As the Allied Air forces returned to the destruction of the Ruhr, the town of Gelsenkirchen was high on the target list. Not only was it an industrial town but nearby lay a synthetic oil facility, creating fuel oil from coal. Air warfare strategists had argued that these synthetic oil plants should be the very top priority. Post war analysis suggested that their comprehensive destruction across Germany, beyond the very considerable levels of damage that were achieved by the bombing that did take place, might well have hastened the end of the war.
Very probably many of the German civilians here would have welcomed the Allies as liberators, just as they had at Aachen. When the Scholven oil plant had been hit in September dozens of Jewish slave workers from Hungary had been killed. Seventeen injured women survivors had been treated by doctors from Gelsenkirchen, and the hospital medical staff had collaborated to hide them from the Gestapo, enabling them to survive the war.
It made no difference where their loyalties lay. The people of Gelsenkirchen were in the firing line for more than one reason.
Joseph P. Krause was 12 years old at the time, living in the Schalke area of central Gelsenkirchen. He vividly remembered “Black Monday”, November 6, 1944 when at 13.47 o’clock, they heard on the radio:
“Strong enemy bomber formations on the approach to Gelsenkirchen” Even while this message was being broadcast all hell broke loose. We fled before the carpet bombing, with the public sirens of “acute air threat” heard in the open.
This air warning automatically turned my stomach, and I always felt a painful diarrhea. I went down the spacious staircase, sprinting from the 1st floor, then, with the smashing of windows and doors by the air pressure of the first bombs, along with my 13 year old sister Hildegard, was thrown on the ground floor. In the hail of bombs and between flying debris and flak shrapnel we got in the public air raid shelter under the Fire Museum at the Kaiser Street, the second house to the left of the Imperial Road 71. Between them was the house with the practice of Dr. med. Kirch Meyer.
My sister Genoveva (19) ran with two children in a panic to the Church of St. Joseph and took refuge in the crypt there. Under the Fire Museum we suffered the ultimate doomsday. Tens of thousands of explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on Schalke. All supply lines were interrupted immediately. No water. No power. No radio signals or warnings. Someone in the basement lit a taper, but immediately it went out by air pressure.
The only orientation offered were some stripes on the walls, which were painted with fluorescent paint. The bombs were fitted with rattling and whistling air screws to increase the horror effect among the civilian population. By the perfidious acoustics of the descending carpet bombing we sensed in advance, when and with what weight, a bomb would hit our neighbourhood, and we ducked instinctively and crouched on the floor. Continually we pressed our fingers in our ears and opened our mouths, so that the tremendous air pressure did not tear the lungs and eardrums. The basement swayed and shook.
From everywhere came animal screams of agony. Children and women were crying hysterically, cursing and praying loudly, threw themselves on the ground, whimpering, pleading in vain for mercy of the invisible God. We were prisoners in hell. Smoke. Heat. Then an infernal roar and crackle. The building had collapsed on us. Smoke crept in through cracks in the walls and shattered doors. The house collapsed on us and burned like tinder. The heat was unbearable.
Through an opening in the back part of the basement staggered in blackened shapes, covered with wet blankets. One of the fugitives voice choked with tears: “Schalke street no longer exists.”
This was Dante’s “Inferno” pure and simple. There was weeping and gnashing of teeth. The battered people roared and sobbed in despair and fear of death. Horror and shudder came from every joint. After the first assault wave, with 738 aircraft, abated after an hour, we wanted to leave the shelter, but above us were burned ruins.
The basement entrance (staircase) to Emperor street was half buried by glowing rubble and burning beams, blocking the opening to Schalke road as an escape route, through an infinite sea of flames and was impassable. My mother Mathilde Krause quickly realised the situation and organized the totally desperate, distraught women into a rescue party. She grabbed the still burning parts of the planks and beams and quickly threw them sideways away from the basement entrance.
The rest of us managed the smoldering wood further back, to keep the area passable. My mother threw smaller debris in a high arc through gaps in the barrier upwards to the blazing heat of the fire. So they managed to create a narrow escape hatch, through which we survivors crammed with our scorched, smeared clothes and found the way to freedom. That is, to a roaring hurricane of fire and smoke, while above and around us outstanding beams fell crashing, burning and glowing down from the rubble.
Smoldering pieces of wood rained down. All around blazing Schalke an infinite shower of sparks was drifting. Mothers cried their despair with the deadly fumes into the sky. Then our paralyzing horror: The houses on the street were tipped into huge piles of debris on the road. In the smoldering window holes gaped ghastly horror.
From our house, whose interior was thrown through the perforated façade across half the roadway, struck the blazing flames. Other houses were burning like giant torches. The fire sites produced a terrible undertow as biblical pillars of fire: “The earth was formless and empty,” she was covered with flames. We, a party of crazy desperate people, clung to each other and climbed over the chaos of the burning wreckage towards Schalke market; because in the opposite direction fiercely burned the spiers of St. Joseph, threatening to topple into the street. …
In the maelstrom a fleeing old woman stumbled upon the blazing timbers and lost her hat. She wanted to run after and rush to the rescue of her hat in the flames. I – 12 years old – held her back and instinctively pulled her by the hand away from the fiery storm, and we staggered together over the blazing ruins.
On windows on the first floor of this house or next door, a brightly burning woman with raised arms gesticulating wildly and shrill voice in agony, begged in vain for help.
The Schalke market, enclosed by huge torches of fire degenerated into a single chaotic, Nero-Churchill pyre. Near the restaurant “Bei Mutter Thiemeyer” (of Schalke-04 legend), the old “Imperial Hall”, and in the house next door desperate and completely crazy people – obsessed with naked madness – in the mad hope of being able to save anything, threw pieces of furniture out of the windows of the burning room onto the sidewalk, where they crashed.
The Gewerkenstrasse only consisted of huge, brightly burning or smoldering rubble heaps, which were thrown from all sides criss-crossing each other: An apocalyptic mountains under the deadly sun of Satan. Again and again detonated [delayed action bombs ?]. The air was filled with swirling deadly showers of sparks. The industrial facilities to the north and west of Schalke market mutated into the Hellfire of Lucifer. Everything burned and crackled and roared, people screaming, shaking bitter and desperate. We found emergency shelter in the overcrowded Spitzbunker (“Schalke Sugarloaf”), crammed with bloody people and thick with fumes – in the middle of the Schalke market, which was covered with bomb craters and littered with countless smoldering ruins.
My mother immediately went to help work the pump units which by manual operation supplied fresh air for us, otherwise the occupants were hermetically sealed-off from the outside world by the power cut. Inside, it was stuffy and overheated. We sat on floors and stairs, crammed in like sardines.
The British increased the horror by another, perverse attack wave. So we experienced and survived the second major attack in the evening on the same day, November 6, 1944 at 19:25 o’clock.
Death returned. Schalke was the necropolis, the field of blood, the blast furnace for human flesh. The Evil One again grabbed greedily for us survivors of the earlier disaster.Again the horror returned and cruel destruction was repeated. The “Sugar” was hit twice by bombs in the evening after the second alarm. Our misery was multiplied. We shot through. The “Sugarloaf” shook constantly, so that we thought it would topple over.
Again crying and desperate people, a bunch of lunatics in fear of death, shaken again within a few hours and harassed, blaring or whining children with full SHITTY pants without food and water, without electricity, adults who urinated as infants in their underwear. That’s not to surpass the horror that had befallen Schalke. It smelled of burnt flesh and filth. Where – the hell !!!! – was God on this November 6, 1944?
Even today, after more than 60 years, I weep as an old man, when the calendar indicates the 6th of November. We were driven by the inflamed and uninhibited horror and terror, had survived the eruption of hell, volcanoes of phosphorus, attacks of fire accelerants, the mighty blasts of air mines, the roar of a thousand fires.
Late in the evening a treacherous peace arrived, and before the forces of order arrived, individual groups in the bunker made their way in succession over a still intact emergency stairs to the entrance, to go for “fresh air”. This however, had a penetrating stench of fire, burning and filthy flesh. Around us only debris and conflagrations were seen. Some women stood silently in front of endless suffering, some sobbed, others went mad and roared desperately their pain against the brutal, merciless, bloody sky.
The people shouted in horror, fell weeping into the arms: Schalke was erased, the district smashed, in the cellars burned stinking corpses or the dying. Buried like Pauline Hengsbach who – trapped between fallen beams – was cremated alive.
Konrad Hengsbach was injured in the ear by phosphorus. It was raining fire from the sky – as in Egypt of the Old Testament…. In phosphorus-spray people were charred and cooked at 1300 degrees Celsius, roasted alive.
The unpleasant smell of phosphorus caused nausea. When I today I smell carbide or garlic, the images of the phosphorus-burned strike me again. …
Many had lost their belongings on November 6, 1944, were homeless. God had turned away from Schalke. Our sister Genoveva we thought was dead. Eventually she came back distraught to us, with the two sisters. She had been rescued from the crypt of St. Joseph – the burning Schalke parish church. …
Later, my mother and Mrs Kassner (wife of Dr. med. Hans Kassner) found that the upper house of the Study Director of Adolf Hitler school, despite a hit by an incendiary bomb, offered temporary accommodation. So we lived there temporarily.
Only 3 or 4 days after the two major attacks on November 6, 1944 rescue teams entered the basement of the collapsed drugstore Schmitz (Kaiser street corner and street Grillo, left two houses from the fire brigade museum) and brought out a woman. She lay in front of the ruined house and was totally black, burnt, charred, sooty, her face unrecognizable: But I noticed, as I bent over her, that she – stinking of burnt flesh and feces – still breathed weakly.
Where roads were paved, you could not go, because the tar was swollen by the heat of the fires to a viscous mass. In the gym of the high school (entry in Schalke road), which was only partially destroyed, the bodies and body parts were collected, burned, shrunken, shredded. 518 bombing victims were identified. Later statisticians calculated for that day of horror on the battlefield of Gelsenkirchen, the dropping of 6460 bombs and 167,131 incendiary bombs. 17880 houses were bombed to rubble.
The original account can be found in German at Gelsenzentrum. This was just one of 184 bombing raids that the town suffered during the war, killing over 3,000 people in total, with over half of the town destroyed.
From the RAF Bomber Command Official History:
6 November 1944
Gelsenkirchen: 738 aircraft – 383 Halifaxes, 324 Lancasters, 31 Mosquitos.
3 Lancasters and 2 Halifaxes lost.
This large daylight raid had, as its aiming point, the Nordstern synthetic-oil plant. The attack was not well concentrated but 514 aircraft were able to bomb the approximate position of the oil plant before smoke obscured the ground; 187 aircraft then bombed the general town area of Gelsenkirchen.