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The Doris V. Blair Collection of Second World War watercolours

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The Doris V. Blair collection of watercolours offers a rare female perspective on events and activities of the Northern Ireland home front at a time of war and the everyday world of American troops stationed in Belfast.

Doris V. Blair was born in Belfast and went to Paris to study art in the 1930s. She worked as an official war artist in Belfast during the Second World War.

A large collection of her work from this period was acquired by the Ulster Museum’s History Department in 1982.

The Belfast blitz: Blitz Square

The Belfast blitz: Blitz Square

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The Belfast blitz

The Belfast blitz

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Blitzed homes

Blitzed homes

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The US V Army in Northern Ireland

The US V Army in Northern Ireland

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The US Air Force in Northern Ireland

The US Air Force in Northern Ireland

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Second World War fighter air craft construction in Belfast

Second World War fighter air craft construction in Belfast

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Women’s war work in Belfast

Women’s war work in Belfast

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Belfast industries during the Second World War

Belfast industries during the Second World War

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Ammunition production in Belfast

Ammunition production in Belfast

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Musgrave Park Hospital

Musgrave Park Hospital

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American nurses at Musgrave Park Hospital

American nurses at Musgrave Park Hospital

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The Belfast blitz: Blitz Square

Image: Bridge Street looking toward Rosemary Street. BELUM.P1.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Bridge Street looking toward Rosemary Street. BELUM.P1.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

Belfast was woefully unprepared to defend itself from air attack when the Second World War broke out. In November 1940 a German reconnaissance mission to take aerial photographs of local targets, such as the shipyard, waterworks, factories and communications centres, found only seven anti-aircraft batteries ranged against it.

Despite fierce criticism the Northern Ireland government continued to do little except wait and see, until 1941 when the moon was full on the evening of April 7th and German bombers made the first of three strikes on the city.

The area in Belfast encompassed by Bridge Street and High Street became known as Blitz Square because so many of the buildings there had been flattened in air raids.

 

The Belfast blitz

Image: High Street. BELUM.P2.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
High Street. BELUM.P2.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

This painting depicts the aftermath of the second and worst raid, on April 15th 1941. Over 900 people were killed and thousands more injured by an onslaught of over 203 metric tons of explosive and 800 firebombs dropped by a fleet of 180 German bombers.

The work is also very indicative of the artistry of Doris Blair with its Cubist influences and almost monochromatic palette.

 

Blitzed homes

Image: Blitzed Homes. BELUM.P4.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Blitzed Homes. BELUM.P4.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

This painting depicts the aftermath of the second and worst raid, on April 15th 1941. Over 900 people were killed and thousands more injured by an onslaught of over 203 metric tons of explosive and 800 firebombs dropped by a fleet of 180 German bombers.

Widespread destruction was caused to homes in Belfast, particularly in the north and east of the city. In all it was estimated that almost half of the civilian property in the city suffered some kind of damage in a night that saw the worst death rate of any one raid on any Blitzed city in Britain and Ireland, except London.

 

The US V Army in Northern Ireland

Image: Infantry howitzer on the move. BELUM.P20.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Infantry howitzer on the move. BELUM.P20.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

Howitzers were artillery pieces used to fire shells at relatively high trajectories using a comparatively small charge of explosive. They were used to attack armies using indirect fire. Some of the Howitzers used by the US Army during the Second World War could fire shells over a distance of ten miles at a rate of four per minute.

Field Howitzers, like the one shown here, were mobile enough to accompany an army on campaign and were invariably mounted on small, wheeled carriages.

The first US Army Field Artillery Battalions arrived in Northern Ireland in November 1943 and were stationed at Mourne Park in Co. Down. This painting almost certainly shows one of their Howitzers on training manoeuvres in the surrounding countryside. They left for France in July 1944, to take part in Operation Overlord.

 

The US Air Force in Northern Ireland

Image: Havocs. BELUM.P17.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Havocs. BELUM.P17.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

The Douglas A20/DB-7 Havocs were a family of American Second World War attack, light bomber and night fighter aircraft. They found favour as a true ‘pilot’s aeroplane’ because of their speed, manoeuvrability and reliability. They were also extremely adaptable, and saw service in every combat theatre of the war.

Maghaberry was one of several airfields in Northern Ireland allocated for the use of the US Air Force. Others were found at Long Kesh, Toome, Greencastle, Clutoe, Mullaghmore and Langford Lodge, the latter being the second largest US Base Air Depot after Burtonport in England.

 

Second World War fighter air craft construction in Belfast

Image: The erection of a Stirling. BELUM.P14.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
The erection of a Stirling. BELUM.P14.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

The ‘Short Stirling’ was the first four-engine heavy bomber of the Second World War. It was designed and manufactured to Air Ministry specifications by the English firm of Shorts Brothers from 1936, when the company opened its Belfast base in partnership with ship builders Harland and Wolff, and entered service in 1941.

By 1943, the Stirling had been replaced as a bomber by the better-performing Halifaxes and Lancasters, and was increasingly deployed to tow gliders and drop paratroops.

In all, 1,200 Stirling aircraft were built by Shorts’ in Belfast during the Second World War.

 

Women’s war work in Belfast

Image: Machining and inspecting parachutes for flares and towing targets. BELUM.P22.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Machining and inspecting parachutes for flares and towing targets. BELUM.P22.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

Industrial Belfast was a major supplier of military equipment during the Second World War.

In common with other industrial cities, a great part of the essential war work was done by women, seen here sewing and checking the small parachutes used to drop flares.

Flares were important for both signalling and illumination, and were dropped from planes by parachute to ensure the maximum duration of light over the largest possible area.

 

Belfast industries during the Second World War

Image: Arc welding. BELUM.P8.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Arc welding. BELUM.P8.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

The engineering firm of Mackies made gun shells, rockets and bullets; hand grenades and lathes for munitions manufacture. Other Belfast engineering firms such as Sirocco Works, produced tank mountings and radar equipment. Workers in the Belfast Rope Works made camouflage nets, boom defence nets and rocket lines, while linen production was geared to make aircraft wing fabric, parachute harness and gun covers.

In common with other industrial cities, women did a great part of this war work. They often found themselves employed in areas that would otherwise have been thought highly inappropriate for them, such as the arc welding which is illustrated here.

 

Ammunition production in Belfast

Image: Manufacturing small arms ammunition. BELUM.P23.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Manufacturing small arms ammunition. BELUM.P23.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

This painting almost certainly shows work in Mackies, which had also been an important source of shells, bullets and other ammunition for the British Army during the First World War.

 

Musgrave Park Hospital

Image: Surgical operation. BELUM.P39.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Surgical operation. BELUM.P39.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

Belfast’s Musgrave Park Hospital was taken over by the US 5th (Harvard) General Hospital in May 1942 when American forces arrived in preparation for Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa.

By the end of the month US strength in Northern Ireland was reported as 1626 officers, 16 Warrant Officers, 30,458 enlisted men and 102 nurses from the American Medical Corps.

The painting Surgical Operation shows a patient being operated on by a team of American Medical Staff.

Image: Nurse tending to patient in traction. BELUM.P37.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Nurse tending to patient in traction. BELUM.P37.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

In 1944, in preparation for a further influx of American troops coming in Northern Ireland to take part in preparations for the Normandy landing of Operation Overlord, the American army built a temporary base of Nissan huts at Musgrave Park Hospital, which they had taken as their main medical base when they first arrived in Northern Ireland in 1942.

The curved interiors of these huts can clearly be seen in the background of the image, which shows a patient receiving traction for a leg injury.

 

American nurses at Musgrave Park Hospital

Image: Off duty. BELUM.P26.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon
Off duty. BELUM.P26.1984 © Ms Doris Bourguignon

It was not always ward duty for the young American nurses as this charming study of two of them relaxing in the sunshine clearly shows.