Terror of the Belfast Blitz

As a young student in Belfast in the early 1990s, I was unfortunate enough to have to witness an IRA bomb going off in a shopping arcade in the heart of the city. The bang was loud, the damage considerable, but fortunately on this occasion nobody had been injured. Yet if I had thought of this as a traumatic experience at the time, it was absolutely nothing compared to the bombing campaign endured by my grandparents when living in the city on April 15th 1941.

As a child, my grandfather Charles Paton had lived through the First World War under German rule in the occupied city of Brussels, where he had been born. At the war’s outbreak, his Scottish father had remained in the country to protect his employers’ interests, but whilst hiding from the occupying army he had suffered from severe stress and had tragically passed away in 1916. Charles’ brother John was shortly after arrested and imprisoned near Berlin at a civilian prisoner of war camp called Ruhleben, where he remained for two years. When the war ended, the traumatised family returned to Glasgow.

Of course, before commencing my family history research, I knew absolutely none of this! I never met my grandfather, and with my grandparents having separated when my father was only five, his memories of Charles were extremely limited. He did know that prior to the Second World War, both of his parents had moved from Glasgow to Northern Ireland, which he had always believed had happened because his parents had wanted to avoid their children being conscripted, a practice never introduced into the country. But this really did not make much sense – my father’s eldest brother Robert was less than a year old when the war broke out! When I asked my father’s elder siblings, Robert, Charlie and Sheila about it, they could shed little further light. Sheila recalled that he had worked for Clydesdale Electrical shop, and it may have been that an opportunity had arisen for Charles in Belfast through the firm. Beyond this, they could volunteer no further useful information.

Charles paton - Happy Days
Charles Paton, right, outside his radio shop in Belfast

Deciding to try and find out more, I took myself along to the Strathclyde Area Genealogy Centre in Glasgow. From the statutory records held there I was able to discover that Charles had married my grandmother Jean Currie in the city on September 28th 1934, and that at the time he was working as a wireless salesman. However, I could find no birth for Charles, nor any siblings. In time, through further detective work at the General Register Office for Scotland, I was able to trace the names of some of Charles’ cousins in both Perthshire and London, and after visiting them, I was able to uncover the tragedy experienced by my family in Belgium.

But what of his later life in Belfast? With no censuses available to consult for the period, I had to use other sources. On visiting the Mitchell Library in Glasgow to consult the electoral rolls and the street directories, and later the Central Library in Belfast, I established that Charles and Jean had moved from Glasgow to Belfast in approximately 1936 or 1937, settling at 40 Whitewell Crescent, and that in 1942 they had moved next door to number 42. In all of these listings Charles was listed as a radio shop manager, and during the war years and its immediate aftermath he was further recorded as being in the RAF.

In Northern Ireland, the story of the Second World War has not entered the public folk memory in the way that the sacrifice of the earlier war has, and as a child, I was certainly taught nothing about it at school. As far as I had known, Northern Ireland had not really experienced much of the war directly, and apart from hearing that American Rangers had been based in my home town of Carrickfergus for a period, the only other tale that I remember hearing about was one told to me once when I was out doing a newspaper delivery round. A conversation with one of my customers revealed that German planes had apparently come to Belfast during the war, and had used the tall chimney of the Barn Mills in Carrick as an aid to help them navigate their way along Belfast Lough toward the capital city. Recalling this story, I decided to find what I could on the internet, and through eBay, I was able to purchase a book entitled “The Blitz: Belfast in the War Years” by Brian Barton.

The book was a fascinating account of Belfast’s wartime experience, and confirmed that the Luftwaffe had indeed attacked the city during two separate and devastating raids, the first on Easter Tuesday 1941, and the second just a few weeks later on May 5th. I read how the government in Northern Ireland had never considered the possibility that German bombers would ever have the range to attack the ports of Belfast or Londonderry, and that as a consequence, the civilian population had been woefully ill prepared, with very few air raid shelters constructed. But it was not until page 109 that the hairs on the back of my neck were suddenly raised, with the following words: “At Greencastle the raid erupted with dramatic suddenness and ferocity”. Greencastle, north of the city, is where Whitewell Crescent is situated. Upon reading that several parachute mines had devastated Veryan Gardens and Vandyck Gardens, with over 130 homes demolished or badly damaged, I grabbed a map of Belfast that I had and searched for these streets. Veryan Gardens was in fact the continuation of Whitewell Crescent after it had crossed a particular road, and Vandyck Gardens was parallel to it. Had fate led my grandfather to yet another encounter with the Germans?

My uncle Robert, based in Portsmouth, was about two and half years old at the time of the blitz raid, and so I telephoned him to ask what he knew about it. “Oh yes, our kid”, he replied, “our house was hit”. What?!!! My heart nearly leapt into my mouth – I had been researching my family history for eight years, constantly asking questions, and not once had anybody mentioned this as being of any possible interest! It transpired that the house had suffered serious blast damage, but Bob’s memories of the night were limited. He could remember his parents leading him and his baby brother out the back door of their house and along the street to an air raid shelter. Such was the panic in running down the street, my grandfather accidentally dropped Bob, who banged his head on the road as a result.

blitz yft 166With my uncle’s limited recollection of the night, I decided to try and find out what else I could about the attack on Greencastle, and so posted a request on the excellent Belfast Forum website, asking if anybody else had relatives in the area on that night. Within a couple of days I had received a message from a gentleman called James Cassell, who not only remembered my family from Whitewell Crescent, but as an eleven year old boy had actually been inside his aunt Madge’s house at 2 Vandyck Gardens when a parachute mine landed in the garden, with the blast completely collapsing the house. James, his sister, grandparents, aunt and two cousins survived, but were trapped inside an air pocket under their large oak table, where they had sought shelter. Several hours later they were dug out by soldiers of a Field Ambulance Company, to discover that many of their neighbours and friends had died in the blast. James’ family turned out to have been even luckier than my own family, on a night that he remembers as being absolutely terrifying.

After the Easter Tuesday raid, my uncle Bob remembers how his parents took both himself and his baby brother Charlie out of the city every night for several weeks to sleep in a barn in the country, returning at dawn each day, a widespread practice that was known as “ditching”. Not long after the night that their house had been hit, the family were able to move into number 42, next door to their former home.

In total, on that Easter Tuesday night, well over 900 civilians were killed in Belfast, and 600 seriously injured. For whatever reason, the Germans had hit a heavily populated residential estate rather than the city’s harbour, their intended target. When they returned in May, they made no such mistake, and a second wave of bombing created a huge firestorm that utterly devastated the harbour area. Fortunately it was to be the last attack, as Hitler redirected his efforts towards his eastern front.

belfast blitz
Rescue workers searching through rubble in Belfast after the attack (Source IWM, H9476)

(This article was first published in Your Family Tree magazine, issue 66, 2009)