bombing of Hamburg
Hamburg before the bombing
This is a
letter, dated as early as 27 May 1943, and written by Harris
to his six group commanders, setting out his future
intentions. The first part can usefully be included here.
OPERATION ORDER NO. 173
Copy No: 23 Date: 27th May, 1943
The importance of H A M B U R G. the second largest city in
Germany with a population of one and a half millions, is
well known and needs no further emphasis. The total
destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results
in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy's war
machine. This, together with the effect on German morale,
which would be felt throughout the country, would play a
very important part in shortening and in winning the war.
2. The 'Battle of Hamburg' cannot be won in a single night.
It is estimated that at least 10,000 tons of bombs will have
to be dropped to complete the process of elimination. To
achieve the maximum effect of air bombardment, this city
should be subjected to sustained attack.
Forces to be Employed
3. Bomber Command forces will consist of all available
heavies in operational squadrons until sufficient hours of
darkness enable the medium bombers to take part. It is hoped
that the night attacks will be preceded and/or followed by
heavy daylight attacks by the United States VIIlth Bomber
4. To destroy HAMBURG.
At the end
of July, 1943, in the tinderbox of a summer heat wave,
Bomber Harris ordered his air force to begin a massive air
raid on Hamburg, Germany's most important industrial centre
and the largest seaport on the European Continent.
To protect the flyers, Bomber Command had a new
technological trick, nicknamed "window." One of the crew
would hurl thin strips of aluminium foil out the rear doors
of the plane as it flew across German territory. Fluttering
in the slipstream, the metal confused the radar that
controlled the searchlights and flak guns, sending them
swinging erratically across the sky. The Germans would
eventually discover the ruse, but not before Hamburg was
levelled during a week of devastating raids.
At 9 p.m., July 24, sirens wailed through the streets of
Hamburg. People hurried to their basements and to the
underground bunkers as bombs exploded a few miles away.
Searchlights raked the sky. The people knew what they had to
do. There was no particular panic.
Lancaster in bombing stream
minutes, high explosive, incendiary, phosphorus and napalm
bombs pounded the city core. Buildings erupted in flames
that shot 20 feet into the sky.
hurricane force, 150 mile per-hour winds were sucked into
the oxygen vacuum created by the fire, ripping trees out by
their roots, collapsing buildings, pulling children out of
their mothers' arms. Twenty square miles of the city centre
burned in an inferno that would rage for nine full days.
"There was no smoke, only flames and flying sparks like a
snowstorm," recalls a German firefighter. "The heat melted
the lens in my protective glasses. I saw a crowd of people
lying and sitting on the street, moaning. They had given up.
I joined them and lay down, put my steel helmet against the
wind, and tried to suck oxygen from the pavement. My clothes
kept catching fire and I had to beat the flames out.
The air was so hot it burned my windpipe. Everyone around me
died. The clothing on the women was baked off them, leaving
their bodies naked. The bodies didn't burn but dried out
burnt bodies on the street after the raids
Einspenner, 16 years old, was with her cousin in Hamburg,
planning to join her parents at their cottage on the 0st See
the next day.
"We were caught in a big, big fire," she recalls in halting
English. "We came to a street crossing and the houses were
all coming down on us. We didn't know where to go. Bombs
were everywhere... We went this way, this way... We were
lost. We were trying to go away from Hamburg.
"We went down in a basement of a house. Then the next
minute, we heard a big bomb. So we went out of the house, on
the street. And there was a large fire-all the houses.
"Everything was burning, even the paving stones in the
street. We were blind from the fire. Burning dust. Ashes.
People were burning. We went anywhere. We were only
concerned to escape the fire.
"I saw a
child stick in the tar in the street. And it didn't come out
again. It burned to death. And the mother tried to save her
child. But she couldn't. She made one step. That was all.
"A lady was seeing the girl burning and the mother sticking.
Then she started to burn on her back, so she jumped into the
river. But when she came out, she burnt again."
On August 2, 1943, Doug Harvey boarded his Halifax to fly
the last of the four raids that firebombed Hamburg. It was
his seventh mission; he had logged 500 hours and he felt as
he always did when he flew over Germany-"in total terror
that the German fighters were going to shoot me down."
Taking off over the North Sea, the plane headed into a solid
bank of clouds. Even though the ground crew had rubbed anti
icing paste on the leading edges of the wings and sprayed
the windscreen and propellers with deicer, the Halifax was
coated with a heavy, transparent shell. So thick was the
cloud cover that Harvey didn't notice the ice. He was having
a hard time controlling the plane. Thunderstorms erupted and
lightning streaked the clouds.
"St. Elmo's Fire danced across the inside of the windscreen
and all over the flying panel," says Harvey, "making it
difficult to concentrate on the instruments."
In the distance, the clouds above Hamburg glowed red from
the raging fires. A huge cumulus nimbus drifted into the
flight path of the Halifax.
"If I got into that thunderhead our bomber would be in
terrible danger. Trying to keep on course and yet avoid the
storm, I inched my way around the storm cloud, or so I
there were four firebomb raids over Hamburg in nine days
the smouldering ruins and the fresh fires started by the
succession of British and Canadian bombers, the city of
Hamburg was black. There was no electricity. No water.
Everything was wreckage and dead bodies. People were crushed
under tons of bricks. Others were baked. Those who sought
shelter in the underground bunkers suffocated. Families were
asphyxiated in their cars. In the summer heat, the bodies
rotted and stank. Rats and flies multiplied. Forty thousand
people were dead. And the survivors, such as Inge Einspenner,
would live forever with the horror and the incalculable
Most of the dead were ploughed into a mass grave dug in the
shape of a cross.
From the British military perspective, the Bomber Command
incendiary attack on Hamburg was outstandingly successful.
Only 9,000 tons of bombs had killed 40,000 people and
reduced a major industrial port to ashes. "None of our other
attacks had produced effects that were a tenth as
destructive as the effects of a firestorm," wrote Dyson
after the war. The operation was nicknamed "Gomorrah."
Hamburg after the bombing
could only produce a firestorm when their planes were able
to bomb without serious interference. Soon after Hamburg,
the Germans developed radar to see through the Allies'
aluminium-strip "windows." Only once more- 'at Dresden, in
February, 1945-would the British in the Second World War
succeed in burning a city to the ground.
Marshall Harris was pleased with the Hamburg raids. To the
outraged voices protesting the high civilian casualties, he
replied, "In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing
proved a relatively humane method ... there is no proof that
most casualties were women and children."
In fact, according to meticulous German records revealed
later, of the 40,000 people killed, 20 percent were
children. For every 100 men who died, 160 women were killed.
In all, the body count was 13,000 men, 21,000 women and over