Whilst a lot has been written about the destruction and lives lost during the German air raids in April and May 1941, the men and women who were honoured for bravery have received less attention. At least twenty people received awards for ‘brave action in Civil Defence’ with three George Medals (GM) and nine British Empire Medals (BEM) being issued.
John Shaw (46), an Electrical Foreman at the Belfast Electricity Department and a Divisional Superintendent in the St. John Ambulance Brigade, was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his devotion to duty at the Belfast Electric Power Station at Laganbank.
Three members of staff at the Ulster Hospital on Templemore Avenue were commended for their actions on the same night – they were Matron Eleanor Elizabeth Aicken (37), Radiographer Isobel Margaret Dickson (34), and Honorary Surgeon Robert John McConnell (57).
Three George Medals and two British Empire Medals were awarded to members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Constables Alexander McCusker (44) and William Brett (52) from the Leopold Street Barracks were awarded the former for rescue work Ottawa Street and Ohio Street.
On the same night, the York Street Flax Spinning Factory received a direct hit, with the debris and blast destroying 42 houses in Sussex Street and Vere Street. Constables Robert Moore (43) and Alfred King (36) from York Street Barracks were awarded the GM and the BEM respectively for rescue work, specifically at the home of the McSorley family at 74 Vere Street.
A unit of the Auxiliary Fire Service was travelling along Royal Avenue when their vehicle was damaged by an exploding bomb, one man being killed and another dying of his injuries. The remainder of the crew carried the pump to the designated location and commenced to fight the fires, remaining on duty well into the following day. Patrol Officer John Walsh (36), a tram driver, Leading Fireman Robert Clyde Rainey (40), a radio trader, and Fireman James Jameson Lee (28), a salesman, were commended for their devotion to duty.
The British Empire Medal was awarded to seven members of the Belfast Civil Defence Services.
During an air raid in May, Auxiliary Nurse Denise Forster (21) was on duty at the Ambulance Depot on the Holywood Road when it was demolished by a high explosive bomb. After extricating herself from the wreckage, Denise set about rescuing others from the rubble. She later volunteered to go with an ambulance into a district which was being heavily bombed. Nurse Forster continued to work in the greatest danger throughout the night and only ceased her activities some hours after the raid was over.
Three teenage boys who were Messengers with the Civil Defence were recommended for the George Medal for devotion to duty in April 1941.
Messenger Alexander Cecil Hill (17), an office assistant from Convention Street, received the BEM. Although severely shaken by an explosion nearby, Alexander directed traffic at a main road whilst bombs were falling nearby. Later, whilst delivering an urgent message to the Report Centre, he was blown off his bicycle by explosions twice but each time he remounted and delivered the message.
When telephone communications were dislocated during the early stages of the air raid, Messenger George William Otway Woodward (18) of Glenburn Park carried messages of vital importance between stations. When his bicycle was put out of action, he continued to keep the lines of communication open by delivering messages on foot. He received a commendation.
BEMs were awarded to Bomb Identification Officer William John Ford (51) and Messenger William Ernest Bennett (15) of Wandsworth Gardens for rescue work at Cliftonville Road where bombs had destroyed a number of houses and fractured a gas main. Ford and Bennett burrowed six yards through rubble to bring an elderly man to safety and then they rescued two stranded women from a house that was in danger of collapse. Bombs were falling as they worked and both suffered from the effects of inhaling coal gas. William Bennet later joined the National Fire Service.
Messengers Bennett and Woodward were pupils and Belfast Royal Academy and William John Ford was the caretaker for the Model School on Cliftonville Road.
These people were from different backgrounds and their ages ranged from 15 to 52, but the common factor was their willingness to put the well-being of others before their own safety. They deserve wider recognition.
Nigel Henderson, History Hub Ulster Researcher.