Eighty years ago, a German pilot dropped four bombs on neutral Dublin City
Ireland was still recovering from the War of Independence from Britain and the Irish Civil War, when WW2 broke out in Europe. The government at the time, led by Eamonn de Valera, declared Ireland was a neutral country. Ireland had neither the manpower nor the resources to become involved in the conflict. Relations with Britain were already strained and Ireland’s stance made Churchill furious.
Ireland’s neutrality, however, was tilted slightly in favour of the Allies. Downed RAF pilots were quietly escorted to the border with Northern Ireland, while their German counterparts were interned at the Curragh Camp for the duration of the conflict. Perhaps more significantly, the Irish government sent fire crews to Belfast, during the Blitz in April 1941, to help put out the raging fires and dig out the bodies. Immediately after, many Northern Irish refugees made their way to Dublin where they were warmly welcomed.
I grew up a few kilometres from the suburb of North Strand on the north side of Dublin City. As a teenager, I was astonished to discover I lived so close to the spot where a Luftwaffe pilot dropped bombs in the early hours of 31st May 1941. The events of that Whit weekend, echoed the Blitz of Belfast only weeks before, and the bombing of cities such as Liverpool and London, and indeed, many other cities throughout Europe. A taste of the Blitz must have shaken Ireland to its core.
Ironically, the war eventually forced the Irish and British governments to mend their relationship somewhat, even co-operating by sharing police and military intelligence. However, at the beginning of the war, Ireland was isolated, and technically at the mercy of both the Allies and the Axis countries. As a result, Irish people were nervous, particularly as a few stray German bombs had dropped on the city and in Co Wexford in the preceding months.
North Strand, located close to Amiens Street railway station, (now called Connolly Station) was a quiet location with a rural village feel. The locals had formed a close-knit community, something exceptional for an urban area so close to a city centre. The Luftwaffe squadrons, often 30 planes strong, regularly flew up the Irish Sea, skirting Dublin, on their way to bomb Belfast or Liverpool, and Dubliners were familiar with the drone of those Heinkel He 111 bombers. Often, on their way back from their raids, they would jettison their excess bombs into the sea to lighten their loads and save fuel for the journey home to their bases in France.
The evening of Friday 30th May 1941 was a balmy one and Dubliners were looking forward to the bank holiday weekend. Some were planning day trips or just looking forward to relaxing at home with their families. Some would head out to Baldoyle Race Course for a flutter on the gee-gees. That night, the sky was incredibly clear. Blackout regulations were not strictly enforced in Dublin. There had been no clear ruling from Dublin Corporation, or ‘the Corpo’ as it was fondly known as by the majority of Dubs. Some advocated Dublin being fully lit, so the Germans knew the city was neutral; others favoured the safety of darkness. What they had was a ridiculous mix of the two.
Ireland had been relatively untouched up to then, bar a few stray Jerry bombs which the German embassy insisted were dropped in error due to faulty navigation. So, what happened that night?
Something was different. Approaching midnight, instead of flying over Dublin, the German planes broke formation and circled the city. Searchlights illuminated the planes for the fascinated Dubliners who stood outside their houses, or in their gardens, watching the low flying bombers. What was going on? They normally flew over in formation, then disappeared.
Warning flares went up. That usually made Jerry move on. But not tonight. Then the anti-aircraft gun in Clontarf went into action. Things were getting serious. And still the planes lingered. The night sky turned into a light show, between the flares, searchlights and streaks of light coming from the shells. The citizens became increasingly anxious. And then, just as suddenly, the bombers left.
Or so everyone thought…
Some time later, one plane appeared in the sky over the north of the city, ducking and diving and giving rise to alarm. Witnesses said he flew so low they could see his face. Was he looking for something in particular?
The first three bombs fell within minutes of each other, just after one thirty on the Saturday morning. Ballybough was hit first, with two houses demolished, but thankfully there was no loss of life. The second fell near the Zoo in the Phoenix Park, damaging Áras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the president. The third fell near Summerhill, creating a huge crater in the road but miraculously, there were no injuries as a result.
However, the fourth – a 500lb landmine, landed in the middle of North Strand, accompanied, according to witnesses, by a ‘dreadful screaming whistle’. Many were killed instantly, especially those caught out in the open; others would die later of their injuries. A gas main ruptured, but a quick thinking glimmer man burnt off the gas and prevented an even bigger disaster. The result of that landmine was the death of twenty-eight men, women and children. Ninety were injured and three hundred homes were decimated. As if the situation wasn’t bad enough, as the damage was assessed it became clear that many of the tenement-type terraces were too badly damaged and would have to be demolished. Four hundred people found themselves homeless. In fact, an entire suburb of Dublin was annihilated that night and would never recover. Some of those displaced by the destruction of their homes, were eventually re-housed in the outlying suburb of Cabra. North Strand as was, ceased to exist.
The grim business of recovering bodies began soon after.
For days, bodies and injured victims were dug out to the horror of a country struggling to come to terms with a war which had been, before that awful night, over there somewhere in Europe. Now, it was most definitely impacting on their lives. The Red Cross and religious orders stepped in to help, funded by a generous and shocked public.
Five days later, on a wind-swept and rain-lashed day, the first of the funerals took place. The victims were buried in Glasnevin Cemetery, accompanied to their resting place by de Valera, politicians, emergency services and a vast crowd of grieving, ordinary citizens.
Dublin was a city in mourning.
Pathetic scenes were witnessed as the cortege passed through the streets crowded with sympathisers … as the twelve hearses passed along women wept bitterly. (Evening Herald, 5 June 1941)
Soon after, the conspiracy theories flourished. Jerry did it deliberately because the Irish government helped Belfast during its Blitz; the British government was behind it, pretending to be Germans to drag Ireland into the war; the bombs were dropped in error due to faulty navigation or the pilot being disorientated … and on it went.
My opinion is, having read the eye witness accounts in Kevin C. Kearns’ book, The Bombing of Dublin’s North Strand, 1941: The Untold Story (ISBN-13 : 978-0717146444), that the pilot knew it was Dublin. It was a clear night, the city was lit up to signal it was neutral, they knew the route well, and the pilot flew incredibly low, described by some as if he were looking for a particular target. The bombers were fired on and I think that, combined with the Irish help given only weeks before to Blitzed Belfast, made that pilot angry enough to drop his payload. Of course, we will probably never know for sure. However, his actions were to have terrible consequences for the quiet enclave of North Strand. The official death-toll was twenty-eight, but many reckon it was nearer to forty-five as many bodies remained missing or never identified.
The aftermath …
It wasn’t until 1958 that Germany admitted responsibility, without admitting guilt, and paid the Irish Government £327,000, against a total claim of £481,878. Most of the victims saw little of that money. The Corpo built blocks of flats on the derelict sites which had stood forlorn and forgotten for thirty years when I was just a nipper. And it wasn’t until 1991, that a memorial garden and plaque to the victims was put in place.
When I decided to write a WW2 novel, I wanted to anchor the story in Irish history. Coupled with inspiration from my family’s wartime experiences, the story of what happened that night in North Strand, seemed to me, a very good starting point. My heroine, Sarah, is lucky enough to survive but the events of that night change her life, forcing her to make incredibly difficult decisions.
For me, the destruction of a community is one of the most poignant aspects of the incident. The surviving residents were scattered throughout the city, never to return to their homes. The more I researched the bombing for my novel, Her Secret War, the more tragic I found it. So few people remember the events of that night now, and that is incredibly sad. Her Secret War’s opening chapters describe the events of that fateful night; a small tribute to those souls who perished.