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The BBC Denis Murray
looks back at that night
 real 28k

Wednesday, 11 April, 2001, 11:54 GMT 12:54 UK
The Belfast blitz is remembered
Belfast 1941
Belfast was ill-prepared for the blitz
Sixty years after the Germans bombed Belfast in World War II BBC News Online looks back and remembers the anniversary of the blitz.

When the war began, Belfast, like many other cities, adopted the wartime practices of rationing and blackouts.

But the reality of the conflict in Europe seemed faraway.

Bombing raids at home were a possibility which the Northern Ireland cabinet at Stormont seemed reluctant to prepare for.

The Luftwaffe was heading for a city later described as the most undefended in the United Kingdom

They resented having to spend money on civil defences and had cancelled an order for fire-fighting equipment.

The city had few air raid shelters for the size of its population and it was ill-prepared for what lay ahead.

Deadly cargo

On 16 April 1941 Belfast was devastated as it bore the worst air raid of any city outside London.

That evening as the people of Belfast enjoyed the remains of the Easter holiday, 200 German bombers were taking off from French airfields with a deadly cargo.

Jimmy Penton
Jimmy Penton: "It was like an earthquake".
It was one of the largest German strike forces used to date in the war and the Luftwaffe was heading for a city later described as the most undefended in the United Kingdom.

"We were in exceptional good humour, knowing that we were going for a new target," said one of the German pilots later.


Nellie Bell from Belfast was just married and had gone to sign the wedding register when the sirens went.

There were quite a lot of people down to see us, but they scattered and when we came out there was no-one left only the ones who couldn't run away," she recalled.

Newspaperman Jimmy Kelly was walking home at the time.

The ground shook and the people squealed and yelled, they thought it was the end of the world

Jimmy Penton
"I was walking up the Glen Road when I heard the sound of aircraft coming from the Lisburn direction," he said.

"The next thing the air raid sirens went off and I knew from the peculiar phut, phut, phut sound that these were Germans and this was it."

Air raid warden Jimmy Doherty was on patrol that night.


He remembers meeting another group of wardens minutes before their post was decimated by a bomb.

"I would say that within five minutes of meeting them, those young men and a young lady, were dead," he said.

As the bombs fell, the people of Belfast did their best to protect themselves. It seems incredible but there were only four public air raid shelters in the entire city.

Stormont's distinctive facade was painted black to foil attack
Bryce Miller remembers the scene inside one shelter where opposing groups of young Protestants and Catholics took it in turn singing songs like The Sash and The Soldier's Song as the bombs rained down.

But he said there was a deadly silence as the blasts got closer and after one wave the strains of Nearer My God To Thee could be heard coming from the entire crowd.

Constable Donald Fleck was on duty in York Street Police Station. He ran for his life when a parachute mine landed near him. "I hollered to the boys to run," he said, "fear lends you wings."

Jimmy Penton still has vivid memories of those events. "It was like an earthquake that night," he said, "the ground shook and the people squealed and yelled, they thought it was the end of the world."

Sewer rats

Novelist Brian Moore has a very different memory. He remembers seeing scores and score of rats coming up out of the sewers.

"They were going in a kind of procession along the side of the gutters," he said, "not fast just going slowly."

Belfast was bombed three times between April and May that year. Twelve hundred people lost their lives and many parts of the city were decimated. The Falls Road Baths had to be used to store the bodies of those killed.

When we reached the city fires were raging everywhere. In the blaze the oxygen was so short it was difficult to breathe

Dublin fireman
Warden Jimmy Doherty remembers coming across one street where everyone was wiped out.

"We met death everywhere, it was a terrible thing to see," he said.

Some of those killed died in fires which started in the debris of the bombs. The city had not enough manpower to fight the fires. In desperation the government turned to its neutral neighbour, the Irish republic.


There may have been strained relations between the two parts of the island over partition but president Eamon de Valera responded imediately.

Thirteen fire brigades from Dublin, Drogheda and Dundalk dashed to Belfast.

One fireman said: "When we reached the city fires were raging everywhere. In the blaze the oxygen was so short it was difficult to breathe."

One hundred thousand people became refugees after the blitz. It took years to rebuild the lost buildings, reconstruct the lost homes and replace the industrial targets the Germans had so accurately pinpointed.

The effect on the city would be felt for years to come though it struggled bravely to return to normal.

It is worth mentioning that Belfast suffered many more times the devastation in the spring of 1941 than it would in the entire 30 years of the Troubles which would follow.

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