RAF bomb the medieval city of Lubeck

29th March 1942: RAF bomb the medieval city of Lubeck

The main object of the attack was to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming point by starting a conflagration: I ordered a half an hour interval between the two waves in order to allow the fires to get a good hold before the second wave arrived. In all, 234 aircraft were dispatched and dropped 144 tons of incendiaries and 160 tons of high explosives.

Vertical aerial photograph taken during the major raid on Lubeck on the night of 28/29 March 1942, showing the glare of incendiary fires in the Altstadt (upper left), illuminating the Klughafen on which a number of barges can be seen moored.

Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, now leading Bomber Command was determined to prove that his force was a war winning weapon that could bring Germany to her knees. The strategy had now moved over to area bombing, destroying swathes of industrial infrastructure, in which industrial workers, and their families, would be ‘dehoused’ – there was a tacit admission that many would be killed during this process.

Not surprisingly, after the Luftwaffe had destroyed the fine old medieval city of Coventry, there were no scruples about attacking a similar target in Germany. Like Coventry, Lubeck was also an industrial centre of some importance.

Harris was to record his reasons for the choice of the first target in his memoirs:

On the night of March 28th-29th the first German city went up in flames. This was Lubeck, a rather distant target on the Baltic coast, but not difficult to identify because of its position on the River Trave, by no means so well defended as the Ruhr, and from the nature of its buildings easier than most cities to set on fire.

It was a city of moderate size, of some importance as a port, and with some submarine building yards of moderate size not far from it. It was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city.

However, the main object of the attack was to learn to what extent a first wave of aircraft could guide a second wave to the aiming point by starting a conflagration: I ordered a half an hour interval between the two waves in order to allow the fires to get a good hold before the second wave arrived. In all, 234 aircraft were dispatched and dropped 144 tons of incendiaries and 160 tons of high explosives. At least half of the town was destroyed, mainly by fire. It was conclusively proved that even the small force I had then could destroy the greater part of a town of secondary importance.

In the attack on Lubeck 13 aircraft were missing, most of them being shot down along the route, a loss rate of 5.5 per cent, and no more than could be expected on a moonlight night and with the target at so great a distance from base.

For Harris this was an unsustainable rate of loss. See Arthur Harris: Bomber Offensive.

The burning cathedral in Lubeck - the Nazis sought to make a propaganda issue out of the burning of the historic heart of the city.
The first wave of bombs included blockbusters which blew apart buildings - into these ruins incendiaries fell, starting the firestorm that caused the greater part of the destruction.

A few days later Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Propaganda Minister was to acknowledge in his diary the impact that the raid had made on the population:

The damage is really enormous, I have been shown a newsreel of the destruction. It is horrible. One can well imagine how such a bombardment affects the population. … Thank God, it is a North German population, which on the whole is much tougher than the Germans in the south or south-east. We can’t get away from the fact that the English air-raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralising effect on the population.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance photograph taken over Lubeck, Germany following the major night raid by Bomber Command aircraft on 28/29 March 1942. This shows the devastated western part of the Altstadt from the gutted cathedral (top left) to the Drehbrucke (bottom right) and Kanalstrasse (bottom left).

12 thoughts on “RAF bomb the medieval city of Lubeck”

  1. My grandparents owned a house in Konigstrasse Luebeck. On the night of the raid my mother stood with her father on the roof area to intercept incendiary bombs. She also told me she had been arrested for refusing to salute Hitler and had to work in a hospital for 6 months, taking care of people with TB.

  2. My father, piloting Manchester bomber R for Robert was posted “missing in action” from the Luebeck raid in March 1942. His aircraft was shot down over the neighbouring Kiel suburb of Ploen. I don’t know if he was lost en route to the Luebeck target or after the raid. He and his crew did not survive. I was seven months old at the time. Now in my 70s there hasn’t been a day in my life when I haven’t felt the pain of his loss.
    In the 1990s I went to Kiel on an export sales customer visit, after which I found my father’s grave in the Commonwealth War Graves section of Kiel’s Nordfriedhof. My next stop on that trip was Nurnberg to attend a trade fair. Having parked my car near the exhibition centre I was walking to the fair ground across an area of some allotments where an elderly man was tending his produce. Being a German speaker, I asked him if I was heading in the right direction for the fair venue. When he answered, I detected his North German accent. I pointed this out. He said he was born in Luebeck where his family were lost during the WW2 bombing. It took my breath away. It was a complete coincidence that we should both have been victims of that raid standing together.

  3. We should be careful not to question the motives of bygone years from the safety of our armchairs. I highly recommend Lancaster, by Leo McKinstry. Recommended by this site.

  4. I am a former RAF Officer, now living in the Centre of Lübeck. There was no real justification for this “experimental” raid. In my opinion attacks against civilians cannot be justified. This should have been a war Crime. I

  5. Not to pick nits, but it’s spelled either Lübeck, or, if you don’t have a convenient way of rendering the u with the two dots, Luebeck. The -e- substitutes for the Umlaut. Actually, the two dots are a historical remnant of writing a small e above the vowel.

  6. I don’t see how you could describe the town or residents as a “sitting duck”. The description shows a number of bombers were shot down and presumably they were attacked by fighters and with flak.

    That said, Bomber Harris certainly did things which were distasteful and in some cases arguably war crimes. The counter argument is Germany did things far worse and the objective was Germany’s unconditional surrender as quickly as possible.

  7. So Lubeck and its citizens were seen as a sitting duck like Guernica. Was this not a warcrime then by Harris?

  8. My dad was also stationed on Greek Island of Rhodes , captured by Germans 1943
    sent by train to Germany (Not sure which place) but doing slave labor 12 hrs day
    where they built plane bomb munitions , liberated 1945

  9. During World War II, my maternal grandfather, an Italian soldier who fought with the 18th Gran Sasso Artillery Regiment of the 24th Pinerolo Infantry Division in Albania and Greece, was captured in Greece by German troops in mid-October 1943 following a month of resistance by the Pinerolo Division after Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943. He was sent by train to Lubeck, where he was stripped of his rights as POW under the Geneva Convention, starved and forced into slave labor for 19 months until he was liberated by the British 11th Armoured Division on May 2, 1945. He was a private, so I know he was not imprisoned in Oflag XC. Does anyone know of any other locations in Lubeck where Italian POWs were held during the war? Thanks!

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