Home leave in bombed out Germany

Short Stirling bombers of No 90 Squadron, Royal Air Force, lined up on the perimeter track at Wratting Common, Cambridgeshire. The crew are awaiting take off time. This was only one of two times that Stirlings were sent to bomb Berlin as they proved too vulnerable to the defences. 31 May 1943.

Short Stirling bombers of No 90 Squadron, Royal Air Force, lined up on the perimeter track at Wratting Common, Cambridgeshire. The crew are awaiting take off time. This was only one of two times that Stirlings were sent to bomb Berlin as they proved too vulnerable to the defences. 31 May 1943.

Herbert Werner had just returned from the sea where his U-boat had had a narrow escape from the attentions of the Royal Navy. He knew only too well that there had been a change in fortunes in the Battle of the Atlantic. More and more of his colleagues were failing to return from patrols.

Now he wanted to try to forget about the war. Once his leave started he made his way to Berlin as soon as he could, meeting up with his girlfriend was what he had dreamt of and what he wanted most:

Emerging from the Anhalter Station, I was stopped in my tracks by the destruction. Broken glass, mortar, and rubble were strewn everywhere. And for the first time, Marianne was not at the station.

Intending to call on Marianne at her office, I boarded a streetcar bound for the center of the capital. That ride was appalling. Large sections of the city had almost been leveled by the saturation bombings, leaving rubble, dust, and a million tragedies. I felt as if the bottom were falling out of my world. I felt like running away and leaving the city on the next train.

But I eventually reached the spot where Marianne had worked—that is, where her seven-story ofce building had once stood. Only a few walls had remained. Bricks were piled up two stories high.

I turned away from the devastation, searched for and found the nearest subway stop, then took the express train to the suburb where Marianne lived with her parents. Leaving the station on foot, I saw here and there a home burned to the ground, an apartment house col- lapsed. It seemed that death and destruction were following me.

As I neared Marianne’s home, I braced myself against a reality I already sensed. Then I was standing before the heap of charcoal that had been the house. Its chimney poked into the air like a warning nger. Around it lay smashed bricks and blocks, black with soot; steel beams bent in the heat of the re; jumbled debris of all sorts. Then I saw the sign stuck in the rubble. Somebody had written in red: ALL MEMBERS OF THE HARDENBERG FAMILY ARE DEAD.

I read it two or three times before I turned away. I was unable to comprehend. Something acrid burned in my throat. I swallowed repeatedly. Then my heart suddenly hardened. At that moment all in me was dead — burned out like the homes. I was without emotion.

The next express carried me back home to Frankfurt. With Marianne’s death preying on my mind, I spent four aimless days in Frankfurt. I also spent one night in the cellar of our apartment house, listening to the screaming sirens and the bellowing of the flak, shaking to the tremors of the exploding bombs and looking into the serious stony faces of people who accepted the raid as a routine event.

When it was all over, the night was filled with the caustic stench of cordite, the moans of the wounded, and the bells of the fire brigades.

This was what the war had come to: that my Marianne was an air-raid victim, that my family had grown accustomed to living underground in fear of their lives. After that night, there was nothing left for me at home. I had to return to my boat and fight the war at sea to a successful end for the sake of those who remained at home in anguish and dread.

See Herbert A. Werner: Iron Coffins

Vertical night aerial photograph taken during a raid on Berlin, showing bombs exploding in the vicinity of the central cattle-market and railway yard (middle right), east of the city centre. The broad wavy lines are the tracks of German searchlights and anti-aircraft fire can also be seen. Also illuminated by the flash-bomb in the lower half of the photograph are the Friedrichshain gardens and sports stadium, St Georgs Kirchhof and Balten Platz. A mixed force of 49 aircraft took part in the raid, of which 5 were lost. From September 1941.

Vertical night aerial photograph taken during a raid on Berlin, showing bombs exploding in the vicinity of the central cattle-market and railway yard (middle right), east of the city centre. The broad wavy lines are the tracks of German searchlights and anti-aircraft fire can also be seen. Also illuminated by the flash-bomb in the lower half of the photograph are the Friedrichshain gardens and sports stadium, St Georgs Kirchhof and Balten Platz. A mixed force of 49 aircraft took part in the raid, of which 5 were lost. From September 1941.

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