands of houses destroyed or damaged and 25,000 people made homeless. Fearing further raids, tens of thousands of people fled the city permanently or became ‘ditchers’—those who spent the night in the open countryside. Like its British counterparts, the Bellevue zoo carried out the gruesome task of shooting its dangerous animals for fear that they might escape during a raid. One survivor, though, was a baby elephant called Sheila, whose keeper took it home with her every night. Similar stories could be told about zoos all over war-torn Europe.
The second major raid, on 4–5 May, was better executed, hitting the docks and shipyards as well as Belfast city centre and commercial district. This became known as the ‘fire raid’ because of the number of buildings that were burnt down. At its peak there were more than 200 fires burning in Belfast. Famously, the city’s fire brigade was assisted by crews from southern Ireland, that country’s wartime neutrality notwithstanding. The civilian body count on this occasion was less than 200 but would have been a lot higher had the raid taken place on a weekday, when full shifts would have been working in the Harland and Wolff shipyards and the Short and Harland aircraft factory.
There were no further raids on Belfast, although a few weeks later Dublin suffered a small attack by the Luftwaffe. Barton devotes several pages to discussing whether the Dublin raid was deliberate or accidental but it is difficult to believe that it was the result of anything other than lost or careless German bomber crews. Belfast was spared further raids by the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which led the Luftwaffe to redeploy the bulk of its forces to Germany’s Eastern Front. When the Germans renewed their blitz on Britain with V1 and V2 rocket attacks in 1944–5, Belfast was too distant a target.

Barton’s description and analysis of the raids are based on a huge range of sources: British and Irish state papers, German, Irish and British military archives, newspapers and periodicals, memoirs and oral history interviews. Particularly effective are the eyewitness accounts he deploys to bring the story to life. Barton’s weighing of the evidence is thorough and judicious and he busts a number of sectarian myths about the Belfast blitz—for example, that loyalist districts of the city were deliberately targeted by the Luftwaffe and that the raids were facilitated by nationalist collaboration with the Germans. The common experience of the blitz did help to ameliorate sectarian tensions in Belfast but the effects were only temporary.

Barton’s account of the blitz is set in the broader context of Belfast in the interwar years, the prelude to the raids and Northern Ireland’s overall contribution to the British war effort. Indeed, nearly half the book is devoted to these topics. With the exception of its role in the Battle of the Atlantic, Northern Ireland did not contribute as much to Britain’s war effort as other parts of the UK, nor did it suffer as much death and destruction. Neither, however, did it benefit as much from Britain’s wartime economic boom.

The biggest political beneficiary was the Stormont regime, which through its participation in the war earned the eternal gratitude of the UK’s mainland politicians. Early in the war, when Hitler seemed set on invading Britain and Ireland, London had explored the possibility of a deal with de Valera to end or modify Irish neutrality in exchange for Irish unity—a move that was blocked by Stormont as well as Dublin. By the time the war ended, however, British leaders had forgiven the unionists for their recalcitrance at the hour of the nation’s greatest need.
The book is lavishly produced, with more than 200 photographs and an appendix that lists all the civilians who died during the Belfast blitz. It is a well-written and accessible book but its presentation is inexplicably marred by the absence of a proper scene-setting introduction or a summarising conclusion. There is also much repetition in the discursive material. It is a text crying out for an editor who could have helped turn a good book into an excellent one.

This is not Brian Barton’s first book about the Belfast blitz but the present text is more up to date, comprehensive and definitive than his earlier work.

Geoffrey Roberts is Professor of History at University College Cork.


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