The German air raids on Belfast of April and May 1941, and their consequences

  • Robson Sinclair Davison

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


To the ordinary man in the street, Tuesday 8th April 1941 was going to be like any other wartime day in Belfast. Business would be carried on just as usual. The normal routine of going to work, coming home, going out in the evening would remain undisturbed. The war in fact seemed a long way off. The "Blitz" was something which happened in London or Coventry or Merseyside or Glasgow and which one read about in the "Belfast Telegraph" or saw on the newsreels at the cinema. The "Northern Whig" had been trying for a long time to make people aware that it could happen in Belfast; the Government had been doing its share of warning but the general attitude was "why take any notice?". Despite the warnings and the Civil Defence exercises the sirens had only blown for false alarms. Belfast after all was a long way off from mainland Europe and had totally escaped the Autumn "Blitz" of 1940.

Tuesday the 8th April was to see that complacency shattered for the first time. The harsh reality of war was to visit Belfast in the way it had visited almost every other major urban area in the United Kingdom at some time in the last eight or nine months. The day had been pleasant and in the late evening there was an air of bustle in the blacked-out streets as playgoers, cinema and dance hall fans made their way homewards. Hundreds of dimmed torch lights weaved their way through the streets; the last dark ghost-like trams ground their way noisily to their destinations. Here end there could be seen a chink of light as doors opened or as people had forgotten to pull down their blinds.

Suddenly the sirens walled. Buses, trams, even the trains stopped. Was this to be yet another false alarm? The wardens who had received prior warning had difficulty at first persuading people to go to the shelters. Most people just remained in their houses but thousands came out into the streets just to watch. A short time after the siren came the truth. This was not a false alarm but the real thing - a raid. Six aircraft were involved but they came and went at long intervals and to the people below it must have seemed like a full-scale "Blitz"'. Mingled together were a host of different noises - the droning of aircraft engines, the crump of high explosive bombs and heavy anti-aircraft shells, the splutter of machine guns, the crackling of fires caused by incendiaries and above all the sound of human voices.

Still many people refused to take cover. In areas not directly affected they stood at their front doors and discussed it with their neighbours. In the areas on higher ground they watched the gun flashes and the fires as if it was some gigantic firework display. However in contrast to these detached views a close up of the docks area told a different story. The Docks area was the target of the bombers with their load of high explosive bombs, incendiaries and parachute mines. Unfortunately for those below, the majority of these missiles did not fall on the strategically important dockyard facilities but instead on the rows and rows of houses in the Dock area and along the Newtownards Road. The effect was shattering both in physical terms and on the minds of the people living there. War became very real as houses blazed, walls were blown apart by blast, windows shattered and roofs were ripped off in the tiny streets. We in the 1970's have become used in Belfast to the sounds and effects of explosions but in April 1941 it came as a profound shock.

However the raid of the 8th April 1941 was only a foretaste of what was to come, three more times within a month. Furthermore it was only a small diversionary raid, the main force having gone that night to Clydeside, Despite this the six aircraft involved managed to inflict a fair amount of damage. The raid began at fourteen minutes past midnight and ended at two minutes before four. Thirteen people were killed and eighty-seven injured.

First of all the raids were a short but dramatic interlude in Northern Ireland's war but were to have extremely far reaching consequences. Secondly, despite the casualties and the damage caused, the courage and good sense of ordinary Belfast people whether in the Civil Defence Services or not was as clear in 1941 as it is in the face of similar destruction of the 1970's.
Date of Award1979
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast

Cite this