Belfast Blitz: ‘I watched from a hedge as the city burned below me’

Robert Thompson remembers the Belfast Blitz.
 
Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker
Robert Thompson remembers the Belfast Blitz. Pic Colm Lenaghan/ Pacemaker

Bertie Thompson was aged about five-and-a-half when the Luftwaffe struck 75 years ago, and recalls feeling a naive excitement as he looked out from the Belfast hills at the burning city below.

His family was living in a terraced street in Ligoneil, north Belfast, and spoke of his memories of the Belfast Blitz as the city prepared to mark three-quarters of a century since the devastating series of air raids of spring 1941.

The Shore Road was left in ruins by the Nazis

The Shore Road was left in ruins by the Nazis

He remembers two raids, the first of which unfolded as follows.

He, his parents and three siblings began trekking about 1,200ft up to a grazing field after the siren sounded.

“Crowds of people were walking round that way too,” he said.

“It was people from everywhere – Shankill Road and all. All going up into the fields to be safe...

“It was pitch dark. It was dry, and it was black.”

The hay shed was packed with people, and the family ended up sitting underneath a hedge.

Then he heard bombing and what sounded like gunfire.

“And next thing, a lot of horses came up and started running round and round the field,” he said – adding that the memory of the panicking animals remains with him vividly to this day.

“You heard the ‘bang, bang’ of the explosions. It was all away down below us. And the searchlights - they were shining right across the sky... You saw buildings burning. You saw fires all over Belfast.”

Asked what he was feeling, he said: “Excited, seeing all these fires going all over the town.”

He added that it “was just like looking at a massive big TV - [but] it was reality”.

Asked if he thought about the human cost of what he was watching, he said: “No, I was too young to think of that. I don’t think we realised it could have happened to [our] houses as well...

“As an adult, I think [about] the people that suffered a bit; the ones that were down in Belfast. Their houses were bombed and damaged and they were in air raid shelters and all that there.

“I think we were very lucky up in the hills, I really do.

“I can still see that yet, looking down across Belfast.”

They headed back home after the all clear sounded.

The second raid was “something similar”, and they again went up to the same spot.

The only damage he saw close to his neighbourhood was a “massive big crater” in a field near Ewart’s flax mill – about 50ft in diameter, and 20ft deep.

After the blitz, it made a great playground for he and his friends, he said.

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