Continued from Part 1:
After visiting Portavogie's new harbour, opened by HRH The Princess Anne in 1985, the Minister travelled on to the Somme Heritage Centre and Museum at Whitespots, Conlig, Newtownards, the Headquarters of the Somme Association, of which I am Chairman. There he had lunch and toured the Museum. The Somme Association has as part of its remit the commemoration of the part played by the Irish Soldier, North and South, in the two World Wars, including, in particular, the 10th Irish, 36th Ulster and 16th Irish Divisions in the First. We also have yearly exhibitions; this year’s focussing on Prisoners of War, particularly the Colditz Story in the Second.
I also brought to the Minister’s attention the Belfast Blitz and the siren used by my father and mother as Air Raid Wardens in the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) in North Down during that Second World War. I explained that the Belfast Blitz was most fully covered in the excellent Northern Ireland War Memorial Home Front Exhibition at 21 Talbot Street, Belfast. In 1941 there were two major air attacks on Belfast and surrounding areas, including Bangor and Newtownards. The first was on the night of Easter Tuesday, 15th April 1941, the same day the Titanic floundered in 1912. 160 Nazi bombers attacked the city of Belfast. Some 800 people died and 600 were injured. Half of the whole housing stock was damaged and 15,000 people out of a total of 425,000 were left homeless. Many came to our village for shelter. Belfast suffered the greatest loss of life in any single raid on any city in the UK outside London. The second was on 4th May. 200 bombers dropped high explosives and incendiaries. Destruction was confined mainly to the Docks and Shipyards but the commercial centre was also badly damaged. 191 people died.
In 1984 I republished, with the permission of Bob Crane of the Belfast Telegraph, under my imprint Pretani Press, a Camera Record of the Blitz, Bombs on Belfast, first produced in 1941 by the Telegraph. This told of the part played by the Minister’s grandfather in the Easter Tuesday Blitz. At 4.30 am on 16th April 1941, a telegram was sent to the Town Clerk of Dublin informing him that Belfast was ablaze and requesting that Southern Fire Brigades help fight the Belfast fires. By 6.00am word was received that aid was being sent immediately.
The swift action of the Southern Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera has surprised some commentators. Éamon Ó Cuív said that his grandfather told him that he was awakened in the middle of the night with the message that Belfast was burning and in an instant ordered as many Southern Fire Brigades as possible to travel North. His action was more than humane. Eire was a neutral power during the conflict and such a decision could have compromised that stance. However, the Taoiseach could also argue that, as the Constitution of the State claimed that the Irish nation was synonymous with the entire island, the German bombing was an infringement of neutrality. He explained some days later,” we are one and the same people – and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say that any help we can give them in the present time we will give to them wholeheartedly…”
In all, 13 brigades from Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Dundalk and Drogheda travelled to the North .They concentrated their help on the Crumlin Road area, with engines also fighting fires in York Street and the Holywood Arches in the East of the city. They worked tirelessly all day and were eventually withdrawn just as dusk fell on 16th April. They were relieved by 32 appliances from Glasgow and 10 from Liverpool, who were able to stay in Belfast for a further five days.
On 1 September, 2010 my old friend Lt Col C T Hogg MBE UD JP DL, Chairman of the Council of the Northern Ireland War Memorial, sent me a copy of a letter to Mr Peter McNaney, LLB, Chief Executive of Belfast City Council, concerning the erection of a Memorial to honour the citizens of Belfast who died in the Blitz and asking for my support. The aim would be to have the Memorial in place and ready for unveiling and dedication on 15th April 2012, which will be the 71st anniversary of the Blitz and also the Centenary of the loss of the Titanic. This would also be an appropriate time to recognise the contribution of the Southern Fire Fighters to the rescue operation and the de Valera Connection in saving our city.
Ed (James O'Fee): I wrote about my father's involvement in the Belfast Blitz in
“Skipper Street Ablaze from End to End!”, Tuesday, October 2. 2007, as follows –
“This was the background to the recruitment of my father into the 'Stormont War Room'. My father was asked to join because his 'digs' were a short walk away from Parliament Buildings, Stormont, built in the late 1920s and opened by the King. The 'War Room' lay beneath Parliament Buildings. I have been told that the magnificent buildings was were later painted black for camoflage against air attack. When the paint was removed after the War they never recovered their pristine brilliance.
There were, in fact, two 'War Rooms'. One was the military room which controlled the few military assets available in Northern Ireland. That would have met elsewhere. By the night of the 'Belfast Blitz', the squadron of fighters detailed to protect Northern Ireland from air attack had been moved to Scotland without informing Stormont. Belfast was left defenceless.
The Stormont War Room organised Civil Defence, fire, emergency services and so on. When a warning siren sounded, normally in the evening after ordinary work, my father had to make his way to the War Room beneath Parliament Buildings. His duty was to log the arrival of all incoming messages. My father felt that he was unsuited for this task because of his poor handwriting.
My father reported for duty on the many evenings when the sirens sounded; but the worst German bombing – the so-called 'Belfast Blitz' – occurred on the night of Easter Tuesday, 15 April 1941. That night a thousand people died as a result of the German raid on Belfast. Outside the city of London, this was the greatest loss of life in a single night raid anywhere during the German air blitz. There were many more injured and approximately a hundred thousand people were left homeless.
The air raid sirens sounded at 10.40 p.m. and my father, perhaps preparing for bed, would have made his way immediately to Stormont. He related the amateur nature of the preparations. The General in charge appeared in his dressing-gown and bedroom slippers, along with his wife who made the teas for the staff.
My father received many messages on that fateful night. One stuck in his memory – 'Skipper Street ablaze from end to end'.
The most famous message of all, of course, was that from the Northern Ireland Government to Dublin requesting assistance – but I don't think that my father had anything to do with it. That seems to have been sent at 4.35 a.m.
After that terrible night, at between 8 and 9 a.m., my father walked back to his digs through streets choked with rubble.”
My father was the last surviving member of the “Stormont War Room” and I recorded his recollections a few years ago on cassette tape.
The destructive German air attacks on Belfast exposed the bumbling incompetance and lack of preparedness in time of war of the Northern Ireland government. Sir James Craig, Viscount Craigavon, branded as “gaga” by his Private Secretary, was Prime Minister until his death in 1940. But he was suceeded by a 70-year-old scion of the prominent Andrews shipbuilding family. Only in 1943 did Andrews make way for the energetic Basil Brooke, later Lord Brookeborough.
Had de Valera's gesture led to a démarche in the years following the War, a happier chapter could have opened in our history. Many voices on both sides of the border, sadly, were content that North-South relations should remain in frozen antagonism.