The horror of Hamburg resounds around Germany

The last of the Operation Gomorrah raids took place on the 2nd August but added little to scale of the existing devastation.

The last of the Operation Gomorrah raids took place on the 2nd August but added little to scale of the existing devastation.

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?

See Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen: Diary of a Man in Despair.

Oblique aerial view of ruined residential and commercial buildings south of the Stadtpark (seen at upper right) in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, Germany. These were among the 16,000 multi-storeyed apartment buildings destroyed by the firestorm which developed during the raid by Bomber Command on the night of 27/28 July 1943 (Operation GOMORRAH). The road running diagonally from upper left to lower right is Eilbeker Weg.

Oblique aerial view of ruined residential and commercial buildings south of the Stadtpark (seen at upper right) in the Eilbek district of Hamburg, Germany. These were among the 16,000 multi-storeyed apartment buildings destroyed by the firestorm which developed during the raid by Bomber Command on the night of 27/28 July 1943 (Operation GOMORRAH). The road running diagonally from upper left to lower right is Eilbeker Weg. Taken at least a year later – see comments.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Porter August 6, 2018 at 8:43 am

In reply to Nick Kelly, there were over 7,700 Mosquitos produced,

Conn Nugent August 4, 2018 at 4:17 pm

Let us put aside for a moment the morality of terror bombing of civilian targets. [None of the WW2 combatants are guiltless: the Italians and Germans were the pioneers (Spanish Civil War); the Germans upped the moral ante with the Blitz; the British raised the stakes, and then the Americans joined in and by the end of WW2 were the biggest practitioners.]

The consensus of most historians of WW2 is that the two final exercises in terror bombing — Hiroshima and Nagasaki — actually worked in bringing the government of a hostile power to sue for peace. Many believe that it was the fact of one-bomb-per-city that led the Japanese to believe (correctly) that the new weapon represented a gigantic new capability and (incorrectly) that the Americans had many other such bombs ready to drop.

Most historians also agree that the terror bombings on Germany did succeed in killing, frightening and inducing despair among the German civilians who were its targets. But there is scant evidence that this demoralization of the civilian population had any effect on the Nazi government’s determination to wage war. The war machine kept in high gear rregardless of popular sentiment.

Tan Ah Bah March 5, 2016 at 11:24 am

The photo was “Taken at least a year later”,
thus explaining the luscious tree canopy growth.

Nick Kelly July 19, 2014 at 3:52 am

Note that although the mission is described as a joint RAF (including 20 % Canadians) and USAAF effort, the latter had virtually nothing to do with the result. The reader may wish to compare this with Time-Life’s video production “Air War over Europe” which gives about ten seconds to the British Commonwealth effort even though it dropped 50 % percent more bombs than the US. Time- Life describes the RAF effort as ‘terror attacks’ echoing Goebbels.

Actually the US daytime effort with un-escorted Liberators and Fortresses was arguably the largest disaster of the war for the Western Allies. The bravery of the crews could not make up for the doomed concept ( an actual fortress would be unable to fly) and after losing 20 percent of its strength in a single week over Schweinfurt, the Eighth Airforce was grounded pending the arrival of the P51 Mustang, a failure until given a Rolls Royce engine ( later built under license by Allison)

Later over Japan, the Super Fortress B 29 was ‘de-fortressed’ in all but name. Most guns and ammunition were removed, resulting in a dramatic improvement in performance.
Precision bombing was scrapped for incendiary fire bombing. But Time Life doesn’t call that terror bombing.

But the real missed opportunity was the Mosquito, the Wooden Wonder, that could deliver the same the bomb load as a Fortress but 150 mph faster. An early version was shown to the US who passed. If the Mossie, which used non-strategic materials for its airframe had gone into large scale US production, say 10,000 instead of the 1500 or so the Brits and Canadians manages to wring out of a much more stressed economy. the war in Europe ends as much as 6 months earlier. The Allies would have daytime superiority in mid late 1943, and Germany turns into a shooting gallery. ( The Mosquito was almost invulnerable to enemy fighters who couldn’t catch it except by diving onto it. The Mossie loss rate at less than 2 percent was the lowest of any Allied airplane.)
Doesn’t the same hold true of Lancaster versus Mossie? Arguably yes, but the US was the only allied power with any discretionary room in its armament budget. and of course the bomb load of a Lancaster far exceeded any US bomber.
Lancaster production was in full swing before the Mossie was approved.( The prototypes were built as a private venture by De Havilland, after the Air Ministry scoffed at the idea of a wooden plane. This was the same Ministry by the way that also forced Hawker to tool up the Hurricane privately because the bureaucrats wanted a bi-plane! )
At any rate, the entire manpower and woman power of Britain was entirely taken up by this time and its something of a miracle they produced any Mossies.
But they did and also somehow managed to up-gun 1300 Shermans with the 17 lb. gun
( the resulting tank is known as a Firefly) giving the crew an equal-ish chance against Tiger /Panther. The famous Black Baron Micheal Wittman, who once with his lone Tiger wiped out an entire regiment of British vehicles and was decorated by Hitler, was taken out by a Canadian crewed Firefly.

Barry August 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm

This is also important as to the use of nuclear weapons later on in the war. At this point, tens of thousands of people dying in a single night were part of the war. The nuclear bombs at first just made it possible to do the same thing with a single plane.

pedant August 4, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Ah–one clue emerges. The Wikipedia page for Operation Gomorrah links to a copy of this photo, and dates it from 1944 or 1945. So the trees are showing the growth from a later season, or even two later seasons. And the buildings have not been touched.

That makes much more sense.

pedant August 4, 2013 at 9:44 pm

That aerial photo–I am amazed that the trees in the park seem to be entirely unburnt and undamaged. How can they have survived, when one reads about the winds uprooting trees, about the flames spreading across streets, about the heat capable of scorching things yards away?

I am not suggesting anything conspiratorial, I simply wonder whether, e.g. this was on the very edge of the destruction zone? Or, as a different possibility, whether this photo could be a composite of a before photo and an after photo? The trees look just as they might in high summer, i.e. the end of July: covered in thick crowns of leaves.

Or am I misinterpreting something else, e.g. piles of rubble, and only thinking that they are trees?

I have no axe to grind here, I am simply puzzled.

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