Northern Ireland / Belfast during World War II
Northern Ireland’s strategic importance / Use by British
When World War II was declared in September 1939, Northern Ireland immediately entered on the British side, seeing it as an opportunity to stress their loyalty to Britain in contrast to the neutral Irish Free State. Lord Craigavon affirmed their intention to “place the whole of our resources at the command of the government of Great Britain” (4 Sept) Northern Ireland’s strategic importance to Britain had increased greatly with the return of the Treaty Ports to the South in 1938 and the Free State’s neutral status. The use of the Northern ports became even more important following the fall of France in June 1940 as Britain stood alone against Germany in the West. The naval bases in Belfast, Larne and Derry were used by British ships to escort convoys carrying essential supplies from the US and airbases were used to search the seas for enemy forces. At the same time, Northern Ireland provided a training ground for over 100,000 American forces in preparation for D-Day landings in Normandy. However, aiding Britain in this way, as well as producing much British war materials, made Northern Ireland a real target for German attack. Belfast city was to suffer most with German attacks leaving a devastating impact.
Northern Ireland’s and Belfast’s preparation for war & “lack of preparation”
In stark contrast to elsewhere in the United Kingdom, the lack of a sense of war urgency and lack of war preparation in Northern Ireland was evident up to 1941. Of course, measures such as rationing, censorship, identity cards and travel restrictions were introduced. But, no conscription, low numbers joining the armed forces, food being relatively plentiful, and up to April 1941, no bombs falling, all led to a feeling among many people that the North was only “half in the War”. Similarly, many believed that NI was too remote and far from the theatre of war and from the government at Westminster, for the Luftwaffe to bomb them. Northern Ireland had grown complacent; the Free State’s neutrality encouraged the view that the city of Belfast (although at war) would not be attacked. The fact that Belfast had avoided bombing till April 1941, while 30,000 had already died in Britain – also encouraged a very dangerous belief that Belfast was immune to the worst effects of war Little had been done to properly defend the city of Belfast. Up until the fall of France in June 1940, preparations and putting in place air-raid precautions had been voluntary and as a result ineffective. By the spring of 1941, Belfast only possessed twenty-two anti-aircraft guns (6 light, 16 heavy), and there were only enough public air-raid shelters for 25% of the population. In fact, the Minister for Home Affairs – Dawson Bates, had not insisted on compulsory air-raid shelters, fearing that local Unionist councillors would be annoyed. There were NO searchlights and only a few Barrage Balloons in Belfast. Northern had one squadron of fighters based at Aldergrove, which was not equipped for night fighting. The civil defence and fire services were unprepared for any attack. This was to prove detrimental to the city of Belfast in April 1941.
Industry during the war years (economy)
A positive impact of World War II could be seen in relation to the economy. Northern Ireland, unlike the South, prospered economically during the War, replacing the depression of the 1930’s with economic growth and expansion. Northern Ireland, and especially Belfast, was important in producing war materials for the British, which benefited the economy substantially. In Belfast, the Harland and Wolff shipyard rapidly increased its production to meet demand, producing 150 warships and 123 merchant ships. The Short Bros and Harland aircraft factory expanded, building 1,500 Bombers and 500 tanks during the war years. Across the North, linen industries also...
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