Images Of Post War Belfast
Older readers will recall, when growing up in the late 1940’s early ‘50’s the many lingering images still around Belfast reminiscent of the then recent world war, waste grounds, bomb sites and gable walls propped up with huge brick built buttresses.
Downtown there was the Blitz Square at Bridge Street and another where the College of Art is today which during the early 1950’s were used as temporary markets. There were still many remnants of air raid shelters like that in the photo below, people would have rushed for safety to these concrete buildings, which were erected in nearly every street, on hearing the warning sirens that an air raid was about to take place.
One air raid shelter in the North Queen Street area however became the death scene of a local man who with a local girl conspired to lure and rob an American soldier to the
Shelter. After a struggle the Soldier pulled a knife and repeatedly stabbed the would be robber which caused the judge to find him guilty of murder, he ruled that the amount of stab wounds he inflicted on the victim went beyond reasonable self defence. This was one of many violent incidents in which American soldiers were involved in, another at Soldierstown near Lough Neagh two soldiers beat to death, with their steel helmets, a barman as he cycled along a country lane, he had earlier asked the two Americans to leave his bar when they were being rowdy.
In general the white American soldiers were welcomed throughout the six counties but in Unionist areas it is well recorded that Black soldiers were not welcomed and were even refused service in many hotels and bard particularly in the Larne, Carrickfergus area. On the other hand the Stormont Government warned American Servicemen to stay out of Nationalist areas as they could be
in danger yet their Belfast Military base was in the old Jacobs biscuit factory in Donegall Street right next to the Catholic Carrick Hill area. One Unionist M.P even took it a step further when he said local girls who socialised with Black American soldiers “ were mostly of the lowest type and belonging to our minority “, he showed the extent of racist feeling that I referred to earlier which existed among the Unionists.
At the same time Fr Hendley, P.P. of St. Paul’s pointed out that an air Raid shelter provided by the Education authority for a local school would not have been big enough to accommodate all of the school children which would have left a third to fen for themselves. Meanwhile unionists were claiming Catholics were sending torch light signals to German bombers overhead directing them to their targets and supported this with a claim that it could be no coincident that many Protestant churches had been bombed and not one Catholic church.
Michael McLaverty, my old school teacher, made some interesting observations at the time when he wrote in his journal, “Belfast 1941 - After The Blitz ”………..“All morning the tram had gone past the suburban station of Knock, but when a delayed action bomb was discovered on the line near the Belfast Station, Knock became the terminus for incoming and outgoing trains. The little station was crammed with people old and young, their baskets, suitcases, birds in cages and bed sheets with portable furniture wrapped in them lay at their feet. Thje Station Master was exhausted as he made out tickets to all parts of the line; some of the tickets to less frequented parts, had remained untouched for a length of time that they were covered in dust. Time and again he had to call the Porter to get him change. ‘Is there no change amongst you people at all.? You made sure Hitler didn’t get your big notes’.
The sun came out strong, and people tired of waiting for a train, tired from the sleepless nights and the sound of guns and bombs, lay on the grassy embankments. Some were sleeping, others talking about the terrible night they had put in. ‘Hope I never live to see the like again’.
Suddenly the Siren went and a nervous hush spread across the people, and those who were lying got up and stood about. The silver barrage balloons were
put up; an old man looked at them contemplatively; ‘You might as well put me up ’. The crowd laughed. Presently there was a noise like machine gun fire and the crowd raised their eyes to the blue sky. But the sound faded ; it was only an old motor car running over broken slates on the road. Silence again. Then there came a faint drone like am aeroplane, and once again all raised their eyes. Then from a wooden box spread out at the feet of two women an alarm clock suddenly went off and the people jumped away from it in fright. Then they laughed at their folly and the old man said with contempt, ‘we can take it’.
Michael gave us an insight into the poverty of the times when he also wrote In October 1941 ….
“On my way to Mass this morning it was dark and I hadn’t time to shave, but knew that in the dark no one would notice me. I thought of the poor old woman and her two sons who used to live near us and how, because their clothes were shabby, they went out to six o’clock Mass in the Monastery - Clonard Monastery.”
It is recorded that 35.000 homes were demolished in a city that already had a terrible housing problem and dire poverty was rife even before the war and air raids which killed over 1000 people. Michael McLaverty hinted at that poverty above a fact that historians forget to mention in their haste to talk about the “beautiful buildings destroyed” which probably provoked Michael to write, “The Truth! The Truth! is what I want and sincerity . Nothing written that would shock, abhor, or lead others into sin - it all needs delicate handling..”
Many historians suggest that when the air raids did eventually begin on Belfast the German Luftwaffe had poor intelligence of their target area and made mistakes like bombing the Waterworks in mistake for the Shipyard but the fact is, it is recorded that the German Air Force had made dozens of reconnaissance flights over Belfast for over a year before they actually began bombing the city. That first raid, a light one, came on the night of 7-8th April 1941 and William Joyce, “Lord Haw Haw” teased on his German radio broadcasts that there would be “Easter Eggs For Belfast” and true to his words 180 German bomber planes flew over and blasted the city for five and a half hours. On Easter Tuesdat night. An official report stated , “ Quiet residential areas were enveloped by flames… eating their way from street to street as quick as a man could walk”.
Belfast shipyards and other important industrial sites were pounded .. does that sound like the Luftwaffe had geographic problems.? The terrible reality is that those in charge on the ground had failed to make allowances for such an attack, hospital facilities and even morgue sites were inadequate. Public baths and Gt. George’s Market were used as morgues , bodied still clad in their ragged torn clothing were put in to coffins and those not readily identified were buried in mass graves , many noted that the dignity of the dead did not extend to the victims.
A little known fact, the father of film star Erroll Flynn (left) Professor Flynn was in charge of the Causality Services for Belfast at that time and reported that the greater number of causalities were due to shock, blast and secondary missiles, such as glass, stones, pieces of piping, etc. There were many terrible mutilations among living and dead - heads crushed, ghastly abdominal and face wounds , penetration by beams, mangled and crushed limbs, etc… in the heavy blitzed areas people ran pan stricken into the streets and made for the open country. As many were caught by blast and secondary missiles, the enormous number of causalities can be readily counted for. It is perhaps true many saved their lives running but I’m afraid a great number lost them or became causalities. During the day with no bombing going on it was still dangerous with slates and other debris falling from the dangerous buildings.