The North Strand Bombings
A Report by St. John Ambulance
Courtesy of Pádraig Allen, Curator St. John Ambulance, Rep. of Ireland
Published in Winter 2016 edition
On the night of 31 May, 1941, four high-explosive bombs were dropped by German aircraft on the North Strand area of Dublin City. 300 houses were damaged or destroyed. Casualties included: 28 dead and 90 injured. People felt Germany was trying to force Ireland into the war or carrying out reprisals for Ireland’s assistance during the bombings on Belfast. The German government later expressed their regret over the bombings. On that night members of St. John Ambulance Brigade were amongst the first to respond. This is a report from St. John Ambulance Brigade Headquarters written shortly after the bombings in early June 1941.
Report reads as follows:
On the night of May 30-31 1941, the Emergency Unit, composed of the members of the St. James’s Gate Division, was on duty at Brigade Hall (St. John Ambulance Training and Welfare Department), Great Strand Street. Aerial activity over the city and anti-aircraft fire were heard before the time when ordinarily the members of the unit would have gone home to bed, so the majority of them decided to remain up and dressed. At 01:25am there was an intense barrage and windows rattled violently. Ten minutes later a phone message was received stating that bombs had fallen in the North William Street area and instructing the Unit to proceed there. The Brigade ambulance arrived at 01:56 and collected the members of the Unit and their supplies and set off, via Abbey Street and Amiens Street.
The ambulance was driving at high speed down the North Strand when just after it had passed the five lamps there was a sudden vivid flash and a terrific explosion. A bomb had fallen about 40 yards ahead. Everything at once was plunged into darkness, there was the sound of falling debris of every kind, tram wires, slates and bricks came crashing down and showers of broken glass. In addition, a huge cloud of dust covered the whole district and through it the cries of hurt and frightened people could be heard. The ambulance was damaged. It was blown across the street by the blast, shell splinters struck it and one of the side windows was blown out. Great credit is due to the driver, who showed splendid courage, coolness and resource, righting his ambulance and carrying on to the side of the crater. Fortunately, all the occupants were uninjured and they at once got to work. The officer formed his unit into two sections, one to take charge of each side of the road.
It is hard, if not impossible to give anything like a clear picture of the scene, or a detailed account of the work accomplished by the members of the Brigade and other organisations that night. Houses were burning when one of the first Brigade doctors arrived on the scene, but the fire Brigade had the flames under control in a wonderfully short time. The difficulties of the doctors and other workers were increased by the absence of light and the dust and dirt that covered everything and everyone. The members of the Brigade had to work with their torches, being unable to see what lay beyond the limit of the light that these gave. In such circumstances it was difficult to ascertain the extent of the injuries of the many cases, especially as in injured men and women were black from head to foot with dust and dirt. In addition to those killed and seriously injured, a large number of people, scantily clad- as they had been awakened from sleep – had rushed out of their houses to search for their relatives. Many of them were badly cut about the feet by broken glass or injured by running in the darkness against some fallen masonry or one of the other numerous obstructions left by the collapse of walls and houses. The tram wires, which had wound themselves round in coils, were an especial danger.
The Brigade, as everyone has testified did its work admirably in these difficult conditions. The first half hour was the hardest. The casualties were so numerous that it was almost impossible to finish the treatment of one case, before being hurried to another. Although naturally there was a great deal of excitement among the people, a Brigade doctor has paid his tribute to them and to their behaviour, “An outstanding absence of panic” were his words, “no calling out for workers”. And he added vividly that they became part of the general united organisation, animated by the same spirit – to get on with the job. The general impression of the work of the Brigade and of the other organisations was given by the same doctor: “A complete absence of fuss. A job of work to be done and being done. And complete harmony between all the organisations and their members. Everyone injured at all was sent to hospital that night. Reinforcements from the St. John Ambulance across Dublin arrived quickly, making things easier.
While the dead and injured were taken from the damaged houses, the injured attended to and sent to hospital in the Red Cross and St. John Ambulance Brigade ambulances, the Women’s Unit dealt with the maternity case, rendered first aid, wrapped unclad people in blankets, gave them food and hot drinks, helped and comforted those who were looking for missing relatives and took the homeless to shelter. It is not possible to give a detailed account of the work of these units and the local members of the Brigade and Auxiliary Reserve, who were quickly on the scene – some of these had their own houses damaged – but the morale of them was splendid, as testified by their officers.
People trapped under the debris had to be fed by rubber tubing and others received in injections of morphia. A lady Ambulance Officer of the Brigade crawled through the debris to give some of these injections. The resource shown by the Brigade Mobile Units in providing hot drinks and food deserves a special mention. Their supply of hot water, was quickly exhausted, and of tea and sugar etc., they had only what could be carried in their haversacks. However, fires were lit and storm kettles kept boiling. One sister produced a special ration of tea and sugar that she had brought, another bought Oxo in a neighbouring shop, another biscuits and so on.
People in the neighbourhood also supplied tea, milk and hot water. A call to headquarters brought the Hammond Lane ambulance with four more nurses, some Oxo and mugs. This much-needed refreshment was provided not only for the homeless people, but for the demolition and other workers as well as the Brigade orderlies, who crowded about the ambulance in the early morning. A message was then sent asking for the mobile canteen which arrived at 8:15am and served something like 1,000 breakfasts that morning.
The Women’s Mobile Unit A was called out between 1 and 2 am and was followed by Unit B. Each reported and received their supplies at Merrion Square (St. John Ambulance Headquarters) before proceeding to the scene. The local members of the Brigade and auxiliary reserve joined them there.
Among other work performed by the Area Officer and her assistants was a tour made of the small neighbouring houses that has been badly damaged but not reported, and the rendering of first aid to the occupants. There were numerous cases here of shock, abrasions by splinters, cuts from glass, bricks etc. Brigade sisters (members) were also detailed to work with the Red Cross or to accompany maternity cases to hospital.
To sum up, we may be proud of the way that the Brigade did the biggest job that it has yet had to do in Ireland. All – Brigade doctors, officers and other ranks – turned out well. How well they all worked in view of the ever present danger of falling houses and the rest, increased by the darkness, only those who were there can tell. All the cases known to be alive had been dug out by 7:30 am. As reliefs came, the night workers were sent back to headquarters. Many of these men and women went to their own work the same day.
The full desolation of the scene was shown at its worst when daylight came, revealing the whole picture that the darkness had hidden. But over that scene a spiritual banner had been lifted by all the men and women of the different organisations who worked there in perfect comradeship and harmony, with only one thought – to help and to heal, with an entire forgetfulness of self. When Dublin’s ruined houses are rebuilt, that flower that grew out of the rubble and dust, must surely flourish immortal and for ever un-withered.
St. John Ambulance Brigade Headquarters
14 Merrion Square