Thursday, May 5, 2016

Belfast Burning - The Luftwaffe Blitz of April and May 1941

Belfast Blitz, 1941, The Blitz, Luftwaffe

I watched this city burning with a bitter scarlet flame
                     And I heard the banshee sirens when those big black bombers came
        But we kept the sea lanes open under Churchill's mighty plan
                     Till the victory day when you danced away round the Ould Black Man

The Ould Black Man was a monologue performed by the Ulster comic actor James Young at the Group Theatre in Belfast's Bedford Street in the late Sixties - it can be heard on his third album It's Great To Be Young which was released in 1968. The eponymous subject is the statue of the 19th Century Presbyterian leader Henry Cooke on Great Victoria Street and his musings on the city's changing social complexion  - from the heavily populated and industrialised early part of the 20th century through to the swinging youth culture of the time.

The lines quoted above refer to the four Luftwaffe attacks on Belfast in April and May 1941- the second of the raids on Easter Tuesday caused the single highest death toll for any aerial bombardment during the Blitz on Britain outside of London. 900 men, women and children were murdered in one of the least protected cities in the United Kingdom. This particular raid also left 1,500 people injured and 50,000 homes destroyed - fatalities were also caused in Derry City, Bangor and Newtownards on that 15th of April 1941 night.

An ecumenical service of commemoration was held last month in Belfast on the 75th anniversary for the dead of the Belfast Blitz - alongside the unveiling of  plaques at the Falls Road Public Swimming Baths and the central St George's Market which would both be used as temporary morgues. Other plaques have been erected near the scenes of significant death tolls around the city such as Percy Street on the Shankill Road where thirty died when a landmine struck an air raid shelter. Percy Street lay on the Protestant-Catholic interface in West Belfast and that night many Shankill Protestants sheltered in the Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road.

A BBC microsite on the Belfast Blitz includes four incredibly well made five minute-animations which reference many of the events now enshrined in the folk memory of the city. These include the possibility that Luftwaffe bombing patterns were focused on residential areas because of the misidentification of the Belfast waterworks as the docks, the destruction of many potentially dangerous animals at Belfast zoo (although a baby elephant was secretly looked after each night in one female keeper's own home), the aid given by the east coast fire services of Eire to their fellow Irishmen and the independent Unionist MP Tommy Henderson's assurance to the Stormont establishment that the sectarian mixing going on in the Ulster countryside between the working classes who had fled the city had clearly lead to a firm conclusion by all that "the government is no good."

Both my parents were in Belfast on the night of the Easter Tuesday raid as children and both of my grandparents' homes suffered serious structural damage in the north and west of the city, My father recalls being brought to the basement of his local primary school in the Oldpark district from where he could see the local church burning and that the end terrace house on his street was completely destroyed with the death of an entire family group.  The four raids destroyed eleven churches, two hospitals and two schools across the city in general as well as severe damage to industrial infrastructure.

The story of the Belfast blitz is covered in great detail in a definitive study by Brian Barton from 1989. It was was also discussed in a full chapter - Many Fires Were Started - of Robert Fisk's 1985 classic history of the respective neutral and belligerent statuses of a politically divided Ireland In Time Of War. The Blitz also provided the background for the author Brian Moore's superb novel The Emperor of Ice Cream in 1965 - Moore having served in the air raid warden services in North Belfast at the time and with the book juxtaposing Irish Republican glee at Britain's geopolitical mistfortunes with the mass murder that ensued in 1941 on the streets of proletarian Belfast. The late Moore is little discussed now though I remember well listening to an interesting lecture he gave in the early Nineties at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts on his Troubles thriller Lies of Silence.

Philip Orr's moving history of the 36th Ulster Division - The Road to the Somme - references a Shankill Road family who refused to leave the area after 1916 off the back of two family members who were reported "missing, believed killed" in Picardy and their wish to remain in the house in hope of their physical return. On the anniversary of the first day of the battle on 1st July the family always flew the Union Flag from their house in memory of the fallen - as indeed did my own great-grandfather for that one day alone in respect of his comrades from the 15th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. Orr references how their house was destroyed during the 1941 blitz but on the first day of July a neighbour organised some local teenagers to emplace the flag on top of the rubble in order to maintain the continuity of the tradition.

As the BBC animations show, one of the main aerial routes the German planes took on their way to attack the great port city of Belfast was northbound along the coast of the beautiful Ards Peninsula by Strangford Lough - one of the most idyllic parts of the British Isles to this day. Architectural destruction of central Belfast over the course of the attacks was extremely severe on the third of the major raids in particular - the "Fire Raid" on the night of the 3rd of May.

Less than thirty years later an unprecedented sectarian conflict was to continue the destruction of the city centre and bring it to the point of social extinction and societal obliteration. A conflict whose outplay is today epitomised by the common sense, warmth and humanity of the working people who healed the breach and moved on as opposed to a Troubles legacy now apparently owned by dry academic and sociological verbiage that denies human agency or the misreading of history at all costs.

Much is yet to be gleaned in future from the course and consequences of the Spring 1941 German air raids on Belfast as to how a life or death struggle engendered class solidarity across Belfast's religious divide and one unforgettable gesture towards national reconciliation - this as sadly opposed to how the fossilisation of cultural identity in Ireland by the Forties would irrevocably steer society into sterile social relations and bloody conflict alike.

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