Belfast was poorly prepared for the blitz compared with other British cities, few children had been evacuated, air raid shelters were sparse and defensive arrangements weak. Yet the the Harland and Wolf ship building yards and Northern Ireland’s strategic role in the battle of the Atlantic made it a likely target. When German bombers struck on the night of the 15th/16th April the effects were disproportionate. Over 900 people died. Over 50,000 homes were damaged leaving almost a quarter of the population homeless. Fire crews came from south of the border, from the neutral state of Ireland, and stayed for up to three days to help fight the fires.
Moya Woodside kept a diary for Mass Observation and recored the scenes in Belfast the day after the bombing, when thousands were homeless and many more wanted to find a way out of the city:
Passed railway station after lunch on my way to refugee committee, I have never seen anything like it. Thousands of people crowding in, cars, buses, carts and lorries, bathchairs, women pushing prams and go-karts with anything up to 6 or 8 children trailing along, belongings in blankets, pillowcases, baskets and boxes.
Coming back from the committee at 4.00 pm, found that the station doors had been shut. Crowds were waiting outside, mothers and children sitting on the pavement allround, constant stream of people arriving on foot and on buses, many looking exhausted. It was a heartbreaking sight. Went up to see some friends, living on road which leads out of town Such an exodus, on foot, in trams, lorries, trailers, cattle floats, bicycles, delivery vans, anything that would move would be utilised. Private cars streamed past laden with women and children, with matresses tied on top and all sorts of paraphenialia roped on behind. Hundreds were waiting at the main bus-stops. Anxiety on every face.
Came home to find a message awaiting me from one of our refugees asking – could I help to find somebody in the country for his wife and child. As he lived in a reported Blitz area, it sounded urgent, after supper I got on my bike again and resolved to try and get through to them. (They live across town about 4 miles away.) Found that the road had only just been opened and was being policed by military.
What awful scences meet me as I proceded. It looked like photographs of Spain or China or some town in the last war. Houses roofless, windowless, burnt out or burning, familiar landmarks gone and in their place vast craters and mounds of rubble. The desolation is indescribable. Thousands and thousands must be homeless, and as for the death toll, I shuddered to think horrors and ghastly injuries and death which have occured.
See Public Record Office of Northern Ireland T/3808/1. Second World War Northern Ireland has many more images and original records.