In April and May, 1941, as the price of its loyalty to the Allied cause against the scourge of Nazism, Belfast suffered four air raids by German bombers. There was a heavy loss of life — almost 1,000 people perished — and 2,500 were injured, many of them seriously. In one particular raid, on Easter Tuesday, nearly 75 years ago, no other city in the United Kingdom, save London, suffered such a high death toll. The success of this mission, from the German point of view, was due to the exemplary preparatory methods of the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr, as well as excellent aerial reconnaissance. Their special agent, working through Queen’s University, Belfast, was Jopp Hoven of the German Academic Exchange, which had strong links to the IRA. He was later designated as a member of the Bataillon Brandenburg (Brandenburg Battalion), roughly equivalent to the British SAS . He was controlled by the Dublin-based Nazi Spy-master and propagandist, a professional archaeologist and “serious scholar”, Adolph Mahr, who had been the de Valera appointee as Director of the National Museum of Ireland, but who was actually planning a Nazi invasion of Ireland.
It is obvious that, during the Second World War, the Government of Northern Ireland lacked the will, energy and capacity to cope with a major crisis when it came. And come it did in April and May, 1941. James Craig, Lord Craigavon, who was Prime Minister of Northern Ireland since its inception in 1921, until his death on November 24, 1940, had become very frail. Richard Dawson Bates was the Home Affairs Minister. According to Sir Wilfred Spender, the cabinet secretary, he was “incapable of giving his responsible officers coherent directions on policy” Only Sir Basil Brooke, the Minister of Agriculture, actively pursued his duties and successfully performed with the task of making Northern Ireland a major supplier of food to Britain in her time of need.
John Clarke MacDermott, the Minister of Public Security, after the first bombing, initiated the “Hiram Plan” to evacuate the city and to return Belfast to ‘normality’ as quickly as possible. MacDermott was the person who sent the telegram to de Valera seeking assistance. There was unease with the complacent attitude of the government, and resignations followed:
• John Edmond Warnock, the parliamentary secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, resigned from the Northern Ireland government on 25 May 1940. He said “I have heard speeches about Ulster pulling her weight but they have never carried conviction.” and “the government has been slack, dilatory and apathetic.”
• Lt. Col. Alexander Robert Gisborne Gordon, Parliamentary and Financial Secretary at the Ministry of Finance (i.e. Chief Whip), resigned on 13 June 1940, explaining to the Commons that the government was “quite unfitted to sustain the people in the ordeal we have to face.”
Lord Craigavon died on Sunday, 24 November 1940 and was succeeded by John Miller Andrews, then 70 years old, who was no more capable of dealing with the situation than his predecessor. The minutes of his cabinet meetings show more discussion on protecting the bronze statue of Carson outside Stormont than the provision of air-raid shelters and other necessities for the civil defence of the population..
On 28 April 1943, six members of the Government threatened to resign, thus forcing him from office. He resigned on 1st May.
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…“Fuel Depot” or possibly “Oil Refinery”.
• 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.
By 6am, within two hours of the request for assistance to Taoiseach Eamon de Valera, 71 firemen with 13 fire tenders from Dundalk, Drogheda, Dublin, and Dún Laoghaire were on their way to cross the Irish border to assist their Belfast colleagues. In each station volunteers were asked for, as it was beyond their normal duties. In every instance, all volunteered. They remained for three days, until they were sent back by the Northern Ireland government. By then 250 fire men from Clydeside had arrived.
De Valera formally protested to Berlin. He followed up with his “they are our people” speech, made in Castlebar, County Mayo, on Sunday 20th April 1941 (Quoted in the Dundalk Democrat dated Saturday April 26 1941): “In the past, and probably in the present, too, a number of them did not see eye to eye with us politically, but they are our people – we are one and the same people – and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows; and I want to say to them that any help we can give to them in the present time we will give to them whole-heartedly, believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help whole-heartedly”
Initial German radio broadcasts celebrated the raid. A Luftwaffe pilot gave this description “We were in exceptional good humour knowing that we were going for a new target, one of England’s last hiding places. Wherever Churchill is hiding his war material we will go … Belfast is as worthy a target as Coventry, Birmingham, Bristol or Glasgow.” William Joyce “Lord Haw-Haw” announced that “The Führer will give you time to bury your dead before the next attack … Tuesday was only a sample.” However Belfast was not mentioned again by the Nazis. After the war, instructions from Joseph Goebbels ordering it not to be mentioned were discovered. It would appear that Adolf Hitler, in view of de Valera’s negative reaction, was concerned that de Valera, and the Irish American politicians he controlled, might encourage the United States to enter the war.
Among the people of Northern Ireland, reactions tended to blame the mediocre Ulster Unionist government for inadequate precautions. Tommy Henderson, the great Shankill working-class hero, an Independent Unionist MP in the House of Commons of Northern Ireland, summed up their feelings when he invited the Minister of Home Affairs to Hannahstown and the Falls Road, saying “The Catholics and the Protestants are going up there mixed and they are talking to one another. They are sleeping in the same sheugh (ditch), below the same tree or in the same barn. They all say the same thing, that the government is no good.”
Another claim was that the Roman Catholic population in general and the IRA in particular guided the bombers. Dr Barton, an expert on the Belfast Blitz, has written: “the Catholic population was much more strongly opposed to conscription, was inclined to sympathise with Germany”, “…there were suspicions that the Germans were assisted in identifying targets held by the Unionist population.” This view was probably influenced by the decision of the IRA Army Council to support Germany. As we have seen, however, German Intelligence had been very active both in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with both the Abwehr (the German military intelligence service) through the German Academic Exchange at Queen’s University, Belfast, as well as the SD (the Sicherheitsdienst, the intelligence service of the SS) sending agents there. Yet this fact is generally ignored by the whole Irish Academic Establishment in books on the Belfast Blitz to cover up the complicity of their predecessors.
There was a later raid on Belfast on 4 May; it was confined to the docks and shipyards. Again the Southern Irish emergency services crossed the border, this time without waiting for an invitation. On 31 May 1941 German bombers bombed neutral Dublin. German intelligence operations effectively ended in September 1941 when An Garda Síochána made arrests on the basis of surveillance carried out on the key diplomatic legations in Ireland, including the United States. I think this was a result of the Blitzing first of Belfast and the realisation that Hitler’s intentions in the South were not so benign as de Valera had first thought. During the First World War the German objective was to roll back the borders of the Latins and return to those of a more ancient Greater Germany. Protestant Britain was to become a German colony, Roman Catholic Ireland an Austrian one. For Hitler the Second World War was merely an attempt to clear up the unfinished business of the First.