The Belfast Blitz from the Bottom Up
Stephen Douds writes a history of the Belfast Blitz using the 'voices of ordinary people'
Belfast is brimming with history this year, between the Titanic 100 and the Belfast Blitz’s 70th anniversary. There are photographic exhibitions in the Linen Hall Library, pop-up stands at the City Hall and Belfast Blitz: The People's Story, a new book compiled by Stephen Douds.
Douds, a historical documentary maker for the BBC, points out that, contrary to what you might expect, there is actually a dearth of literature about the Belfast Blitz. Outside of school books and Brian Barton’s text on the subject, The Blitz: Belfast in the War Years, there have been relatively few accounts published about something that looms so large in the local cultural memory.
Fewer still that attempt, as Belfast Blitz: The People's Story does, to ‘tell the story from the bottom up’. Inspired by an Imperial War Museum initiative that used oral archives to explore historical conflicts in the participants own words, Douds wanted to make room for the ‘voices of ordinary people’ in the narrative of the Blitz.
‘The Blitz was a civilian experience,’ he explains. ‘It is about terraced houses and air raid shelters. The majority of people who died were just average people. That was the thing about the Blitz, it dissolved the distinction between the war front, in Europe, and the Home Front. It brought the war home.’
Not that finding accounts from ordinary people was easy. Doud set himself the challenge of finding live accounts of the period, and describes the search as ‘a bit of a treasure hunt’. He would source one piece of material from one person and they would send him to another who would know someone else with an old diary or collection of letters.
‘There was a lot of knocking on doors,’ Douds remembers wryly. Schools and churches – organizations that had been based on the same sites for decades – turned out to be good sources for him. ‘Belfast Royal Academy turned up school magazines from the summer of 1941 with great extracts about what happened to pupils.’
Women from the period also provided a wealth of material for Douds, despite, as he points out, ‘the voices of women [being] hard to find in history’.
Some had already been well-mined by previous scholars, such as Moya Woodsides, who is also quoted extensively in Barton’s book. Woodsides - who is occasionally referred to as a social worker, but is described by Douds as a ‘very socially involved middle-class lady’ - captures the terrible poverty and suffering of the Belfast Blitz.
‘At one stage in June she goes to visit a woman who, every night, took her four children out into the hills,’ Doud says. ‘And on the night of the second Blitz in May she miscarried and just carried on without ever receiving any medical attention.’
Others are previously unheard, like English tax inspector Doreen Bates, whose diary records her experiences during the Blitz. Her account of spending the night with bombs dropping on the city all around you a sense of how harrowing it must have been - even for those who were ultimately untouched.
For Douds, one of the most interesting things was that, due to wartime censorship, people in the middle of the Blitz had very little idea what was actually going on. They would hear stories that one area had been badly damaged, but in the 48 hours after the attack people ‘hadn’t a bloody clue what happened’.
Yet, as Douds’ book demonstrates, 70 years on and we still don’t know everything that went on during the Belfast Blitz. Or afterwards. Douds points out that the last Blitz-affected buildings in Belfast was only repaired in 1966, something he certainly hadn’t known before he started his research.
With the launch of this book, Douds laughs and admits that he has no idea what he will do next. He would love to write another book, but the challenge is to find another event that people wrote about so widely – ‘in diaries, in letters, in chronicles’. He is more convinced than ever that this is the way to tell history, ‘from the bottom up’.
Extract from Belfast Blitz: The People's Story
From 11.00 to 04.00 with scarcely a break of ten minutes German planes kept coming over dropping heavy stuff and must have been heavy having regard to the degree of vibration and the distance which was sufficient to prevent the windows here in the neighbourhood from being broken. The AA kept up a continuous barrage but it could not even keep them high. You could hear them dive before releasing their bombs. Our fighters were up and at times there was incessant machine gunning. It was the worst night I have had here or at Purley. The Bennett's came down to my room and I made tea. At 01.20 I went to bed, thinking I was as safe there as anywhere and though it was impossible to sleep I should be resting physically.
Several times the bed swayed like a cot being rocked; doors and windows rattled; shrapnel patted on the shed roof outside; I could see against the blackout the glare of the fires. The most nerve wracking thing to me was when the Germans glided in silently and the only sound was the crump of bombs. I went over poems in my head, they seemed even lovelier and more permanent in that inferno. Having exhausted those I could remember I went onto hymns and psalms, but I could remember fewer of those.
Belfast Blitz: The People's Story is published by Blackstaff Press