Belfast's Night of Devastation

The Belfast Blitz comprised of a series of four air raids conducted by German forces on strategically important targets within the city of Belfast, located in Northern Ireland, during the months of April and May in 1941, amidst the backdrop of the Second World War.

These raids inflicted significant casualties and damage. The initial raid occurred on the night of April 7–8, 1941; it was a relatively minor attack likely designed to assess the city's defensive capabilities.

Rescue workers search through the rubble of Eglington Street in Belfast, Northern Ireland after a German Luftwaffe air raid, 7 May 1941.

Imperial War Museum

The subsequent assault happened on Easter Tuesday, April 15, 1941, during which around 200 Luftwaffe bombers targeted military and industrial sites within Belfast. This attack resulted in the loss of approximately 900 lives and caused injuries to about 1,500 individuals.

The raid heavily utilized high explosive bombs. Notably, apart from the bombings on London, this event marked one of the most devastating instances of loss of life during nighttime raids throughout the Blitz campaign.

The third raid unfolded over the evening and morning of May 4–5, 1941, leading to the loss of around 150 lives. This attack was characterized by a significant use of incendiary bombs. The fourth and final raid on Belfast took place on the subsequent night, May 5–6.

The overall impact of these raids was extensive, with over 1,300 houses completely destroyed, approximately 5,000 severely damaged, nearly 30,000 experiencing lesser degrees of damage, and an additional 20,000 requiring basic repair work.

An Industrial Powerhouse

Northern Ireland and its capital city, Belfast, played integral roles in shaping the history of the region. As a component of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland held a distinctive place in the complex tapestry of British and Irish history.

During the early 19th century, Belfast had solidified its status as a prominent seaport. It assumed a pivotal role in propelling the Industrial Revolution within Ireland, experiencing a brief yet notable phase as the foremost global producer of linen and earning the moniker "Linenopolis."

Before Victoria Square Shopping centre was developed there was Churchill House - once one of the tallest buildings in Belfast. But before Churchill House, this was the building which stood on the site on Victoria Square - Finlay's Soap and Candle Works. Finlay's was a massive concern and exported its products to many parts of the world. Here you can see the company's fleet of horse drawn vehicles being used for distribution. The red brick building in the background has miraculously survived became the Kitchen Bar.

Old Belfast Photographs    Horse power - Belfast Live

By the time the city was formally designated as a municipality in 1888, it had established itself as a significant hub for Irish linen manufacturing, tobacco processing, and the crafting of ropes. Notably, shipbuilding also stood as a cornerstone industry; the Harland & Wolff shipyard, responsible for the construction of iconic vessels like the RMS Titanic and SS Canberra, held the distinction of being the largest shipyard worldwide.

The wave of industrialization, coupled with resultant inflows of migrants, propelled Belfast into the ranks of Ireland's most populous cities.

However, Belfast's prosperity was accompanied by societal divisions. The city's population was divided along religious lines, with Protestants largely identifying as Unionists, favoring continued British rule, and Catholics aligning as Nationalists, often advocating for Irish independence. These tensions simmered beneath the surface, sometimes erupting into sporadic conflicts.

Members of the protestant Orange Order march through Shaftesbury Square in Belfast on July 12th 1920. 

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

In 1921, the Government of Ireland Act partitioned Ireland into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State, granting the former a level of devolved self-governance. Belfast became the capital of this newly formed entity, but the region's sectarian divisions persisted, with Unionists maintaining a political stronghold.

The 1930s brought economic challenges exacerbated by the Great Depression, intensifying the struggles of working-class communities. As Europe hurtled towards the Second World War, Northern Ireland and Belfast found themselves grappling with the geopolitical uncertainties of the era. The region's history of division, economic dynamism, and political aspirations would set the stage for its role in the wider global conflict.

Royal Avenue, Belfast 1930s. On the right is the luxurious Grand Central Hotel with its impressive entrance canopy. next door is a branch of Burton's. On the left is one of Belfast's leading fashion stores "Newell's" which also owned Warnock's and James' Outfitters. Although the trams ply up and down Royal Avenue, a horse drawn coal cart makes its way across to Berry Street and to the rear entrance to the Grand Central on Charlemont Street which would have used huge amounts of coal for heating its 200 rooms. 

Old Belfast Photographs    Horse power - Belfast Live

A Tale of Two Irelands

As the United Kingdom braced itself for the impending conflict, the bustling factories and dynamic shipyards of Belfast underwent a significant transformation. The city of Belfast assumed a pivotal role in bolstering the efforts of the Allied forces, emerging as a prolific producer of naval vessels, aircraft, and crucial munitions.

This formidable contribution to the war machinery, however, painted a target on Belfast's back in the eyes of the Luftwaffe, making it a prime candidate for their bombing campaign.

In contrast, the Irish Free State, distinct from Northern Ireland, had distanced itself from the United Kingdom. Guided by the leadership of Éamon de Valera, the Free State had boldly declared its stance of neutrality amidst the turbulence of the Second World War. This bold declaration, however, did not translate into complete isolation.

The Free State's law enforcement and military intelligence units remained vigilant, apprehending German spies operating within its borders. Despite these actions, the Free State upheld its diplomatic relationships with the Axis powers, refraining from severing ties.

A notable example of this diplomatic continuity was the continuous operation of the German Legation in Dublin throughout the war, symbolizing a unique chapter in the intricate tapestry of wartime diplomacy.

A Tempting Target

Belfast's strategic significance as a major industrial and shipbuilding centre during World War II made it a prime target for the Luftwaffe. The city's vital production of naval ships, aircraft, munitions, and its pivotal role in supporting the Allied war effort drew the attention of enemy forces seeking to cripple the UK's capabilities.

Harland and Wolff stood as a colossal shipbuilding yard on a global scale, renowned for its monumental contributions. It was responsible for the construction of numerous illustrious vessels for the White Star Line, including iconic names such as RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic. Additionally, the Royal Navy benefited from its craftsmanship, receiving an array of vessels ranging from aircraft carriers like HMS Formidable and Unicorn to cruisers like HMS Belfast and Penelope, alongside an impressive fleet of 131 other naval ships.

This bustling enterprise employed a staggering workforce of up to 35,000 individuals.

Belfast City Centre before the Blitz, 1939.

Presidents Medals: Belfast Bomb: The Blitz and the unsheltered city

In the midst of wartime exigencies, the Belfast shipyards assumed a critical role, participating in the construction and conversion of over 3,000 naval vessels. Further adding to their significance, they undertook repairs for more than 22,000 other ships and orchestrated the launch of over 140 merchant ships, cumulatively accounting for more than half a million tons of merchant shipping.

Concurrently, Short Brothers etched their name in aviation history as manufacturers of aircraft. Their portfolio boasted remarkable accomplishments, such as the Sunderland flying boat and the Stirling long-range heavy bomber. The enterprise engaged a workforce of up to 20,000 individuals, with their pursuits extending to the preparation for manufacturing the Handley Page Hereford bombers as early as 1936.

James Mackie & Sons embraced a pivotal role by becoming equipped for the production of Bofors anti-aircraft shells in 1938. Meanwhile, Harland's Engineering works diversified into tank construction, notably contributing to the design of the Churchill tank.

The wartime landscape also witnessed the convergence of Belfast's textile mills into the manufacturing of essential materials. Notably, flax spinning mills like The York Street Flax Spinning Co., Brookfield Spinning Co., Wm. Ewart's Rosebank Weaving Co., and the Linen Thread Co. were instrumental in producing Aero linen for aircraft covering and military glider frames.

Beyond this diverse spectrum of industrial engagement, Belfast served as a critical artery for the transportation of both war materials and sustenance. Ships, like the M.V. Munster operated under the neutral Irish tricolor, navigating the waters between Belfast and Liverpool, facilitating the vital flow of goods until unforeseen circumstances disrupted their journeys.


During that period, Belfast, which held the highest population density in the UK, paradoxically boasted the lowest proportion of accessible public air-raid shelters. Prior to the onset of the "Belfast Blitz," merely 200 public shelters existed, while about 4,000 households had independently erected their own private protective structures. These personal air-raid shelters, known as Anderson shelters, featured corrugated galvanized iron coated in earth, offering effective defence against falling debris, the primary cause of casualties.

Searchlights were notably absent in the city until April 10, with smokescreen capabilities absent as well, although strategic placement of barrage balloons aimed to provide some measure of protection. Due to Belfast's geographic location, it was at the periphery of the range of German bombers, resulting in the absence of dedicated night-fighter aerial cover. Remarkably, on the initial raid, no Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft were dispatched to intercept German planes.

A government warning to citizens in Northern Ireland the year before the Belfast Blitz.

WW2: How did an elephant beat the Belfast Blitz? - BBC Teach

On the ground, the city was equipped with a modest 22 anti-aircraft guns, comprising six light and sixteen heavy installations, and during the first night of the blitz, merely seven of these were operational and manned.

The evacuation of children had yielded limited success. The "Hiram Plan," led by Home Affairs Minister Dawson Bates, faltered in execution, resulting in the evacuation of fewer than 4,000 women and children. A staggering 80,000 remained within Belfast. The offspring of soldiers, despite expectations, were also not evacuated, leading to dire consequences when a direct hit struck the married quarters of Victoria Barracks.

With minimal preparation for conflict against Germany, Prime Minister Lord Craigavon expressed Ulster's unwavering readiness for war. Despite warnings of German threats, Home Affairs Minister Dawson Bates' lack of response to army correspondence and limited actions, like providing shelters, marked the unpreparedness of Northern Ireland for potential conflict.

Map of Northern Ireland’s Military Defences during the Second World War.

Presidents Medals: Belfast Bomb: The Blitz and the unsheltered city

First Raids

On November 30, 1940, the Luftwaffe conducted a reconnaissance flight over Belfast, discovering the city's weak defence with just seven anti-aircraft batteries, rendering it the least defended in the UK. High-priority targets were identified from aerial photographs:

  • Harland and Wolff shipyards
  • Conns Water fuel depot
  • Short and Harland aircraft factory
  • Belfast power station
  • Rank & Co mill
  • Belfast waterworks
  • Victoria Barracks

Several minor bombings had already occurred, potentially due to stray planes from attacks on Glasgow or northwest England cities. Minister for Security John MacDermott expressed concern about Belfast's vulnerability, predicting an imminent attack during the moonlit period of April 7–16, which came true.

The initial deliberate raid on April 7 targeted docks and residential areas, involving six Heinkel He 111 bombers from Kampfgruppe 26. Incendiaries, high explosives, and parachute-mines were dropped from 7,000 feet. Casualties were relatively low compared to the mainland blitz. Notably, a factory floor for Short Stirling bomber fuselages was significantly damaged. RAF Squadron Leader J.W.C. Simpson reportedly downed one Heinkel.

Returning to Northern France, Luftwaffe crews deemed Belfast's defences inadequate. This raid highlighted the city's vulnerable state despite limited physical damage.

Map showing areas of Belfast which were subjected to the Blitz on dates shown.

Second World War in Northern Ireland - Belfast Blitz Then & Now (

"Easter Eggs for Belfast"

In radio transmissions from Hamburg, William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw") ominously announced "Easter eggs for Belfast." On Easter Tuesday, April 15, 1941, a lone Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 circled as over 150 bombers left French and Dutch bases. Heinkel He 111s, Junkers Ju 88s, and Dornier Do 17s emerged ominously. Sirens wailed at 10:40 pm as flares illuminated the city.

Initial blows struck the waterworks, targeting it anew. Harland and Wolff's vessels-in-progress, including HMS Ark Royal, suffered. Wave by wave, bombers released incendiaries, explosives, and land-mines, igniting fires due to low water pressure. High-profile structures like City Hall, hospitals, libraries, and churches were obliterated. Streets such as High, Ann, Callender, and Castle Streets were decimated.

The bombardment continued until 5 am, damaging 55,000 homes and displacing 100,000.

People of Belfast attempt to salvage what they can from the rubble left in the immediate aftermath of a Luftwaffe raid on the corner of Bridge Street and High Street in Belfast City Centre, 4-5th May 1941.

Belfast Telegraph /

This assault resulted in about 900 deaths, marking a significant loss comparable to the Blitz's deadliest raids outside London. Stray bombers struck Derry and Bangor, causing additional casualties. Amid the blaze, John MacDermott, Minister of Public Security, sought help from Irish Taoiseach Éamon de Valera through telegraphy.

Amid the chaos and flames that consumed Belfast, the city's resilience and the urgency of the situation prompted action. As the entire city seemed to be engulfed in the inferno by 4 am, John MacDermott, the Minister of Public Security, recognized the need for immediate assistance. At 4:15 am, he managed to establish contact with Basil Brooke, the Agriculture Minister. In the face of the calamity, Brooke's diary entry reflected the gravity of the moment, stating, "I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency."

The "Carry On Belfast" comment was printed in the Belfast Telegraph Newspaper which itself had suffered during the Bombing.

Second World War in Northern Ireland - Belfast Blitz Then & Now (


Belfast residents escaping the wreckage of their homes after a bombing raid.

WW2: How did an elephant beat the Belfast Blitz? - BBC Teach

Despite the disruption caused by the ongoing bombardment, communication remained possible through the railway telegraphy link between Belfast and Dublin, providing a lifeline to the beleaguered city. A telegram was swiftly dispatched at 4:35 am, seeking assistance from Éamon de Valera, the Irish Taoiseach. This urgent plea for help reflected the dire circumstances that Belfast found itself in, as the fires raged and the toll of destruction and loss of life continued to mount.

In the midst of devastation and with the weight of a city's well-being on their shoulders, the swift and coordinated efforts of individuals like John MacDermott and Basil Brooke, as well as the cross-border communication, demonstrated the imperative need for solidarity and support during one of Belfast's darkest hours.

Belfast on fire: The flames rage across the city during the Blitz.

WW2: How did an elephant beat the Belfast Blitz? - BBC Teach

As the night wore on and the fires blazed, the people of Belfast displayed remarkable resilience and unity in the face of adversity. Communities came together to offer aid, shelter, and solace to those affected by the devastating bombardment. Emergency services, although overwhelmed, worked tirelessly to provide assistance and care to the wounded and displaced.


The civilian evacuations during the Belfast Blitz in 1941 were a monumental effort to safeguard the lives of the city's residents in the face of relentless air raids by the German Luftwaffe. As the ominous threat of bombing loomed, the government initiated a massive evacuation plan, compelling over 200,000 people to seek refuge in safer areas.

Families faced the agonizing choice of leaving their homes and possessions behind to embark on an uncertain journey. Trains, buses, and even makeshift caravans transported them to the relative safety of rural locations, away from the imminent danger. This upheaval was not without its hardships, as evacuees had to adapt to unfamiliar surroundings and often strained resources in their new communities.

These evacuations undeniably saved countless lives, shielding civilians from the horrors of the Blitz, which resulted in substantial destruction and loss of life in the city.

A Miraculous Escape

In April 1941, as the bombing raids commenced, concerns arose among the authorities regarding the possibility of dangerous animals escaping from Belfast Zoo due to a direct hit. In response, a grim decision was made to euthanize several creatures, including six wolves, a puma, a tiger, a black bear, two polar bears, and a lynx.

Remarkably, amid the chaos and destruction, one animal received a reprieve: a baby elephant. This young elephant, named Sheila, would go on to symbolize hope in the city during those trying times. Sheila's survival during the Blitz was attributed to Denise Weston Austin, who later earned the moniker "The Elephant Angel" for her heroic act of safeguarding the young elephant.

Sheila's presence continued to grace Belfast Zoo for many years after the war, forever etching her legacy as a beacon of resilience amidst a dark chapter in the city's history. Her remarkable story even served as the inspiration for Michael Morpurgo's beloved children's novel, "An Elephant in the Garden." While Sheila found refuge in Denise's garden and garage, the rest of Belfast's residents were grappling with their own quest for shelter.


The following days saw the city and its inhabitants confronting the aftermath of the blitz. The scale of destruction became painfully evident as survivors surveyed the ruins of their homes and neighbourhoods’. Recovery efforts commenced, with people across Belfast showing unwavering determination to rebuild their lives and their city.

The tragedy left over 900 lives lost and 1,500 individuals injured, with 400 of them sustaining severe wounds. The impact was staggering – 50,000 houses, accounting for more than half the city's residences, suffered damage. Eleven churches, two hospitals, and two schools were obliterated.

Life in Belfast attempts to return to normal after the Luftwaffe raid. A tram can be seen emerging from Bridge Street onto the High Street. The extent of the bomb damage can be clearly seen in this photo, with many buildings reduced to rubble. This photo was taken from the top of the Woolworths building on the high street, which was presumably lucky enough to escape serious damage in the raid.

Belfast Telegraph / 

In the midst of the chaos, heart-wrenching stories emerged. An air raid shelter on Hallidays Road, struck directly, claimed the lives of all its occupants. Those who survived amidst the rubble had sought refuge under their staircases, fortunate that their homes had evaded a direct hit or the encroaching flames. Elsewhere, tragedy unfolded as a mill in the New Lodge area crumbled, crushing 35 people to their demise.

Amidst the pandemonium, a multitude fled to the open countryside, often in vain. Major O'Sullivan's report revealed the grim reality – while some escaped the onslaught by running, many more fell victim to the blast's devastation and secondary projectiles.

Destruction of the buildings in Sugarhouse Entry, the location of where Henry Joy McCracken and the United Irishmen met in 1798.  

Belfast Telegraph /

In a display of unity amidst chaos, almost 300 individuals sought refuge at Clonard Monastery, bridging sectarian lines. The monastery's crypt and cellar, converted into air-raid shelters, hosted prayers and hymns, echoing with the voices of predominantly Protestant women and children during the tumultuous bombing.

Amid the widespread loss, mortuary services grappled with an overwhelming task. A planned capacity for 200 bodies proved inadequate. The Falls Road baths held 150 bodies for days, 123 remaining unidentified, until a mass grave received them. Meanwhile, 255 corpses lay in St George's Market, many defying identification. Mass graves at Milltown and Belfast City Cemeteries became the final resting places for the unclaimed, an indelible testament to the scale of the tragedy.

People were shocked at the extent of the damage to Belfast, whilst the Home Secretary sent a Telegram of Sympathy and Support from London.

Second World War in Northern Ireland - Belfast Blitz Then & Now (

Belfast Telegraph

Harland and Wolff Shipyard Soon After the Blitz, 4/5th May 1941.

Presidents Medals: Belfast Bomb: The Blitz and the unsheltered city


In the broader context, the Belfast Blitz highlighted the vulnerability of civilian populations during wartime and underscored the importance of preparedness and defence measures. It also revealed the power of international cooperation, as the urgent plea for assistance reached across borders to the Irish government.

Belfast City Tramway Route Map and Guide (NIWM:2018.2184) Produced in September 1920, the map shows just how extensive the tram network once was in Belfast with termini as far out as Glengormley, Andersonstown and Dundonald. It has been annotated to show damage done to the network during the Belfast Blitz in 1941. ⨂ shows the damage caused by the Luftwaffe during the Easter Tues Raid on the night of 15/16th April. While a * shows damage on the Fire Raid 4/5th May

Further reading