Most of the larger English cities including Bristol were heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe in the months following Dunkirk and up to the middle of 1941. Belfast had, however, escaped unscathed until it suffered two air-raids in April 1941 and a final raid in May.
In early 1941, the Civil Defence of the English city of Bristol was under heavy pressure and it was arranged to send a contingent of Belfast Auxiliary Fire Service (A.F.S.) to Bristol to assist in fire fighting and also to gain experience in Civil Defence under active, air-raid conditions. With its contingent, were included two volunteer country town members of the A.F.S. - William Lyttle (deceased) of Carleton Street and Sam Lutton of Gilford Road, Portadown.
The city of Bristol lies on the west side of England on the river Avon, eight miles from where it flows into the mouth of the Severn Estuary at Avonmouth. The ships entering the port of Bristol had to navigate the river where it flows through the Avon Gorge. This would have been particularly difficult in the days of sail and was undoubtedly one feature that caused Bristol to lose ground to the other west coast ports of Liverpool and Manchester (linked to the Mersey by the Manchester Ship Canal) and the Scottish port of Glasgow on the Clyde.
Bristol has a population of some 445,000 and is almost identical in population and size with Belfast.
The city was well known for its maritime trade with America, the West Indies and Ireland. In former days it gained notoriety as the headquarters of the slave trade, operating from England. It also gained fame for the discovery of the mainland of North America and Newfoundland by two Italians, John and Sebastian Cabot, who sailed from Bristol in 1497 on a voyage of discovery which was financed by Bristol merchants.
There are two much quoted sayings that originated in Bristol. The first is, 'To pay on the nail.' Outside the Corn Exchange are four bronze circular tables on stems, known as the nails' on which cash payments were made following a deal. The other expression is, 'Ship shape and Bristol fashion' to indicate a ship well rigged and in good trim, as befitted a ship sailing out of the proud port of Bristol.
Bristol has many fine buildings of outstanding architectural and historical distinction. Amongst them are:
The Cathedral of St. Augustine which is of Norman origin, dating from 1140 and later. The Chapter House 1142/70 is the finest Norman structure still standing today and the Nave has a unique mode of construction with internal flying buttresses.
The Parish Church of St. Mary Redcliffe, is of the 13th century and later. It is the pride of Bristol. Queen Elizabeth I visited it and described it as 'The fairest, goodliest and most famous Church in England.' This church inside, resembles a small cathedral in the perpendicular style, of very fine delicate proportions. A minor connection with Ireland is a brass memorial plaque sunk in the aisle floor to a member of the Westcott family of Bristol and to their friend Anne Lutton of Moira 1791-1881. Anne Lutton was born and lived in Moira in a house in line with the 'four trees.' She was noted for her piety, religious teaching, linguistic skills and musical ability. She moved to Bristol on the death of her parents and lived with the Westcott family. She was laid to rest in St. Arno's Cemetery in 1881. In common with a great number of the earlier Methodists, she still considered herself to be a member of the established church and in Bristol attended the Parish Church of St. Mary, Redcliffe, as well as the Portland Square, Methodist Chapel.
The Wesleys' 'New Room' situated between Broadmead and the Horse-fair in central Bristol was built in 1739 and must be of paramount interest to all Methodists. It was the Wesley brothers' head-quarters in their earlier evangelistical days and is the first of all Methodist chapels. This was the power-house of the greatest reform movemenl in the 18th century. From here, Johr Wesley set out on horseback tc evangelise Great Britain and Ireland. His famous horse was stabled in the courtyard of the 'New Room' premise,, and it is interesting to speculate that the hooves of this same horse trod the streets of Portadown and Lurgan, amongst other towns and villages of Ireland. The Broadmead chapel came through the bombing of Bristol practically unscathed, despite devastation all around it. The unique features of this chapel is a double decker pulpit. The Ministers' living quarters an above the church with an octagonal observation window in the ceiling looking down on the chapel interior. In the courtyard is a very fine life-size equestrian statue of John Wesley preaching from the saddle.
The Bristol Theatre Royal, founded in 1766, is the oldest play-house in the country.
Mention must be made of the famous Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel who built in Bristol the first iron steamships with propeller propulsion which included the Great Western and the Great Britain. In 1970, the hulk of the Great Britain was towed on a raft, nine thousand miles from the Falklands and is now on show as a museum piece in the very dock where she was built. Brunel designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge, but the construction was not completed until after his death.
The Great Western Railway from London (Paddington) to Bristol (Temple Meads) was engineered by Brunel. It was originally based on the seven foot gauge, but this was later abandoned in favour of a narrower gauge.
Bristol flourished as a port for many centuries, but is now largely served by the modern port facilities of Avonmouth, eight miles distant. Avonmouth has an extensive import/export trade covering oil, grain, leather, tobacco, aircraft, etc. Bristol industries include the footwear industry, tobacco (W.H. & H.O. Willis well known for `Gold Flake' and Woodbine Cigarettes), paper-making, brewing, chemicals. Perhaps the best known industry is the aircraft construction firm, Bristol Aircraft Corporation Ltd. (formerly Bristol Aeroplane Co.) situated at Filton, north of the city. During the first World War, it turned out 'Bristol Bulldog' fighters and other military aircraft. In the Second World War, it constructed 14,000 aircraft which included the light bomber, the 'Bristol Blenheim,' also 'Beaufort' and 'Beaufighters.' Since the war it produced the giant 'Brabazon' Airliner which was a flop, then the Bristol Britannia, prop-jet passenger plane. It was followed by the ultra sonic, Anglo/French 'Concorde,' alas no longer in production.
Bristol had been heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe in common with the large British cities of London, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Glasgow, Liverpool, Southampton, etc. in 1940/41. The Luftwaffe targets in Bristol had been the Bristol Aircraft Co., the port area of Bristol and Avonmouth and simply 'open bombing' of the city with no particular target. In early 1941, the city showed areas of complete devastation. After arriving in Bristol, I remember walking down the quarter mile length of Castle Street, which had been bombed and burnt out for its entire length. It was known locally as 'Blitz Street.' During an air-raid in which Castle Street was badly bombed, two policemen were on foot patrol in Castle Street. They received a direct hit from a bomb and were never seen or heard of again. They were literally wiped off the face of the earth.
My first experience of enemy action was a sneak raid on the dock area of Avonmouth. Only a few sticks of bombs were dropped, but they ignited three of the large Anglo-American oil storage tanks. These flaming oil tanks were clearly visible from Bristol, eight miles away. At the height of the conflagration you could have read a paper in Bristol. Every now and again, hot oil vapour surged into the air above the tanks, then ignited as a ball of fire which roared up into the night sky. We had the difficult task of trying to extinguish these flaming oil tanks, but had to wait until they had partially burnt out, the heat was so great. The fire-fighting equipment was a hose with a jet of water supplied by a fire engine. Near the nozzle was a supplementary feed of foam solution fed from a tin to supply a jet of foam. It took practically the whole night to get the fire under control. At intervals a surge of flaming oil swished round the broken-down walls of the tank and it was a case of dropping your equipment and running for your life.
In the morning of the next day whilst still working amonst the smouldering oil tanks, the air-raid sirens sounded and a single German aircraft made several low-level runs over the area but without attacking. It was obviously a reconnaissance plane taking photo-graphs, but a frightening moment for us standing amongst the oil tanks containing millions of gallons of inflammable fluid.
The fire-fighting equipment of the Auxiliary Fire Service was in the main, two wheeled trailer fire-pumps, towed by vans. The output of these pumps was 500 gallons per minute and discharged through two brass wheel-valves into flexible hose with instantaneous couplings. By putting on a breech connector, each outlet valve could take two hoses, or four all told. The makes of trailer fire-pumps were Dennis, Coventry-Climax, Scammell, Beresford and Sigmund. In some cases they were powered by the Ford V8, 30 horse-power engine which was a most reliable engine but physically difficult to start with a crank handle (there were no self starters) with the compression and friction of eight cylinders.
The German Luftwaffe on their air-raids on Britain flew Heinkel HE 11Z and Junkers JU 52 bombers, sometimes escorted by Messershmitt fighters. They dropped high explosive bombs, clusters of fire bombs and oil bombs. Parachute flares were also dropped which drifted slowly down illuminating some square miles. The parachute flares gave one the impression of being clearly conspicuous to the crew of the enemy aircraft flying overhead.
The fire or incendiary bomb was approximately 16" long x 2½" diameter and made of a magnesium/ aluminium alloy which caught fire and burnt fiercely which ignited by a small inflammable charge, set off on impact. These bombs, dropped by the hundred, were most effective in starting numerous fires in built up areas. To deter anyone tackling them when they ignited on impact, the Germans fitted an odd one with a small explosive charge. Outwardly there was no way of determining which one would explode after ignition.
The heaviest air-raid or Blitz which I experienced was on Good Friday night April 1941, when some hundreds of bombers attacked Bristol with high explosive and incendiary bombs. At the height of the raid the racket was horrendous with the whip-lash bark of many anti-aircraft guns, the shells exploding in the night sky some seconds later. The bang of the explosion was not audible for some seconds later. Added to this was the sound of exploding bombs, the rattle of machine guns when the bombers dived low and machine-gunned the streets. Also the pencil beams of searchlights criss-crossing the sky, the red/orange light from parachute flares and the flash of exploding bombs. At the height of a raid, there was a constant rain of small pieces of metal (shrapnel) from exploded anti-aircraft shells which a steel helmet deflected, but occasionally the heavy nose-cap of a shell would fall. If struck by one of these it would have been fatal.
When the searchlight had picked out a maurading German plane, the anti-aircraft guns in unison put up what was known as a 'box-barrage' around it. Theoretically, it could not escape but in fact usually managed to do so by weaving and diving. That night I witnessed one bomber coming down in flames. It caught fire either by the effect of anti-aircraft fire or attack from an R.A.F. night-fighter. For a while it flew on horizontally engulfed in flames, then suddenly dived to the ground out of control and blew up on impact, somewhere outside the city.
The same night one of the firemen out of our station was killed. He was operating a trailer fire-pump in the middle of the City Centre (an open space in the centre of the City which was the starting point for trams and buses). An oil-bomb landed close to him and set the surrounding area on fire, including the tarmac roadway. I remember passing through the City centre a few hours later. The charred remains had been removed, but where the man's body had lain there was an unscorched piece of roadway, some 6 feet x 2 feet, where his body had prevented the tarmac catching fire. At an earlier date, near the same spot, a high explosive bomb had penetrated the roadway and exploded on the bed of the river Frome beneath, leaving a large crater. The City Centre had been created by covering over the river Frome but this was the first sight the Bristol people had ever seen of this tributary river which joined the Avon close by. There is of course a parallel of this in Belfast, where the unseen Farset river flows under High Street.
The geographical position of Bristol was such, that German bombers raiding midland cities, would fly high over Bristol on their way home to base in North/West France. They were prone to drop any remaining bombs on Bristol. As a consequence, the air-raid sirens sounded several nights a week and these warnings sometimes heralded a mini air-raid.
I remember clearly my admiration for the stalward qualities of the Bristol people under adversity. They were cheerful and uncomplaining. Even at the height of an air-raid they would come out of their homes, more often than not, without the limited protection of a steel helmet, and offer cups of tea to the Civil Defence workers. The Women's Voluntary Service (W.V.S.) was also very much in evidence, with mobile canteens and operated by women of mature age.
The visit of the Belfast contingent of the A.F.S. was cut short and recalled home because of air-raids on Belfast in the first two weeks of April. We travelled by train from Bristol to Stranraer in a blacked out night train which was jam-packed with forces personnel. We got an early morning boat to Larne and train to the Midland, York Street Station.
On arriving at the Midland Station, we found Belfast in a state of complete chaos following the air-raid on 15th April. There was no trolley-bus or taxi service operating and it was a case of walking to the G.N.R. Station in Great Victoria Street, humping a large case, a gas-mask, a steel helmet and size 11 wellies. In one place in York Street the buildings had been bombed and had collapsed into the street, forming a mound of debris strewn with trolley-bus wires and posts. One had to clamber over the top of the mounds as there was no way round. I also passed the bombed-out and still smouldering block of the York Street Flax Spinning Co's premises on the Henry Street corner. The Belfast Public Library had been badly damaged. A bomb had come down on the street close by and bomb splinters had gouged out holes in the sandstone facade.
Belfast was poorly defended with few anti-aircraft guns or searchlights and consequently the German bombers were able to select their targets virtually unmolested. Their targets were Harland & Wolff's shipyard where extensive damage put it out of action for almost six months. The linen mills and factories also suffered heavily. They were producing canvas for the armed forces, also Aero linen for covering aircraft and glider frames.
The largest and last air-raid on Belfast was on the night of 4th May 1941. 200 bombers dropped 96,000 incendiary bombs and high explosives. 150 people were killed that night. 700 were killed in the earlier raids, making a total of 850.
On the air-raids of l5th/ 16th April and 4th May, the government of the Irish Free State sent fire tenders with their crews from Dublin, Drogheda and Dundalk to assist the Northern Ireland fire-fighters to extinguish the many fires that were raging out of control.
The list of buildings destroyed in the three raids was too numerous to list in this article, but the chief ones were the Harland & Wolff Shipyards. Many of the buildings in Harland & Wolffs were of the 'Belfast Truss' construction of wood trusses and felted tarred roofs. This building construction had no resistance to incendiary bombs, with dire results. The linen mill complexes on York Street, Crumlin, Shankhill Road and Falls Road were severely damaged. I particularly remember York Street Flax Spinning Co. premises in York Street, Henry Street and Cambrai Street, Brookfield Spinning Co., Wm. Ewart's Rosebank Weaving Co. and a Linen Thread Co.'s Prospect Mill.
Churches with their high timbered roofs, fell victim to incendiary bombs. Areas in which churches were effected were Duncairn Gardens, Newtownards Road, York Street, York Road, Oldpark Road, Antrim Road, Donegall Street and Rosemary Street.
The City Hall was hit and the banqueting hall was burnt out. Business premises in the High Street and Bridge Street area were badly damaged.
I seem to remember an account of a land mine (a steel drum of high explosive dropped by parachute) landing on Blythe Street, off Sandy Row, which virtually wiped out the street along with any people still in their houses.
I received a phone call from George Magowan, the then Town Clerk of Portadown, who asked me if I would take a fire-fighting crew to Belfast. This was in the early hours of the 5th May. In this case it was a Spence, Bryson Co. Ltd. crew with a 'Dennis' trailer pump. We left Portadown around 6.30 a.m. and arrived in Belfast after 7.00. From Lisburn the sky was a lurid red with the reflection of the many fires that were still burning. We reported to the Belfast Fire Brigade headquarters in Chichester Street. Half way down the street there was a deep bomb crater covering three-quarters of the roadway. In the crater was a wrecked motor-cycle. It would appear that a dispatch-rider had sailed into it, in the dark.
We were directed to the area around Corn Market and extinguished fires in the Royal Cinema, Arthur Square, and in Campbell's Restaurant in Arthur Street. Thereafter it was a case of free lance fire-fighting in the area, putting out fires that were not already too large and out of control. We worked along High Street where we were approached by a lady who was a member of St. George's Parish Church asking us to try and save the building. We found that a tiered lecture room at the rear was burning and in half an hour the fire was extinguished. St. George's Church has a Corinthian-columned portico which was taken from the mansion at Ballyscullion when it was demolished. This mansion was built in 1787 by Frederick Harvey, Bishop of Derry and 4th Earl of Bristol.
The May 4th, 1941 was the last air-raid on Belfast. It was also about the last major raid on any British city, for soon afterwards the Germans invaded Russia and the Luftwaffe moved a high proportion of their aircraft to the Eastern front. There were of course air-raids on the British mainland after this time, but they were mainly sharp reprisal raids following British raids on German cities. Several English Cathedral cities suffered severe damage as a result.
The description of German air attacks on Bristol and Belfast took place over forty-two years ago and is now part of history. The eye-witness account of events, was not recorded at the time, but made a deep impression, and consequently not easily forgotten.
Other information was taken from the following sources: