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15 October 2014
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In Victoria Barracks during the Blitz

by CSV Media NI

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Contributed by 
CSV Media NI
People in story: 
James Doherty
Location of story: 
Victoria Barracks, Belfast, NI
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 August 2005

This story is taken from an interview with James Doherty, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions. The interviewer was Anita Cochrane, and the transcription was by Bruce Logan.

Well, actually there had been … Maybe, just for our position in the affair, I always believed in, although I was one of the youngest members of the group, but I had a feeling myself that our area around the Carlisle circus, Antrim road, would be a target area. And it was. And the, what drew the planes, I believe, was Victoria barracks. They had guns in the early part of the night, and of course they blasted at the planes as they came in. And in response to the aircraft, the AA guns shooting at them, they actually dive-bombed into Victoria barracks. Just of Clifford st there, round on the square. You hear of the barrack flats, the artillery flats and stuff like that. That’s, in later years the place actually got destroyed. They built a new HQ in Lisburn, and they evacuated completely. The old barracks lay idle for a number of years, and one of the early building schemes or estates was built on that site. Still known to the people as the Barrack. So in the north of the city …

We were right in our estimation, and what could happen in our area. Just at the bottom of the New Lodge Rd, was one of the biggest linen factories in the world. York St factory. So we had quite a lot of practical things that could happen in the area — on paper, again. But unfortunately for the people who lived about, and for ourselves, it did happen. The big mill in York St was hit — quite a heavy death toll on the little streets that surrounded it. Sisick St, Severe St and Grow St. 40-50 people were killed in that incident. The big mill just toppled over like an avalanche, on the small houses and they weren’t talking any prisoners. Unfortunately there were some casualties, but most of the people died in that incident. Then, as I say, the Victoria Barracks itself was quite a big complex. And our particular area of control there, actually, the Victoria Barracks centred it. It was right in the centre of my area of control, so, as we invested the thing, if there was an air raid the barracks would be hit. And of course, there was no such a thing as pinpoint bombing, so if a bomb missed in any direction it was going to hit the houses round-about. Which actually did happen. Top of Dawson St, Anandale St, Carlisle Street, Cranborne Circus, Lincoln Avenue, bombs that were aimed for the barracks just across the wall there, behind where the school is on the Antrim road, and down into N Queens St and round into Artillery St, all the square, off the barracks, any bomb that missed - and a near hit perhaps was considered good, if it was 100 yards of a target it was still a good hit. The barracks, now, did get a blasting. I and another chap, Montague, were the only civilians that ever say what happened to Victoria Barracks. No journalists, no MPs, no councillors, no-one got into Victoria Barracks. But just from a simple job, this chap Montague and I got in during the night while the raid was on. Actually what we wanted to get was, round the Carlisle Circus there was quite a lot of big buildings that had been hit. But they weren’t just destroyed, overhanging masonry and stuff. And it struck us in the excitement that if anyone’s passing here, this stones and masonry is still falling, so we’ll get some ropes and rope it off. So we went down into the barracks — silly enough, I suppose, looking back — we walked into the heaviest target area in the whole of the British Isles. And the planes were still blasting at it as we went in.

The guards didn’t stop us, they just took it for granted that we would be entitled to get into it. So they brought us through and showed us the different things that happened. And the place was ablaze. Rubble, we were walking over rubble to get to the stores we were looking for, and according to which, we found out later on, about 50 yrs later, they actually showed photos of it. But I had a picture, always had a picture of Victoria Barracks, in my mind. The story there, there was a group of ATS, the female army, they were feeding the guns with the shells. And the gunners were putting them off. But as I say, between the bombs, dive-bombing and heavy bombing, targeting bombing, the guns were practically destroyed, plus their crews. 39 or 40 ATS girls were killed that particular night. They asked us did we want a cup of tea, something to eat. Had we had something to eat? Well, actually we didn’t. The bombs were still falling, and army were still doing, some of them. But these boys were landed up at the cook-house at any rate, and they offered us something to eat. Well, actually I hadn’t had anything to eat. I don’t know, because I just came into the house, the sirens had gone, I said to my mother and father “I’ll be back shortly”, I went out, got engaged in things, and I didn’t come back. And when I did come back the house was destroyed. So I never got my supper.
But they gave us something to eat. But I remember these boys, the bombs were falling round them, maybe we weren’t thinking about things ourselves, the language was good, and I heard one saying “Doesn’t Paddy speak funny?” That was myself and the Sgt. But they gave us cocoa, army cocoa. Now it was thick, it was nearly like chocolate, and the boy must have shovelled sugar into it. And he sliced 2 big slices of bread and a chuck of cheese, and that was our meal. Now apparently, the boy who was doing cook wasn’t a cook, according to some of the boys the cook had caught one during the night. He was dead. That’s just how they put it.

[were they upset?]
They didn’t seem to be. Maybe they were shocked. But as I say, everything just seemed to be, and the bombs were shattering down as we were there, so maybe we were all crazy. But that’s how they described that the cook wasn’t a cook. But that the so-and-sos would have to eat what he gave them the next morning, but that was it. And so, as I can always say, I saw Victoria barracks, which I had never seen before, I seen it in as bad a time with the flames and the dead around, and that is one experience that we had. As I say …

[What were the other soldiers doing?]
They had their own defence services. As I say, they didn’t call. We were there more to borrow some ropes. And we got a surprise ourselves when we saw the … but they gave us some ropes at any rate, and they gave us the hospitality of their army cocoa and a sandwich with 2 doorsteps, as we would say locally here in Belfast. So, we went on and thought nothing much more about it, other than I think we just discussed it among ourselves as we walked up Clifton St from Henry Place, or Glenradle St where the motorway runs through now. And he just says “that was a right hot place we was in there”. And that’s how we described it. And we’d been nearly an hour in one of the heaviest bombings, because I think that every plane that passed over dropped something into Victoria, or tried to hit Victoria Barracks.

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