On the eve of the most devasting raid on Belfast during its Blitz, Belfast was unprepared.

Belfast had few air-raid shelters. The city was built on a geology of sleech which had a high water table and made digging deep bunkers hard.[1]

Building brick surface shelters had been slow and those that were constructed were used by the public as places to have sex or rubbish tips.[2] Only 25% of the population had had access to an air raid shelter in April 1941.[3]

A number of people had built their own shelters but and it was estimated that around 4,000 households had built their own private shelters. Many of these were Anderson shelters, constructed of sheets of corrugated galvanised iron covered in earth. A Stormont government plan to give out shelters was very slow and in June 1940, only 4,000 of the 60,000 eligible households had received shelters.[4]

The military defence of the city was also poor. Searchlights had arrived in the city on the 10 April but were not set up. There were a few barrage balloons. Fighter protection was provided by a single Hurricane squadron of day fighters and there were no night fighters. On the ground, there were only 22 anti-aircraft guns positioned around the city, six light and 16 heavy. Few of these were manned and operational.

John MacDermott, the Minister of Public Security at the Stormont government, believed that in the Spring of 1941 Belfast was less well defended than ‘any comparable city or port in the UK’.[5]

The blame for the poor state of Belfast’s defences was complex but lay with local government, Stormont and Westminster.[6]

Many in Northern Ireland did not believe that Belfast could be a target. A Mass Observation reported noted that that the lack of war urgency came from both sides of the community and was  ‘noticeable at all levels – from the cabinet minister to remote peasant dwellings on the Antrim Coast’.[7]

In February 1940, firefighting equipment sent over to NI was returned to Britain.[8]

In the Spring of 1940, two Northern Ireland ministers resigned. Edward Warnock went blaming colleagues for being ‘slack, dilatory and apathetic’ in their approach to the war. Alexander Gisborne Gordon resigned because of the ‘lack of drive and initiative and utter lack of what the war means’.[9]

In June 1940, John MacDermott was appointed a newly created role and department, the Ministry of Public Security.[10] He tried to give a new degree of urgency to improve civil defence measures in Northern Ireland and Belfast. He got 7k more people to enlist in civil defence organisations making 22k by December 1940.[11]

However, his task was difficult as the citizens were not really taking the threat seriously and neither was government. The Northern Ireland prime minster Lord Craigavon was old and sick and being protected from his wife from unwelcome news or difficult decisions. When Lord Craigavon died in December 1940, he was replaced by John Miller Andrews. Nothing really changed. The government decided that it was unnecessary for the public to carry gas masks.[12] Though action was been taken in the winter and spring of 1941, it was too little, too late.


[1] James Doherty, Post 381, The memoirs of a Belfast air raid warden (Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1989), pp.10-11.

[2] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), pp.61-62.

[3] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.63.

[4] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.60.

[5] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.72.

[6] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.29.

[7] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.54.

[8] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.56.

[9] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.57.

[10] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.58.

[11] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.59.

[12] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), pp.55-56.