The final attack of Operation Gomorrah, the co-ordinated bombing of Hamburg, took place on the night of 2nd August. The bomber force hit a thunderstorm as it approached the target area, Pathfinder marking could not take place and the the eventual bombing was widely dispersed. Yet a final attack was hardly needed after the firestorm of the night 27th-28th. Hamburg had been devastated in a shocking blow. The message had been delivered.
One of the aims of the bombing campaign was to send a direct message to ordinary Germans that things could only get worse. It was hoped that this might break support for the Nazi regime and potentially lead to an early end to the war. If any single raid came close to achieving this purpose then it was the raid on Hamburg. The immediate reaction had been one of shock and many people drew the conclusion that the British wanted. Despite the best efforts of the Nazi propaganda machine, they could not control the horror stories that now spread around Germany.
Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, a Prussian aristocrat, had always been a critic of the Nazis. He would eventually die for his outspokenness. After all the shocks of the war even he was shaken by this new mass destruction, sensing that it was a turning point in the history of humanity:
The news from Hamburg is simply beyond the grasp of the imagination – streets of boiling asphalt into which the victims sank and were boiled alive, veritable cities of ruins, which cover the dead and surround those still alive like some jagged stone martyr’s crown. The talk is of 200,000 dead.
I am not one who believes everything he is told. I much prefer seeing the thing for myself. And I think that in this case what I have seen with my own eyes suffices.
I have heard a great deal about the completely wild and disoriented behaviour of people in Hamburg as the city burned, stories of amnesia, stories of people wandering through the streets in the pyjamas they had on when they fled from their houses, crazy-eyed, carrying an empty bird cage, with no memory of a yesterday, and no idea of a tomorrow.
And now this is what I saw on a burning-hot day in early August at a little railroad station in Upper Bavaria, where forty or fifty of these miserable people were milling about, scrambling, despite the angry roars of the station-master, into a car through a window they had broken, pushing, kicking, yelling, accustomed by now to fighting for space.
What happened then was inevitable. A suitcase, a miserable lump of cardboard with edges broken off, missed the target, fell back to the platform and broke open, revealing its contents. There was a pile of clothes, a manicure kit, a toy. And there was the baked corpse of a child, shrunk to the proportions of a mummy, which the half-crazed woman had dragged along with her, the macabre remains of what only a few days before had been a family.
Cries of dismay, disgust, roars, hysterical outbursts, the snarls of a small dog, until finally an official took pity on all of them and had the thing disposed of.
Another report I heard was that the fire-storm created by the immense conflagration sucked up into it all the oxygen, suffocating people who were far away from the actual flames, and that the rain of phosphorus broiled the corpses of grown men and women into tiny, child-sized mummies, so that countless women are now wandering about the country, their homes in ruins, carrying with them these ghastly relics.
In the face of this, can it still be denied that with this war an epoch is reaching its end? Can the fact still be blinked away that technology is playing out its last grim moments, and that it is leaving behind a dreadful vacuum of soul-emptiness – a vacuum which can probably only be filled by something antirational, antimechanical, an ‘x reaction’ compounded of newly risen demons?
Is there any doubt that there is no possible way anymore back to the world of yesterday, and that this time those riders now saddling their black steeds are none other than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse themselves?