By the 29 April 1941, the Northern Ireland government at Stormont estimated that 100k people had left the city.[1] They had either fled to new homes outside the city boundaries or were ‘ditchers’ and ‘trekkers’, people who slept in the fields, ditches and barns around the city and walked to work in daylight.

The exact number that had left remains open to debate. One report suggested that 220k fled but historian Brian Barton put the number at around 140k.[2] This meant for a city of 438k (1937 census[3]) between a quarter and a half of the population was no longer sleeping in the town at night.

The reasons for leaving were complex but people may be organised into the ‘bombed out’ or ‘scared out’.[4] Many left because of fear. The Dundalk Democrat reported coaches were ‘crammed with haggard, weary women, and frightened children, a number of them still wearing night clothes’.[5] James Doherty, an Air Raid Precuations Warden, noted at Carlisle Circus that people were walking out of the city due to ‘fear. There was no transport yet in the city. The crowds were making their way on foot, struggling with anything they could carry that would be of use. Frightened and bewildered children held on tightly to their favourite toys as anxious mothers pulled them along by the hand…’[6] Home office official, L. Earldley-Wilmot, commented that people were going because they were ‘going to be subjected to another attack’.[7] The fear was exacerbated because of rumour and many people listening to German radio and the Lord Haw Haw.[8]

Many more left because they had no home. Around 3,500 houses had been destroyed or severely damaged.[9] On top of this the bomb damage had hit the infrastructure of the city, its utilities and public services. Doherty recalled ‘There were no milk or bread deliveries…Water was unfit for use owning to pollution from sewage…Lavatories were not to be used…Gas was used throughout the city as the means for cooking and lightening but such was the damage to the mains that it had to be turned off in the damaged areas, leaving unfortunate residents without lighting or cooking facilities’.[10]

It was reckoned at the time that the proportion of people deserting Belfast was higher than any other city in the UK that experienced aerial bombardment.[11] There is some evidence to support this point. Assuming that between 25% to 50% of Belfast citizens left the city, this figure is far higher than comparable information for other cities. For example, it is estimated that around 13% of Plymouth’s population left in April 1941 when the city was attacked and around 5% of Liverpool’s population left after it was attacked in May 1941.[12]


[1] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.161.

[2] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.233.

[3] Government of Northern Ireland, Census of Population of Northern Ireland 1937, Preliminary Report (Belfast: HMSO, 1937). 

[4] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.160.

[5] Cited in Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.160.

[6] James Doherty, Post 381, The memoirs of a Belfast air raid warden (Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1989), p.55.

[7] Cited in Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.161.

[8] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.161.

[9] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.140.

[10] James Doherty, Post 381, The memoirs of a Belfast air raid warden (Belfast: Friar’s Bush Press, 1989), p.69.

[11] Brian Barton, Belfast in the War Years, Belfast in the War Years (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1989), p.164.

[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trekking_during_the_Blitz Accessed 20.4.2022.