Seventeen year olds hold defences in burning Berlin

T-34-85 tanks of the 7th Guards Tank Corps in the suburbs of Berlin. In the foreground is the burning skeleton of a German car.
T-34-85 tanks of the 7th Guards Tank Corps in the suburbs of Berlin. In the foreground is the burning skeleton of a German car.

The Red Army were now in the outskirts of Berlin and a battle on the streets was beginning. Stalin was urging his Generals relentlessly on and there would be no attempt to limit Soviet casualties during the final assault on the German capital.

Inside the ruined city there were apocalyptic scenes as the various different groups of German armed resistance, from SS and regular Wehrmacht troops to the hastily recruited Volkssturm and Hitler Youth groups, were being organised into increasingly desperate lines of defence.

Seventeen year old Helmut Altner had just been called up and had began his Wehrmacht training on the 30th March. After less than two weeks in the barracks they were on the front line, continuing their training as they faced the Red Army from trenches east of Berlin. They had been lucky to survive the first attacks on the 16th and had then retreated back.

On the 23rd they were sent out again to join defences in the west of Berlin:

We come to Spandau, passing through the town’s ruins, and drive across a bridge; and turn towards Spandau-West. We are both tired and shattered. We have left the trailer sides open, so that every time we go round a bend we sway to and fro, in danger of falling off. The tractor stops almost without our noticing it.

Everyone grabs his things and we are standing on the street again. The tractor drives off, the sound of its engine gradually fading in the distance until it vanishes completely. Peace reigns over the streets, only our footsteps raising a loud echo from the walls of the passing buildings.

We march along the streets half asleep. Then we stop at an air raid shelter and rest for a minute before going on again. The buildings are set farther back from the street now and gardens begin to appear.The second lieutenant says that we are approaching Hakenfelde.

Slit trenches have been dug into the verges and the foundations of an anti-tank barrier await completion. On our left the wood piles and sheds of a large sawmill are burning fiercely, throwing a bright light across the street.

Another aircraft clatters over and we throw ourselves down and wait for the howling of the bombs, which hit the burning sheds and scatter sparks, sending burning planks whirling into the air. And again one hears the tacking of the engine as the plane flies at its target, the whistling and the exploding bombs.

The street is lit up as light as day. We press ourselves tight against the wire mesh fence, as if it could give us cover, clutching at the earth with our fingers. Across the street the bombs continue to strike into the flames, whipping them up even higher. Our hearts beat wildly, praying for it all to end. Then it quietens down as the humming of the aircraft engine dwindles in the distance.

We brush the sand off our uniforms and march on. An apartment block looms out of the night on the left, and on the right a vast building with hundreds of windows reflects the flames. A long, high brick wall separates the Hakenfelde Aircraft Instrument Factory from the street. Suddenly the hum of aircraft engines returns and they are overhead again.

The roaring resumes and we throw ourselves down, pressing tight against the brick wall and wait, wait as we have already done so often. Then come the bangs and splintering as the bombs strike the stone colossus next to us. Splinters and masonry shower down around us, falling on our steel helmets and our bodies. The explosions in the street go on and on. The lights in the stairwell of the building across the street suddenly come on. We shout, and it goes dark again, except for the fires burning everywhere, lighting up the street.

At last it is quiet. We run across the street and dive into the building, then go down the steps into the cellar, where a burning candle spreads a little light. The second lieutenant is sitting in a corner asleep, having fled into the cellar as soon as the bombing started. I sit down in a corner and try to sleep. Outside the bombing has started again.

A bright light comes from the entrance to an air raid shelter and a man comes out. A radio is quietly playing marches. Suddenly a voice comes from the set: ‘The fighting for the capital has intensified. . . Kopenick railway station, which had been lost, has been retaken by counter-attack and an enemy attack on it driven back. A breach by Soviet troops on Prenzlauer Allee has been contained. The enemy is pressing through the northern suburbs of Berlin.’

Then come marches again and ‘Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles!’ As Goebbels says: ‘The darkest hour comes before the dawn.’

The candle has gone out. The air raid shelter door is shut tight. Hearty snoring comes from a dark corner and someone is talking in his sleep. I curl up and try to sleep, but sleep will not come. My thoughts allow no rest, going on and on, swirling around. I look at the time. It is late. The old day has ended unnoticed and a new one has started while we have been lying here waiting. Why, I do not know.

See Helmut Altner: Berlin Soldier: An Eyewitness Account of the Fall of Berlin

Soviet tank T-34-85 accompanied by infantry moves down the street on the outskirts of Berlin.
Soviet tank T-34-85 accompanied by infantry moves down the street on the outskirts of Berlin.

‘Maximum effort’ to ‘soften up’ the Rhine

Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
Boston Mark III, AL775 ‘RH-D’, of No. 88 Squadron RAF based at Attlebridge, Norfolk, in flight.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.
North American B-25B Mitchell Mk I, FK161, the first Mitchell to be delivered to RAF Bomber Command, summer 1942.

With the Allies on the banks of the Rhine it was obvious to the Germans that they faced an amphibious assault and probably an airborne assault in the near future. They should have been in a strong position, having had a long time to prepare defences in depth. Yet their Ardennes offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had taken a heavy toll on their last remaining reserves.

Then the surprise survival of the bridge at Remagen had served to unbalance their forces. Hitler had been desperate to close down the bridgehead at Remagen and had drawn off reserves that could have been vital to the anticipated vulnerable areas elsewhere on the Rhine.

With near complete air superiority the Allied bombers were now pounding the German positions. The role of the medium bombers, a sometimes neglected aspect of the bomber war, was as vital as ever. Squadron Leader Malcohn Scott DFC, a Mitchell navigator in 180 Squadron later recalled:

For more than a week during March 1945 the Mitchells and Bostons of 2 Group had been pounding targets in the Rhineland in close support of the 21st Army Group fighting its way to the great river barrier. Some 22,000 British, Canadian and American casualties had been suffered in clearing the area between the Maas and the Rhine.

Xanten, one of 2 Group ’s earlier targets and more recently the recipient of a devastating night raid by Bomber Command, was now occupied by British and Canadian troops. The last strong bastion of the German troops on the west side had fallen and within a few days the rest of the territory was cleared and the Allied armies stood on the west bank looking at the remains of the Wesel bridge blown up by the retreating Germans.

For the six squadrons of 137 and 139 Wings in 2 Group the targets now shifted to the east side of the Rhine. At least two, occasionally three, raids were made each day on marshalling yards, communication centres and bridges, oil dumps, billeting areas and barracks, artillery emplacements and troop concentrations. Some penetrations were deeper to important rail centres but mostly attacks were concentrated in the Weser-Emmerich-Munster area where Plunder, the code name for the overall operation covering the Rhine crossing, was to take place.

Maximum effort had been ordered and quite often up to fifteen aircraft per squadron took part instead of the usual dozen aircraft in two boxes of six.

Montgomery’s preparations for the Rhine crossing were, as always, massive and painstaking: troops being ferried to the rear echelons to practise ‘boat drill’ and the handling of small craft up and down the muddy banks of the River Maas at night in preparation for the real thing.

There could be no misleading or attempted feints this time. Within a mile or two, the Germans could estimate where the Allied crossing would be made. As Kesselring wrote, ‘The enemy’s operations in a clearly limited area, bombing raids on headquarters and the smoke-screening and assembly of bridging materials, indicated their intention to attack between Emmerich and Dinslaken with the point of the main effort on either side of Rees.’ The only questions facing the enemy was when and how?

Always before, the Allies had launched a parachute and glider attack as a prelude to the full force of the main assault. Kesselring could but wait to see where the paras dropped, or so he thought. In the meantime, RAF medium bombers and Typhoons and the 9th AF Marauders and Thunderbolts carried on with their now familiar role of ‘softening up’ the area around the chosen points of the great river and the hinterland of the proposed bridgeheads on the east bank.

One important road and rail junction town and troop-billeting area was Bocholt, which became the object of almost daily attacks and quickly gained a reputation for providing a very warm reception. On 18 March it was bombed and again two days later. We all got back but with our aircraft and a few aircrew heavily peppered by shrapnel.

The next morning, 21 March, Bocholt was again listed as the target. On the bombing run No. 1 in the box was badly damaged and an air gunner’s leg was almost shot away but the pilot retained control and made an emergency landing at Eindhoven. No. 2 in the box received a direct hit as the bombs fell away and virtually disintegrated, taking down No. 3, an all-Australian crew, from which one parachute was seen to emerge. This belonged to an air gunner who although captured on landing was freed eight days later by advancing British troops. The pilot of No. 4 was severely injured, shrapnel smashing through his right thigh bone but he managed to retain consciousness long enough to get his aircraft back over friendly territory after bombing, before passing out. The mid-upper gunner then took over the controls and managed under the pilot’s guidance to crash land at the first airfield en route without further casualties.

The leading aircraft of the second box was seriously damaged by flak, wounding an air gunner but the pilot pressed on, bombed and led his formation back over the Rhine before breaking away to force land at Eindhoven. Bocholt deserved its thick red ring on the map as a place to be avoided if possible!

Of the twelve 180 Squadron Mitchells that had left Melsbroek earlier only seven returned to base, all with varying degrees of flak damage and some with wounded aboard.

This account appears in Martin Bowman(ed): The Reich Intruders: Dramatic RAF Medium Bomber Raids Over Europe in World War Two.

The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
The 5.5-inch guns of 235 and 336 Medium Batteries, Royal Artillery, fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.
Royal Artillery 7.2-inch howitzers being brought up to fire in support of the Rhine crossing, 21 March 1945.

‘Ace in a Day’ as P-51 pilot downs five FW-190s

A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword 'Grand Slam') is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.
A 26 foot long 22,000-lb MC high explosive deep-penetration bomb (Bomber Command executive codeword ‘Grand Slam’) is manoeuvred onto a trolley by crane in the bomb dump at Woodhall Spa, Lincolnshire, for an evening raid by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the railway bridge at Nienburg, Germany. 20 aircraft took part in the raid and the target was destroyed.

The 14th March saw the first operational use of the RAF’s latest weapon – the ‘Grand Slam’ deep penetration bomb. Another design by Barnes Wallis of ‘bouncing bomb’ fame, the bomb was designed to penetrate the ground before exploding with enough force to cause shock waves that would knock down nearby structures – targets that did not not necessarily have to be hit directly. The bomb produced a 70 foot deep 130 foot wide crater. It was also used against the thick concrete of the U-boat pens.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley. CL 2189 Part of AIR MINISTRY SECOND WORLD WAR OFFICIAL COLLECTION Creator No. 1 106 (PR) Group
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, after the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts have collapsed as a result of the detonation of 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs in the target area. Craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb 'Grand Slam' and 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.
Oblique photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the twin railway viaducts at Schildesche, Bielefeld, following the successful daylight attack by 15 Avro Lancasters of No. 617 Squadron RAF on 14 March 1945. Five arches of the viaducts collapsed after 22,000-lb ‘Grand Slam’ and 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs were dropped in the target area. Numerous craters from previous attempts to demolish the structure can be seen covering the floor of the Johannisbach Valley.

Elsewhere the near complete air superiority that was being achieved across Europe by the Allied air forces was dramatically demonstrated by the USAAF 325th Fighter Group based in Rimini, Italy. The Luftwaffe was now struggling not only with a lack of fuel but with a shortage of experienced pilots. Nevertheless the achievements of Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel, who became an “ace in a day” by downing five aircraft in one sortie, were exceptional:

The Mission Report which included the 'Ace in a Day' record for Lt. McDaniel.
The Mission Report for the 325th Fighter Group which included the ‘Ace in a Day’ record for Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel.

A couple of days later Lt. McDaniel was interviewed by ABC News reporter Clete Roberts and gave this account:

There really wasn’t much to it.  There we were cruising aloft at about 20,000 feet.  We’d  just begun to let down.  I happened to look over the side and there … far below me … I spotted several planes.  They were traveling west…

We were headed east.  We were in an area where anything could happen.  Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to hold their fire until we positively identified the planes below us.  You see, I thought they might be Russian planes.  I certainly didn’t want to get in a fight if they were.  

So… we dropped in behind them.  They never knew we were there.  They were flying a pretty sloppy formation.  Sort of strung out in a long uneven line.  I closed up behind the last plane … about 150 feet from him.  There was no doubt about it … they were Jerry planes.  

The guy directly ahead of me had a big white “3” and a black cross on the side of his plane.  Well that-was enough for me.  Over the radio … I told the rest of the men to drop their gas tanks and get ready to hit ’em.  

Then I opened fire on the Jerry nearest me.  He just blew up …almost in my face.  I ducked my head as parts of his plane scattered around my ship.  He never knew what hit him.  

The Jerries ahead still didn’t know we were there.  I opened fire on the next one … one wing and part of his tail fell off and he spun out of sight.  

Then the three remaining German planes started to dive toward the earth.  I still don’t  believe they knew we were in behind them.  

I rode down on their tail … firing at the third German … his canopy popped off and I saw him jump … I don’t think he had a parachute.  

I started firing at the fourth German … he blossomed with flame and started to smoke and burn.  When he went into a spin … I concentrated on the fifth one.

I’m sure he knew I was after him.  He dropped down to about 100 feet above the deck.  He started to skid around a little … trying to evade me.  But it was no use.  I hit him … my wing man saw him spin in and burn.  

It was then I discovered that there was only two of us against the five Germans. You see, two of my planes had to drop out of the fight because of trouble … That’s all there was to it…

For more on the story see Ace 1945.

Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.
Lt. Gordon H. McDaniel is presented with an Ace by his commanding officer.

Tokyo firestorm – deadliest bombing raid ever

B-29A-30-BN (42-94106) on a long-range mission in 1945.
B-29A-30-BN (42-94106) on a long-range mission in 1945.

In November 1944 the USAAF’ largest bomber, the B-29 Superfortress, had become operational from airfields on the Marianna islands and were now within range of Tokyo. Previously they had operated from bases in China which were not within range of the Japanese capital. At first the bombers used conventional high explosive bombs from high altitude. By March 1945 they had switched to a larger mix of napalm incendiary bombs, released from a lower altitude at night, a tactic designed to overcome the weak Japanese air defences.

On the night of the 9-10th March in the largest raid yet, 279 Superfortresses dropped 1,665 tons of bombs on Tokyo, the bulk of them the 500lb M-69 Cluster Bomb, nicknamed the ‘Tokyo Calling Cards’:

The raid was centered on a residential area of Tokyo where, it was argued, there were a large number of small workshops which contributed to the Japanese war effort. The bombs had a devastating impact on the predominantly wooden housing in the residential areas of Tokyo, with a gusting wind adding to their effect, soon turning the huge conflagration into an out of control firestorm. A vast area of the city was set alight and the fire fighting capabilities of the city were completely overwhelmed.

Funato Kazuto was a schoolgirl living with her family in Tokyo:

There was a preliminary alert — three or four planes – but immediately, the warning was canceled. Just reconnaissance, they must have thought. Then the full force of the raid hit. When Mother woke me, all was in a terrible uproar, great loud noises everywhere. Father had to dash to his duty station at the school with his iron helmet and his haversack, because he was on the medical detail of the Vigilance Corps.

At that time we always slept in monpe[trousers], so I awoke Hiroko while my mother put the baby on her back, and we went into the shelter dug under the shop. My three brothers had gone out to extinguish small fires from incendiary bombs. Suddenly Koichi rushed in and told us to run in the direction of the school before our escape route was cut off. “We’ll come later,” he said.

When we went out, we could see that to the west, in the direction of Fukagawa, everything was bright red. The north wind was incredibly strong. The drone of the planes was an overwhelming roar, shaking earth and sky. Everywhere, incendiary bombs were falling.

The baby on Momma’s back howled. I had Hiroko by the hand. Teruko was staying at Grandmothers house. Minoru went there to get them. When he arrived, incendiary bombs were falling heavily and nobody was around, so feeling himself in great danger, he turned back.

Mother, the baby, Hiroko, and I were by then in the shelters behind the school. They were uncovered and were more like lines of trenches. This was where we were supposed to assemble if anything happened.

Incendiaries began hitting near the school and the line of fire was coming closer. People panicked. Running, screaming. “We’re all going to die! The fire’s coming!” The sound of incendiary bombs falling, “Whizzz,” the deafening reverberations of the planes, and the great roar of fire and wind overwhelmed us. “If we stay here we’ll die! Let’s run!”

Everybody danced to this theme. My mother and I, too. Many people who stayed there survived, but almost as if we were compelled to heed those voices calling, “Women and children, follow us. Why are you hesitating?” we jumped out. Somebody was shouting, “If you go toward Sunamachi you’ll be safe!” Sunamachi was south of our house.

Large bombs had fallen in that area weeks before and many parts of Sunamachi were nothing but vacant lots. Sunamachi was downwind and it was an ironclad rule to go upwind in a fire, but we couldn’t go any further in the other direction. A firestorm lay that way. You’d have to go through it, and so many people were running madly away from the fire.

“Make for Sunamachi!” We left the shelter and crossed the wooden bridge over the drainage ditch in front of the school. Then we ran into our three brothers. My father, too. The Vigilance Corps had given up. I felt, “At last we’re safe.”

We got to the foot of the small Oshima Bridge they wouldn’t let us enter the park. It was already full of people coming from the Fukagawa direc- tion. We had to backtrack through that firestorm. Even two or three minutes was a terrible loss of time.

“Hold on tight, don’t be separated,” Minoru told me as he took my hand. Koichi put Hiroko on his back. We ran in the direction of Sunamachi. There are many rivers and bridges in that direction. We reached Shinkai Bridge. Sunamachi lay beyond, but that’s where we were all scattered.

The wind and flames became terrific. We were in Hell. All the houses were burning, debris raining down on us. It was horrible. Sparks flew everywhere. Electric wires sparked and toppled.

Mother, with my little brother on her back, had her feet swept out from under her by the wind and she rolled away. Father jumped after her. “Are you all right?” he screamed. Yoshiaki shouted, “Dad!”

The charred body of a woman who was carrying a child on her back
The charred body of a woman who was carrying a child on her back

I don’t know if his intention was to rescue Father or to stay with him, but they all disappeared instantly into the flames and black smoke. Everything was buming. In front of us were factories, red flames belching from windows. Koichi, Minoru, Hiroko, and I, the four of us, were the only ones left.

There was thick shrubbery and a slight dip at the foot of the bridge, and we huddled together there. Koichi shouted that we couldn’t go further, and we really couldn’t go back. Many people jumped into Onagigawa, twenty meters wide.

We could just barely see a roadside shelter from where we were. Ditches had been dug along many roadsides in case of air raids. Koichi took Hiroko’s hand and I clung to Minoru. We dashed across the road through the flames.

Hiroko’s headgear caught fire. It was stuffed with cotton. The four of us tumbled into the shelter. We tried to remove the burning cover from her head, but it was tied tight so as not to be blown away by the wind. Hiroko tried to pull it off herself, so both her hands were burned. Her hair burned, too.

We were finally able to tear it off and smothered the fire with our legs. We lay flat on our stomachs, thinking that we would be all right if the fire was gone by morning, but the fire kept pelting down on us.

Minoru suddenly let out a horrible scream and leapt out of the shelter, flames shooting out of his back. Koichi stood up calling, “Minoru!” and instantly, he too, was blown away. Only Hiroko and I remained.

This is part of a longer account that appears in Haruko Taya Cook (ed): Japan at War: An Oral History.

The raid was far more lethal than earlier raids on Dresden and Hamburg and even the later atomic bombs would not kill as many people. The US Strategic Bombing Survey later estimated that nearly 88,000 people died, with 41,000 injured, while the Tokyo Fire Department estimated 97,000 killed and 125,000 wounded. Subsequent research, based on known population densities in the areas affected, has suggested that both of these are underestimates. Around a million people were made homeless.

This Tokyo residential section was virtually destroyed.
This Tokyo residential section was virtually destroyed.
Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945.
Charred remains of Japanese civilians after the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of 9–10 March 1945.
Apost raid analysis of the damage done to Tokyo.
A post raid analysis of the damage done to Tokyo.

Churchill – on the ‘terror’ bombing of Germany

Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees
Berlin, December 1943: victims of a bombing raid are laid out for identification and burial in a gymnasium decorated with Christmas trees
An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.
An Avro Lancaster of No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron RAF flying over the smoke-covered target area during a daylight attack on the oil refinery and storage depot of Deutsche Vacuum AG at Bremen, Germany, by 133 Lancasters of No. 1 Group and 6 De Havilland Mosquitos of No. 8 Group.
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb ('Cookie') and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.
Still from film shot in an Avro Lancaster by the RAF Film Production Unit, during a daylight attack on the Luftwaffe airfield and signals depot at St Cyr, France, by aircraft of No. 5 Group. A 4,000-lb HC bomb (‘Cookie’) and a smaller 500-lb MC bomb are seen just after they were released over the target.

On the 23rd February Sir Arthur Harris, head of RAF Bomber Command had gone to dinner with Winston Churchill at the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers. John Colville, Churchill’s Private Secretary had then asked him about the recent raid on Dresden:

Before dinner, while waiting in the Great Hall for the P.M. to come down, I asked Sir Arthur Harris what the effect of the raid on Dresden had been. “Dresden?” he said. ”There is no such place as Dresden.”

Though the obliteration of Dresden later became a topic which aroused widespread indignation, it was not at the time regarded as different from previous “saturation” bombing attacks on Hamburg, Cologne and, above all, Berlin.

A principal reason for the Dresden raid was the intelligence report, received from the Russians, that one or possibly two German armoured divisions had arrived there from Italy on their way to reinforce the defence of the eastern front.

Churchill was on his way back from Yalta when the raid took place and since it was in accord with the general policy of bombing German towns massively, so as to shatter civilian morale, I do not think he was consulted about the raid. He never mentioned it in my presence, and I am reasonably sure he would have done so if it had been regarded as anything at all special.

Dresden had gained some attention in the days since the raid because of the efforts of Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister. His press release for 16th February had argued that:

they desire to obliterate and annihilate the German people and all its remaining possessions

See John Colville: The Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries, 1939-1955

An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.

Goebbels, master of ‘the big lie’, began spreading rumours that a quarter of a million Germans, or even more, had died in the raid. He had successfully started a controversy that was to continue for decades. In fact the most accurate local figures compiled by the Dresden police put the figure at around 25,000, an official estimate that did not become available in the west for many years.

Whether or not Churchill was responding directly to the German propaganda being reported in the international press, he certainly began to recognise that the policy of bombing Germany needed to be reviewed. On the 28th February he drafted a memorandum:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.

In response to this draft, Sir Arthur Harris, wrote to the Air Ministry, on the 29th:

I … assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks. This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe.

Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

The feeling, such as there is, over Dresden, could be easily explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden shepherdesses. Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.

As a consequence of this and other comments from senior Allied commanders, Churchill issued a revised memorandum on 1st April:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of the so called ‘area-bombing’ of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely ruined land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our allies. … We must see to it that our attacks do no more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do to the enemy’s war effort.

Berlin, February 1945.
Berlin, February 1945.

Fatal error at 18,000 feet over Germany

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command's first Victoria Cross.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the damaged twin acqueducts carrying the Dortmund-Ems canal over the Ems river near Munster, Germany, following the low-level attack by Handley Page Hampdens of No. 5 Group on the night of 12/13 August 1940. For making a particularly determined attack in his badly-damaged Hampden during this raid, Flight Lieutenant R A B Learoyd of No. 49 Squadron RAF was awarded Bomber Command’s first Victoria Cross.

RAF Bomber Command had hardly paused since the attack on Dresden a week earlier. A series of attacks on Wesel were designed to support the advance of the armies approaching the Rhine. A large attack on the town of Bohlen on the night of the 19th had largely failed because the Master Bomber had been shot down early in the raid, demonstrating the narrow range of factors that separated a success from failure.

On the night of the 20th-21st three large raids were made on Dortmund, Dusseldorf and Monheim, while a ‘small diversionary raid’ of 66 Mosquitos went to Berlin simply to keep the capital’s anti-aircraft defences, and the residents, on constant alert. This last raid on Dortmund, which had been repeatedly bombed throughout the war, was so devastating that no German records survived from it. The attacks on Dusseldorf and Monheim were to successfully halt the production of synthetic oil in both locations, further contributing to the fuel crisis being suffered by the Wehrmacht.

Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb 'Tallboy' deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.
Verical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing a damaged section of the Dortmund-Ems canal near Ladbergen, north of Munster, Germany, following a raid by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command, on the night of 23/24 September 1944. Breaches have been made in the banks of two parallel branches of the canal, causing a six-mile stretch to be drained. Most of the damage was caused by two direct hits by 12,000-lb ‘Tallboy’ deep penetration bombs dropped by No. 617 Squadron RAF.

However, the German night fighters were still active, especially well prepared for raids over the Ruhr. Warrant Officer W G Pearce RAAF flying in Q—Queenie, a Lancaster flown by Flight Lieutenant A D Pelly of 156 Squadron, describes how small mistakes caused by lack of oxygen meant the difference between survival or not:

We were detailed to mark the synthetic oil refinery at Reiszholz in the Ruhr Valley. Still some way short of the target we were caught up by an enemy fighter (later identified as a Ju 88 using upward firing cannon) and the starboard inner exploded and caught fire.

The captain soon decided our position was untenable and ordered us to bail out: we didn’t need to be told twice. I discarded my flying helmet and oxygen mask (we were at 18,000 ft), picked up my para- chute pack from the floor and started to make my way to the rear door on the starboard side of the aircraft, just forward of the tail- plane.

I sat on the main wing strut, fumbling to attach the parachute pack to the clips on the front of the harness. This is where the lack of oxygen began to take effect and I thought that I had better get moving. When I eventually reached the door the mid-upper gunner was there before me.

He had made the fatal mistake of picking up his parachute pack by the shiny handle, the ripcord, and it had opened in the aircraft. He had, however clipped it to his harness and gathered the canopy in his arms. I watched him jump and saw the canopy which was torn from his grasp by the slipstream pass over the top of the tail-plane and his body beneath. His body was found later on the ground, still attached to his parachute: he had been killed by the impact when dragged back into the tail by his entangled canopy.

Now it was my turn to leave the aircraft, by now somewhat light-headed from the lack of oxygen and not too concerned by my predicament. I looked at the fire in the wing and thought ‘that sure is burning well’. The next moment I fell out of the aeroplane and after tumbling for what seemed an age thought ‘well I had better pull it now’. I was overcome by a feeling of absolute loneliness, but the cold and the lower altitude soon brought me back to my proper senses.

But I could now hear other aircraft swishing past me and was frightened of what would happen if one of them hit me: this did not happen of course. They soon passed and I was left hanging in complete silence.

As I drifted down towards a cloud bank I could see a search- light running around on the underside of this cloud. Again I was frightened of being picked up by this light and becoming target practice for an anti-aircraft battery: again my fears were groundless as the light was switched off before I entered the cloud bank.

Below the cloud the darkness was even more complete and I couldn’t see the ground. I realised I was drifting backwards and remembering my parachute drill I tried to correct; I wasn’t very successful and I hit the ground in an untidy heap.

There was very little wind and my parachute quickly collapsed, I had landed in the middle of a paddock, but had hurt my left shoulder and the arm was virtually useless.

This account appears in Martin Bowman: Reflections of War: Armageddon (27th September 1944-May 1945) (Bomber Command)

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing water pouring through a breach in the western channel of the Dortmund-Ems Canal at Ladbergen, Germany, following a daylight attack by aircraft of No. 5 Group, Bomber Command. This was the fourth time that Bomber Command had put the canal out of action, following repairs by the Germans.

Bombs and shells pound the surface of Iwo Jima

After the final mission over Iwo Jima on 15 February 1945, 1st Lt. Victor 0. Besche crosses off the most recent enemy base to enter "assignment carried out" ledger of this 7th Air Force 318th fighter group. Fellow P-38 pilots looking on are, left to right: Lt. Jack Yaeger of Tallahassee, Florida; Lt. J.T. Spivey of Suffolk, Virginia and Lt. R.G.O'Hara of Reading, Ohio. Lt. Besche is from Baltimore, Maryland. Saipan, Marianas Islands.
After the final mission over Iwo Jima on 15 February 1945, 1st Lt. Victor 0. Besche crosses off the most recent enemy base to enter “assignment carried out” ledger of this 7th Air Force 318th fighter group. Fellow P-38 pilots looking on are, left to right: Lt. Jack Yaeger of Tallahassee, Florida; Lt. J.T. Spivey of Suffolk, Virginia and Lt. R.G.O’Hara of Reading, Ohio. Lt. Besche is from Baltimore, Maryland. Saipan, Marianas Islands.
28th Photo Recon - In front of one of their first photo reconnaissance planes in the Marianas Islands, these six 7th AaF Lightning pilots indicate the 12-foot stack which the 17,170 prints from their pre-invasion photographs of Iwo Jima would make if assembled in one heap. Flying l,600 miles per round trip in their unarmed Lightnings to race across Iwo Jima 50 feet above Jap gun muzzles, these pilots took pictures for Army, Navy and Marine units planning the invasion of Iwo Jima. L. to R. on grounds 2nd_Lt. Floy Portor, Memphis, Tenn.; lst Lt. Lloyd Q. Mettes, Atlanta, Mo.; 2nd Marshall E. Mullens Omaha, Nebr.; and lst Lt. Alfred A. Wooton, Buckeye, Ariz. On shoulders; Capt. Bennie P. Bearden, Decatur, Texas. On nose; 1st Lt. Leo F. Wilkinson, Oxford, Ind.
28th Photo Recon – In front of one of their first photo reconnaissance planes in the Marianas Islands, these six 7th AaF Lightning pilots indicate the 12-foot stack which the 17,170 prints from their pre-invasion photographs of Iwo Jima would make if assembled in one heap. Flying l,600 miles per round trip in their unarmed Lightnings to race across Iwo Jima 50 feet above Jap gun muzzles, these pilots took pictures for Army, Navy and Marine units planning the invasion of Iwo Jima. L. to R. on grounds 2nd_Lt. Floy Portor, Memphis, Tenn.; lst Lt. Lloyd Q. Mettes, Atlanta, Mo.; 2nd Marshall E. Mullens Omaha, Nebr.; and lst Lt. Alfred A. Wooton, Buckeye, Ariz. On shoulders; Capt. Bennie P. Bearden, Decatur, Texas. On nose; 1st Lt. Leo F. Wilkinson, Oxford, Ind.
Bombs from U.S. Army 7th Air Force planes are seen here about to fall on Iwo Jima. Although tiny, the island is the only major airbase between the Marianas and Japan. It is the last air barrier before the home islands, guarding the southeastern approach to the Empire. U.S. planes bomb it again and again.
Bombs from U.S. Army 7th Air Force planes are seen here about to fall on Iwo Jima. Although tiny, the island is the only major airbase between the Marianas and Japan. It is the last air barrier before the home islands, guarding the southeastern approach to the Empire. U.S. planes bomb it again and again.

The US forces in the Pacific now moved onto another staging post on the route to the Japanese mainland. Iwo Jima was half-way between the Mariana islands, already in US hands, and Japan itself. Capturing it would prevent it being used by the Japanese to spot or intercept bombers en route to Japan and would halve the distance the US bombers needed to fly. The initial assessment was that it could be captured relatively easily.

On the 16th February 1945 Marine Brigadier General William W. Rogers held a press conference on the command ship USS Eldorado, telling those present that the coming invasion of Iwo Jima would take five days. Strong fighting on the beaches was expected followed by counter-attacks at night – suicidal Banzai charges. But once the initial resistance was over they could take the island quickly.

There were reasons to believe that the Japanese forces on Iwo Jima were seriously weakened, they had been subject to bombing since mid 1944, and they had been bombed every single day for the past 74 days, with a total of 6,800 tons of bombs. In addition there had been periodic, intense, naval bombardments, which started again on the 16th.

It seemed hard to believe that anything could survive on the island after this plastering – but the raids had served to encourage the Japanese in their new strategy of moving underground and waiting for the invasion troops to come to them.

The battleship USS New York firing its 356 mm (14.0 in) main guns on the island, 16 February 1945
The battleship USS New York firing its 356 mm (14.0 in) main guns on the island, 16 February 1945

Takahashi Toshiharu was a corporal in the Japanese First Mixed Brigade of Engineers, responsible for building some of the eleven miles of tunnels and underground bunkers on the island:

The guns that were trained on the island all spurted fire at the same time. On the island there was a huge earthquake. There were pillars of fire that looked as if they would touch the sky.

Black smoke covered the island, and shrapnel was flying all over the place with a shrieking sound. Trees with trunks one meter across were blown out of the ground, roots uppermost.

The sound was deafening, as terrible as a couple of hundred thunderclaps coming down at once.

Even in a cave thirty meters underground, my body was jerked up off the ground. It was hell on earth.

Next, large planes—many tens of them—came all together. They made a deep rumbling sound as they came. They were silver. Once over the island they dropped one-ton bombs — terrifying things. The sound they made as they fell, one after another, was terrifying. A timid man would go insane.

They made a whistling sound as they fell. Then the earth shook. There were explosions. Rocks, earth, and sand all flew up into the air. Then they fell back down. They made craters ten meters wide and five meters deep in the earth.

No one could survive in these conditions. Any Japanese soldiers, like the runners who went outside, were all killed. The only option was to take advantage of the night and go out then.

See Kumiko Kakehashi: Letters from Iwo Jima: The Japanese Eyewitness Stories That Inspired Clint Eastwood’s Film

The bombing was so intense that vast quantities of earth were dislodged from the summit of Mount Suribachi, the heighest point on the island was now somewhat lower.

Boeing B-29s from their new base on Tinian pound the air strip on Iwo Jima during the pre invasion "softening up" process. One of the two Jap airfields on Iwo Jima is shown here completely blanketed by 500 pounders dropped from the 21st Bomber Command Superforts.
Boeing B-29s from their new base on Tinian pound the air strip on Iwo Jima during the pre invasion “softening up” process. One of the two Jap airfields on Iwo Jima is shown here completely blanketed by 500 pounders dropped from the 21st Bomber Command Superforts.
The entire, tiny, eight-square-mile island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Group, halfway between Saipan and Tokyo, is seen under attack by U.S. Army 7th Air Force Consolidated B-24 Liberators. A cross-like airfield is directly in the center of the island, beneath the smoke of bombs, and the triangular field is clearly visible to its right. 7th Air Force Liberators have pounded Iwo Jima since August.
The entire, tiny, eight-square-mile island of Iwo Jima in the Volcano Group, halfway between Saipan and Tokyo, is seen under attack by U.S. Army 7th Air Force Consolidated B-24 Liberators. A cross-like airfield is directly in the center of the island, beneath the smoke of bombs, and the triangular field is clearly visible to its right. 7th Air Force Liberators have pounded Iwo Jima since August.

Shot down and in the hands of the SS

A B-26 Marauder from the 444th Bombardment Squadron.
A B-26 Marauder from the 444th Bombardment Squadron.
A U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-17G-50-VE Flying Fortress.
A U.S. Army Air Force Boeing B-17G-50-VE Flying Fortress.

Almost every German town and city was now damaged by bombing, many were completely laid waste, and still there was no end in sight. It was a perilous time for any downed aircrew who happened to fall into German hands. There were several incidents of mob lynching where the German military authorities either failed to intervene or openly provoked a crowd into attacking their prisoners.

As the situation in Germany deteriorated men who had been injured during their escape from their plane faced a very difficult time. James Romine had been a rear gunner in a bomber squadron in the 8th Air Force. He had been shot down on the 10th February, and was shot in the leg by small arms fire from the ground as he descended by parachute. Bleeding heavily, his attempts to evade capture did not last long, and he had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the SS:

I was taken prisoner by SS troopers who forced me at fixed bayonet to walk on my injured leg to a village about two and a half miles away. Had I at any point come across with the information they sought I’m sure they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of taking me prisoner.

Before we got to the village I sat down and refused to walk further, so they held a confab and sent for transportation to carry me the rest of the way. There was a German first aid station in the village, but they merely took a look at my wounds and replaced the bandages I myself had put on.

Three SS officers proceeded to question me for several hours, then stripped me of all my clothing, wrapped me in a blanket and took me about 16 kilometres by horse and wagon to a point somewhere west of the Rhine. We arrived at a German evacuation hospital, where there were about 300 wounded Germans and where they left me for a day and a night with no medical attention.

Then we started on another trip further into Germany, to the finest hospital one could ask for anywhere — large, modern and shining. Here at last, I thought, was a chance to have my wounds dressed.

Instead, they tossed me into a small room in the attic of the three-storey hospital along with nine other American infantry boys, two of whom were to die during my three days there. There were four legs left among those nine men in that room, their stumps were raw and uncared for.

We lay on filthy straw mats, lice-covered and nauseous from the indescribable stench that hung over the room. The daily diet consisted of coffee and a piece of black bread in the morning and at night a small cereal bowl of potato soup. SS men came in periodically to question me further; how they could endure entering the room is beyond me.

The cruel deaths which those fellows were lefi to face, amid supposedly civilised surroundings where all medical facilities were at hand, is a testimonial to German brutality that will never be forgotten by those of us who lived to relate the facts.

After three days of futile questioning the Germans put me in an ambulance and drove me across the Rhine to a waiting train, the carriages of which were painted white with red crosses and which, I found out later, were loaded with ammunition for the Russian front.

I was laid in a carriage, with a foot—deep layer of horse manure and straw as a mattress. Inside with me they put a Polish pilot who spoke very little English and for six days we lay there with no water to drink and just two or three sandwiches during the whole trip. The train was stopped several times by American planes but they were fooled by the red crosses and it wasn’t strafed.

This account appears in War’s Long Shadow. The account states that Romine was with the 544th Bomb Squadron, flying B-26s. The 544th flew B-17s but the 344th flew B-26s – so one or other must be a misprint.

Berlin in Febraury March 1945
Berlin in February March 1945
Berlin, February 1945.
Berlin, February 1945.

Ash Wednesday in burning Dresden

The effects of intense heat which has killed a number of people in a shelter.
The effects of intense heat which has killed a number of people in a shelter.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden.
An overview of the widespread destruction in the centre of Dresden, later in 1945.

For Victor Klemperer the bombing of Dresden had actually brought salvation. As one of the few surviving Jews in the city, he had spent the 13th February distributing official letters warning most of the remaining Jews to report for “deportation”. Few had any illusions about what this meant – they were either going to a concentration camp or they were going to be worked to death digging tank ditches somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

He had spent a terrifying night, separated from his ‘Aryan’ wife, the single factor that had prevented him from being sent off to the concentration camps before now. Re-united with Eva in the early morning she had immediately cut off the yellow star on his overcoat. From now on, in the confusion following the bombing, he would assume a ‘purely German’ identity. Like tens of thousands of others he had lost everything, including his identity papers, in the fire. Miraculously his diary, which chronicles life in wartime Germany in great detail, had survived.

Fortunately he was to survive the wave of USAAF bombers that raided the city just after midday and the random attacks of Mustang fighters that were sent to strafe and harass the rescue services during the day:

We walked slowly, for I was now carrying both bags, and my limbs hurt, along the river-bank [. . .]. Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of the stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. Fires were stilllburning in many of the buildings on the road above.

At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax such as one sees in barber’s shop windows.

Metal frames of destroyed vehicles, burnt-out sheds. Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things, they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.

Then we turned right towards the town again – I let Eva lead the way and do not know where. Every house a burnt-out ruin, but often people outside on the street with household goods they had saved. Again and again fires still burning. Nowhere a sign of attempts to extinguish them. [. . .] Not until we came to the hospitals, was I able to orientate myself.

An ambulance stopped on the open space in front of us; people surrounded it, stretchers with wounded lay on the ground nearby. On a little bench by the door of the vehicle an ambulance man was dispensing eye-drops; there were a great many people whose eyes were more or less badly affected. It was very soon my turn. ‘Now, dad, I’m not going to hurt you!’ He removed some dirt from the injured eye with the edge of a small piece of paper, then put stinging drops in both eyes.

Feeling a little relieved, I walked slowly back; after a few steps I heard the ugly hum of an aircraft above me coming rapidly closer and diving. I ran towards the wall, where there were already some other people lying, threw myself to the ground, my head against the wall, my arm over my face. There was already an explosion, and little bits of rubble trickled down on to me. I lay there for a little while longer, I thought: ‘Just don’t get killed now!’ There were a few more distant explosions, then there was silence.

… [They found an organised refuge …]

It was difficult to find a seat on the benches. The seriously wounded lay on the ground on stretchers, blankets or mattresses, some rooms were entirely organised as a hospital, filled only with people lying there. Soldiers and ambulancemen came and went, more stretchers were brought in. Where I found a place, it was perhaps in the middle room, there was a soldier on the ground groaning terribly, a strapping fellow with big legs and feet. Everyone who passed stumbled over his boots, the man, completely unconscious, was no longer aware of anything.

Much later, it was already late in the evening, a senior medical orderly called out that everyone would now get something to eat. Then a basin appeared with white packets of bread, two double sandwiches in each packet. But after a few minutes we were told: Each packet must be shared between two people. I shared with Eva. But what most people – though not, curiously enough, ourselves – missed more than food was something to drink.

At the beginning people had got hold of a little tea somewhere and distributed it by the mouthful. Soon there was nothing at all, not a drop of water, not even for the wounded and dying. The medical orderlies complained that they could not help anyone. The vigorous Waldmann felt tormented by thirst to such a degree that he literally began to fade away. He fell asleep, started up in a wretched state, he had been dreaming of drinking. New medical orderlies came. One put a bottle to Waldmann’s mouth.

Another, evidently a doctor, stood in front of the (wounded) man groaning on the floor. ‘The lungs?’ I asked. – Oedema, came the indifferent reply. After a while the groaning stopped, a little foam came from his mouth. But the man’s face went on moving for a long time, before he lay still. Later the corpse was taken out.

See Victor Klemperer: I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years

A pile of bodies awaits public cremation in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing.
A pile of bodies awaits public cremation in the aftermath of the Dresden bombing.

Maximum Effort: USAAF send a 1000 B-17s to Berlin

The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.
The route taken by the B-17 crews to Berlin on 3rd February, out across Europe, back over the North Sea.

When the RAF had launched their 1000 Bomber Raids in 1942 they had been epic endeavours that made history. Now the USAAF 8th Air Force was able to mount a 1000 bomber raid in broad daylight with its force of B-17s alone – at the same time 434 B-24s hit the Rothensee oil plant at Magdeburg and targets in the vicinity. On the night of 2nd/3rd RAF Bomber Command had sent 1,252 bombers to hit Germany and on the night of the 3rd/4th over 510 bombers would return.

A large attack on a city centre was unusual for the 8th Airforce – but this raid was undertaken in the belief that the Sixth Panzer Army was being transported by rail across the city, heading for the Eastern front. It was argued that the attack was necessary to support the Red Army.

This was the Mission Report of just one of the Bombardment Squadrons taking part, the 614th, part of the 401 Bombardment Group:

This was an attack on “Big B”, a visual attack for a change. Strikes by the 500 lb G.Ps were seen on the marshalling yards and its surrounding area not previously damaged. The 614th flew the High Element of each Box. There were no fighters but the flak was moderate to intense. Five of the nine 614th aircraft received battle damage. Aircraft 44-6508, piloted by Lt. King, was hit by flak and headed towards the Russian lines – later to turn up out of the blue in mid-March with an interesting story to tell.

This was a 1,000 B-17 attack on the German capital with a 500 escort of fighters – the biggest single raid by the 8th A.F. on a single target, the 401st furnishing a 36 aircraft Group flying as the 94th “B” Group. Captain J.R. Locher was the Air Commander of the Group. The specific target was the Tempelhof marshalling yards and the weather over the target was clear although the preceeding eight Groups left the target area completely covered with smoke.

The Group used the RF-Grid with outlying checkpoints and the Lead and Low Squadrons results were excellent. The High Squadron a little short but they were still in the immediate area of the MPI. There was no escaping the flak over the German capital and the Group found the flak moderate to intense and accurate. Twenty-two of the Group’s aircraft sustained battle damage with one aircraft MIA and two crew members wounded. The escort fighters made sure that the Luftwaffe stayed away from the bombers, shooting down 21 of them in combats. The 614th loading list was as follows: 42-97602 Stauffer, 43-38646 Thompson, 44-6508 King (MIA), 42-97395 Babcock, 42-97478 White, 43-38458 Hartsock, 43-38677 Moran, 42-39012 Richardson.

Details of any bombing missions can be found by searching at 8th Air Force Historical Society.

The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.
The first bombs fall on Berlin on 3rd February.

Leonard Streitfeld was a bombardier with the 398th Bomb Group, he describes how his own plane approached the target area:

Our group was to be ninth over the target and, as we approached the “IP”, all we could see was smoke and flak over the target area. The smoke had completely covered the city and the sky was peppered with flak bursts that we were going to fly through. As the flak increased in intensity, we were hit in the Tokyo Tanks (Auxiliary tanks for long missions) on the right wing, then the vertical stabilizer, followed by holes in the right waist and in the floor of the nose of the plane where Coy and I were sitting. The flak was stopped by armor plating in the floor. We could hear the pinging sound as the flak hit the plane and it’s a sound that you can never forget for all those who experienced it.

The fact that there were so many bomb groups on this mission one group blended in with the other and there seemed to be a continuous stream of planes close enough that we could see them dropping their bombs.

Due to the strong headwinds that day the true air speed on the bomb run was only 90 MPH. We were sitting ducks. We saw a few planes in the distance get direct hits and go down. One of them exploded leaving a large cloud of black smoke in it’s place.

Whenever a plane was going down we started to count the chutes. It was hoped that everyone would escape but many times the plane would blow up by the time we counted to four or five. It wasn’t pleasant to watch but there was nothing we could do about it except be thankful that it wasn’t our plane that was shot down.

I used to wonder what would happen to me if we were shot down and they saw the “H” on my dog tags. The dog tags had to be worn by everyone and identified their name, rank, serial number and religion. (C meant Catholic, P meant Protestant and H meant Hebrew.) If anyone did not have their tags on and were shot down and captured, that could have been reason to be shot as a spy.

I couldn’t wait until the lead ship dropped its bombs and it seemed like forever before they were released. All of the planes followed suit and unloaded their deadly cargo. The bomb bay doors on every plane began to slowly close as we headed away from the dangerously saturated flak area. The flak eventually thinned out and we were soon in the clear. Although there were enemy fighters in the air, we did not encounter any.

The mission lasted nine hours and most of us would have been glad to go back if we could inflict as much damage again. We would do anything to help bring this war to an end sooner.

See Leonard Streitfeld: Hell from Heaven

Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.
Smoke starts to cover the target as more bombers arrive.

Robert A Hand was a bombardier on his 35th and last mission:

“Well goddamn it, Robert,” I thought to myself, “This is what you yearned for so badly, isn’t it? Life in the Army Air Force with all its thrills . . . . dusting off the clouds in a great airplane . . . . . flying combat as a crew member of a “Big Ass Bird” . . . . getting your jollies as a Bombardier with your very own $10,000 Norden “Bomb-Aimer-And- Dropper” and sitting up front with the most exciting, panoramic view in the airplane.

And how about those endless hours strapped up in heavy flying gear, under a flak suit, Mae West life preserver and chute harness, pulling your breath through five yards of hose, wondering where the next wall of flak will appear. Or enduring the endless throb of engine sound . . . . not daring to give in to fatigue . . . . or even hunger . . . . or the anticipation and dread of injury at altitude, hours away from medical attention . . . . or bailing out into that fifty-below-zero gale outside.

Or the horror of watching a formation buddy in a nearby B-17, throw smoke, drop from the squadron and only being able to count six chutes before he disintegrates into a giant smear of debris. Or the hair-raising episodes of close-formation flying when you’re on the bomb run, seconds before release and you look directly up into another B- 17’s open and loaded bomb bay doors and you know he is about to drop his bombs too.

Or how about the nightmare turned real of holding an injured crew member’s head in your hands while he froths at the mouth, babbling incoherently and bleeding profusely from a head wound. Or listening to the heavy breathing on the intercom of a shaken comrade as he asks his God for mercy. Or visions of torture and starvation in an enemy prison camp . . . .

But then you gaze downward at the frozen trenches of Holland five miles below and you thank your lucky stars that you’re up here relatively comfortable in a quartermillion- dollar airplane with nine other guys protecting your back side and with any luck you’ll be back at the base in four or five hours for a shower, something decent to drink and eat and maybe a couple of letters from home.

And you realize that a simple twist of fate . . . . being born a second earlier or later . . . . or to different parents, another country or world . . . . and you might have wound up a footsoldier, lying half-frozen in a lousy foxhole, waiting for an enemy shell to put you out of your misery . . . . or worse. Is this the war to end all wars?

See 303rd Bombardment Group for more about their involvement in this raid.

A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.
A post raid reconnaissance picture of Berlin.

Casualties were relatively light, ‘only’ 36 planes were shot down. The bomb load had contained a high proportion of explosives to incendiaries – even so fires burned and spread for four days. 2,894 people were killed on the ground but 20,000 were injured and an estimated 120,000 made homeless. Diarist Ursula von Kardorff wondered why people did not go mad:

3 February 1945

Today the city centre had its heaviest raid yet. I would not have believed it possible for them to be worse. Luckily I was in the deep shelter, but even there people began to panic. Women started to scream when the lights finally went out for good.

Why does nobody go crazy? Why does nobody go out in the street and shout, ‘I’ve had enough!’ Why is there not a revolution?

‘Stick it out!’ What a stupid motto. So we shall stick it out until we are all dead.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

Part of the post raid bombing analysis fro 3rd February 1945.
Part of the post raid bombing analysis from 3rd February 1945.