Some unusual, poignant and frightening memories passed on from two world wars

Soldiers clearing rubble after Belfast's Easter air raid, 1941
Soldiers clearing rubble after Belfast's Easter air raid, 1941

Following the recent anniversary, e-mails about the German Luftwaffe’s Easter blitz on Belfast in 1941 are continuing to arrive in Roamer’s mailbox and along with an unusual First World War tale from Portballintrae today’s page consists predominantly of wartime memories.

At the beginning of May, reader Jim Wallace told us about a brass hand-bell engraved with the letters ARP which had belonged to his family since the 1950s.

ARP Second World War hand bell from Jersey

ARP Second World War hand bell from Jersey

They’d often wondered what the letters ARP stood for, until another reader shared details here from several Second World War Air Raid Precautions booklets.

According to the ARP booklets, brass hand-bells were rung by Air Raid Wardens to announce, “the cancellation of local gas warnings” when they were to be “rung throughout the streets”.

The main warnings were made by sirens, but the wardens also used whistles and wooden football rattles to alert the general public.

The booklets made it clear that “hand-bells may also be used to repeat the ‘raiders passed’ signal, but only if there’s no gas. Hand- bells will in fact be an ‘all clear’ signal”.

Rescue workers search through the rubble in Belfast after a German Luftwaffe Easter raid, 1941

Rescue workers search through the rubble in Belfast after a German Luftwaffe Easter raid, 1941

Another note in Roamer’s mailbox about Second World War hand-bells recounted: “My mum was a child of the war, living in Coleraine, and vividly remembers being walked to the edge of the countryside with her little brothers, one in the pram with his gas mask, and lying in ditches with her mum until the bells sounded all clear. In later life she and my dad visited the island of Jersey for regular holidays. It was on one of these holidays, whilst at a car-boot sale, she spotted the ARP bell (photographed above) and purchased it.

“Her own wartime memories were of such a bell being used in Coleraine. There is a ‘J B 39’ engraved at the top of this bell, which may be more relevant to Jersey’s history but it was used to warn of the dangers that generation encountered during the war years.”

Regular contributor Mitchell Smyth also shared his wartime memories, not far from Coleraine, in Ballycastle.

“For many in rural Ulster, the war only meant some inconveniences; it didn’t have the immediacy of life in Belfast, with the memories of the 1941 blitz still raw.

Low resolution image thought to be U9 U-Boat

Low resolution image thought to be U9 U-Boat

“To people in the country the war meant rationing, and the blackout, and a lack of traffic (because of petrol rationing) and Lord Haw-Haw on the radio, while violence was something that happened far away, but Ballycastle did get two terrible reminders.

“On December 5, 1943 a Royal Canadian Air Force seaplane crashed on Knocklayd mountain, which overlooks Ballycastle. Nine crew were killed. There were no civilian casualties. Six weeks earlier, and closer to home (less than a mile from where I lived) an RAF Avro Anson with a four-man crew crashed right into a house on Drumavoley Road.

“I remember my parents took me to the scene the next day; I can still remember the scene of devastation. For a long time I had a shard of what we called ‘aeroplane glass’ as a souvenir.

“The plane had been on a night-navigational exercise.

“Two of the crew were killed and two injured. Post-war records say the plane developed engine trouble and the pilot attempted a forced landing but struck a tree before crashing into the house.

“The house was owned by Charles Blaney; amazingly, neither he nor his wife nor his five children were killed, but a young lady visiting them from Co Donegal died. She was standing outside with her boyfriend when the plane struck; the boyfriend was thrown clear.

“The pilot was thrown from the plane and he landed in the children’s room and lived to tell the tale. There were other, lesser, incidents when the war intruded.

“We were all warned not to pick up suspicious objects after a Ballycastle man found what he thought was a large flashlight on the beach; it was a grenade. It exploded in his hand; we were told that he lost the hand and was blinded.

“In Ballintoy, five people were injured and a soldier lost his life when a grenade, found in a cornfield, exploded.

“On many summer nights, when it was still clear, the sky over Ballycastle would be black with hundreds of airplanes.

“We assumed they were headed back to base in Scotland after patrols in the North Atlantic.”

Thanks to Mitchell for his very vivid recollections.

Still on the north coast, but during the First World War - I’ve been told an unusual tale about a tramp steamer called the SS Wheatear that was shelled by a U-boat off Portballintrae on May 5, 1918.

Some 13 shells missed the ship and several hit the village.

The German U-boat was the U9 and the SS Wheatear, skippered by a Captain Davey, had a small Royal Marine Light Infantry detachment on board.

Armed with just one four-inch gun, the Wheatear came under attack, with six-inch shells from U9 falling all around the little ship.

Captain Davey made steam for Portballintrae, and the bay was described by residents as ‘studded with remarkable up-sprouts of water’ as the shells came closer and closer to the village itself.

In the exchange, around 13 U-boat shells missed the Wheatear and some landed in Portballintrae, killing a cow and damaging a telegraph pole.

Thus, Portballintrae is the only town in Ireland to be shelled by a German U-Boat.

The Wheatear survived intact and the U-boat submerged.

Further details are on the RemembranceNI Website.