• Tuesday , 12 November 2019

Belfast 1941 – The Blitz and the Architecture of Air Raid Shelters

Fig 01: Belfast city centre, looking towards the City Hall and the hills beyond. (25/4/1939 Belfast Telegraph Collection/NMNI). Fig 01: Belfast city centre, looking towards the City Hall and the hills beyond. (25/4/1939 Belfast Telegraph Collection/NMNI).

At the beginning of World War II, Belfast was thought to be out of bombing range, therefore lulling the authorities into a position of denial and naivety which ultimately resulted in the remaking of architecture and space in a hasty response (Barton, 2015, Blake, 1956 & McGimpsey, 1984). However, the protection that was constructed differed from the famous Anderson/Morrison shelters normally depicted during World War II. In Belfast, due to material shortages and the delayed reactions of air raid preparations, ‘back yard’ shelters and refuge rooms replaced these systemically produced pieces. Unique in their physical and social spaces during World War II, air raid shelters feature prominently in depictions of crowded underground stations in London. On the other hand, the history and importance of these temporary structures in Belfast are less apparent with reference to World War II and the Blitz. Using unseen archival material, as well as a series of original drawings, this article observes the peculiar position of Belfast and how the civilians were protected from aerial bombardment by communal air raid shelters.

Belfast’s state of naivety concerning an attack was shaken as the Germans continued to occupy more of France and Norway. In December 1940 the Minister of Public Security, John Clarke MacDermott initiated an immediate order for the construction of public air raid shelters. However, this plan was underfunded and only a small number of shelters were built. In Belfast there was one main type of communal shelter called a ‘backyard shelter’, but even this type had different versions that varied according to the resources available at the time. Most of the resources required to build the shelters were brick, cement and concrete, but these materials were given priority to the airfields instead (Barton, 2015, p.82).

The communal street shelters were built on a modular system, with each module containing a maximum number of 50 persons. As can be seen from figs. 02 and 03, these plans offer a number of varying arrangements to accommodate the different urban situations and restrictions. For instance, in residential areas the wide system of shelters wouldn’t be possible due to Belfast’s typically narrow residential streets. The government’s standards also dictated that there should be 75sq.ft. of combined wall, ceiling and floor area for each person sheltered (HA6/3/D274). This was to allow for condensation of moisture from the air that would otherwise become saturated. However, as Tecton Architects argued in their research in the late 1930s, the arbitrary minimum space per person and the provision of these shelters being solely for passers-by, could result in overcrowding in some areas (1941 & CAB/9CD/71/1). For example, during WWII there were instances of shelters that were designed for 300 people, but instead 3,000 attempted to take cover in a single structure and, therefore, people inside were in just as much danger as those outside.

Fig 2: Type 1-of-2 communal temporary air raid shelter for 50 people. (Authors own drawing). Fig 02: Communal temporary air raid shelter for 50 people. Plan, elevation details, and axonometric. (Author’s own drawing).

Fig 03: General arrangement plan of type 1-of-2 communal temporary air raid shelter for 50 people. Authors own drawing.) Fig 03: General arrangement plans of communal temporary air raid shelter for 50 people. (Author’s own drawing).

The shelters were designed to provide ‘protection against anything except a direct hit’ (HA6/3/D1186, p.5). Tecton Architects (1941) argued that a ‘direct hit’ was misleading, as the public would imagine the worse case scenario of a bomb falling directly on the shelter, or in very close proximity. Nevertheless, from examining the United Kingdom Government recommendations for the spacing of shelters, Tecton discovered a bomb falling 50 feet away from the shelter could still be considered a direct hit. Also, the specifications defined by this Government lacked technical detail. In fact, the Northern Irish authorities had tested their backyard shelter for a direct hit and demonstrated failure. The stills from a film dated 1940, illustrate the various roofed backyard shelters being deliberately positioned beside an exploding bomb (as can be seen in fig. 05). The findings of this investigation were not released to the public at the time.

The backyard shelters were hastily built and unevenly distributed, as they were designed to be within a seven minute walking pace catchment areas (Glover, 1940). These catchment areas were mainly situated in the centre of the city. In comparison, London’s communal air raid shelters were placed in seven and a half minute catchment area (Tecton, 1941). Moreover, the distribution of the communal street shelters were allocated in order of accordance to a hierarchy of areas. The dense residential areas surrounding Belfast harbour were considered as important as the city centre, although these areas lacked shelters. Once again, this was due to the allocation of these structures for passers-by and, therefore, in residential areas they were over-prescribed.

Donegall Square North from the roof of the City Hall. Air raid shelters in City Hall grounds. Belfast  15/9/1942.  Belfast Telegraph Collection/NMNI). Fig 04: Donegall Square North from the roof of the City Hall. Air raid shelters in City Hall grounds. Belfast 15/9/1942. (Belfast Telegraph Collection/NMNI).

The air raid shelter, a typically hidden form of architecture, was as important to the war effort in the Second World War as any other air raid precaution. Even though the hastily constructed shelters were technically inadequate for their intended purpose, in Belfast they illustrated a form of protection for civilians. The reduced casualty rate of the second major air raid in Belfast clearly indicates that the shelters proved beneficial and the effects of the first air raid developed a ‘shelter conscious’ public. This link between militarism, the construction of a temporary form of architecture and the effect these spaces have on the civilian experience shows the importance of these simple structures. However, the delayed reaction and inadequate strategy of air raid protection resulted in Belfast experiencing the second greatest loss of life in a single raid on any city in the United Kingdom: a total of 758 souls.

Warfare has vastly changed since the Belfast Blitz as more recent aerial bombing have begun to use unmanned drone technology. The use of drones has increased the distance from the enemy; while studies have shown that killing becomes less emotive the further you are from your victim (Huber & Mills, 2002). According to Sven Lindqvist (2012, p. 120), drones have ‘depersonalized and dehumanized war’ and create an unemotional detachment from the violence. Moreover, the technology of bombs themselves has improved, especially with the emergence of nuclear weapons. Therefore, bombing from above has become more dangerous to the civilians below. As wars continue to flare across the globe, the question remains: how might an architecture of the future protect the lives of citizens when the destructive capabilities of warfare has the potential to consume entire cities and landscapes?

Fig 05: A still from a film showing testing of air raid shelters in belfast. Image-from-proni-archive). Fig 05: A still from a film showing testing of air raid shelters in Belfast. (Image from PRONI archive).

Barton, B. (2015) The Belfast blitz: the city in the war years, Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation.
Blake, J.W. (1956) Northern Ireland in the Second World War, 2nd edn., Belfast: Blackwell Press.
Glover, C. W. (1941) Civil defence: a practical manual presenting with working drawings the methods required for adequate protection against aerial attack, 3 edn., London: Chapman & Hall Ltd.
Huber, P. & Mills, M. (2002) ‘How technology will defeat terrorism, City Journal, 12(1), pp. 24-34.
Lindqvist, S. (2003) A History of Bombing, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
McGimpsey, C.D. (1984) Bombs on Belfast: the Blitz 1941: a camera record, Belfast: Pretani Press.
Tecton Architects (1941) Planned A.R.P., New York: Chemical Publishing Company.

Public Records Office of Northern Ireland (PRONI):
CAB3A/5C/18A – Papers relating to Northern Ireland District
HA6/3/D274 – Air Raid Precautions Policy 1937
HA6/3/D1186 – Communal shelters

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