“It’s just something you never forget.”
Those are the words of Violet Sloan, one of the many witnesses to the bloodbath that was the Belfast Blitz.
She said that the 75th anniversary of the attacks this month has brought back a wave of memories from her wartime days, and she has shared some of them with the News Letter.
Mrs Sloan, now a 91-year-old great-grandmother living in Dundonald, was aged 16 and 10 months at the time the Germans attacked.
She was living with her mother, step-father, three sisters and two brothers in a terraced house in Spamount Street, north Belfast, in what would now be known as the New Lodge.
During what she said was the first night of the Belfast blitz, she had been sent around to the house of her next door neighbour – a spinster in her 40s – in order to keep her company.
Mrs Sloan said the two of them went into the back yard to shelter underneath a tin bath to protect themselves against the air raid.
“We got below it, and the whistling of the bombs was getting closer and closer”, she told the News Letter.
The pair of them decided that they may be safer hiding in the “coal hole” under the stairs instead, and so they moved.
“Just as we got in there we heard this terrible whistling, then this awful crash. But we were scared to move.”
When they did emerge, they discovered that the house behind their back yard had been struck by a bomb.
“We were lucky we’d moved into the coal house,” she said, noting that she would have died if they had stayed in the yard.
“We heard a wee dog crying, and heard wardens coming. A lady and her daughter died in the bomb, and her husband and the wee dog were saved.”
She had known the family well. Their surname was Walsh.
“It was terrible. I went back in home – my mummy didn’t know if I was alright or not. She just hugged me.”
Their kitchen and much of its contents were destroyed in the raid, and she said their pet canary “died of shock”.
Her own hair also began to fall out in clumps after the attack – an affliction which lasted for about three years.
After that raid, she was sent to stay with her grandmother in Dromore.
Remarkably, the house in Spamount Street was later hit again in another raid, although nobody was inside at the time.
“A firebomb had come through the roof and burnt all the place, so we couldn’t go in to it again,” said Mrs Sloan.
Asked if she considered herself to be lucky or unlucky, she said: “Oh, we thought ourselves very, very lucky.”
She added: “It’s just something that you never ever forget.”
She later joined an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) team as a warden, aged 18.
Her then-boyfriend (later husband) who worked in an aircraft factory, went on to volunteer to assist London’s ARP wardens.
“He said it was dreadful,” said Mrs Sloan. “He says it was far worse than here.”
Asked if the 75th anniversary had brought the memories of the blitz back to her, she said: “It has yes. It just makes you remember what happened. What you did.”
Dr Susan Kelly, a history scholar working for the Ulster Museum, has been compiling a collection of stories from Blitz witnesses since January.
The project, lasting a few months, and has been commissioned by the Northern Ireland War Memorial.
At time of writing she had interviewed 21 people, ranging in age from 79 to 102.
Asked what her message was around the 75th anniversary, she said: “How important it is to capture as much as possible at this stage.
“If you think of someone’s memory who is their early 80s, and someone who’s over 100, [those in their 80s] saw everything from a children’s perspective.
“But obviously someone who’s 100 has the memories of an adult. So it’s very important to capture as wide a range as possible when we still can.”
When it comes to those who were children at the time, feelings of excitement at the time were common “because at that age, when you’re a young child, you don’t understand the full ramifications and risks”.
Asked what the difference was between the blitz in Belfast and that in other UK cities, she said: “It was short – and very sharp.
“It caused a huge amount of damage over a short period of time. Whereas in some other cities in England, it was going on a lot longer, but maybe not so many deaths and as much devastation.
“Also, Belfast wasn’t prepared. A lot of people thought the bombers wouldn’t reach as far.”
To get in touch with Dr Kelly, send an e-mail to this address: firstname.lastname@example.org . Alternatively, telephone (028)90 320392, and select Option 2.
In just four raids, the Nazis killed three-fifths as many people as were lost during 40 years of the Troubles in Belfast.
A glance through the book Lost Lives provides some context.
The book provides a wealth of facts and figures about those who died in the Troubles.
Out of 3,720 such deaths across the Province from 1966 until 2006, it lists 1,687 as having occurred in Belfast.
In very rough terms, this works out at an average of one Troubles death every nine days in the city.
When it comes to the Blitz, an estimated 1,000-plus died over the course of the four raids (although some of these were in places like Ards airfield).