On the night of July 27, 1943, the Royal Air Force carried out the second of three major raids against the city of Hamburg. In the space of fifty minutes over 2,313 tons of bombs were dropped in a concentrated area focused on the residential suburb of Hammerbrook. In dry weather conditions and with unusually low humidity the fires started by tons of incendiary bombs quickly grew out of control, with fire-fighting crews already occupied in the western part of the city dealing with the fires created by the raids of the previous few days. Unchecked the fires quickly spread and joined into a firestorm as oxygen was sucked in by the flames. Winds reached speeds of up to 170 miles per hour and temperatures reached at least 1400oC as glass melted in the windows of cars and trams, cutlery and bottles melted inside buildings, and bricks turned to ash. Eight square miles of Hamburg were destroyed, 42,000 people were killed, 37,000 were injured, and over one million people fled the city in the following days. In one night some 16,000 apartment buildings were burned out. Laid out in a single line their frontages would have extended a distance of 133 miles. By the end of the eight day bombing operation 214,350 homes out of 414,500 had been destroyed. The bluntly stated intention of Bomber Command Operation Order No. 173, “To destroy Hamburg,” had lived up to the name given it by Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, Arthur Harris: Operation Gomorrah.
In a previous post I offered my views on the morality of area bombing in an examination of the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Neither that discussion nor the bald statement of fact above, convey the horror that the citizens of Hamburg or Dresden experienced under the bombs. All too often war is remembered as something noble and heroic, even glorious in its nature. It is not any of these things, least of all for the civilians who suffer the results of decisions made by political leaders and their military servants. What follows are extracts from a number of personal accounts made by those who experienced the Hamburg firestorm. It makes for difficult and harrowing reading and I make no apologies for this.
“Hamburg’s night sky became in minutes, even seconds, a sky so absolutely hellish that it is impossible even to try to describe it in words. There were airplanes, held in the probing arms of the searchlights, fires breaking out, billowing smoke everywhere, loud roaring waves of explosions, all broken up by great cathedrals of light as the blast bombs exploded, cascades of marker bombs slowly drifting down, stick incendiary bombs coming down with a rushing noise. No noise made by humans – no outcry – could be heard. It was like the end of the world. One could think, feel, see and speak of nothing more.”
Leutnant Hermann Bock, commander of a railway flak battery
“All around us were the crashes of bombs striking with appalling explosions – ear shattering explosions that seemed to be right next to us, over us. You could even hear the howl of the nearer bombs before they hit, then the crash as they burst. It must have been hell outside! It got worse and worse. The walls of the cellar rose and sank … An inhuman screeching and groaning came from the walls. We screamed along with it, screaming out our terror! We lost all self-control, crouched on the benches, cowering together with our heads between our knees to cover our ears.”
Fredy Borck, aged 11, Rothenburgsort
“The civilians who had come thought that we air-raid people, with steel helmets and some sort of uniform, were fully trained and that they would get some protection in the company of such people. This was not true. I didn’t even know where the water hose was. I was just a sixteen year old girl with such a uniform and a steel helmet. The earth shook, the walls cracked and the plaster came down like flour until the whole basement was one cloud of dust. We thought it was like an earthquake. No one spoke a word.”
Elli Nawroski, factory worker, Hammerbrook
“Suddenly, there came a rain of fire from heaven. We tried to get out to the pump but it was impossible. The air was actually filled with fire. It would have meant certain death to leave the shelter and it would have been impossible under these circumstances to save the factory, even if we could have reached the pump … The joinery works next door had also caught fire. There was not sufficient water in the cellar so we used the Minimax hand fire-extinguishers to try to hold back the fire. Then a storm started, a shrill howling in the street. It grew into a hurricane so that we had to abandon all hope of fighting the fire. It was as though we were doing no more than throwing a drop of water on to a hot stone. The whole yard, the canal, in fact as far as we could see, was just a whole great, massive sea of fire.”
Hermann Kröger, coffee factory foreman and works fire-fighting team leader, Hammerbrook
“Mother wrapped me in wet sheets, kissed me, and said, “Run!” I hesitated at the door. In front of me I could see only fire – everything red, like the door to a furnace. An intense heat struck me. A burning beam fell in front of my feet. I shied back but, then, when I was ready to jump over it, it was whirled away by a ghostly hand.”
Traute Koch, aged 15, Hamm
“You must realize that we were within seconds of death. I could not speak to my parents because of the gas mask I was wearing. I tapped father on the shoulder as a sign that I was going. I thought they would follow me. A few seconds before I would have suffocated, I must have had a tremendous burst of strength. At a moment when the door was open and no burning debris was falling down, I sprang out into the street but against the wind. I think I must have remembered that there was a small park nearby and that, in that direction, there might be safety … I never found my parents and was never sure where or how they died. I have always felt guilty that I abandoned them. Later, when their shelter was cleared, they found fifty-five bodies – at least they found fifty-five skulls. There had only been about twenty-five people there originally. I think the others had maybe come in from the house behind. I never met another survivor from my home or the houses at the back.”
Rolf Witt, Borgfelde
What I see takes my breath away. Not just our building and the neighbouring building: no, the entire Dimpfelsweg, the buildings opposite, the cinema itself, the Claudiastrasse – it is all one enormous sea of fire. A tornado-strength storm sweeps through the streets, pushing a rain of embers before it as thick as a snowstorm in winter. We were supposed to go through there? We’d never make it! Our clothes would instantly catch fire. The Hammer Landstrasse, which was supposed to save us – the same picture. As far as I could see through the iron bars of a small cellar window, all the big beautiful buildings were burning from top to bottom.”
Erich Titschak, professor of entymology, Hamm
“Then my mother realized we’d burn there. She took a little leather suitcase with our papers and a few photos of my dad who, just a few months ago, had gone through the fiery oven in Auschwitz, as a Jew, as a Communist. And she handed me a little bucket – a little aluminium bucket with a cover. There was Mirabelle jam inside, my mother had made it. And I took my bucket and the we got out. We crawled through the basement.”
Wolf Biermann, aged six
“We came to the door which was burning just like a ring in a circus through which a lion has to jump … the rain of large sparks, blowing down the street, were each as large as a five-mark piece. I struggled to run against the wind in the middle of the street but could only reach a house on the corner of the Sorbenstrasse, the ground floor of which had not yet caught fire and where I was able to rest for a little while in the entrance to regain my breath and get out of the shower of sparks. … We knew the area very well and we decided to go to the place known as the Löschplatz – a piece of open ground on the other side of the Mittel Kanal, about 200 yards away … We got to the Löschplatz alright but couldn’t go on across the Eiffenstrasse because the asphalt had melted. There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some were still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt. They must have rushed on to the roadway without thinking. Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.”
Käte Hoffermeister, aged 19, Hammerbrook
“Even on the short distance to the next corner, we saw the first people burning, desperately running figures, who suddenly fell, and as we approached were already dead … All around people fled from burning buildings. Some came out with their clothes already light, others caught fire outside, from the sparks, the blazing heat or the phosphor. Again and again we saw burning people suddenly start to run, and soon after to fall … I saw my brother-in-law appear from the darkness of a building’s wall, and run into the middle of the street. I called to him. He turned to me. I saw from his badly swollen face that he had already suffered heavy burns. Whether or not he recognized me, I do not know. My brother-in-law suddenly turned away again and began to run. I then saw all his clothes were burning brightly. He fell into a mass of three or four corpses which were already completely burned. When my wife and I reached there, our brother-in-law was already dead, burned. There was no way to save the people who were falling. He who fell over during his escape was lost … The stretch of road upon which we now travelled brought ever worsening scenes of horror. I saw many women with their children held in their arms running, burning and then falling and not getting back up. We passed masses of people made up of four or five corpses, each probably a family, visible only as a pile of burned substance no larger than a small child … Silently and with the last of their force, women tried to save their children. They carried them pressed close. Many of these children were already dead, without their mothers knowing.”
“Many people started burning and jumped into the canal. Horrible scenes took place at the quay. People burned to death with horrible suffering: some became insane. Many dead bodies were all around us and I became convinced that we, too, would perish here. I crouched with my family behind a large stack of roofing material. Here we lost our daughter. Late on, it transpired that she had jumped into the canal and almost drowned but was saved by an army officer and she returned to us early next morning. Please spare me from having to describe further details.”
Johann Burgermeister, greengrocer
“I saw two women running, a young one and an older one, whose shoes got stuck in the boiling asphalt. They pulled their feet out of the shoes but that wasn’t a good idea because they had to step into the boiling asphalt. They fell and didn’t get up again.”
Wolf Biermann, aged six
“We looked around us at the area where we had once lived. All the buildings burned brightly, it was a single wall of fire. One could hear the terrible cries of people seeking help for their wounds. One saw people on the Heidenskampsweg trying to cross from one side of the street to the other, where there was a canal. The asphalt of the road had become almost liquid in the immense heat. They reached the middle, where their feet got stuck in the asphalt. Their legs began to burn because of the heat, the flames ate their way up and met again over their heads. At first they screamed, then they became quieter, and finally, they gave a last rattling breath and were dead.”
Ernst-Günther Haberland, schoolchild
“How long we stayed in the Stoltenpark I no longer know. We watched the flaming hell of Hammerbrook. It still surprises me that anyone at all was able to make it through there alive. Again and again people came running over the bridge into the park. Screaming people with dreadful burns. One young woman especially stays in my memory. I still have the picture before my eyes. She came screaming out of the smoke over the bridge. She was completely naked and barefoot. As she came closer I saw that her feet were nothing but charred stumps. As soon as she found safety she fell down and died.”
“With great apprehension we stepped out on to the street. There was only one way, in front of us, but what a way! There was a great heat and a leaden gloom over us. Where there had been houses only a few hours before, only some single walls with empty windows towered upwards. In between were large heaps of rubble, still glowing … We came to the junction of Hammer Landstrasse and Louisenweg. I carried my little sister and I helped my mother climb over the ruins. Suddenly I saw tailors’ dummies lying around. I said, “Mummy, no tailors lived here and, yet, so many dummies lying around.” My mother grabbed me by the arm and said, “Go on. Don’t look too closely. On. On. We have to get out of here. Those are dead bodies.”
“I climbed over the ruins, further into the damaged area. There were no people alive at all. The houses were all destroyed and still burning. In the Süderstrasse, I saw a burnt-out tramcar in which naked bodies were lying on top of each other. The glass of the windows had melted. Probably these people had sought refuge from the storm in the tram. I eventually reached my brother’s home on the Grevenweg; it was just a heap of smoking bricks. I helped to clear out their shelter five weeks later. There was only charred bones and ash. I found a few objects that belonged to my relatives – their house keys and some coins that my nephew was always playing with.”
Unnamed fireman, Hammerbrook
“The most gruesome sight we must have seen was the people, lying on the ground completely naked, no longer recognizable as man or woman, with a centimetre-thick crust covering them, seemingly dead, but still giving last signs of life through guttural sounds and small movements of their arms. This appalling sight will stay with me all my life.”
Herbert Wulff, Heidenskamsweg
“Four-storey high blocks of flats were like glowing mounds of stone right down to the basement. Everything seemed to have melted and pressed the bodies away in front of it. Women and children were so charred as to be unrecognizable; those that had died through lack of oxygen were half charred and recognizable. Their brains tumbled from their burst templates and their insides from the soft parts under the ribs. How terribly must these people have died. The smallest children lay like fried eels on the pavement. Even in death, they showed signs of how they must have suffered – their hands and arms stretch out as if to protect themselves from the pitiless heat.”
Anne-Lies Schmidt, Hammerbrook
“Corpse of a young man of approximately sixteen years. Right arm held out in a fencing position; found lying totally naked on his back in the street. Scorched hair; skin on the feet charred; chin and tip of nose dried up and burned. Superficial charring on the extensor side of the hands. Skin colour reddish-brown. Rump muscles appear as if boiled. Tongue surface dry and brownish. Lungs are distended, voluminous, heavy. An abundance of thickened blood in the right heart. The left heart is empty, liver is hard, spleen is melted away. Between dura mater and calvaria there is a large volume of thickened, lubricious, pasty, reddish mass. Cuts through cerebrum and cerebellum without evidence of free bleeding or pathological changes. In the tissue sections, evidence of vital reaction was noted through leukocyte emission. Assessment: The young man was burned alive on the street.”
Dr. Helmuth Baniecki
All extracts are taken from the following publications:
Friedrich, Jörg. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany 1940-1945. Translated by Allison Brown. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Lowe, Keith. Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943. London: Viking, 2007.
Middlebrook, Martin. “Firestorm.” In Terror From the Sky: The Bombing of German Cities in World War II. Edited by Igor Primoratz, 85-109. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010.
Research from the Defence Studies Department, King's College London
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