Shipbuilding had been a big business in Belfast for many years and by 1900, the city's largest shipyard employed 10,000 workers. However, in the years leading up to the Second World War, fortunes fluctuated at the yard of Harland and Wolff Ltd.
During the economic slump of the early 1930s, work began to dry up in the yard. The period between December 1931 and May 1934 saw no vessels launched, and grass began to grow on the slipways. By 1931, employment levels had decreased to 2,000-3,000 workers and the company’s overdraft stood at £2.3 million.
Work continued at the shipyard, however, and things began to change by the mid-1930s. By May 1934, an increase in work saw the number of workers increase to around 10,000. The following year, 1935, saw total tonnage produced by the yard break world records. Again, in 1938, the total output from Harland and Wolff Ltd. was greater than any other shipyard in the United Kingdom.
Diversification of work had been key in this transformation. By the outbreak of the Second World War, the workforce had risen to around 18,000. Yet few contracts were forthcoming from the British Government or the Admiralty. This was in spite of the Belfast yard being slightly less prone to strike action than other British shipyards. Harland and Wolff Ltd. also had ample labour supplies and was geographically further from Germany than rival firms. By this stage, the Belfast yard was also in the production of trains. This included diesel-electric trains for the Belfast and County Down Railway and locomotives for export to the Americas and Australia. As well as trains, the company had begun exporting engines for oil pipelines in the Middle East, grain silos, and steel structures for business premises.
The Harland and Wolff Ltd. shipyard in 1939 occupied around 250 acres of the 2,760-acre Belfast Harbour Estate. Thought to be the 4th largest repair yard in the United Kingdom for both Royal Navy and merchant shipping, the annual building capacity was around 200,000 tons.
The spring and summer of 1940 saw workers at Harland and Wolff Ltd. contribute significantly to the Belfast Telegraph Spitfire Fund. Workers raised over £4,500 and as a result, the first Supermarine Spitfire built with Belfast Telegraph raised funds bore the name ‘Harlandic’.
That year, however, saw the first known flights over the yard by the Luftwaffe. On 18th October 1940, a crew returned to their base in occupied northern France with clear aerial photography and details of potential targets. Among the targets in Belfast was ‘Die Schiffswert’ or ‘The Shipyard’. As well as photographs, the Luftwaffe reconnaissance afforded bomber crews with detailed instructions on how to reach targets.
On the northeast coast of Ireland, towards the southwest lies a recessed bay. At the end of the bay, where the River Lagan joins it, lies the harbour, in the middle of which lies [the shipyard].
While Harland Wolff Ltd. contributed greatly to the war effort, ministers at both Stormont and Westminster had concerns. Levels of output and productivity were poor causing the delay of contracts. When Sir Basil Brooke became Minister of Commerce in November 1940, he observed that relations between workers and management were poor. He and his department found dealing with uncooperative management difficult. He noted their disinterest in the welfare of their own workforce and an unwillingness to subcontract work out to other firms. In London too, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service noted the firm’s inferior performance. While issues continued at the yard, the company set about providing protection for its employees in the event of a potential raid. By late 1940, enough air raid shelters stood on the Queens Island site to accommodate around 16,000 workers.
Details of the first bombing of Harland and Wolff Ltd. in the Belfast Blitz come from Luftwaffe Oberleutnant Siegfried Rothke. Speaking after the Second World War, he told of his crew’s attack on the city following his arrival over Belfast Lough shortly after 0300hrs on 8th April 1941. By then, the large fire at the McCue, Dick, and Co. Ltd. timber yard was guiding in Luftwaffe bombers. At 0322hrs, Rothke’s plane released a pair of parachute mines over the shipyard. The second of these narrowly missed the Short and Harland Ltd. aircraft factory. Picked up by the wind, it floated across the Musgrave Channel.
A group of night-shift workers watched as the mine descended. They had abandoned their shelter in a lull in the attack believing the raid to be over. They mistook the descending parachute for that of a Luftwaffe pilot bailing out. As they ran towards the falling parachute, it landed on the roof of the Alexandra Works Aeroplane Fuselage Factory.
The blast destroyed the flimsy brick-built, 4.5-acre building. The wood and felt constructed “Belfast Roof” collapsed and caught fire, the flames soon spreading to nearby timber sheds and engine works. In the workshops, flames and debris destroyed machines, tools, and jigs. In the main building, the fuselages of 50 Short Stirling Bombers fell victim to the destruction.
The fires on Queens Island began to merge, as firefighters struggled to maintain control. Crews scaled high gantries, dampening the flames at the fuselage factory and preventing the fire’s spread to a nearby paint shop. Other Firefighters tackled flames engulfing a wooden scaffolding around a vessel nearing completion in the yard. From another scaffolding, an unexploded mine swung from its snagged parachute as A.R.P. Wardens and Firefighters gave it a wide berth.
As Oberleutnant Rothke’s crew began their journey back to base, he noted the flames around the Harland and Wolff Ltd. shipyard remained visible for more than 20 minutes as he departed the target area. One single parachute mine had caused considerable damage but more was to come during the course of the Belfast Blitz.
The following died here as a result of enemy action during the Belfast Blitz.
The following employees died as a result of enemy action during the Belfast Blitz