The Belfast Blitz consisted of two high-casualty German air raids on Belfast in April and May 1941, during the second world war.The first was on the night of 15 April 1941. Two hundred bombers of the German Air Force attacked the city. Some 900 people died as a result of the bombing and 1,500 were injured. Outside London, this was the greatest loss of life in a night raid during the Blitz.
Two hundred and twenty thousand people fled from the city to places North and South of the border. “Humanity knows no borders, no politics, no differences of religious belief. Yesterday for once the people of Ireland were united under the shadow of a national blow. Has it taken bursting bombs to remind the people of this little country that they have common tradition, a common genius and a common home? Yesterday the hand of good-fellowship was reached across the Border. Men from the South worked with men from the North in the universal cause of the relief of suffering”. (Irish Times).
The mortuary services had emergency plans to deal with only 200 bodies. In the event, the public baths on the Falls Road and on Peter’s Hill, and the large market at Saint George’s, were all used. One hundred and fifty corpses remained in the Falls Road baths for three days before they were buried in a mass grave, with 123 still unidentified. Many bodies and body parts could not be identified.]Mass graves for the unclaimed bodies were dug in the Milltown and Belfast City Cemeteries.
Nurse Emma Duffin, (who had been a nurse in WW1), said ”Death….here in Belfast …was grotesque, repulsive, horrible.. With tangled hair, staring eyes, clutching hands, contorted limbs, their grey-green faces covered with dust, they lay, bundled into the coffins, half-shrouded in rugs or blankets, or an occasional sheet, still wearing their dirty, torn twisted garments”.
There is family history for me too. My father, then a young boy, had been transported from the countryside in Tyrone, to Belfast for surgery, as he had appendicitis. By the time he made the 40 mile journey to Belfast in blackout conditions, and lying in the back of a neighbours’ car, he had peritonitis. Just after his life saving operation in the Royal Victoria hospital in Belfast, the bombing started, and he was wheeled into the basement for the night. It was a terrifying experience for a young lad from the countryside, on his own in a strange city. He was one of the lucky ones, he survived, and as a result, I learnt of the Belfast Blitz.
Today, there is peace in Belfast. The grave of the unknown dead is in a small part of Belfast Cemetery. Not that many people know about it, and fewer still visit the spot. This is a dignified and poignant place that goes almost unremarked. Had it not been for my father’s survival, I might not have known about these souls either. Today, over 70 years on from that terrible loss of life, the place of the mass grave is a quiet spot in the hurly-burly of the city. A place to reflect and remember the death of innocents.