WW2 bomber pilots had wills

July 1943: Firestorm destroys Hamburg

Status: 02/17/2021 1:30 p.m.

In July 1943, the Allies launched massive air raids on Hamburg. They begin on the night of July 25th and trigger an inferno. Tens of thousands of people die in the firestorm.

by Bettina Lenner and Thomas Luerweg, NDR.de

"Operation Gomorrah": Under this code name, the British and Americans launched a series of heavy air raids on Hamburg on the night of July 24th to 25th, 1943. First it hits the western districts of Altona, Eimsbüttel and Hoheluft, which are devastated by wildfires. On July 27, 1943 at 11:40 p.m. the air-raid alarm sounds again. The residents of the 1.5 million city react immediately and seek out the supposedly protective cellars and bunkers. But what people experience on the night of July 28th surpasses anything previously imaginable. The inferno of the firestorm destroyed large parts of the east of the Elbe metropolis - the traces are still visible today.

Explosive and incendiary bombs on working-class neighborhoods

Clouds of smoke over the port of Hamburg: The US Air Force was also involved in Operation "Gomorrah".

739 British planes set off for Hamburg on the evening of July 27th. In the hours that followed, they dropped more than 100,000 high-explosive and incendiary bombs. Orientation point for the pilots: the Nikolai Church. The thick carpet of bombs hits the densely populated working-class districts of Hohenfelde, Hamm, Billbrook, Borgfelde, Rothenburgsort, Hammerbrook and eastern St. Georg. More than 400,000 people were in the area at the time of the second major attack, about a quarter of the total population. In the city center, the Alster camouflage, a network of wire mesh and small tin plates, is on fire. An area of ​​250,000 square meters is on fire.

Large-scale fires unite to form a firestorm

British experts had already carried out extensive investigations in the 1930s and examined the flammability of the customary construction methods in order to perfect the bomb technology. High-explosive bombs break through roofs, walls and walls and clear the way for the incendiary bombs. Aided by weeks of heat and drought, the phenomenon of a firestorm appeared for the first time in the air war on July 28th, which raged for more than five hours and whose center is in Hammerbrook: tens of thousands of fires unite to form huge conflagrations within minutes. In the narrow streets the air is sucked in like in a huge chimney. The five-storey apartment blocks and the granaries along the canals provide plenty of food for the rollers of flames, in the center of which it is up to 1,000 degrees and which can sometimes reach hurricane strength.

Bunker and cellar as a death trap

The firestorm takes hundreds of people into the flames, is caught in the narrow terraces and backyards of the apartment blocks and does not allow any escape. Shelters become death traps: "We had to use brute force to get people to leave the cellars," says Hans Brunswig, then chief fire officer. In the cellars and bunkers, the heat finally becomes unbearable, there is too little water. Many unsuspectingly open the doors and open the way for the raging flames, others block the exits from the basement with rubble. People suffocate in their cellars, burn and burn up on the street, are killed by pieces of wood flying around and roofs falling. "When we came out of the bunker, I had the feeling that the flames were beating," says contemporary witness Elfriede Sindel.

Contemporary witnesses report

Alwin Bellmann was an anti-aircraft helper at a battery on the Alster in the summer of 1943:
"The approach, the humming in the air, then those light fountains that almost didn't go out and lit up the city. And then this impotence on the anti-aircraft guns ... The English had used a trick, they had already thrown tinfoil strips from Stade and thus our radio measuring devices at that time, similar to radar devices, were put out of action. When the first bombs fell and the fires appeared everywhere, the optical devices, these command devices, were no longer operational. So that means - you can say it today - we have shot in the air without a location. "


John Petrie-Andrews was a British bomber pilot in 1943:
"It was just a destination point. We were given a reference point on the map, and that was our destination point. We didn't care what it was, nor were we told. It would be shipyards or industrial areas, We stuck to it. We didn't know anything about it until after the end of the war. It was just a completely normal attack that we flew there. And Hamburg was an important port. "


Captain Alan Forsdyke was the British navigator in the attacks on Hamburg in 1943:
"The sky above us was a hazy, red mist. Below us it burned like a blast furnace. I looked down, amazed and even horrified. Nobody on the plane spoke. I had never seen a fire like this and will never see again. "


Kurt-Heinz Wilkens saved himself from the flames in a park:
"The fire came up Sachsenstrasse like a lindworm. It burned everywhere. The houses were also burning. The fire came out of the windows. They were hit by incendiary and high explosive bombs at the same time as our house. And then we went over it Heidenkampsweg and ended up in Stoltenpark. The park was an oasis in the form that you could get air there, you could get more air than between the houses. There was no more air. Everything was eaten away by the fire. "


Elke Baresch fled over glowing streets into a bunker:
"First we were on Bergedorfer Heerweg in my grandparents' house cellar, until an incendiary bomb went in. Then it was' everyone out and over to the bunker 'That was a glowing mass. My mother shouted," Don't stop, don 't stop! You fall down and then you burn. "My brother and I had touched each other while we were walking. When we got to the bunker, our soles were pretty thin and the tires of the stroller were scorched."


Alfred Gödeke experienced the firestorm in Eilbek:
"When I left the cellar in Blumenau between the first and second waves of attack, it was bright as day. Everything was burning in Wagnerstrasse, everything was burning in Blumenau. And a storm has kindled, a storm, it must be a hurricane and can sometimes already be called a typhoon, of such force, of such elementary violence that one cannot imagine as a normal citizen. And it boomed and roared. The fire sparks and hissed like a beast. And above all, it was the one with the flying sparks so strong that it came in over us like a thick snowstorm. "


Andrej Stepanowitsch Pustilnick from Ukraine experienced the firestorm as a prisoner in the Neuengamme concentration camp:
"The windows were barred, the doors barred and locked. We were locked up in our accommodation overnight. The camp wasn't big. We were 100 Eastern workers and 150 French. The French - I don't know where they usually stayed - had their own Air raid shelter nearby. During the attack, a bomb fell in the courtyard, directly on the air raid shelter where the French were. None of them survived. The bomb fell directly on their bunker. All our doors and windows were blown out. "


Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi was stuck in a bunker for twelve hours. He describes his experiences in the book "Neger, Neger, Schornsteinfeger!"
"Slowly, as if we were awakening from a nightmare, we climbed out of the basement - a long line of people who had been given life again. Above, the air raid shelter people who had freed us were waiting for us. On their instructions , we laid down us blankets or towels over our heads to protect us from the flying sparks that filled the air. The rescue workers urged us to stay calm no matter what we saw, and that was a good thing, because one of the most horrific and saddest sights awaited us of our lives. Stückenstrasse - no, all of Barmbek - our beloved district - was practically razed to the ground. As far as the eye could see, nothing but total destruction. "


Lore Bünger survived the attacks in a bunker on Arnoldstrasse in Altona:
"The bunker swayed back and forth - that was the bombardment of the old Altona. It didn't end until the all-clear. We sat in the bunker for four hours and that was so scary. When we could finally leave the bunker and came out, it was whole air pitch black. Everything was full of smoke and paper particles. "


Michel von Ausloos, then a prisoner in the Neuengamme concentration camp, helped with the recovery of the corpses:
"The SS men had asked for volunteers. And because I was curious, I reported and went with them to Hamburg for three days. On the fourth day I didn't want to go back there. Because on the afternoon of the third day we had a very bad one big air raid shelter with 1,500 bodies cleared. What I wanted to see were dead soldiers. But there were very few of them. They were all old people, women and children. I thought that was terrible. And the next day I didn't want to go back there. If if you touched the corpses, they turned to dust because of the heat that had been generated and because of the phosphorus bombs. "


Margret Klauß was then 16 years old and, as a BdM girl, looked after the refugees from Hamburg:
"We were deployed at Moisling station near Lübeck. I will never forget these scenes - the sight of the people in the freight trains for whom we had food and drinks ready. Most of them sat there completely apathetic, the horror still on their faces. Others hurried off Car to car and called in the names of missing loved ones in the desperate hope of finding their spouse, parents or siblings. It was heartbreaking. "

The fire brigade is powerless

Rescue workers can neither extinguish nor recover. The streets in the affected districts are buried under rubble, telephone lines are broken. Clouds of smoke, dust and ash move over the city, and daylight does not seep through until noon. During the day, American planes continue the bombardment. What remains is a glowing landscape of ruins from which 900,000 people are fleeing. Forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners recover tens of thousands of corpses and bring them to the Ohlsdorf cemetery to be buried in mass graves.

40,000 people die in the inferno

A single landscape of ruins: As here in Eilbek, many parts of the city looked like after the bombing.

The inferno in the second largest city of the German Empire lasts for ten days and nights. Seven times between July 25 and August 3, 2,592 British and 146 US bombers dropped 8,344 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. Around 40,000 people are killed, including 22,500 women and 7,000 children. Around 750,000 Hamburgers become homeless. Almost exactly half of all 357,360 apartments have been destroyed. The "Operation Gomorrah", as a reference to the story in the Old Testament, in which two cities on the Dead Sea were destroyed by fire and sulfur rain, left the metropolis on the Elbe to rubble.

Allied plan fails: arms production continues

"Operation Gomorrah"

The military code name refers to the series of Allied air raids on Hamburg between July 24th and August 3rd, 1943. A first major attack by British bombers on the night of July 24th to 25th led to wildfires mainly in the districts of Altona, Hoheluft and Eimsbüttel. On the night of July 27-28, the British bombed the eastern districts of Hammerbrook, Rothenburgsort and Hamm in a second major air raid. A firestorm developed that almost completely destroyed the previously densely populated working-class neighborhoods and suffocated or burned thousands of people. Up until the night of August 3, further attacks by the British on residential areas followed, but they no longer took on the dimensions of the night of the firestorm. During "Operation Gomorrah", the US bombers mainly attacked targets in the port of Hamburg in daytime attacks.

After the decisions of Roosevelt and Churchill, the Allies' aim was "to destroy the German economy, industry and the Wehrmacht and to break the morale of the German people to such an extent that their ability to armed resistance is decisively weakened". This plan does not work. The last attack took place on August 3rd, but by the end of the month a large proportion of the people of Hamburg returned and began to rebuild. At the end of the year, production in the armaments industry had again reached 80 percent. The allies missed the goal of accelerating the end of the war by bombing them.

Entire districts wiped out

The destruction of the fire is still visible in Hamburg's cityscape. Today there are hardly any residential buildings in the former working class district of Hammerbrook; instead, office buildings dominate. In the 1950s, hastily erected apartment blocks replaced the destroyed houses in Barmbek, Hamm and Eilbek and shape the current appearance of the districts. A dangerous legacy of the nights of bombing lies dormant in the ground under the city and in the mud of the canals: around 2,900 unexploded bombs are still lurking there.

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Hamburg Journal | 05/27/2020 | 9:00 p.m.