‘Bomber’ Harris’s new campaign against the German capital had begun with the raid on the 18th/19th November. The raid of the night 22nd/23rd was the largest force yet sent to Berlin – a total of 764 aircraft. Berlin itself was completely covered in cloud which earlier would have prevented an accurate raid. With the development and refinement of the Pathfinders sky marking, after identifying the target with radar, this was no longer any protection.
The raid proved to be the ‘most effective’ bombing attack on Berlin of the whole war. Concentrated bombing destroyed large areas of the centre and west of the city. Amongst the casualties were the 500 occupants of one large public air raid shelter that received a direct hit. Relatively dry weather helped create firestorms, next day the fires were producing smoking columns that rose to 19,000 feet.
In Berlin was diarist Marie Vassiltchikov, an emigre from Russia who worked for the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry, but an anti-Nazi. Through her contacts she had some advance warning of the impending raid. Having friends in high places did little to help her. She had packed a bag in case she and her father had to leave their house:
I had just finished packing when the flak opened up. It was immediately very violent. Papa emerged with his pupils and we all hurried down to the half-basement behind the kitchen, where we usually sit out air raids.
We had hardly got there when we heard the first approaching planes. They flew very low and the barking of the flak was suddenly drowned by a very different sound – that of exploding bombs, first far away and then closer and closer, until it seemed as if they were falling literally on top of us. At every crash the house shook. The air pressure was dreadful and the noise deafening.
For the first time I understood what the expression Bombenteppich [‘bomb carpet’] means – the Allies call it ‘saturation’ bombing. At one point there was a shower of broken glass and all three doors of the basement flew into the room, torn off their hinges. We pressed them back into place and leant against them to try to keep them shut. I had left my coat outside but didn’t dare go out to get it.
An incendiary are fell hissing into our entrance and the men crept out to extinguish it. Suddenly we realised that we had no water on hand to put out a possible fire and hastily opened all the taps in the kitchen. This dampened the noise for a few minutes, but not for long … The planes did not come in waves, as they do usually, but kept on droning ceaselessly overhead for more than an hour.
In the middle of it all the cook produced my soup. I thought that if I ate it I would throw up. I found it even impossible to sit quietly and kept jumping to my feet at every crash. Papa, imperturbable as always, remained seated in a wicker armchair throughout. Once, when I leapt up after a particularly deafening explosion, he calmly remarked: ‘Sit down! That way, if the ceiling collapses, you will be farther away from it …’ But the crashes followed one another so closely and were so ear-splitting that at the worst moments I stood behind him, holding on to his shoulders by way of self-protection. What a family bouillabaisse we would have made! His pupils cowered in a corner, while Maria stood propped against a wall, praying for her husband and looking desperate. She kept advising me to keep away from the furniture, as it might splinter.
The bombs continued to rain down and when a house next to ours collapsed, Papa muttered in Russian: ‘Volia Bozhia!’ [‘Let God’s will be done!’]. It seemed indeed as if nothing could save us. After an hour or so it became quieter, Papa produced a bottle of schnapps and we all took large gulps. But then it started all over again . . . Only around 9.30 p.m. did the droning of planes overhead cease. There must have been several hundreds of them.
The all-clear came only half an hour after the last planes had departed, but long before that we were called out of the house by an unknown naval officer. The wind, he told us, thus far non-existent, had suddenly risen and the fires, therefore, were spreading.
We all went out into our little square and, sure enough, the sky on three sides was blood-red. This, the officer explained, was only the beginning; the greatest danger would come in a few hours’ time, when the fire-storm really got going. Maria had given each of us a wet towel with which to smother our faces before leaving the house — a wise precaution, for our square was already filled with smoke and one could hardly breathe.
Also the electricity, gas and water no longer worked and we had to grope our way around with electric torches and candles. Luckily we had had time to fill every available bath tub, wash basin, kitchen sink and pail.
By now the wind had increased alarmingly, roaring like a gale at sea. When we looked out of the window We could see a steady shower of sparks raining down on our and the neighbouring houses and all the time the air was getting thicker and hotter, while the smoke billowed in through the gaping window frames. We went through the house and found to our relief that apart from the broken windows and the unhinged doors, it had not suffered any real damage.
Just as we were swallowing some sandwiches, the sirens came on once more. We stood at the windows for about half an hour, in total silence. We were convinced it would start all over again. Then the all-clear sounded again. Apparently enemy reconnaissance planes had been surveying the damage.