There had been little preparation for the conflict with Germany. Craigavon had said: “Ulster is ready when we get the word and always will be.” And when asked in the N.I. parliament: “if the government realized ‘that these fast bombers can come to Northern Ireland in two and three quarter hours”, he replied: “We here today are in a state of war and we are prepared with the rest of the United Kingdom and Empire to face all the responsibilities that imposes on the Ulster people. There is no slacking in our loyalty.”
Yet Dawson Bates simply refused to reply to army correspondence. When the Ministry of Home Affairs was informed by imperial defence experts that Belfast was a certain Luftwaffe target, nothing was done.
Unlike other British cities, children had not been evacuated. There had been the “Hiram Plan” initiated by John MacDermott but it failed to materialise. Fewer than 4,000 women and children were evacuated but there were still 80,000 children in Belfast during the Blitz. Even the children of soldiers had not been evacuated, with calamitous results when the married quarters of Victoria barracks received a direct hit.
From papers recovered after the war, we know that there had been a Luftwaffe reconnaissance flight over Belfast on November 30, 1940. The Germans established that Belfast was defended by only seven anti-aircraft batteries, which made it the most poorly defended city in the United Kingdom. From their photographs, they identified suitable targets:
• Harland and Wolff Ltd shipyard
• Die Tankstelle Conns Water
• Short and Harland aircraft factory
• The power station of Belfast
• Rank & Co mill
• Belfast Waterworks
• Victoria Barracks
There had already been a number of small bombings, probably by planes that missed their targets over the Clyde or the cities of the north-west of England.
On 24 March 1941, John McDermott wrote to the Prime Minister, John Andrews expressing his concerns that Belfast was so poorly protected. “Up to now we have escaped attack. So had Clydeside until recently. Clydeside got its blitz during the period of the last moon. There [is] ground for thinking that the … enemy could not easily reach Belfast in force except during a period of moonlight. The period of the next moon from say the 7th to the 16th of April may well bring our turn.” Unfortunately, McDermott was proved right.
(Die) Tankstelle can mean “petrol station”. But here it probably means “Fuel Depot” or possibly “Oil Refinery”.