Belfast Blitz: The Irish Firemen

Following the devastation of the Belfast Blitz in April 1941, the Stormont government requested help from Ireland. The Irish firemen answered the call.

On 16th April 1941 fires raged through Belfast Co. Antrim. The Luftwaffe had lain waste to much of the city in what would become known as The Easter Raid of the Belfast Blitz.

As large swathes of the city continued to burn, the Stormont government took a radical step for the time in enlisting the help of neutral Eire. At 0415hrs, Minister of Public Security John McDermott phoned Sir Basil Brook seeking permission to engage to the help of Irish premier Eamon De Valera. The original request is thought to have come from the Belfast Commissioner of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

I gave him authority as it is obviously a question of expediency.

Sir Basil Brooke – Diary Entry – April 1941.

The city of Belfast stood unprepared for the onslaught of the Nazi Blitzkrieg. Inadequate shelter and a lack of barrage balloons and anti-aircraft guns left the city wide open for attack.

To compound this further, authorities cancelled a request for additional firefighting equipment. They cited financial reasons. This left Belfast and its manpower of 230 firefighters ill-prepared for the inferno that followed the Belfast Blitz. Roads quickly became impassible, water mains cracked and gas escaped from ruptured pipes, adding to the issues.

With telephone communication out of action in Belfast, Co. Antrim due to bomb damage, a telegram made its way through the Belfast to Dublin railway telegraphy link. The telegraph arrived with PJ Hernon, Dublin City Manager who relayed it to Eamon De Valera.

Go ahead and give every assistance possible.

Eamon De Valera – 16th April 1941.

The International Bar, Belfast, Co. Antrim

Belfast Telegraph/NMNI Photograph: The International Bar on the corner of Donegall Street and York Street in Belfast, Co. Antrim continues to burn following the devastating Belfast Blitz on the 4th-5th May 1941. Copyright unknown.

Irish firefighters go North

Within half an hour, Dublin’s Chief Fire Officer Major Comerford addressed a gathered group of firefighters at Tara Street Station. He asked for volunteers as they would be working outside of their agreed terms. Most men answered the call.

At 0435hrs on 16th April 1941, De Valera sent 13 fire appliances and 71 volunteer firefighters north of the border. They came from Dublin, Drogheda, Dun Laoghaire, and Dundalk. The men gripped onto their open vehicles, racing northwards at 60mph. Added hoses and portable pumps took up any extra space on the fire engines. The weather was cold and the drivers kept their hands warm by sitting on one and steering with the other, swapping when it then became cold.

There was little talk on the vehicles as the men wondered what lay ahead. None of them would have imagined the carnage facing them in Belfast. In fact, few of them had ever been to the city before.

At the Irish border at Killeen, military motorcycles provided an escort, leading the engines to Belfast. They arrived early in the morning but faced delays in being taken to Chichester Street Fire Station and being able to locate senior officers.

Battling the Blazes

In later years, firefighters told of the thick grey smoke that blocked out the sunshine. As they worked, the background noise was one of ambulance bells, delayed explosions, and the roar of blazing fires. In the chaos, voices of rescuers called out as they tried to remove the injured and dead from the rubble.

One story suggests that a woman in the city heard the southern accents and thought she had been captured by Germans. She was told it was the Dublin Fire Brigade, to which she exclaimed:

Oh God, I’ve been blown to Dublin!

Crews worked tirelessly for 3 days and nights. There were no arrangements in place for taking a rest or getting some food. In some parts of the city, grateful residents provided refreshments but many of the men went without as they brought the fires under control. After 3 days of firefighting, dealing with the dead and injured, the Irish firemen received relief from crews from Clydeside and Liverpool. The British crews arrived on a Destroyer dispatched from Liverpool and an Admiralty Ferry from Glasgow.

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.

The Irish Times – 17th April 1941.

Bridge Street and High Street in May 1941

Belfast Telegraph Photo: AR 31. People of Belfast attempt to salvage what they can from the rubble left in the immediate aftermath of the Belfast Blitz on 4th-5th May 1941 on the corner of Bridge Street and High Street in Belfast City Centre.

The Return Home

On their return home, the crews from Dublin, Drogheda, Dun Laoghaire, and Dundalk received food and drink from the people of Banbridge, Co. Down. Other firemen received hospitality from the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Newry, Co. Down. Cold and hungry, many of the men sang to stay awake as they returned south of the Irish border following the tail light of a motorcycle escort as their vehicles were not prepared for the blackout.

After the Blitz

On 19th April 1941, Eamon De Valera spoke in Castlebar, Ireland.

This is the first time I have spoken in public since the disaster in Belfast and I know you will wish me to express on your behalf and on behalf of the Government our sympathy with the people who are suffering there. they are all our people, they are one and the same people, and their sorrows in the present instance are also our sorrows. I want to say that any help we can give them in the present time we will give to them wholeheartedly believing that were the circumstances reversed they would also give us their help wholeheartedly.

The Irish firemen were promised some recognition or reward from the Northern Ireland authorities. Other than 5 shillings each to compensate for meal provision, nothing came their way. Despite this, the people of Belfast never forgot the help offered by the Dublin Fire Brigade. In the years which followed, Fire Services from the North and South of the Island formed football teams for an annual match.

In 1995, to mark to 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two, Dublin Fire Brigade received an invitation for any survivors to attend a function at Hillsborough Castle with Prince Charles. Only 4 were known to still be alive and of those, Tom Coleman returned to Northern Ireland on behalf of his colleagues.