Emma Duffin was Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) commandant of the Stranmillis Military Hospital. The VAD was a voluntary unit of civilians providing nursing care for military personnel in the United Kingdom and various other countries in the British Empire.[1]

Duffin had been a voluntary nurse during Great War and seen service in the Middle East and the Western Front. By the outbreak of war she was lady in her late 50s.

After the raid on 15/6 April, she was asked to attend St Georges Market that had become a temporary morgue where bodies of unidentified victims were held for family to come and identify them. The bodies of the unidentified were to be buried in mass graves on the 21st April if unclaimed by relatives.

She agreed but said:

nobody could not but have dreaded it. Still, it was a job for an older woman and my former experience in hospital should have prepared me…I say should have, but I had seen death in many forms, young boys dying of ghastly wounds…but nothing was as terrible as this…I went to the market. Will I ever bring myself to buy flowers and vegetables there again?’[2]

‘All the way to the place, I had told myself I was bound to see horrible sites but only when seen could the full horror be realised. I had seen many dead but they had died in hospital beds…It was solemn, tragic, dignified. Here it was grotesque, repulsive, horrible…Hitler had made even death grotesque’.[3]

‘I felt outraged…The men who were moving the coffins by means of dirty strips of calico sloped beneath them were of the roughest coarsest type…God knows, it was a distasteful enough job and they had been at it for five days, enough to stifle finer feelings in more sensitive people. A youngish girl of the group dressed in a Red X [cross] uniform. She was chewing sweets. ‘We’ve been in since 9.30 this morning. It’s an awful job. We’re just about fed up, she said in a common voice. I was sorry for her but shuddered to think of grieving relatives searching amongst those gruesome remains for someone they loved, being accompanied by a girl of that type…’[4]

‘One of the girls, of a very low looking type, had lost a brother…she mumbled and murmured words I could not catch, retailing the horrors and I could not help feeling, perhaps unjustly, enjoying a certain amount of satisfaction from being included in the drama and tragedy…’[5]

‘One woman was looking in vain for her mother and sister…she was wrapped in a shawl and her husband looked a rough type but the brother, was very well dressed in a good pilot overcoat and soft hat..’[6]

‘I came away drawing deep breaths of fresh air, so this was the result of a Blitz…I prayed I would never see it again.’[7]

ABOUT

Between 7th April and 6th May 1941, four aerial bombing raids on Belfast killed over 900 people, injured 1,500 and damaged about half of the city’s homes. Thousands were made homeless and over 100,000 residents fled to the country. This period in Belfast’s history has become known as the Belfast Blitz. To mark the 81st anniversary, key events each day over the Blitz period are being retold here on this website and also on Twitter (@drtomstours).


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voluntary_Aid_Detachment Accessed 19.4.22.

[2] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), p.79.

[3] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), p.81.

[4] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), pp.81-82.

[5] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), p.82.

[6] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), p.82.

[7] Trevor Parkhill (Ed), A Nurse in the Belfast Blitz, The Diary of Emma Duffin, 1939-42 (Belfast: Northern Ireland War Memorial, 2016), p.82.