Vol. 6 No. 3 - 1993
My first whiff of war came in 1938 when I was stationed at Lismore House, Portadown. I was sent with a colleague of the opposite sex, to conduct a billeting survey in the Mahon district.
I don't remember the details except the reaction of various old bachelors who earnestly enjoined us to send them "a good sonsie woman". As far as I remember, Lucy Anderson, whose father was, or had been, Chairman of Portadown U.D.C. [Urban District Council] was my companion. I was driving an 1936 Austin Ruby Seven. George Moore was my boss in those days. He resided at Sunnyside, Lough Road, Lurgan, and married Miss Harrison.
A year later, I was transferred to Dungannon where we had an office in Market Square. On the first evening of the war time Blackout, we had to work overtime, as we had just been given responsibility for dealing with claims under the Prevention and Relief of Distress (PRD) Regulations, made under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). Owners of lighters plying on the Coalisland canal were one of the groups covered by the Regulations, as barges had been commandeered by the M.O.D.
To enable us to comply with the black-out Regulations, we had been provided with ample supplies of huge sheets of heavy kraft paper to cover the windows, interiorly. This we had done, but officious local Air Raid Precautions Volunteers took umbrage at our paper blinds because they were able to discern the outlines of lighted windows. We resisted their complaint initially, but when they came back accompanied by B. Specials in a threatening mood, we relented, and closed shop.
Next day we procured black-out cloth, and did a better job. I still recall barking my shins heavily on a car parked with its front bumper against the kerb, as I headed for the railway station. Negotiating Scotch Street, where a jungle of steps and railings protruded at the entrance to nearly every house or shop, was a real nightmare in pitch darkness.
I travelled by rail in those days and in the mornings changed at Portadown for Dungannon. In the Winter of 1939/40 (the only one that I travelled), we habitually had ice-bound coaches. Often the windows had not even been closed, as they lay in a Portadown siding, overnight, and the upholstery would have been soaking, or covered with hoar frost. We travelled second class to get more tolerable conditions, but still had to put a brief case between our shoulders and the icy cushions.
An officious porter at the Dungannon end objected to our class of travel, and eventually, one evening as we embarked on the Mail trail, he herded us into "third". The Station Master we knew to be sympathetic, so from then on we travelled First Class Portadown to Dungannon in the mornings, and third class home, just to level things up, and to thumb our noses at the porter. A short time after his altercation with us, he was moved to TREW and May, and we ceremoniously shook his hand and wished him well. (There were about five white collar workers in our party).
From Dungannon, I moved to Cookstown in 1940, only to be recalled to H.Q. when Belfast was bombed in mid April 1941. I recall being on a day's leave at home, while still at Cookstown, and using it to tour the area of Belfast around Carlisle Circus, the day after the first bombs had fallen there. When I strolled back to the station at Great Victoria Street, I was horrified to find a crowd of several hundred people struggling to get in. After reconnoitring the situation, I managed to gain entry from Glengall Street, and a porter allowed me to board, when I showed him my return ticket. I did not realise how lucky I was until afterwards to get out of Belfast.
When I got home, I found that we had company. A man with his wife and two children, one an infant, had fled from the city, and having met one of my family socially, on one single occasion, they had decided to seek refuge with us in the country. The husband was an employee of Shorts. We put them up, of course, and at the same time got involved in helping to house the swarm of refugees who had descended on Aghagallon to find shelter in the parochial hall, schools and local houses. On the night of the second blitz, in May, one of my brothers had taken my brand new Austin Eight car to Belfast with the Lough Neagh Players, a local drama group, and I had a very uneasy time until they returned, early, with the car intact, having abandoned the plan to stage the show at St Mary's Hall.
The continuous drone of German heavy bombers over-head, the occasional crump, and the increasing glow in the night sky over Belfast, meant very little sleep that night for anyone. In fact, our evacuees who had been in the centre of the earlier blitz, refused to go to bed at all, and walked the landing till morning.
I wasn't in great shape to cycle three miles to Moira next morning, to catch the ten to eight train. But it had to be done. When I alighted at Great Victoria Street, the scene was appalling. A pall of acrid smoke covered the city and no normal traffic was moving. Only primitive, Red Cross type ambulances were about and with the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that they were ferrying corpses to the various public baths, which were being used as morgues. Burst water mains drenched the city centre streets, and there was a tangle of hoses and fire pumps everywhere.
I headed towards the city hall, in a ghost city, where everyone seemed dazed and only half-alive. The city hall and the whole of Donegall Place, Fountain Street and the whole Royal Avenue area was blocked off, and blazing, as I made a detour to King Street. From Smithfield it was obvious that the whole city centre, including York Street, was blazing - so I headed for Peter's Hill. Eventually, I reached little Donegall Street where I met the late Father Frank McKenna - a barely recognisable, distraught, red-eyed figure. He gave me an inkling of what he had gone through during the night, and for the first time I got some idea of what had hit Belfast.
Scores had been killed and injured and many more left homeless, with water and gas mains fractured and devastation, tragedy, and agony everywhere. He enquired, where I was going, and when I hold him I was heading for the Assistance Office at 5a Frederick Street to give out emergency relief, he said I need not go there as "it had all gone". I intimated that I would have to investigate before turning back.
I shall never forget the next few hours, as long as I live. The date was 5th May 1941. Washington Street, which emerged on to Frederick Street opposite the office, had been devastated. The front walls of all the dwellings save one, half-way down, had been torn of and beds and other furniture upstairs, hung drunkenly on fragments of floors. The one intact house had an outsize image of the Saviour on paper nailed to the door. The effect of this, as it stood out in a row of demolished frontages, was dramatic.
The office which came in view as soon as I entered Washington Street, was a sorry sight. It had lost all its glass in the earlier raid, and the windows had been covered with roofing felt. Now the roof was shattered and smouldering, a stream of water was running out of the door, and there was smoke and charred debris everywhere. When I got in, with difficulty, for a huge mob had assembled outside, I found candles flickering everywhere and the whole interior waterlogged. I soon learnt that gas, water and electricity services had gone, and that the place had been hit by several incendiary bombs which, happily, staff on fire watching duty had managed to extinguish.
There was money and claim forms; colleagues on duty, and a mob clamouring for relief, so as an Executive Officer, I had immediately to help get things organised. The waiting room was full of pathetic penniless people, many in night attire, and some heavily bandaged, all dazed and bewildered. It wasn't long till we had a picture of which streets had been wiped out, or severely damaged. Claimants from those areas were the more numerous, and many told us that they had no homes except the air raid shelter in our basement, their houses having suffered a direct hit. We did what we could for them financially, as fast as we could, and directed them to reception centres for evacuation to the country.
The air raid sirens wailed overhead, as German planes returned on reconnaissance but we scarcely knew whether each was an alert or an "all clear", being completely preoccupied with the task in hand. At one time, someone estimated the crowd awaiting attention at 600 people.
In mid-forenoon a heavy crump shook the building and the waiting claimants rose as one, with a scream, imagining it was another bomb. In fact it was the thud of a three storey high gable of McDevitt's pub next door being pulled down by demolition workers as it was a danger to the public. At about 3.30pm, after an eight hour fast, I had to pack up and go off in search of food. The manager pleaded with me not to be long as the pressure of work was dreadful.
Outside huge notices about the need to boil all water before using it for cooking or drinking had gone up everywhere and firemen, demolition workers and A.R.P. [Air Raid Precautions] people were striving to cope with the huge fire, stretching from the city hall to York Road Station, enveloping High Street, Bridge Street and most of the city centre, which still smouldered. I found an Italian cafe, near St Patrick's Church in Donegall Street open and willing to provide me with a boiled egg, tea and bread - and I did not need sauce. Then it was back to work and much later the last train home.
Behind me, I left a city where some 150 people had died and 160 had been injured in a single night. Thousands of people had been rendered homeless, and an estimated 95,000 fire bombs had rained down. Casualities were low compared with the earlier blitz, as at least 100,000 people had been evacuated and as many more had taken to the hills every night as a precaution. From the April raid no one who was fit to get out had slept in Belfast city.