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15 October 2014
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Memories of the Belfast Blitz

by Belfast Central Library

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Belfast Central Library
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Henry Fortune
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12 December 2005

The Australian Army's slouch hat

In one crucial respect the Second World War was unlike its 1914-18 predecessor: air power was to play an important part.
In the spring of 1940 the Panzer units swept through the Low Countries the Ardennes, and France fell in June.
Now that Hitler had control of airfields in northern France, it became increasingly clear that major cities in the United Kingdom were within reach of German aircraft. But few in Belfast believed there was much chance of their being bombed.

I was aged just seven and a half at the time of the first air raid on Belfast and I then lived with my family at No 16 Richmond Street, just off Agnes Street in the Shankill area of the city. Of course my memories are those of a tiny tot and are sketchy to say the least.

The Big Raid of Easter Tuesday, the 15th April 1941, which began that night and with the sound of the all clear siren, ended at 4.10 am on 16th April. The Luftwaffe came in over Newtownards carrying incendiary and other highly explosive bombs.
On that evening, 180 German bombers attacked Belfast and continued for several hours, dropping a total of 203 metric tons of bombs and 800 firebomb canisters on the city. All contact with a squadron of Hurricanes was lost and the Luftwaffe did not sustain a single loss.

Although things are now a bit hazy I remember after an exhausting day spent playing football up in Woodvale Park with my chums. At bedtime I was really tired and was ready for bed and it was not long before sleep had overtaken me. At some time during the night I was awakened by my grandmother shouting, “Get up the house is on fire!” I remember very vividly replying, “Leave me alone, I want to sleep,” not knowing that our house had been hit by an incendiary bomb dropped from the marauding German bombers.

After much trouble my grandmother eventually got me up and we ran out into the street which was brilliantly illuminated by the many flares dropped from the enemy planes, there were many of our neighbours standing in groups probably discussing the devastation caused by the Luftwaffe. The men when hearing my grandmother’s cry for help then dashed down the street to our house and after some difficulty extinguished the fire, using their water buckets, stirrup pumps and sand bags before it created too much damage. The rest of the night was spent in what was considered the safest part of the house the coalhole situated below the stairs in my aunt’s house which was across the street.

About a thousand people were killed. No city, save London, suffered more loss of life in one night’s raid on the United Kingdom.
I recall that a B17 bomber ploughed into the Cave hill and exploded with the loss of all the air crew. The Belfast Telegraph ran a photo of an infant, still in its cot, hanging out of what was left of a first floor bedroom somewhere in Belfast. People were caught unaware. ‘On the night of the 15th and the morning of the 16th April, great havoc and destruction was spread over the city, where over 700 persons were killed and 134 injured. In Belfast on that one night many people died and thousands more were injured. It was the highest number of people killed in one air raid outside London. Indeed more than half of the fatalities were women and children who should have been evacuated. North Belfast suffered serious damage with many people perishing in their own homes.

One of the more tragic events of the blitz was the devastation and carnage caused in Percy Street as can be seen from the picture. The Shankill Road largely escaped the worst of the night’s devastation, but for this one major incident that resulted in appalling carnage and that burned itself indelibly into the popular recollections of earth shattering events.
Percy Street which ran from the Shankill Road down to the Falls Road was lined with well kept terrace houses with a maze of side streets running to and fro from it. An Auxiliary Fire Service worker, was standing on the flat roof of a mill on North Howard Street when he seen a parachute with a landmine attached floating through the illuminated sky and land within a short distance of a crowded shelter in Percy Street. The resulting deafening explosion caused the shelter which could not withstand the blast to disintegrate; the huge concrete roof was lifted of killing many people and pinning others beneath the wreckage. People became confused and dazed; they came out of their damaged homes exposing themselves to even more danger.
That night almost 300 people, many from the Shankill, took refuge in Clonard Monastery in the Falls Road. The crypt under the sanctuary and the cellar under the working store had been fitted out and opened to the people, as an air-raid shelter. Prayers were said and hymns sung by the, mainly Protestant women and children, during the bombing.
I remember the next morning people crying at the news of the catastrophe which had struck a short distance away. Stories abounded about some of the tragedies which occurred the previous night such as the man who was at the Gaiety cinema a short distance down the road from Percy Street when it was flashed on the screen that the blitz had started rushed home to his family and found them in the shelter were he joined them with tragic results. He and his complete family were fatal casualties of the blast. This is another story about the family who wanted to go into the Percy Street air-raid shelter but then decided not to. Instead, they and their kids went into the house of their daughter boyfriend’s sister, a decision which was to save their lives.
Later on in the day a few friends and myself went down the short distance to see for ourselves the devastation caused by the German bombers the previous night. On reaching Percy Street we were confronted by the police and army who had the area cordoned off, probably still searching for casualties from the previous night’s disaster.

All the people of the Shankill grieved sorely at the terrible loss of life as most of them had friends and neighbours who had been killed or seriously injured. Rescue attempts started straight away while bombs continued to rain down on Belfast. People recalled that the volunteers who were assigned to look for survivors pulled limbs from the debris; hands with wedding rings were found. Bodies were strewn around the bomb site; whole streets had collapsed. Many dignitaries and their entourages were constantly visiting the devastated area gauging the damage and loss of life which had struck the Shankill community. As can be seen from the above picture the Duke of Gloucester was one of the more distinguished visitors to inspect the grief stricken area.
Premises in Agnes Street which is a busy thoroughfare running from the Shankill to the Crumlin Road were hit with a bomb which failed to explode. The area affected was between Meenan Street and Brennan Street and consisted of three shops namely Kelly’s which was then a large grocery shop, Diamond’s off license and a sweetie shop whose name I cannot recall. The authorities cordoned the damaged shops off and placed restriction notices around the building with the unexploded bomb. Several days later the bomb experts were drafted in to perform a controlled explosion. During this time I was happily playing in the Hammer playground which was a short distance away when the bomb was exploded.
The ground underneath my feet seemed to ripple and a great shower of debris plummeted above the skyline to be followed by a billowing cloud of thick black smoke which floated upwards to mingle and merge with the existing dark clouds. The area of the shops destroyed in this attack was later cleared and a square brick structure was built as a water tank. This construction was filled with water which was to be used in case of further incendiary bomb attacks but as time went by all sorts of rubbish was dumped into it. During the winter months when the frost was prevalent the water was frozen and became a mass of ice, people were seen walking on it which was extremely dangerous.
‘Bomber after Bomber came over the city to press home the enemy assault. A heavy bomb, narrowly missing a public shelter at the junction of Oxford Street and East Bridge Street, played havoc with the city’s system of telephone communications. This put an end to any effective resistance.’ So the citizens were exposed for more than three hours to the full force of the enemy attack. Not until dawn broke did they hear the welcome all clear of the city sirens

Industries, such as Ewart’s weaving mill on the Crumlin road, businesses, churches and housing suffered serious damage. A total of thirty business premises, although most but not all were involved in making textiles and clothing, rather than munitions. In addition seven garages, seven stores, two banks, two cinemas, two tram depots and eleven other buildings were hit. Firms to the north and west of the city bore a substantial part of the destruction and dislocation.

The Crumlin Road, Antrim Road and York Road were all on fire. Some parts of the east of the city also experienced some damage, but not comparable to the stricken north of the city. The Oval football stands were demolished, the pitch was severely crated and a wing of the Ulster hospital on Templemore Avenue was damaged.

There are some moments which I can still recall with great happiness even in those times of danger. Food shortages and clothing were scarce as the country had to import most of these commodities, so the government had to introduce rationing.
Each family was allocated a fixed amount of butter, sugar, bread, meat and confectionery per week along with clothing coupons which were handed over the counter when purchasing items of clothing.

The family always looked forward to seeing my uncle Jimmy Fortune who was in the merchant navy coming home on leave. He always came home with a bag full of goodies which were greatly appreciated by the family, the large catering tins of Apricot Jam stick in my mind as they seemed to last for ages.

On another occasion he opened his kitbag plunged his hand into it and out popped a very large coconut. My eyes must have lit up with excitement as a smile appeared on his face and as he handed it over to me he said, “Have you ever seen a coconut as large as that?” To tell the truth I hadn’t seen a coconut for years due to the food shortages. For the rest of the day I must have been the most popular lad in the area as all my friends gathered round me wanting share or wishing to have a drink of the milky liquid which flowed from the coconut. On another time he also presented me with the famous Australian hat known as the” Slouch Hat.”

The Australian Army's slouch hat, made famous by several generations of Diggers, had become a national symbol. All over the world Australian soldiers are recognized readily by the wide-brimmed felt hat with the left side cocked up and displaying the Rising Sun badge.
The history of the Australian slouch hat can be traced back for more than 100 years to colonial times. Like the pioneering squatters who adopted wide brimmed felt hats as protection from the harsh summer sun, several of Australia's colonial armies selected slouch hat for the same practical reason. The New South Wales Lancers, the New South Wales Mounted Rifles and the Victorian Mounted Rifles wore the slouch hat in the early 1880's. It was usually worn with the brim turned down all round and gave the wearer a somewhat fearsome appearance, particularly if he sported a large droopy moustache so typical of the times.
A happier boy you could not have met in Belfast, I was the envy of all the kids from far and wide who descended on Richmond Street just to catch a glimpse of this famous Australian hat. I could be found riding my imaginary horse up and down the street (minus a droopy moustache) singing that world famous Aussie song Waltzing Matilda with great gusto.
A month later Hitler began his invasion of Russia along a 900-mile front, and the Germans did not return to Northern Ireland. Because of its geographical position, Northern Ireland played a crucial role in the protection of convoys and Londonderry became the biggest anti-submarine base in the Atlantic. One hundred thousand people became refugees after the blitz. It took years to rebuild the lost buildings, reconstruct the lost homes and replace the industrial targets the Germans had so accurately pinpointed.

The effect on the city would be felt for years to come though it struggled bravely to return to normal. It is worth mentioning that Belfast suffered many more times the devastation in the spring of 1941 than it would in the entire 30 years of the Troubles which would follow.

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