The raids on Hamburg were not yet over. Further USAAF daylight raids and RAF nightime raids were to come but they would not be as devastating as the firestorm raid of 27th-28th July. Nevertheless the leading Nazis immediately realised that they were facing an unprecedented situation.
Goebbels himself was shocked by the raid, although disparaging about about local officials who became unnerved by the scale of the devastation:
29th July 1943
During the night we had the heaviest raid yet made on Hamburg. The English appeared over the city with 800 to 1,000 bombers. Our anti-aircraft succeeded in shooting down only very few, so that one cannot claim any serious enemy losses.
Kaufmann, in a first report, spoke of a catastrophe the extent of which simply staggers the imagination.
A city of a million inhabitants has been destroyed in a manner unparalleled in history. We are faced with problems that are almost impossible of solution. Food must be found for this population of a million. Shelter must be secured. The people must be evacuated as far as possible. They must be given clothing. In short, we are facing problems there of which we had no conception even a few weeks ago.
Kaufmann believes the entire city must be evacuated except for small patches. He spoke of about 800,000 homeless people wandering up and down the streets not knowing what to do. I believe Kaufmann has lost his nerve somewhat in the face of this undoubtedly exceptional situation. Maybe he is a bit too lyrical and romantic for so great a catastrophe.
I immediately summoned Berndt. He has already inaugurated a number of measures, and has, for instance, in the course of the morning begun moving 300,000 loaves of bread to Hamburg.
See The Goebbels Diaries, London, 1948
The Nazi administration were adept at managing bad news and of course the official news stories, which meant all the news media in Germany, played down the impact of the raid. However with over a million people moving out of the Hamburg region to find alternative accommodation with relatives around different parts of Germany, the news of the raid spread in any event.
Even people loyal to the regime could not ignore its effects. The Luftwaffe ace Adolf Galland was frank in his assessment of the impact on the population:
A wave of terror radiated from the suffering city and spread throughout Germany. Appalling details of the great fires were recounted and their glow could be seen for days from a distance of 120 miles. A stream of haggard, terrified refugees flowed into the neighbouring provinces.
In every large town people said: ‘What happened to Hamburg yesterday can happen to us tomorrow.’ Berlin was evacuated with signs of panic. In spite of the strictest reticence in the official communiqués, the Terror of Hamburg spread rapidly to the remotest villages of the Reich.
Psychologically the war at that moment had perhaps reached its most critical point. Stalingrad had been worse but Hamburg was not hundreds of miles away on the Volga but on the Elbe, right in the heart of Germany. After Hamburg in the wide circle of the political and military command could be heard the words: ‘The war is lost.’
In addition to the psychological impact there was a very real loss of armaments production. Hamburg had been at the heart U-boat building which now fell from eight or nine a month to two to three a month. Large numbers of skilled workers had been killed in the raid, as many as 3,000 from one factory alone. They were irreplaceable. Aircraft production was particularly badly affected:
Generalfeldmarschall Erhard Milch, Head of the Aircraft Ministry was despondent:
If we get just five or six more attacks like these on Hamburg, the German people will just lay down their tools, however great their willpower …
The most ardent Nazis simply refused to face the facts. Hitler refused to visit the city and refused to meet a delegation from the city. Albert Speer, the Armaments Minister made all sorts of claims about the ability of the country to recover it production capacity. Ultimately any sign of dissent following the raid was suppressed by the Nazi regime.
Nevertheless in Britain there was satisfaction with the results of the raid:
We shall never know till we occupy Germany just how much damage our raids have done ; for while our photographs told the truth, it is always less than the truth, and what we have regularly found when we occupied enemy sites in Africa and Sicily justifies our assuming that the understatement is considerable. Such a phenomenon as the discharge of 2,300 tons of explosives and incendiaries over a limited built-up area within fifty minutes has no sort of parallel or precedent in history.
The heaviest of the raids on London, terrible as they seemed to us at the time, were by comparison quite small affairs. It is impossible to estimate the reduction of German war potential as anything less than enormous … Meantime, thanks to the vast American production, the scale can still rise. It is over twice what it was a year ago ; a year hence, if the war still requires it, it will be twice as much again.