How the Belfast Blitz saved unionism


We hear from many historians how the First World war had a dramatic effect on Irish history, but little is understood about the impact of the Second World War on Irish – particularly northern Irish – affairs.

I remember the propaganda taught to me as a child that plucky little Northern Ireland had made a significant contribution, while the southerners sat on their hands and played footsie with Hitler. Although I knew a different narrative from my Wexford-born father about the many southerners who joined the Allied military in WWII and of how a surprising number of northern unionists who weren’t in ‘reserved’ occupations stayed at home.

It was not until studying the story of the Belfast blitz of 1941 that I realised some of the awful truth behind the unionist propaganda and why the circumstances surrounding the loss of well over one thousand lives in one month has been largely hidden from public view until recently in a land addicted to commemorations. I also came to understand that this enormous tragedy galvinised a mordant society and thereby saved the old unionist government from imminent collapse in the 1940’s.


British Army WWII

Only 38,000 men and women from Northern Ireland volunteered to join the military out of a potential catchment of almost 400, 000 eligible men and women (aged 18-41) – 260,000 of these were from a unionist background. So less than 15% – 1 in 7 – of the eligible unionist population joined up, leaving 218,000 who did not. This was in spite of almost 30% unemployment at the time. Even allowing for reserved occupations like farming and engineering – large employers in NI at the time and important to the war effort – this was seen as a disappointing response. Compare this to the rebel south where a similar proportion of the eligible population – 15% or 43,000 men and women – joined up. Compare it also to enlistment in WWI when over 210,000 joined up from all Ireland, 46,000 from Belfast alone.

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood, described NI’s response to the call for personnel in WWII as the most ‘disappointing’ of all the UK’s regions.

The difference in response from WWI to WWII in Ireland – north as well as south –  is significant and intriguing. We know that in 1914 both sides in Ireland had their different political reasons to support the British war effort: the unionists to demonstrate their ‘Britishness’ and maintain the union and nationalists to show good faith and thereby achieve promised Home Rule at the war’s end.

John Redmond, Irish Nationalist leader



Sir Edward Carson, Unionist leader








By 1939 the Irish Republic had achieved a degree of independence and claimed a form of neutrality in WWII. In addition nationalist attitudes – north and south – had hardened towards Britain after 1916 and the War of Independence.

Change in unionist war response

To find the answer to the change in the unionist response to the British war effort from WWI to WWII we have to examine the context of the 1930s.

Unionists considered they had demonstrated their ‘loyalty’ to Britain by their efforts in WWI and as a result they had achieved the desired result of partition from Dublin rule. By the 1930s the unionist world view had modified from the hiatus of the Ulster Covenant in 1912. Now secure in their six county haven, the quietly expressed view of many unionists was that Ulster was too far removed from the rest of the world to cause concern in another war with Germany. There was little to be gained by Ulster in entering another muddy slaughter with the Germans: the Somme was still a very fresh memory. In addition one of unionism’s leaders, Lord Londonderry, was on good terms with Hitler and his ministers. A settlement was expected.

Ribbentrop on holiday with Lord & Lady Londonderry

In the 1930s the newly created state of Northern Ireland was a quiet backwater that provided a comfortable, if uneventful life, for the Protestant middle class. There was no real politics and little overt disaffection within the marginalised Catholic minority which was strictly controlled by their church. Overall there was no appetite for radical and energetic social programmes such as demanded by war preparations.


Since 1922 the unionist government had held office in Belfast without challenge from any quarter. They had achieved their goal of avoiding being ruled from Dublin and were content with the established status quo underwritten by Britain. However it was a status quo dominated by the Protestant upper class: in effect an old boys network. The men who had led northern unionists to triumph still held those leadership positions twenty years on, many were returned unopposed at ‘election’ time.

Northern Ireland cabinet 1920

By 1939, as Northern Ireland braced itself for another world war, Sir James Craig, who had played such a major role in maintaining the union during the Home Rule crisis, was 68 and unwell. Yet after almost twenty years he was still Prime Minister. He died in office a year later.

Sir James Craig

In Northern Ireland’s one party state no one would challenge Craig or his monolithic Unionist Party. Sir Wilfred Spender, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) at the time, described Craig as ‘too unwell to carry on’ and incapable of doing more than ‘one hours constructive work’ per day. According to Spender the NI cabinet met too seldom and ‘its members (were) unaware of what was happening until an announcement was made in the press’.

Spender considered Craig’s cabinet colleagues such as Dawson Bates (65) and Sir John Andrews (69) incompetent, elderly and unwell, like Craig. After Craig’s demise both Bates and Andrews went on to play key, but incompetent, roles in the local war effort as Minister of Home affairs and Prime Minister respectively.

Deep-seated poverty

Northern Ireland’s socio-economic profile in the years up to WWII under Big House unionism makes for depressing reading. Unemployment as we have already seen was around 30%. This was twice the level of Scotland and 50% higher than Wales. It’s social housing strategy was abysmal, building many fewer houses (proportionately) than the rest of the UK and did not replicate Westminster’s grant strategies and slum clearance programmes. Ten thousand council houses in Belfast were deemed ‘not fit for human habitation’ by the Medical Officers of Health. The Stormont Ministry of Home Affairs later admitted that they ‘had allowed (housing) to lag behind England materially’ during the inter-war years by not replicating Westminster legislation and policy. Public health was poor with maternal and infant mortality rates 30% higher than in England and 60% higher than in Wales. In Belfast 33% of families were in economic distress.

Belfast Outdoor Relief Strike 1932

But there was no political opposition strong enough to challenge the Big House unionists and expose their debacle. The recently created Northern Ireland was not a democratic society. It was a one-party state and the unionist people were an extraordinarily apolitical and deferential people. It was not until the 1960s that the nationalist minority felt strong enough to challenge unionism.

In no other aspect of life in Northern Ireland in the 1930s was the unfitness of the Unionist regime for government more vividly and painfully demonstrated than in the preparations for German air attack.

War preparations

In 1939 British defense experts advised that Belfast was a ‘likely target’ for the Luftwaffe. It’s location at the head of a lough would make it ‘easy to identify’.  It was classified as on a par with Plymouth. Dawson Bates as Minister of Home Affairs ignored this advice and Craig believed the Luftwaffe would not come all the way over Britain’s air defences to find NI – in fact they didn’t, they flew up the Irish Sea or over neutral Ireland.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Home Affairs, Edward Warnock, against advice from London, actually returned fire fighting equipment and opposed the building of air raid shelters! Warnock believed that Belfast was too far away for the Germans. In spite of being proved disastrously wrong by the massive loss of life in the Belfast Blitz, such activity did not hinder Warnock’s political career in this unionist government nor with the unionist electorate. He went on to become Minister of Home Affairs, Attorney General for Northern Ireland and a Northern Ireland Privy Councillor.

No doubt the unionist government was influenced in its denial of the German threat by Lord Londonderry –  British Air Minister in the 1930s – a prominent unionist worthy who Hitler admired, as well as a campaigner for the appeasement of Hitler.

Lord Londonderry with Hitler and Ribbentrop

There is little doubt that the apathy of the Stormont government strongly influenced public opinion. Apathy was widespread.

The Germans themselves had a very clear view of Belfast’s importance to the British war effort as ‘not…less important than Liverpool’, ‘gateway for the American convoys’, Harland and Wolff was ‘England’s fourth largest shipyard,’ along with its ‘important aircraft factory’.

When war was declared Belfast had only twelve anti-aircraft guns and no barrage balloons. This was even downgraded to just seven in 1940. No other town in NI had any air defenses. By 1941 when the blitz came to Belfast the city had sixteen guns. Glasgow had seventy-three, Liverpool had 101, Birmingham sixty-four and Manchester forty-four.

At the start of the war Belfast had 230 full time firemen while comparable cities in Britain had around 1200. Westminster even recommended that it should have 5000 firemen given its isolation for other centres of support.

Westminster negligence

All this ill-preparedness should not be laid totally at Stormont’s door. Northern Ireland was specifically excluded from the UK’s Air Raid Precautions Act 1937 which set out the statutory requirements of local authorities. Stormont was told that the region ‘should be asked to look after itself in time of war.’ Unionist demands for self-government had come back to haunt them. Stormont had to pass their own – much weaker – act for which the people of Belfast paid dearly in April and May 1941.

Unlike in the rest of the UK, councils and most large employers in Northern Ireland were not legally required to provide air raid shelters. As a result Belfast had four public air raid shelters in 1941.

In addition government offers in 1940 to evacuate 7000 people from Belfast fell largely on deaf ears as the apathetic public declined to leave.

16 April 1941

On this date all things were utterly changed in the land of the ‘ dreary steeples’, principally in the capital city, Belfast.

That night – Easter Tuesday – many parts of the UK were bombed by the Luftwaffe. By 10.30pm it was known that Belfast was to be a target. By 1.00am the German planes were overhead, but due to heavy cloud cover it is not known how many aircraft were involved exactly. The RAF estimated over eighty. Others have suggested up to 180. Many aircraft diverted to Britain because of the poor visibility over Belfast. So it could have been a lot worse for Belfast.

Belfast Blitz 1941

Due to poor visibility and a smoke screen laid over the vital docks area civilian areas were hit in the north and the west of the city. The commercial centre and the south of the city were largely untouched.They dropped 750 bombs in total containing 203 tons of high explosive. The meagre local anti-aircraft battery provided little opposition, a weakness compounded by poor visibility.

At 2.00am more German bombers arrived overhead and the city’s defenses were overwhelmed.

Appeal for help to Dublin

At 4.35am a telegram was received in Dublin from the unionist government appealing for help in the form of firefighters.

De Valera considered the request in light of the republic’s neutrality and within a few minutes gave authority for appliances to be sent north. Border roads were cleared for a fast journey north. They began to arrive in Belfast at 9.20am. They worked successfully alongside Belfast firefighters and British military – many of whom had Dublin accents – until 6.00pm when they were ordered back home to avoid risking Irish neutrality if they were caught up in a further raid. Eire also sent excavating equipment.

Dublin Fire brigade help Belfast

By 4.55am the last of the German aircraft departed and the all clear was sounded.


Almost 1000 people, mostly civilians including up to 100 children, died that night in the north and west of the city mainly; most in their homes or in the streets because of the shortage of shelters. Many were found without any obvious injuries, killed by the extreme percussion of a nearby blast.

The homeless numbered 25,000 and streamed in panic out of the city seeking refuge in the countryside and nearby towns and villages. Many slept in ditches for some time to come, but ultimately were billeted locally or returned to the city. The state of the urban poor who poured out of Belfast shocked rural residents and many of the statutory authorities too. Many did not know how to use a toilet, defecating in a corner of a room; they were under-nourished; covered in lice and nits and unable to use a knife and fork. One couple arrived in Ballymena having lost all four of their children.

35,000 houses had been damaged. 2,500 completely destroyed. the devastation spread over 500 streets.

The tragedy brought together Catholic and Protestant in huge communal grief.

St George’s Market housed 200 corpses

This was the worst loss of life of WWII in a single raid in the UK outside London.

The Fire Raid – 5 May 1941

At 1.00am on 5 May 1941 the Germans returned to a stricken Belfast. They delivered 96,000 incendiary bombs along with 237 tons of high explosives. This time visibility was better and the Germans targeted the docks area containing the shipyard and aircraft works, oil and food storage plus Northern Ireland’s main power station.

At its height 200 major fires burned in Belfast. Looking down a German airman described it as a ‘picture of destruction none of us will forget’.

Belfast Fire raid 1941

With a well organised and well resourced fire watching and fire fighting service ‘a large percentage of the damage by fire could have been avoided’ , Sean O’Sullivan, Eire’s Chief Fire Officer.

At 6.30am, without waiting for an invitation, Dublin fire engines arrived in Belfast to cheering crowds. They left at 8.00pm after working continuously. Belfast Dockers gave them their packed lunches.

On 31 May 1941, German bombers attacked neutral Dublin killing twenty eight in retaliation for sending aid to Belfast and breaking their strict code of neutrality.

The Belfast Fire Raid claimed around 200 lives.

The total homeless in Belfast climbed to an apocalyptic 100,000. The Germans had bizarrely bounced the unionist-dominated Belfast Corporation into a long overdue slum clearance programme.


In the city ‘both physical and psychological factors contributed to deep and widespread demoralisation’ (Barton, p. 391) after the blitz. Perhaps it was this and the overall demands of world war that saved the Stormont government from public fury at how their ineptitude – and the negligence of Westminster – had contributed greatly to the people’s suffering. Due to the demands of war there never was an inquiry into one of the greatest losses of life on the island of Ireland and the reason the authorities in peacetime to this day do nothing to encourage remembrance of this slaughter.

Bizarrely it could be said that without this apocalyptic event in the spring of 1941 to galvinise a negligent and lazy government and an apathetic population, the unionist government would have continued to quietly run the six counties into the ground. It certainly seems that by Craig’s demise in November 1940 the unionist regime was on the edge of implosion, saved only by a deferential society, a sycophantic media and a disinterested British Government. Six months later the disaster of the blitz changed the whole  scenario.

We are left to reflect what might have happened in the absence of world war, if enough concerned Ulster citizens had eventually appealed in desperation to London to save them from their incompetent unionist overlords. And what would have been London’s choices at that point, apart from reverting to the original plan of home rule for the entire island from a parliament in Dublin? After all Big House unionism had had at least two decades to make a go of running six small counties and had failed abysmally according to many measures.

I find myself wondering if Stormont had been set up to fail by the British – they must have known how lazy a one party administration would become in such a small isolated region –  but a second world war had shifted their focus and priorities.

Stormont got a stay of execution for another thirty years, perhaps only made possible by world war, but by 1972 the game was up and what a ‘game’ it had been.


Barton, B. (2015) The Belfast Blitz: the city in the war years, Belfast, The Ulster Historical Foundation.

Fisk, R. (1985) In Time of War: Ireland, Ulster and the Price of Neutrality, 1939-45, Gill Books.