Belfast Blitz: The People's Story is a good idea. It is a relatively slim volume of eyewitness and contemporary accounts, which still have a painful immediacy about them even as we mark the 70th anniversary. The various sections on ‘Before the Bombs’, ‘Easter Tuesday Raid’, ‘A Week of Horrors’, and ‘The May Raid’ are usefully framed with brief narrative introductions.
An opening claim that this ‘is the first time that the story… has been told from the perspective of those who lived through the experience’ is not altogether true. Clearly the newspaper reports that flesh out the contents here have already seen the light of day. It is also the case that Brian Barton’s seminal The Blitz (1989), an extended edition of which is due in October 2011, used lengthy quotation from many of the same sources.
Thus Moya Woodside, one of those engaged in the Mass Observation project, and rightly highlighted by Stephen Douds, also appears extensively in Barton, as do other key witnesses including Nellie Bell, Emma Duffin, William McCready (wrongly described as a librarian when he was a post-office clerk) and Sir Wilfrid and Lady Spender.
What then is new here? From the apathetic pre-Blitz days the disgusted GT Harris of RAF Coastal Command is certainly a find. In August 1940 he reckons ‘Belfast will make a good target. You can’t miss it’, partly because ‘they don’t trouble much about blackout’. By October major local issues were ‘the speed of military vehicles… and the fact that Ulster is not making enough money out of the war’. He ‘would like Belfast shook up by a good heavy aerial bombardment’.
Doreen Bates, a Mass Observation contributor not used by Barton, is also useful for this period. A new arrival, she finds Belfast ‘a hideous place’ and notices the poverty and the IRA slogans including ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity’ and ‘some chalked swastikas’. She was over optimistic in observing ‘plenty of surface shelters’; these were soon to prove woefully inadequate.
As to the first major attack on April 14/15, Douds makes full use of Air Raid Precautions accounts of the devastation and panic in Greencastle, and finds new witnesses such as Hugh Dixon of Clifton Park Avenue. One is struck by the fact that even eyewitnesses can mistake what they are seeing. Dixon was just one witness who thought that night fighters were engaging the Germans when none were in action.
An ARP report of April 18 in the immediate aftermath of this raid was surely self serving – ‘morale was very high’, ‘all personnel… worked wonderfully’, and ‘reporting [was] magnificent’. There was no sense here of the fundamental civil defence weaknesses that were to be further revealed on May 4/5.
Perhaps Douds’s most important new witness is Major O’Sullivan, an Irish ARP observer, who was present in the control room during this second major attack. He describes the complete breakdown of control and communications, and the ‘chaotic’ state of a fire service abandoned by its senior officers. It is surprising that no similarly useable documents have emerged from British military sources.
Think then of Constable Herbie Ross, who was entombed with dead colleagues in the wreckage of Glenravel Police Station with the contents of a water tank dripping onto him: ‘I thought I was in a deep valley and that a river on top had burst its banks… and that I was going to drown’.
Think also of the tragedies revealed by the inquests and of Arthur Knight, whose entire family were killed while he was at work. The coroner asked him, ‘If you had not gone to work you would probably be gone too?’ He replied, ‘I wish I had been with them.'
Moya Woodside remains best on the stark working-class poverty revealed amongst the refugees. It is useful to have thrown in a quotation from the Moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly; ‘I have been working nineteen years in Belfast and I never saw the like of this before, wretched people, very undersized and underfed, down-and-out looking men or women… is it creditable to us that there should be such people in a Christian country…’.
The Prime Minister, Thomas Andrews, had another pressing concern: how to protect Carson’s statue at Stormont! As Sir Wilfrid Spender wrily noted, ‘I feel sure that Carson himself would not have wished this matter to be regarded as one of major importance…’.
Others too hardly come out of this selection with flying colours. There is JC Beckett, future Professor of Irish History at Queens, who says of the first raid, ‘On the whole I enjoyed it, though at times it was boring enough’. Then there is the poet, Robert Greacen, who thought German flares were ‘really beautiful’ but later succumbed to ‘prolonged indigestion’.
The Belfast Blitz doesn’t justify any fundamental reappraisal of these nightmare times. It does, however, achieve some additional illumination and in a well organized and accessible way.
The Belfast Blitz is published by Blackstaff Press.