Ex civil servant head Sir Ken, who is 90 today, turned 10 on the worst night of the Belfast Blitz
Eighty years ago Belfast had by far the most catastrophic night it has had in the centuries since it became a significant sized town in the 1600s.
German bombers attacked the capital of Northern Ireland on Easter Tuesday 1941, which fell that year on April 15.
Around 900 people died in the raid, more than a quarter of the 3,700 number of fatalities who would later be killed in the Troubles, which lasted three decades.
The Easter attack was the most devastating of four Nazi raids between April 7 and May 6 of that year, shocking the inhabitants of a city that had been thought to be beyond the reach of German air power (Friday’s News Letter will have a supplement on the Belfast Blitz).
One boy spent his tenth birthday cowering under the stairs of his family home in east Belfast.
That child, Ken Bloomfield, now called Sir Kenneth, would survive the attack and go on to become head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Sir Ken turns 90 today.
Recalling that time, he told the News Letter: “I remember huddling with my mother and all this noise going on for a very long time,”
They were in their house in Holland Crescent, off the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, a part of the city that was damaged due to the targeting of the nearby shipyards and Shorts Brothers factory.
After the air assault Sir Ken remembers “great holes in the road” in the east of the city. North Belfast, however, was much worse hit.
Asked if he remembers the outbreak of war with Germany in September 1939 when he was aged eight, Sir Kenneth says that not only does he remember that solemn event but he remembers the year before, 1938, when war was only narrowly averted.
“People were told to come to Strandtown school to find out what to do in that event,” he says. “It was a false alarm, but a year later it did happen.”
His father Harry Bloomfield had served in the Great War as one of the first members of flying service (which later became the RAF). Harry had been born around the turn of the century was only old enough to serve as that conflict was ending in 1918.
In the 1941 raids, Kenneth, an only child, took shelter with his mum Doris in a reinforced back pantry under the stairs. His father was “out and about”.
“The planes overhead had a very characteristic engine note.”
Was he afraid? “I rather enjoyed it but I think my mother was frightened,” he recalls. “When you are a young boy you just take it for granted.”
He was then at primary school, and a year later went to Royal Belfast Academical Institution (Inst), which had air raid centres, in the centre of Belfast.
At home during the raids, he recalls hearing people running down the streets.
“It was probably safer to be out in the open country, you were not going to have a house fall on you. You could hear the clatter of people running down the railway embankment.”
He remembers later in the war the street lights coming on when blackout was ended.
He also remembers hearing and seeing Hitler in radio broadcasts and newsreel films. Hitler, however, was less seen at the time as a as a hate figure than as a “figure of ridicule”.
“He was always satirised him in the media and seen as sort of shouty. It was really only after the war time trials that we all realised how awful it had been.”
The Bloomfields escaped the Blitz unscathed, and did not know well anyone who was killed in it.
Sir Kenneth would go on to Oxford University and then join the civil service, which he came to lead.
He married Elizabeth (they celebrated 60 years together last September) and they have two children. In the 1980s the IRA bombed the family home in Crawfordsburn, Co Down but no-one was injured.
• Whole streets and families were wiped out
The historian Brian Barton has described the Belfast blitz as the greatest disaster in the history of the city or, indeed, in any town or city in Ireland.
Mr Barton is author of ‘The Belfast Blitz - the city in the war years’ and has long being campaigning for a memorial to the dead of 1941.
He said that this ideally would be located in the grounds of the City Hall which itself sustained bomb damage.
Writing in the News Letter in 2016, on the 75th anniversary of the German attacks, he spoke about the devastation, and the fact that there were still people alive who “clearly remember the air raids, or who were directly affected by them, or whose families lived through them”.
Mr Barton said: “In the course of four Luftwaffe assaults on Belfast during April-May 1941 (two of them officially classified as major’ attacks), some 970 citizens lost their lives [that number does not include military who were killed].
“The deaths impacted on both communities, Catholic and Protestant — the bombers did not discriminate — so the erection of a memorial ought not be a party’ political issue.
“Also, unlike the deaths in the Titanic disaster, virtually all of those who died were local people; they were killed in their own homes, or in neighbourhood shelters or streets.”
He added: “If it is at all feasible, the memorial should be inscribed with the names of each of the roughly 900 civilian victims who are known.
“This would help to bring home to those who look at it the immense loss of life which the blitz caused; it would do this to a degree that the mere citing of statistics could never do. It would also highlight in dramatic form the fact that in some instances entire families, and even streets, were wiped out.”
Belfast City Council has approved an outline plan for a memorial.
• Friday’s News Letter will have a supplement on the Belfast Blitz
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