ONE of the late Brian Moore’s many fine novels was The Emperor of Ice Cream, published in 1965. It is a coming of age story whose young hero, Gavin Burke, the son of a middle class and Catholic Belfast family, decides, after the outbreak of war in 1939 to do his bit for Britain’s cause by joining the Air Raid Precaution Service. He reckons however without the reaction of some of his close relatives. On arriving home in his ARP uniform he is at once berated by an aunt who is having tea with his mother. ‘Gracious God, did I ever think I’d live to see the day when my own nephew would stand in this room dressed like a Black and Tan’. The aunt then appeals to her sister for support: ‘Surely you realise that these ARP places will be filled with the scum of the Orange Lodges. Are these the sort of companions you want for a boy of his age?’. Gavin stays in the ARP and acts with bravery when the full horror of the Luftwaffe’s fire power is unleashed on Belfast in mid-April of 1941.
In fact many of Northern Ireland’s disaffected minority were unwilling to give any help to Britain’s war effort. Out of 36,000 who joined the Home Guard, only 150 were Catholics. This was hardly surprising, given that Stormont ruled that it should be placed under the RUC’s B-Special reserve, a force deeply distrusted by Catholics. Moore’s novel showed brilliantly just how thinly the war masked Northern Ireland’s sectarian divisions and Brian Barton confronts this reality in his long awaited and truly magnificent history of the Belfast blitz.
Dr Barton has already written extensively on the subject and brought out a book on it as far back as 1989. This new, lavishly illustrated work will surely become the definitive work on the blitz, given the immense trawl of sources he has carried out, from state papers, army, RAF and Luftwaffe records, unit logs and diaries and above all the often unbearably moving testimony of those who survived their city’s ordeal by fire in April and again in early May of 1941 and were also so cruelly bereaved by it.
Northern Ireland was ill-prepared for total war, largely because of the complacent inertia of its Unionist rulers. Lord Craigavon, as Barton points out, was drawing a larger salary as Stormont prime minister than Neville Chamberlain, but he was a notorious absentee from his desk, often departing with his wife for lengthy winter cruises. ‘Only good sailors should apply’ was one of the jokes circulated about his possible replacement. One source quoted in The Belfast Blitz claimed that when at the end of 1939 Craigavon was pressed by a colleague on the inadequacy of air raid shelter provision in Belfast his reply was that people ‘can take to the ditches’ outside the city. That was exactly what thousands of working class people did in April 1941 after the Luftwaffe struck. They had little choice, given that there were shelters for only twenty-five percent of their city’s population.
These shelters, like the fire services, were only brought up to the required standards well after the danger of renewed attack was long gone. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlight defences were also disastrously under resourced. Their allocation was however not a matter for Stormont but for the War Office and the army as the blitz on mainland cities intensified. And Belfast’s needs were not given a high rating. A squadron of RAF fighter aircraft was moved from Edinburgh to Belfast early in 1941 but without night interceptor equipment. Many in the emergency services during the great raid of 15th/16th April were left with the thought that Goering’s bombers had ‘had Belfast to themselves’.
The north of the city and its dock and shipbuilding areas bore the brunt of the attacks but on the night of the 4th/5th May the Luftwaffe returned with a huge incendiary attack which brought a swathe of devastation which reached the city centre. Even today it’s hard to walk past Belfast landmarks such as the Falls Road’s indoor swimming pool or the now splendidly restored St George’s Market without recalling how both were pressed into service as improvised mortuaries for the hundreds of victims who had died under the red hot rubble of collapsed buildings, all too often their own homes, as whole streets were destroyed by deadly parachute mines and raging fires. At the market, a nurse called Emma Duffin did duty helping to lay out and identify the corpses. She kept a diary from which Barton quotes. She had seen death before, she wrote, ‘but here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible. No attendant had soothed the last moments of these victims, no gentle reverend hand had closed their eyes or crossed their hands. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, their grey faces covered in dust, they lay bundled into coffins, half-shrouded in rags or blankets, often wearing their dirty, torn garments. Death should be dignified, pacific. Hitler had made even death grotesque. I should have felt pity, instead feelings of repulsion and disgust assailed me’.
These dead were Belfast’s poor, victims of the most atrocious housing provision of probably any city in inter-war Britain. For many of them life had been defined in terms of a long struggle against overcrowding, damp, tuberculosis, and the loss of children in infancy. It was a struggle, too, against low wages and starvation rates of outdoor relief for the unemployed. When Catholics and Protestants briefly united with big protest marches in 1932 they were met head-on by the armoured cars, machine guns and truncheons of the RUC.
As with evacuees from target cities in England and Scotland, along with those who fled into the country for safety, the state of Belfast’s poor appalled the social services who tried to cope with their plight as well as those who gave them sanctuary in their homes. Across the sea revelations of this kind created shock waves which drove the process of political change that culminated in Labour’s 1945 election victory. Northern Ireland was different, as Barton makes clear, and its electorate followed a different drum. After Lord Craigavon’s death late in 1940 his party began to lose by-elections and his successors saw the need to head off the Northern Ireland Labour Party by wrapping themselves in the rhetoric of shared sacrifice and began to throw their weight behind a more proactive war effort.
For some Unionists the latter could only mean conscription and the abortive attempt to introduce it in 1940 was repeated in 1943. The problem was to convince Churchill of the case for it. Voluntary enlistment had never been conspicuously good, even within the majority community. Most Loyalists and Orangemen opted to remain loyally at home, often in reserved occupations or serving in the RUC’s B-Specials, waiting for the ‘real war’, as some of them referred to it, i.e. against the IRA. It as an organisation would of course have fought conscription and there was strong opposition to it within the broader nationalist community. Its leaders took their cue from the de Valera goverment in Dublin but some voices within it, notably among the Catholic clergy, were openly pro-German, such as Cardinal MacCrory, the Primate of All Ireland. His response to the Belfast blitz was a hurried visit to the German legation in Dublin as he was on good terms with the Reich’s minister there, Eduard Hempel. His concern was to seek protection in any further raids for Armagh cathedral, the seat of his archdiocese.
The IRA reacted to events with predictably brutal stupidity. Dominic Adams, an uncle of Gerry Adams, master-minded a bombing campaign against some major English cities which began in January 1939 and ran to over two hundred attacks which claimed seven lives, five of them in Coventry. It was meant to serve notice to Berlin of the organisation’s readiness to join the war when it came on Hitler’s side. This was not just a pragmatic equation of a British emergency with Ireland’s opportunity. Some IRA leaders were well-wishers to the Nazi state, and one of them, Sean Russell, was happy as an emissary to Berlin, to be wined and dined by leading figures in Hitler’s regime. It was another matter to convince the Abwehr, the Reich’s intelligence service, of the IRA’s capacity to launch major operations on both sides of the Irish border if and when Germany invaded.
All this was soon put on hold though a number of German agents were parachuted into Ireland to report on the situation. The IRA kept up sporadic attacks against the police in Eire and against the crown forces in Northern Ireland. After one of their Belfast volunteers, Tom Williams, was executed in September 1942, its Northern Command announced, in anticipation of a new German blitz, that it would launch attacks on the ARP, the RUC and its reserve force, as well as destroying electricity generating plants and also cinemas. The latter objective seems to have been rooted in the belief that too many people went to the cinema so they deserved to be ‘kept in a state of pictureless tension. With less cinema-going they might have more time to think’.
Some major Stormont figures did in fact think that the real enemy was the IRA. They feared cross border migration because of the security threat it might pose. There is scant proof that it did and migrants from Eire simply wanted work. For Unionists of this mindset the impulses which drove the IRA and the degree of support for it, if mostly passive within the nationalist community, posed a real and present threat to the Protestant mini-state which they saw it as their duty to defend. The great strength of Barton’s book is the way it puts under the microscope all Northern Ireland’s cultural and political divisions which would surface in malignant form barely twenty-five years from the war’s end. Unionists were happy to accept the largesse provided by Britain’s post-war welfare state but they were careful to neutralise the onset of class-based politics. The militancy of organised labour in the war years didn’t alter the political map of Northern Ireland though it greatly alarmed Stormont which saw it as proof of shaky morale illustrated by people’s response to the blitz.
This was unjust and mean-spirited. Morale in Belfast during the blitz buckled at times, as in other cities, but there is little reason to suppose its people would not have adapted to more sustained attack, and they showed their resilience under the very different ordeal of the Troubles. Barton has done his adopted city proud. He has also declared his support for any initiatives to raise a city-centre memorial to the nearly one thousand victims of the 1941 raids. Should this not come to pass many will feel that The Belfast Blitz fits that purpose.
The Belfast Blitz: The City in the War Years
The Ulster Historical Foundation £19.99, ISBN 978 1 909556 32 4, PP648