A memorial to the 1941 Belfast Blitz should name all of those who were killed in the Nazi raids on the city
Two men who have played a key role in the push for a memorial to the Belfast Blitz, BRIAN BARTON and JEFF DUDGEON, explain how plans for such a structure are progressing and why it is so important:
Jimmy Doherty, who provided exemplary service as an air raid warden, described the blitz as ‘the greatest disaster in the history’ of Belfast (in his excellent book, Post 381) indeed no comparable tragedy has occurred in any town or city in Ireland.
In the course of four Luftwaffe assaults during April-May 1941, over 980 persons lost their lives. This appalling death toll impacted on both communities, Catholic and Protestant; the bombers did not discriminate.
Unlike those who perished on the Titanic, virtually all the victims were local people, who were killed in their own homes, streets, or neighbourhood shelters.
Belfast City Council is now committed to the erection of a memorial to commemorate permanently those who lost their lives during the blitz. It is a ‘key agreed project’ (it has moved from being an ‘emerging project’, Stage 1, to becoming an ‘uncommitted project’, Stage 2, and will soon become a ‘committed project’, the 3rd and final Stage).
It has recently been included in the Council’s Capital Programme. Landscape architects with a global reputation (Hassell Studio) are currently drawing up plans to transform Cathedral Gardens; the memorial is an elemental part of these and it will be located there. It has been designed by Joy Hutchinson (the Council’s /landscape architect) who was responsible for other outstanding landmark projects in the city including the Titanic Memorial in the City Hall grounds, the gardens at Belfast Castle and the landscaping of the gasworks. Construction on the memorial is due to begin next year, and it will take roughly one year to complete.
Jeffery Dudgeon was the councillor who originally placed before Belfast City Council a motion that it should erect a permanent blitz memorial (3 December 2018); it was seconded by Alderman Pat Convery.
It was eventually endorsed by a majority of the Council, with SDLP support, on 7 January 2019. The decision to proceed with erecting the memorial now is timely, with the eightieth anniversary of the blitz having been marked this year and when there are still alive those who can clearly remember the raids, or who were directly affected by them, or whose families lived through them.
Cathedral Gardens is an appropriate place to site the memorial.
It will be beside or near other significant civic locations: the University of Ulster’s Belfast campus, currently undergoing massive redevelopment; St Anne’s Cathedral; Writers’ Square and St Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Gardens are the only open ground which could be used for such a purpose apart from the City Hall area, and they are owned by the Council. Moreover, they lie in the heart of a district devastated during the blitz, which was what caused there to be vacant ground there in the first place.
It is also a comparatively large site, so there will be room for a substantial memorial and for the construction of a small garden of remembrance, as at the Titanic Memorial. It will be more visible, and more of a landmark, than if located at the City Hall. Possibly ‘Cathedral Gardens’ could be renamed as ‘Blitz Memorial Gardens.’
There is an overwhelmingly strong case for the memorial being inscribed with the names of each of the victims of the blitz who are known and, if it is possible, their ages and the streets in which they died should be included.
A possible ground for concern about doing this is the lack of a definitive list of those who died. This is a more complex issue that it might at first appear. During and after the raids, there were some who died due to causes other than directly from the Luftwaffe’s bombing – for example, during the demolition of bomb-damaged buildings, or as a consequence of poisoning from leaking gas pipes or of shells exploding prematurely at anti-aircraft gun emplacements.
Furthermore, after the blitz, the bodies of a number who died were never recovered, or had been so badly mutilated that they could not be recognized. Sadly, in some cases, there was simply no one left who could identify them.
Also, such was the administrative chaos in Belfast in the aftermath of its two heaviest bombardments that the means of identifying the bodies of the dead was misled or lost (personal belongings, details of where the body was found).
In most, if not all, of these instances recourse was taken to the City Coroner’s court, where invariably the verdict reached was that the person was ‘missing presumed dead’. In addition, there were certainly some who died prematurely, months or even years, after the air raids were over.
Their deaths were due not just to the injuries they may have received at the time, but indirectly to the trauma that the experience had caused: the sudden and violent loss of family members and friends; the emotional impact of the destruction of homes, and neighbourhoods, and indeed of so much of the city; the disruptive effects of evacuation and the stress, strain and uncertainty of the time. These bleak circumstances drove some to suicide.
The air raids are not unique in this respect; precisely the same issue – the identifying of those who died – arises in relation to the dead of all traumatic and tragic events in human history whether wars, revolutions, famines or plagues.
It arises even now with regard to those who are said to have died because of the Covid epidemic. In the case of the Belfast blitz, however, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission drew up a list of civilian dead which is not far from being definitive.
It contains almost nine hundred names, along with the place where, and date when, they died.
Recently Alan Freeburn, Northern Ireland War Memorial, has produced as comprehensive a list of blitz victims, civilian and military, as it will ever be possible to compose, using such reliable and definitive records as those of the Registrar General’s Office (that list now includes the names of some eighty service personnel, many not previously known, who died both at their stations and amongst the civilian population).
Also, if names are omitted, space could be left on the plinth of the blitz memorial for the later addition of any names of persons that had initially not been included, and who it can be proven did die as a result of the blitz.
Moreover, it could be clearly stated on the inscription that the memorial is dedicated to all civilians and service personnel who lost their lives in the Belfast blitz, whether their names are known and inscribed on the plinth or not (there are two memorials dedicated to the unidentified and unclaimed blitz dead in Belfast, one at the City Cemetery, and the other at Milltown).
The inclusion of victims’ names on the blitz memorial would help to bring home to those who look at it the immense loss of life which the air raids caused; it would do this to a degree that the mere citing of statistics and dates could never do.
It would also highlight in dramatic form the fact that in some instances entire families, and even streets, were wiped out.
It would be therefore not just a civic memorial, but an invaluable public record of what the city experienced during the spring of 1941. In addition, the inclusion of names would personalize the memorial.
It would make future ceremonies held there (presumably, at Easter on a yearly basis) infinitely more meaningful, poignant and significant, especially for the surviving families of those who lost their lives during the blitz. It should be borne in mind that some of those whose names would be listed on the plinth of the memorial do not have any marked grave at present.
This would include those who were declared to be ‘missing, presumed dead’ by the City Coroner in court sessions held during May and June 1941. In such instances, the memorial with the names inscribed would fulfill a real need. Moreover, the inclusion of victims’ names would increase public interest in the memorial. People would look at it to see their own family’s name recorded on it, the names of families they know and its overall impact on their neighbourhood.
The memorials to the blitz dead erected in English cities such as Coventry, Plymouth and Portsmouth each bear the names of all known to have lost their lives; in Coventry’s case, over 800 are listed. Manchester has a ‘memorial tree’, which also lists the names of the city’s fatalities, and Hull is currently planning to erect one.
There are also comparable memorials in Eire with names given as, for example, in Dublin and in Campile, County Wexford.
• Brian Barton is author of The Belfast Blitz: the City in the War Years (Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2015), on sale at: Waterstone’s; Tesco’s main stores; No Alibi; Amazon UK and provincial bookshops. Jeff Dudgeon is an ex Ulster Unionist councillor in Belfast
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