WITH the experience of dealing with mass distress in east Belfast as the aftermath of the mid April 1941 blitz to guide them the Assistance Board ought to have been able to deal with the 5th May raid, but it wasn't.
Extra staff had been put on call but in the event they couldn't reach Frederick Street with the whole city centre ablaze from the City Hall to the L.M.S railway at York Road.
Some colleagues who had walked from that station arrived totally traumatised - actually physically sick, having witnessed carnage ... bodies everywhere being extracted from the ruins of dwelling houses.
5A Frederick St was a wreck - a shell enshrouded in roofing felt and sodden underfoot indoors as the roof had been punctured by incendiary bombs. As well we had only candlelight to work with.
Ultimately we had some 600 frenzied people clamouring for admission by early afternoon. The whole thing was a shambles.
I had brought no 'piece' and it was 4.30 pm before I managed to break out for a cuppa.
"For heaven's sake don't be long" was Bill Irwin's injunction. Only a wee Italian cafe near St Patrick's Church was in business ... never has a boiled egg tasted so good. I had left home around 7.30am.
I actually did well out of it. By July 1941 I was appointed departmental Auditor with the whole of Northern Ireland, including HQ, as my pitch. But that is a story for another day.
During the War occupiers of business premises were required by law to appoint fire watchers around the clock to deal with incendiary bombs, and of course Government departments had to comply.
Buckets of sand and long handled implements in the form of scoops and rakes were provided and there was a system of telephonic alert warnings organised, with a 'red alert' as the principal one, signifying an attack as imminent.
All the defences were backed up by municipal air raid sirens which had to be tested regularly.
One note of the siren, rising and falling, signified an alert and a kind of steady moaning sound the 'all clear'.
Air raid wardens were on duty universally. Church bells and factory horns (actually public bells of all kinds) were silenced and only to be rung to warn the populace of an imminent enemy invasion.
Block houses were built on approach roads to all villages. Cities like Belfast were ringed with suspended barrage balloons to frustrate low flying enemy bombers. -
I recall that on 6th May 1941, while we had our heads down dealing out money to bombed out local residents, a chorus of air raid sirens were sounding 'alert' 'all clear' all day but we ignored them as it had been explained that the only enemy planes in the air were ones on reconnaissance having been sent back in daylight to record how the bombers had done their job.
Where were our Royal Air Force defense forces? They just were not available. The few we had were stretched over Britain.
Belfast city was left as a sitting duck, virtually undefended and it was much later, about 1942, before the squadrons of 'Spitfires' needed to trounce the enemy in the Battle of Britain gained supremacy in the air.
A Queens Island worker with his wife and two children successfully fled the mid April blitz on Belfast to gain shelter with my mother and the man accompanied me to Belfast on the morning of the 6th May.
En route he growled: "We'll soon be able to spot the Bs coming in over Dover." This was a bit of careless talk in war time parlance. He was actually engaged in developing the radar defense system which was still secret at that stage, very secret.
I recall that his terrified wife, who had been through the hell of the 15th/16th April Belfast blitz, walked the landing of our house all night periodically calling out 'Do you think they will come here?'.
As a result, nobody got resting. Overhead, the drone of heavy diesel engines continued unabated with the sky over Belfast 20 miles away aglow with the glare of fire and the occasional heavy crump of blockbusters falling clearly audible.
The wife, with an infant in arms and a little girl of three, was lost in a big farm house without central heating or access to baby needs.
My mother and sister did what they could but the woman needed to get back to her own home. Happily she and her husband were able to sort out their problems in a week or so and returned to the city.
The only one sorry was the little girl who had become attached to Nellie the collie bitch!
By Pat Smyth