Military history





On 9 November 1934 a Dresden schoolboy, writing an essay on aerial warfare, imagined what it would be like if in some future war the enemy decided to bomb the city. The sirens, he wrote, howled, and the people fled into their air-raid shelters. The bombs fell with a deafening noise, blowing in windows and destroying all the houses. ‘Vast flames rage over Dresden.’ A second wave of enemy planes came over, dropping gas bombs. Almost everyone in the bomb shelters was killed. Ashes and rubble were all that remained. The raid was a total catastrophe. But the boy did not gain high marks for his prescience. ‘It can’t get any worse!’ wrote his teacher on the essay in furious disbelief. ‘Stupid!’ ‘Evil! It’s not so simple to lay waste to Dresden! You write almost nothing about defences. The essay is crawling with errors.’1 Just over a decade later, the schoolboy was to be proved right in the most dramatic manner possible. Yet his teacher was not without a point either. From the very beginning of the Third Reich, in 1933, the regime had begun preparing defences against bombing. Air-raid wardens were appointed, warning sirens installed, and the population in urban centres forced to engage in repeated exercises and practice runs. Anti-aircraft batteries began to be constructed, in the belief that ground-to-air fire (‘flak’) would be decisive. However the construction of air-raid shelters and bomb-proof bunkers did not go forward with much vigour until the autumn of 1940, and, even then, shortages of labour and raw materials meant that it did not get very far. It was effectively abandoned two years later.2

When the war began, frequent alarms, very often false, caused disruption, discomfort and irritation, but, initially at least, damage inflicted by bombing was relatively light. As their military situation in France deteriorated in May 1940 the British decided to attack by selecting targets east of the Rhine: the seaport and industrial and trading centre of Hamburg, Germany’s second city, easily reachable across the North Sea, became a favourite target. The first attack on the city, on 17- 18 May 1940, was the first on any large German town, and it was followed by 69 further raids and 123 alarms to the end of the year. Hamburg’s inhabitants had to spend virtually every other night in bunkers and air-raid shelters during this period. But the damage done was relatively small: 125 deaths and 567 injuries. In 1941 and the first half of the following year, the raids continued, but at greater intervals: altogether, by the middle of July 1942, the city had suffered 137 attacks costing 1,431 lives and 4,657 injured. Just over 24,000 people had been made homeless in a city of 2 million. By this time, after a late start, the Hamburg authorities had reinforced most of the city’s cellars. In the areas near the River Elbe where the water-table was too high to allow them to be built it had erected solid bunkers above ground. Similar precautions were taken in other towns and cities across the Reich.3 But soon British bombers were ranging even further afield. Night-time air raids against Berlin in 1940-41 were neither very large-scale nor very destructive, but they were a nuisance, and they became so frequent that the inhabitants of the capital began to make light of them. People were officially advised to snatch some sleep in the late afternoon before the bombings started. The joke then ran that when someone came into the air-raid shelter and said ‘good morning’, this meant that they had indeed been sleeping. If someone arrived and said ‘good evening’, this meant they hadn’t. When a few arrived and said ‘Hail, Hitler!’, this meant they had always been asleep.4

Despite all the preparations, the rulers of the Third Reich, like their counterparts in the Soviet Union, did not set much store by large-scale, strategic bombing. Both used bombers tactically, either in support of ground forces or to prepare the way for them. The German raids on London and other cities in 1940 were intended above all to bring Britain to the conference table, and when they did not succeed, they were discontinued. The idea of destroying the enemy heartland by a persistent, long-term and large-scale bombing campaign was not entertained in Berlin. Only on the Eastern Front was anything like a campaign of this sort undertaken, but it had strictly limited military objectives and did not last for very long. In 1943-4 the German air force launched a strategic bombing offensive against Soviet industrial targets and communications. It scored some successes, most notably in the destruction of 43 US-built B-17 bombers and nearly a million tons of aviation fuel delivered to the Soviet Union and parked on an airfield at Poltava in June 1944, thus effectively eliminating the threat of American bombers attacking Germany from the east as well as from the west. But shortages of fuel and the switch of airplane production to fighters for the defence of Germany’s cities against bombing raids by the British and Americans prevented the offensive from being taken any further.5 Likewise, Stalin thought of bombing as useful mainly to help front-line troops on the ground. He did not develop a fleet of large-scale strategic bombers, and the destruction eventually wrought on German cities in the line of the Red Army’s advance in the last two years of the war came from British and American bombers, not Russian ones. But Stalin was indeed keen for the Western Allies to relieve the Red Army by developing a major bombing campaign against the German homeland.6

Fear of aerial bombardment had been widespread in Europe in the 1930s, especially after the destruction of Guernica by German and Italian bombers in the Spanish Civil War. Bombers could never attain precision in hitting targets, not least because they had to be big if they were to carry an adequate payload, and this made them slow and difficult to manoeuvre, so they had to fly as high as they could in order to avoid being hit by flak. This often took them above the clouds, which made identifying targets even more difficult. Daylight raids were virtually impossible because of the very heavy losses inflicted on the planes by fighters and ground defences. There were a few early in the war, but they were quickly abandoned. Night-bombing was far from easy, especially since all belligerent nations went to some lengths to enforce the ‘blackout’, masking or turning off public and private lighting in towns and cities so that enemy bombers could not see them. Often, too, bombers had to fly considerable distances to reach their targets, and the difficulty of navigation was another problem the crews had to overcome. The best that pilots could do was to steer their way towards where they thought their target was, and release their bombs in its general direction. While small dive-bombers like the Stuka could lend more precise tactical support to ground forces, they could only carry very limited payloads and so were useless for large-scale, strategic bombing. Thus in practice all major bombing raids were more or less indiscriminate; it simply was not possible to be precise. Almost from the very outset, therefore, strategic bombing served two purposes that it was impracticable in reality to disentangle: to destroy enemy military and industrial resources on the one hand, and to weaken enemy civilian morale on the other. In many raids in 1941 - all of them small by later standards - most of the bombs missed their intended targets. Only very large targets, in practice entire towns and cities, were likely to be hit by planes flying high at night, and this was the strategy that Churchill and the British leadership finally decided on late in 1941. To implement it they appointed Arthur Harris, an energetic and determined officer, to lead Bomber Command. Harris decided to focus on major German cities, where his bombers could be certain without looking too closely to find war-related industries and the houses of the people who manned them. In 1942, when ground fighting on the Continent and in North Africa did not seem to be going well for the British, the destruction wrought by Harris’s bombers on German cities gave a boost to British military and civilian morale. At the same time, however surprising it may seem, few British people saw in the bombing of Germany an opportunity for avenging the destruction of Coventry and the ‘Blitz’ on London.7

The British and Americans, unlike the Germans or the Russians, had already decided in the late 1930s that heavy bombers were the strategic weapon of the future. By 1942 British production of heavy bombers, notably the four-engined Avro Lancaster, first flown only a year before, and the Handley Page Halifax, introduced in 1940, was in full swing, augmenting lighter, two-engine models such as the Wellington, a staple of Bomber Command with over 11,000 manufactured altogether. When Harris took up office there were only sixty-nine heavy bombers at his disposal. By the end of the year there were nearly 2,000. They became the mainstay of British raids on Germany. Eventually more than 7,000 Lancasters and 6,000 Halifaxes were produced, replacing the less successful four-engined Stirling. They were joined from late 1942 onwards by American bombers based in UK airfields, in particular by the rugged B-17 Flying Fortress, of which more than 12,000 were produced, and the faster, lighter but more vulnerable Liberator, which was mass-produced on an enormous scale, with over 18,000 eventually coming off the production lines. Harris’s first demonstration of his new tactic of mass bombing raids on large urban targets was against L̈beck on the night of 28-9 March 1942. The city had no military or economic significance worth mentioning, but its old brick and wooden buildings made it a good subject for a demonstration of what bombing could achieve. 234 Wellington, Lancaster and Stirling bombers, flying low because L̈beck was virtually undefended and easily accessible from the sea, dropped large explosive bombs to break open buildings in the city, following them with incendiaries to set them on fire. 50 per cent of the town was destroyed; 1,425 buildings were effectively razed to the ground and 10,000 were damaged, nearly 2,000 severely. 320 people were killed and 785 wounded. Harris followed the raid up with further attacks on other small cities along the Baltic coast in April 1942, including the medieval town of Rostock.8

These raids provoked Hitler in April 1942 to announce what he called ‘terror raids’ on British targets, aiming to ‘produce the most painful effects on public life . . . within the framework of retribution’.9 After the best part of a year without any serious attacks on British cities, he ordered the German air force to launch a counter-campaign on similar British cities, known as the ‘Baedeker raids’ after a well-known series of tourist handbooks. These were carried out with only small numbers of aircraft - only thirty fighter-bombers were available for daytime raids, and 130 bombers for use during the hours of darkness - on small, more or less undefended historic towns. They caused little damage to the British war effort and achieved nothing of military significance.10 They were an entirely emotional response on Hitler’s part. There was no way that he could match the huge forces being assembled by ‘Bomber’ Harris. Yet despite the devastation caused by the raid on L̈beck, morale in the town did not seem to have been damaged. The day after the raid, many shops reopened with signs such as ‘Life goes on here!’11 Nor did the raids seem to cause outrage against the British. Luise Solmitz recorded the bombing raids impersonally in her diary, as if they were natural disasters or acts of God. ‘We are no longer in control of our fate, we are forced to allow ourselves to be driven by it and to take what comes without confidence or hope,’ she wrote resignedly on 8 September 1942.12 The destruction of the old red-brick north German Hanse town of L̈beck saddened her, but at the same time she also recorded the bombing of York and Norwich, ‘a terrible pity about all those Germanic cultural possessions . . . Suffering and annihilation everywhere’.13

The openness of L̈beck to attack was unusual. British night attacks on the Ruhr in 1940 had prompted the appointment of an air force general, Josef Kammhuber, to organize a national system of air-raid defences. By the end of the year he had set up a line of radar stations stretching from Paris to Denmark, backed by Me110 night-fighters directed by a central control room and supplemented by ground-based searchlights and anti-aircraft guns. Over 1,000 British bombers were lost in 1941 as a result. Matters only began to improve for the British in 1942 with the introduction of the Lancasters and the installation of a new radio navigation device that allowed them to stick together in formation, swamping the German defences. Harris began deploying ‘pathfinders’ in advance of the bomber fleets, to locate the targets and light them up with incendiaries. From early 1943 they were equipped with airborne radar and radio target-finders that helped them fly in poor visibility, though it was not until the following year that these were perfected. Harris put a bomb-aimer as a member of the crew in each plane so that the navigator could be left to concentrate on finding the way there and back. And from the middle of 1943, after a long delay due in part to the fear that the Germans might get the same idea, bombers were equipped with a device known as ‘Window’. This consisted of packets of strips of aluminium foil to drop out of the bomb-bays and confuse enemy radar. To counter these measures, the German air force developed its own aerial radar that enabled night-fighters to fly in groups, locate the enemy bombers and shoot them down. It moved large numbers of fighters to the west, leaving less than a third of the fighter force to confront the Red Army. Anti-aircraft batteries were manufactured on a large scale: by August 1944 there were 39,000 of them, and their nightly use absorbed a force of no fewer than a million gunners. German defences managed to knock out a substantial number of enemy bombers; the death rate amongst the men of Britain’s Bomber Command was as high as 50 per cent overall; more than 55,000 men were killed over the course of the war. Yet Hitler’s characteristic preference for attack over defence made him consistently favour retaliation by ordering fresh bombing raids over Britain and downgrading the production and deployment of fighter planes in defensive positions. And in any case, fighters found it took so long to climb up to a position where they could attack bombers flying at anything up to 30,000 feet that they were often unable to confront them until after they had dropped their payload.14

Initially, however, there was no sustained bombing campaign against Germany. To demonstrate that larger raids could be carried out on bigger targets, Harris staged a thousand-bomber attack on Cologne on 30 May 1942, destroying over 3,300 buildings and leaving 45,000 people without homes. 474 people were killed and 5,000 injured, many of them seriously. The raid proved that large fleets of bombers could reach their targets without mishap and overwhelm local defences.15 A thousand-bomber raid on Essen in the summer of 1942 was relatively unsuccessful, however, and was not repeated; among other things, it had only been possible to mount it by including aircraft normally used for training - and crewed by men who were doing courses in them. British bombers then concentrated not on urban targets but on U-boat pens on the Atlantic coast of France, which were so heavily protected by reinforced concrete that little damage was done. However, preserving Atlantic convoys seemed the highest priority. Only when Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca in January 1943 was a decision taken to begin the strategic bombing campaign in earnest. The Second Front demanded by Stalin, the two leaders agreed, would have to be postponed until 1944; in its place would come the invasion of Italy and a new campaign of bombing the aim of which, to quote the Combined Chiefs-of-Staff in their order to the British and US air forces on 21 January 1943, was to effect ‘the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened’.16 The new Combined Bombing Offensive began with a series of attacks on the Ruhr. On 5 March 1943, 362 bombers attacked Essen, where the Krupp arms factory was located; this was followed up with a whole series of further raids on the town over the following months. In between, there were attacks on Duisburg, Bochum, Krefeld, D̈sseldorf, Dortmund, Wuppertal, M̈lheim, Gelsenkirchen and Cologne, all of them major centres of industry and mining. The attack on Dortmund was particularly heavy. 800 bombers dropped twice the tonnage that had fallen on Cologne in the thousand-bomber raid the previous year. 650 people were killed, and the town’s library, with over 200,000 volumes and a unique newspaper archive, went up in flames. A further raid on Cologne on 28-9 June 1943 caused nearly 5,000 deaths. Altogether some 15,000 people were killed in the industrial cities of western Germany in this series of raids. In addition, on 16 May 1943 the ‘dam-buster’ squadron, flying low towards major dams on the Eder and M̈hne rivers, launched its ‘bouncing bombs’ which shattered the concrete barriers and released huge quantities of water, severely disrupting water supplies to the Ruhr area and flooding large tracts of countryside as well as cutting off electricity supplies to industrial plants. Just over 1,500 people were killed, the majority of them foreign workers and prisoners of war; panic rumours in the German population put the figure at anything up to 30,000. To complete the devastation, fast-moving Mosquito fighter-bombers, made of wood to give greater speed and range, flew into the Ruhr between the major raids to ensure there was no respite.17 Reich Propaganda Minister Goebbels was shocked by the devastation. ‘We find ourselves in a situation of helpless inferiority,’ he confided to his diary after the attack on Dortmund, ‘and have to receive the blows of the English and Americans with dogged fury.’18

Armaments Minister Albert Speer was seriously alarmed. He visited the Ruhr repeatedly to organize the relocation of the workforce to camps from which they could be sent to other factories if their own was destroyed, and he did what he could to repair the damage and get things started again. He drafted in 7,000 men from the West Wall to rebuild the dams. The German Labour Front, the Todt Organization and the regional Nazi Party created special teams to clear up the mess and get miners and munitions workers back to work, while the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization mobilized itself to care for those who had been made homeless.19 Despite all these efforts, there could be no doubting the scale of the damage the bombers had inflicted on the war economy. Arms production had been growing at an average of 5.5 per cent a month in Germany since June 1942; now the growth stopped altogether. Steel production fell by 200,000 tons in the second quarter of 1943 and ammunition quotas had to be cut. There was a crisis in supplies of components for aircraft, and from July 1943 until March 1944 production of aircraft stagnated.20 A raid by American bombers on Schweinfurt on 17 August 1943 badly damaged a number of factories producing ball-bearings and led to a fall of 38 per cent in their production. ‘We are approaching the point of total collapse . . . in our supply industry,’ Speer told the Air Force Procurement Office. ‘Soon we will have airplanes, tanks, or trucks lacking certain key parts.’ If the raids on Germany’s industrial centres continued, he warned Hitler, then Germany’s arms production would come to a total halt.21


The attacks on the Ruhr were followed by a massive raid on Hamburg, Germany’s largest seaport and a leading shipbuilding and industrial centre. This was the first time that Window was used, and it proved highly effective. On the night of 24-5 July 1943, 791 bombers took off from forty-two airfields in the east of England and made their way north-east towards the mouth of the river Elbe. Forty-five had to turn back because of mechanical problems, dumping their bombs into the sea. The bulk of the fleet veered south-east and flew towards Hamburg from the north, which the city’s defenders did not expect, throwing out packets of aluminium foil strips at one-minute intervals and severely disrupting ground radar. There was very little resistance, and only twelve of the aircraft were lost. Pilots reported ground searchlight beams waving about aimlessly, looking for targets. The pathfinders dropped their markers, and the main force began releasing its bombs over the city centre shortly before one in the morning. People rushed to their shelters. Many bombs fell on sparsely populated outlying suburbs and villages, but the city centre and the shipyards in the harbour were hit as well, and fire-engines and clearance teams began their work according to a prearranged plan even before the attack was over. But the assault on Hamburg was a new kind of operation, not a single raid but a series of raids designed to destroy the city in stages. The next day, 109 American Flying Fortresses flew in over the city for another attack. Daylight raids were far more dangerous than night attacks, and no fewer than seventy-eight of the planes were hit by anti-aircraft fire, causing many to drop their bombs short of the target, though some damage was caused in the harbour and outlying suburbs. A smaller raid the following night kept up the pressure, then on the night of 27-8 July 1943, 735 British bombers flew in, this time from the east. The pathfinders dropped their markers in a concentrated area to the south-east of the city centre and the main force offloaded 2,326 tons of bombs before returning home. Seventeen planes and crews were lost, but most escaped because a third of the way through the raid the anti-aircraft gunners on the ground had been instructed to restrict their fire to 18,000 feet to allow night-fighters to attack the enemy aircraft: all the bombers apart from the Stirlings, which had already done their work, could fly above this level, and there were too few German night-fighters to make much of an impact.22

The weather was unusually hot and dry that night, and the fire-fighters were mostly over on the western area of the city still dealing with the smouldering remains of the previous raids. In the first twenty-three minutes of the raid, the bombers dropped so many incendiaries, blast-bombs and high explosives on such a small area in the south-east area of the city that the fires merged into one, sucking air out of the surrounding area until the whole square mile became one huge blaze, with temperatures reaching 800 degrees Celsius at the centre. It began to draw in air at hurricane force from all around, extending another two miles to the south-east as the bombers continued to drop their payloads there. The force of the howling, spark-filled wind created by the firestorm uprooted trees and turned people on the streets into living torches. The firestorm sucked the air out of the basement shelters in which thousands of people were cowering, killing them with carbon-monoxide poisoning, or trapping and suffocating them by reducing the buildings above to heaps of rubble that covered the air-vents and exits. 16,000 apartment-block buildings with a frontage of 133 miles were ablaze by three in the morning, until the firestorm finally began to subside. By seven a.m. it was over. Many people survived by sheer good fortune. Fifteen-year-old Traute Koch described how her mother wrapped her in wet sheets, pushed her out of the air-raid shelter, and said ‘run!’

I hesitated at the door. In front of me I could see only fire - everything red, like the door to a furnace. An intense heat struck me. A burning beam fell in front of my feet. I shied back but then, when I was ready to jump over it, it was whirled away by a ghostly hand. I ran out onto the street. The sheets around me acted as sails and I had the feeling that I was being carried away by the storm. I reached the front of a five-storey building in front of which we had arranged to meet again. It had been bombed and burnt out in a previous raid and there was not much left in it for the fire to get hold of. Someone came out, grabbed me in their arms, and pulled me into the doorway.23

They descended into the cellar, and survived. Others were not so fortunate. Johann Burmeister, a greengrocer, recorded how people leaped into one of Hamburg’s many canals to extinguish their burning clothes. Some committed suicide. A nineteen-year-old milliner described how her aunt had dragged her through the spark-filled streets until their progress was stopped because the asphalt had melted. ‘There were people on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt . . . Their feet had got stuck and then they had put out their hands to try to get out again. They were on their hands and knees screaming.’ Eventually she decided to roll down a bank by some burning trees. ‘I took my hand out of my aunt’s and went. I think I rolled over some people who were still alive.’ At the bottom she found a blanket and pulled it over her. The next morning, she found her aunt’s body; she could identify it only by the blue-and-white sapphire ring she always wore. Many corpses were found black and shriveled; some were lying in a mess of coagulated human body fat.24

This was far from being the end of Hamburg’s misery. As the wind cleared away the smoke from the still-burning ruins, Bomber Command decided to mount a third raid. On the night of 29-30 July, 786 bombers set off for Hamburg. Forty-five had to turn back because of mechanical problems, and a few more were shot down on the way, but the majority reached their target, identifying the city by the glow of its fires, which could be seen even over the horizon. Extra searchlights had been rushed to the city and the area around it, and both anti-aircraft batteries and night-fighters took full advantage of the light they threw on the bombers, thus getting round the need to depend on radar readings still confused by the boxes of Window aluminium foil streamers they were dropping. This time, the bombs were released over a much wider area; strong winds had blown the pathfinders off course. As a result, the north-east of the city was devastated, rather than the area further west that had been intended. Even now, however, Harris was not satisfied; after a delay caused by adverse weather conditions, he launched a fourth and final major attack on the city on 2-3 August 1943. Two groups of bombers took off. The first, with 498 aircraft preceded by 54 pathfinders, was to attack the wealthy residential areas to the west of Hamburg’s central lake, the Alster, while the second, consisting of 245 bombers and 27 pathfinders, was to destroy the industrial area of Harburg, to the south. This time the German defences had learned how to deal with Window by allowing the night-fighters to fly freely and operate visually, guided by a continuous commentary from the ground about the bombers’ position and by their own airborne radar. Weather conditions worsened and the bombers flew into a huge electrical storm that turned their propellers into giant firewheels, as one pilot reported, and blew them all over the sky. The bomber waves were broken up, many dropped their payloads on small towns and villages, or on the countryside, and turned back before they ever got to Hamburg. Some crashed. Enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire took their toll. Altogether 35 aircraft failed to return, and little serious damage was done to the city. Nevertheless, in the four great raids taken all together, Allied bombers had flown more than 2,500 missions over the city, dropping over 8,300 tons of incendiaries and high explosives on to their target. 59 had been brought down by night-fighters, 11 by anti-aircraft ‘flak’, and another 17 by a combination of causes including storm damage in the final raid. The devastation was staggering. The city’s shipyards were pulverized, so that between twenty and twenty-five U-boats planned for or already under construction were never built. Industrial output from the city, so it was later calculated, returned to 80 per cent of its previous levels within five months, but the loss of war production caused by the bombing was reckoned to have amounted to the equivalent of nearly two months’ output from the city as a whole. The disruption was far-reaching. All the city’s railway stations were destroyed, the harbour and the river were blocked by sunken ships, the rivers and canals by fallen debris. The city’s supplies of gas, water and electricity were all cut off and could not be restored until the middle of August. Nevertheless, the major cost was human. Partly by accident and partly by design, the bulk of the bombs had fallen on residential areas. In particular, the firestorm had devastated the working-class areas to the south-east of the city centre, inhabited by people who were traditionally opposed to the Nazis, while the wealthy villa quarter to the north-west, where the pro-Nazi elite lived, was largely untouched, though its destruction had been one of the aims of the final, unsuccessful raid. Altogether 56 per cent of Hamburg’s dwellings, around 256,000 of them, had been destroyed and 900,000 people were made homeless. Some 40,000 people lost their lives and a further 125,000 required medical treatment, many of them for burns.25

14,000 firemen, 12,000 soldiers and 8,000 technical experts laboured night and day to deal with the fires and repair the worst damage, bringing in emergency supplies of food and water. People began to flee the city already after the first raid. There was, as Mathilde Wolff-M̈nckeberg noted in an unsent letter written for her children abroad, ‘panic and chaos . . . There were no trams, no Underground, no rail-traffic to the suburbs. Most people loaded some belongings on carts, bicycles, prams, or carried things on their backs, and started on foot, just to get away, to escape.’26 840,000 of the homeless wandered out of the centre of the city and were guided by the police to still-intact railway stations or river jetties on its outskirts. Nazi Party Regional Leader Karl Kaufmann arranged for them to be evacuated to rural areas to the north and east. 625 trains carried off more than three-quarters of a million people to new, mostly temporary homes. Despite Kaufmann’s plea for officials to stay at their posts, many of these fled too. Three weeks after the raids, 900 out of 2,500 officials of the city’s food distribution office were still away from their posts, absent or dead. Many local Nazi Party bosses acted on their own initiative, commandeering trains for evacuees from their own city precinct, and not a few seized cars and lorries to get their own families and what they could of their own possessions out of the city. The Party apparatus seemed to be in a state of collapse. In the all-embracing paternal state of the Third Reich, people had come to expect assistance in a crisis as a matter of course, and its widespread failure in the catastrophe aroused much hostile comment. Popular anger was directed not against the British for their ‘terror raids’, although Goebbels’s propaganda did its best to arouse feelings of revenge, but against G̈ring and the German air force, which had patently failed to defend the homeland, and against the Nazi Party, which had brought this destruction on Germany. ‘People who were wearing Party badges,’ noted Mathilde Wolff-M̈nckeberg, ‘had them torn off their coats and there were screams of “Let’s get that murderer.” The police did nothing.’27

The raids so shocked Luise Solmitz that she was unable to find words to describe them. When she and her husband ventured out of doors on to the streets of the city at the beginning of August 1943, they saw ‘nothing but rubble, rubble in our path’. In horror and fascination she observed the slowness with which the superheated buildings gradually cooled:

The coal bunker at Rebienhaus on the corner finally, finally burnt out. A fantastic drama. The shops [on top of the bunker] destroyed, glowing red and rosy-red. I went into the cellar staircase, it was an irresponsible thing to do; the enormous house loomed steeply above me, all destroyed, and down below I could see the lonely, blazing hell, filled with flames raging with their own life. Later only the bunker shafts were aglow, the shops were black, dead caves. At the end the flame was burning blue. During the daytime the air was shimmering with heat.28

Visiting Hamburg a few days earlier, on 28 July 1943, the soldier and former Nazi stormtrooper Gerhard M., as always travelling with his bicycle, found it deserted. ‘Where are all the people now?’ he asked himself. In the working-class area of the Hammerbrookstrasse, near the harbour, he encountered

a deathly quiet. Here there are no people looking for their belongings, for here the people too are lying underneath the rubble. Here the street is no longer passable. I have to carry my bike over my shoulder and clamber over the rubble. The houses have been levelled. Everywhere I cast my eye: a field of ruins, still as death. Nobody got out of here. Here incendiaries, air-mines and time-bombs have lodged at the same time. You can still see dead bodies lying on the street. How many must still be lying on what used to be the surface of the street, under the rubble?29

When, he asked himself, would it all be rebuilt and people live there again? As a long-time stormtrooper, he knew only one answer: ‘When we have won the war. When we can once more go about our work in Germany undisturbed. When a stop has been put to the envy of people abroad.’30 He took comfort in the fact that Hamburg had recovered from the previous devastation of the Great Fire of 1842, just over a century before. And - forgetting, perhaps, the damage and loss of life caused by the Blitz - he imagined that London, where people were rejoicing ‘in ignorance of the strength of Germany’ and living a ‘carefree’ life, would some day soon suffer the same fate: ‘one day arrogant London will feel the effects of war, and it will do so far, far more than has now been the case in Hamburg’.31 Yet such a reaction was unusual. In the air-raid shelters, attempts to fan the flames of hatred against the British frequently met with rebuffs. ‘Almost 3 hours in the bunker,’ Luise Solmitz reported on a subsequent occasion. ‘Bunker warden S̈ldner: “The Londoners have to sit in their bunkers for 120 hours. I hope they never get out - they deserve not to!” - “They’ve got to do what their government wants. What else are they to do?” said a woman’s voice.’32 ‘Despite everything that we have suffered in the attacks,’ she wrote later, ‘there’s not much hatred in Hamburg for the “enemy”.’33

What people did feel was despair. ‘We have lost courage and are filled only with a dumb kind of passive apathy,’ wrote Mathilde Wolff-M̈nckeberg. ‘Practically everyone knows that all that bluff and rubbish printed in the newspapers and blazoned out on the wireless is hollow nonsense.’34 The Security Service of the SS reported that ‘large parts of the people are sealing themselves off against propaganda in its present form’.35 Many people eventually returned to Hamburg, so that the population of the city recovered from 600,000 to over a million by the end of the year, but large numbers of refugees remained in other parts of the Reich, intensifying what the Security Service of the SS called the ‘shock-effect and huge consternation’ in the ‘population of the whole territory of the Reich’. ‘The stories the evacuated national comrades have been spreading about the effects of the damage in Hamburg have strengthened existing fears even more.’36 The anxiety was intensified to a degree by the common Allied practice of dropping leaflets on German cities, warning people that they would be destroyed: sometimes they contained menacing rhymes, such as ‘Hagen [a town in the Ruhr], you’re lying in a hole, but we’ll still find you all.’ In 1943 Allied planes dropped huge quantities of forged food ration cards, which did indeed cause confusion among ordinary citizens and made extra work for the local authorities. The destruction caused in the Hamburg raids of July - August 1943 dealt a severe blow to civilian morale, already weakened as it was by the catastrophic defeat of the German army at Stalingrad. After August 1943, people carried on less out of enthusiasm for the war than out of fear of what might happen if Germany lost, a fear played on increasingly by the propaganda pumped out by Goebbels’s co-ordinated media.37

At the same time, the Propaganda Ministry’s exhortation to ordinary Germans to redouble their efforts in the campaign for ‘total war’ were undermined by the obvious lack of preparedness of the regime. ‘They’re lying to us through their teeth,’ complained one junior army officer after his family home had been bombed in Hamburg. ‘The events in Hamburg demonstrate that “total war” might have been proclaimed but it hasn’t been prepared.’38 On 17 June 1943, following raids on Wuppertal and D̈sseldorf, people, as the Security Service of the SS reported, were ‘totally exhausted and apathetic’. But some (or so the SS cautiously guessed) blamed the regime. In Bremen two stormtroopers had come upon a woman weeping in front of the cellar of her bomb-damaged house, in which lay the corpses of her son, her daughter-in-law and her two-year-old granddaughter. As they attempted to console her, she shouted: ‘The brown cadets are to blame for the war. They would do better to have gone to the front and made sure the English don’t come here.’39 It was noteworthy, the report went on, that people in bombed cities were using the old-fashioned ‘Good morning!’ instead of ‘Hail, Hitler!’ when they met. A statistically minded Party member reported that the day after an attack on Barmen, he had greeted fifty-one people with the words ‘Hail, Hitler!’ and had the same greeting returned by only two. ‘Anyone who brings five new members into the Party,’ went a joke reported by the SS Security Service in August 1943, ‘is permitted to join it himself. Anyone who brings 10 new members into it is even given a certificate saying he never belonged to it.’40 Another popular joke told in many parts of the Reich went as follows:

A man from Berlin and a man from Essen are discussing the extent of the bomb damage in their respective cities. The man from Berlin explains that the bombardment of Berlin was so terrible that window-panes were still falling out of the houses five hours after the attack. The man from Essen answers, that’s nothing, in Essen, even a fortnight after the attack, portraits of the Leader were flying out of the windows.41

In D̈sseldorf someone had hung a picture of Hitler from a home-made gallows.42 Disillusion with Hitler was particularly strong in towns such as this, where the Social Democratic and Communist labour movements had been entrenched before 1933. But it had been widespread in virtually all large towns and cities, including Hamburg and Berlin. Discontent came easily to the surface here because belief in the Nazi system had never gone very deep into the masses.


The mass evacuation of Hamburg’s inhabitants had its parallels in other towns and cities of the Reich. Every major attack led to an exodus. But there was also in each case an evacuation plan. It focused initially on the young, on people in other words who were not directly useful to the war economy. An elaborate programme of ‘Children’s Evacuation to the Countryside’ (Kinderlandverschickung) was developed, with urban children over the age of ten being sent to camps in south Germany, Saxony, East Prussia and to some extent also Poland, Denmark, the Reich Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the Baltic states. By the end of 1940 some 300,000 had already been sent to a total of nearly 2,000 camps, most of them for a few weeks; children under the age of ten were billeted on local families. By 1943 they were staying for longer periods, sometimes months on end, and there were more than a million children in some 5,000 camps at any one time.43 The scheme was intended not least to allow the Hitler Youth, who ran it in conjunction with the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization, to remove children from the influence of their families and especially the Church, and provide them with a rigorously Nazi education. Priests and pastors were banned from the camps, and bishops began complaining about the absence of religious education in them.44 So successful did the scheme appear in this respect to Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, and his staff that plans were even drawn up to extend it after the war had been won.45 However, the scheme ran up against considerable hostility from countryfolk, especially those on whom cheeky and unruly children and teenagers from run-down working-class areas of Germany’s great cities were billeted, and many refused to accept them even when offered financial inducements to do so. The closure of bomb-damaged urban schools and the evacuation of pupils and teachers to the countryside remained relatively limited in scope. Even at the end of 1943 only 32,000 school pupils had been evacuated in this way from Berlin, out of a total population of 249,000 school pupils; 85,000 remained in the city, while 132,000 had been sent by their parents to stay with relatives in other parts of Germany. Thus, up to this point, self-help remained more important than state or Party direction in the removal of children from bombed-out areas of German towns and cities.46

Throughout 1944 and early 1945, as bombing raids intensified and made ever larger numbers of people homeless, the number of evacuees and refugees increased until it reached more than 8 million, including not only children but mothers and babies, and old people.47 On 18 November 1943 the Security Service of the SS summarized the effects to date. While most of the women and children who had been evacuated were reasonably satisfied with their lot, it noted that a minority were not, particularly those who had been forced to leave their menfolk behind. Similar complaints could be heard from men, especially in the working classes, whose families had been evacuated to the countryside: they felt abandoned and neglected, lonely and deprived. One miner in the Ruhr was reported as saying to his mates after his shift had ended: ‘ “I am in agony again thinking about the evening ahead. As long as I’m in the factory, I don’t think about it, but when I come home I’m overcome with dread. I miss my wife and the laughter of my kids.” And,’ the report went on, ‘the man wept as he was saying this, openly and without shame.’48 Particular problems were caused by the tensions that arose between working-class families evacuated to Catholic areas and the pious local inhabitants upon whom they were billeted. ‘We can thank you Hamburgers for that,’ some Bavarians were said to have remarked to people evacuated from the north, after Munich and Nuremberg had been attacked as well. ‘That’s happened because you don’t go to Church!’49 Added to such tensions came the fact that, as the report noted, ‘Most of the evacuated women and children have been accommodated in small villages and rural communities in the most primitive circumstances. ’ They often had to walk miles to get supplies, ‘in wind and weather, ice and snow’, leaving their children unsupervised and so causing further anxiety. Local and Party authorities in rural areas were often felt to be unhelpful. Widespread resentment was caused by the obvious fact that middle- and upper-class houses were left with empty rooms while peasants and craftsmen had to make room for evacuees in their cramped cottages. Evacuation caused further worries about the fate of the damaged property people had left behind in the city.50

Problems of this kind led many women to take their children back to their home towns, a move which the authorities tried to discourage by ordering that their ration cards would not be accepted there. As a result, 300 women staged an open, public demonstration in the industrial town of Witten, near Dortmund, on 11 October 1943, and the police had to be called in to restore order. On arriving at the scene, however, the police refused to do anything since they were persuaded that the women were right to protest. Similar, if less dramatic scenes, took place elsewhere in the Ruhr. ‘The abuse of official and leading persons,’ the report noted in a shocked tone, ‘was on the agenda.’51 One woman was reported as saying, in an obvious allusion to the fate of German Jews: ‘Why don’t you just send us to Russia, turn machine-guns on us, and polish us off?’52 People wanted their houses to be repaired as quickly as possible, or new ones built.53 But this was scarcely possible, given the scale of the damage. Some officials, like the Regional Leader of Hamburg, Karl Kaufmann, urged the deportation of Jews to make more dwellings available for people who had lost their homes in the bombing, but the Jewish minority in Germany was so small - it had never been more than 1 per cent of the population even at its height - that, although this opportunity was indeed used, among others by Albert Speer in his search for accommodation for his workers, it was in no way enough even to make a small dent in the problem. Local authorities made plans to build emergency accommodation, including quick-to-build two-storey wooden barracks, but these fell foul of the official prioritization of war-industrial construction. On 9 September 1943 Hitler issued a decree setting up a ‘German Housing Aid’ under Robert Ley, and the regime provided grants for the erection of prefabricated barracks, some of which were constructed by Jewish concentration camp prisoners. But these made little impact either. By March 1944 an official estimate put the number of homeless at 1.9 million, needing a total of 657,000 new dwellings. By the end of July 1944 only 53,000 had been built. Some employers provided simple new accommodation for their German workers, but even this was very limited in scale. Visiting Bochum in December 1944, Goebbels noted that the city still had 100,000 inhabitants dwelling there, then corrected himself: ‘it’s too much to say “dwelling”; they’re camping out in cellars and holes in the ground’.54

Goebbels himself had played an increasingly important role in dealing with air raids since his appointment by Hitler as Chairman of the Inter-Ministerial Bomb Damage Committee in January 1943. This gave him wide-ranging powers to send emergency aid into stricken cities, including for example even the confiscation of army camps to provide temporary accommodation for people who had lost their homes. When an air raid on Kassel on 22 October 1943 created a huge firestorm that rendered 63 per cent of the town’s houses and flats uninhabitable, Goebbels sent in a team that reported almost immediately that the local Party boss Karl Weinrich was completely unable to deal with the situation. At Goebbels’s request, Weinrich was soon after retired on health grounds. The experience prompted Goebbels to persuade Hitler to set up a Reich Inspectorate for Civil Air War Measures on 10 December 1943, with himself in charge. All of this allowed him to criticize Party officials he did not like, and use his influence to override them or even get them replaced. But of course he never achieved total control over this area; in some ways, indeed, it only brought him up against other powerful figures such as G̈ring, who controlled civil defence, and Himmler, who was in charge of the police and fire services. Unexploded bombs, of which there were many, were dealt with by the Reich Ministry of Justice, which, following an order issued by Hitler in October 1940, sent prisoners from state penal institutions to try to defuse them. By July 1942, as the Ministry told Hitler, they had already defused more than 3,000 bombs; this number increased dramatically as the raids intensified in the following months. The death rate among the prisoners engaged in this work was around 50 per cent. For those who survived, the promise of a remission of their sentence that had inveigled many of them into agreeing to serve in bomb disposal never materialized. Many other emergency measures following major air raids lay in the hands of the National Socialist People’s Welfare organization, which ferried in field-kitchens to provide people with food, helped sometimes by the army. The war transformed the organization into a rescue operation, dealing with the effects of total war, placing evacuees, caring for the old, finding homes for orphans, setting up a finding service for missing children, and much more besides. Over a million volunteers were working for it and the closely allied German Red Cross by 1944. It had successfully eliminated the competition of Church welfare groups.55 But it still had a rival in the Nazi women’s organization, which also played its part in caring for bombed-out families with children.56 The Nazi Party Regional Leaders were empowered to raise ration allocations and distribute extra food supplies as well as issuing substitute ration cards to those who had lost theirs in a raid. Supplies were often short, however, and the demand for cooking utensils and other domestic goods ran up against shortages of materials and the higher priority given to war production. The financial compensation paid by the government (according to two decrees issued in November 1940) to bombed-out people to allow them to rent new accommodation and replace essential household items was strictly limited in scope.57

Nor did it prove easy to boost the provision of air-raid protection facilities to the desired level. Despite frequent inspections by senior Party officials like Karl Kaufmann, Regional Leader of Hamburg (who severely criticized the lack of bunkers on an inspection tour of Dresden in January 1945), little was done to improve matters as a result. Hitler had originally planned the construction of up to 2,000 bomb-proof bunkers at the end of September 1940, and by the end of August 1943 over 1,700 had been completed. At the height of the construction programme in Berlin, in the middle of 1941, more than 22,000 workers were engaged on building bunkers in the capital city, many of them foreign forced labourers. But of course even 2,000 was a pathetically tiny number for the protection of Germany’s large urban population. Concrete was needed for U-boat bases, labour for the arms industry and the West Wall, transport for arms-related materials, money to build planes and tanks. In consequence, those bunkers that were completed, particularly the thick-walled, reinforced-concrete structures built above ground, became desperately overcrowded when there was a raid - 5,000 people crammed into a bunker in Hamburg-Harburg early in 1945 that had been built to accommodate 1,200, for example. In small towns as in large cities, air-raid protection was only available for a fraction of the population - 1,200 people out of a population of 38,400 in L̈denscheid, for instance, or 4,000 out of a population of 25,100 in Soest. People began to complain as early as 1943 that the regime had done nothing to build them when money, men and materials were ready to hand, early in the war. Rumours soon became rife that Party bosses had constructed their own private bunkers, as the Saxon Regional Leader Martin Mutschmann had done with SS pioneer labour beneath his private villa in Dresden - the only bomb-proof air-raid shelter in the entire city. The most spectacular of these was of course Hitler’s own bunker complex beneath the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. An air-raid shelter had existed there since 1936, but early in 1943 a vast extension programme was undertaken. Consisting of two floors located 40 feet below the surface, and protected by a reinforced concrete roof some 12 feet thick, it had its own diesel generator used to provide heating and lighting and pump water in and waste matter out. Its construction by the Essen firm of Hochtief, together with that of the command bunker in Hitler’s field headquarters and the underground headquarters complex at Ohrdruf in Thuringia, had consumed more concrete and used up more labour (28,000 men in all) than the entire public programme of civil defence bunker construction for the whole of Germany in the years 1943 and 1944 put together.58

People’s lives in Germany’s towns and cities during the second half of the war were increasingly lived for much, even most, of the time in air-raid shelters, bunkers and cellars, as Goebbels’s comments on Bochum suggested. Air-raid warnings sent people scurrying into them with growing frequency, day and night. In M̈nster, for example, the sirens sounded 209 times in 1943 and 329 in 1944; in the latter year, no fewer than 231 of these alarms were sounded during the day. And in the first three months of 1945 the town’s air-raid warnings went off on 293 occasions, more than in the whole of 1943. Other towns and cities had similar experiences. The disruption to people’s daily lives, to their sleep, to the economy, was enormous and in the final months of the war in many places it became almost unbearable. People tried to relieve the tension with jokes: ‘ “Whom do we have to thank for the night-fighters?” “Hermann G̈ring.” “For the whole air force?” “Hermann G̈ring.” “Upon whose orders did Hermann G̈ring do all this?” “On the orders of the Leader!” “Where would we all be if it were not for Hermann G̈ring and the Leader?” “In our beds!” ’59 As the enemy armies advanced through occupied Europe in 1944-5, German advance radar stations fell silent, and the interval between air-raid alarms and the start of bombing raids grew ever briefer. People began to panic, rushing into the shelters in wild disorder; increasingly, there were injuries and even deaths in the crush. In January 1944, indeed, thirty people were trampled to death in the scramble to get into a bunker at the Hermannplatz in Berlin; the following November, thirty-five people were killed in similar circumstances in the town of Wanne-Eickel.60

Those who stayed in their own homes placed bags of sand and buckets of water in position to try to put out fires caused by bombs. They knew well enough that there was no protection against a direct hit. Cellar walls were broken through to allow escape into a neighbouring house in case a bomb fell on their own. One diarist described a night in his air-raid cellar during a raid in the following terms:

To begin with, a series of incendiary bombs fell in our vicinity. Then there came detonation after detonation, heavy, heavy explosions. Since we don’t have a deep cellar, we crouched on the floor, on mats, near the hole that we had broken through [for escape purposes, into the next house, as required in regulations]. Everyone had a wet cloth wound round their head, a gas-mask on their arm, matches in their pocket, and a wet towel that we placed over our face on the command ‘attention!’ that signalled the audible approach of heavy bombs, pressing it down with our thumbs and little fingers over our mouths and nostrils so that our eyes, also closed, and our mouths were protected against air-pressure and mortar-dust. Although no high-explosive bombs or mines fell on to our street, the walls still shook worryingly. The lights went out, and we lit our lanterns. There was a noise of breaking glass and falling tiles, window-frames etc. We expected to find nothing more than rubble in the house. There was a penetrating smell of fire.61

In the public shelters, admittance and behaviour were carefully regulated and controlled by air-raid wardens, but in the last phase of the war, the rules were increasingly disregarded. They were supposed to be for people who had none in their own homes, and Jews and Gypsies were not allowed to enter them. In 1944 Goebbels ordered that priority had to be given to workers in vital war industries. People entering a public shelter had to show an admission card. By the second half of 1943 few paid much attention to such rules. People crowded indiscriminately into the bunkers, where ventilation facilities devised for only a few soon proved inadequate, the fetid air made people sweat, scabies and other dirt-related diseases and infestations spread, and people began to lose all sense of order, as one sanitary officer in Hamm noted in January 1945: ‘They are grabbing at other people’s possessions, they don’t respect women and children, any sense of order or cleanliness disappears. People who were otherwise well groomed don’t bother to wash themselves or comb their hair all day . . . In the bunkers they don’t go to the toilets any more but just relieve themselves in the dark, in the corners of the room.’62

Meanwhile, above ground, the police struggled to restore order in the aftermath of major bombing raids. Dangerous ruins were sealed off, streets cleared, bodies collected, if possible identified, and buried, sometimes just wrapped in paper, in mass graves: although Hitler had forbidden this, it was impractical in most cases to do anything else, since the numbers of corpses far exceeded the capacity of cemeteries to take them, and religious objections to cremation over the years meant that facilities were not available to incinerate them. People left messages for missing relatives chalked up on the walls of their ruined houses, in the hope that they might still be alive. People’s possessions lay everywhere in the wreckage: beds, furniture, pots and pans, clothes, jars and cans of food, and everything imaginable besides. Special detachments went around collecting them and took them to depots for storage until their owners, if they were still alive, reclaimed them: in Cologne alone there were 150 such depots, most of which were subsequently themselves destroyed in air raids.63 In this situation, with desperate and dispossessed people roaming the streets, the temptation to help oneself to some of these goods was often overwhelming. The penalties for those who were caught were severe. A decree issued on 5 September 1939 against ‘national pests’ (Volksschädlinge) prescribed death for theft under cover of the blackout. As a Hamburg newspaper noted on 19 August 1943, not long after the great air raids on the city,

The police and the courts are getting down to the job energetically and in continual session are succeeding ever more in giving their just deserts to all those who have selfishly exploited the distress of our comrades by looting. Anyone who loots and thereby offends in the most serious way against the community will be eradicated!64

A minor, insignificant case of looting might lead to a period of one or two years’ imprisonment in a state penitentiary, but repeated or large-scale thefts carried with them the sentence of death, particularly if the offender belonged to a clear-up detachment.

The Special Court at Bremen sentenced a man to fifteen years’ in a penitentiary on 4 March 1943 on fifteen counts of stealing clothing, radio sets, food and other items from bomb-sites after dark and selling them on to a fence. The court noted he had previous convictions and declared him to be a dangerous habitual criminal. The prosecutor considered the sentence too lenient, however, and appealed for it to be increased to death by decapitation. The day before the appeal was due to be heard, the offender committed suicide.65 In another case, heard on 23 January 1945, a labourer with ten previous convictions was sentenced to death for stealing from the bodies of people killed in an air raid the previous June. His haul consisted of a wristwatch, a pipe, a tin of tobacco, a shaving-brush, a bunch of keys, a pair of nail-scissors, two lighters and a cigarette-holder and case. He was executed on 15 March 1945.66 Such cases came before the Special Courts with growing regularity. Thirty-two out of fifty-two death sentences passed by the Special Courts in Dortmund, Essen and Bielefeld in 194 1 were for crimes against property; in 1943, a quarter of all death sentences passed in Germany as a whole were for property offences, the great majority of them looting from bomb-sites.67 But this was a losing struggle. The more the fabric of Germany’s cities was destroyed, the more the fabric of German society began to fall apart. In 1943 it began the transition from a ‘people’s community’ to a ‘society of ruins’. It was to end in 1945 in a state of almost complete dissolution.


The successful bombing operations carried out by the Allies in the spring and summer of 1943 were a serious indictment of G̈ring’s air defences. Not only his standing in the Nazi leadership but also his reputation in the population at large began to decline steeply. Soon jokes of all kinds were circulating about him. Since he had once boasted that he would change his name to Meier if so much as a single enemy bomb fell on the Fatherland, people now began habitually calling him ‘Mr Meier’. However, the Reich Marshal, as Speer reported later, merely buried his head in the sand. When General Adolf Galland, in charge of the fighters, reported the alarming development that American fighter planes with added-on fuel tanks had been able to accompany bombers as far as Aachen, G̈ring dismissed the report. He himself was an old fighter-pilot and knew this was impossible. A few planes must have been blown east by the wind. When Galland persisted, noting that some fighters had been shot down and identified on the ground, Göring lost his temper: ‘I herewith give you an official order that they weren’t there!’ he shouted. Galland, a long cigar clamped between his teeth, gave way with deliberate irony. ‘Orders are orders, sir,’ he replied with, as Speer noted, ‘an unforgettable smile’. The raids were so serious that they left the Chief of Staff of the German Air Force, Hans Jeschonnek, in a state of deep depression. On 18 August 1943 he committed suicide, leaving a note saying that he did not want Göring to attend his funeral. Of course, the Reich Marshal could not avoid doing so, and indeed he laid a wreath on Hitler’s behalf. But the suicide, coming after that of Ernst Udet two years before, was another indication that G̈ring’s sublime complacency was driving his subordinates to despair.68

Instead of continuing their attacks on the Ruhr in 1943, however, the Allies turned their attention to Berlin. As well as being the Reich’s capital city, it was also by some distance the largest industrial centre in Germany. But it was much further away from the English airfields than Hamburg or the Ruhr, and bombers had to travel a long and roundabout way to get there. Thus German defences had time to locate them. Berlin was also beyond the range of the most effective navigational aids because it was hidden by the curvature of the earth. Undaunted, more than 700 bombers flew over the capital on the night of 22-3 November 1943, dropping their payloads through heavy cloud, guided by radar. Although many missed their target, the raid destroyed a large number of familiar landmarks, including most of the major railway stations, and ironically also the former British and French Embassies. Watching a raid from a flak tower, Albert Speer had a grandstand view of ‘the illumination of the parachute flares, which the Berliners called “Christmas trees”, followed by flashes of explosions which were caught by the clouds of smoke, the innumerable probing searchlights, the excitement when a plane was caught and tried to escape the cone of light, the brief flaming torch when it was hit.’ When day dawned, the city was shrouded in a cloud of smoke and dust rising to 20,000 feet.69

Over the next few months, Bomber Command attacked the capital a further eighteen times. In all, the raids killed more than 9,000 and made 812,000 people homeless. But the cost to the Allies was high. More than 3,300 British pilots and crew were killed, and nearly 1,000 had to bale out into captivity. In the raid of 24 March 1944, 10 per cent of the bombers were destroyed and many others hit. This was the last of these British raids. Earlier in the month, the Americans had begun to mount daylight attacks, which continued through April and May 1944.70 By this time, the Americans had learned to reduce their losses by getting fighter planes to accompany the raids in order to deal with German defences in the air. But the fighters’ limited range forced them to turn back at the German border. On 14 October 1943 a fleet of nearly 300 B-17s flew into the German Reich via Aachen. As soon as the escorting American fighters had turned back, a swarm of German fighter planes appeared, aiming cannon and rocket fire at the bombers, breaking up their formations then finishing them off singly. 220 American bombers reached Schweinfurt and caused further devastation to the ball-bearing factories, but altogether 60 were shot down and another 138 damaged. Similarly, in a raid on Nuremberg on 30 March 1944, 795 bombers, flying on a clear moonlit night, were identified by their vapour trails before they even got to Germany, and attacked by squadrons of night-fighters as they flew the long route towards their target. 95 were destroyed, or 11 per cent of those who had set out. Harris warned that such losses could not be sustained.71

Bombers clearly needed to have fighter escorts to deal with the German night-fighters. American P-38 Lightning and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter planes had already been fitted with extra fuel tanks under the wings, but the real difference was made by the P-51 Mustang, a plane built with an American frame and a British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. Equipped with extra fuel tanks, it could fly up to 1,800 miles, allowing it to escort bombers all the way to Berlin and get back with fuel to spare. Soon thousands of these aircraft were rolling off the production lines. The first flew into Germany on a raid on Kiel in December 1943, and soon all bombing raids were escorted by squadrons of fighters that were fast and manoeuvrable enough to deal with their German counterparts despite the extra load of fuel they were carrying. Already in November 1943, German fighter-plane losses were beginning to climb as the new tactic began to be employed. In December nearly a quarter of the strength of the German fighter fleet was lost. Production could not keep pace with these losses, which were running at something like 50 per cent a month by the spring of 1944; aircraft factories too were affected by bombing raids, with production falling from 873 in July 1943 to 663 in December 1943. Moving fighter planes to the west to deal with the bombers denuded the Eastern Front, where by April 1944 the German air force had only 500 combat aircraft left, confronting more than 13,000 Soviet planes. The German Air Ministry thought that 5,000 planes a month would have to be produced to stand a chance of winning these confrontations. Instead, Allied bombers destroyed not only airplane factories but also oil refineries and fuel production facilities, leaving the German air force dependent on stockpiled fuel by June 1944. By this time, indeed, the German air force had effectively been defeated and the skies were open to a further escalation of the strategic bombing offensive.72

Of course, even with the reduction of German fighter defences to no more than a marginal threat, bomber squadrons still had to contend with anti-aircraft batteries in large numbers, and flying over German towns and cities continued to be a dangerous and often deadly business. But losses were reduced to numbers that Allied air force chiefs found acceptable, and were more than made good by a huge expansion of aircraft production in Britain and America. By March 1945 there were over 7,000 American bombers and fighter planes in operation, while the British were deploying more than 1,500 heavy bombers in virtually continual sorties across the whole of Germany. Of the 1.42 million tons of bombs dropped on Germany during the war, no fewer than 1.18 million tons fell between the end of April 1944 and the beginning of May 1945, the war’s final year. But it was not merely a matter of quantity. The decline of German defences allowed smaller fighter-bombers to come in and attack their targets with more precision than the Lancasters or Flying Fortresses ever could, and in the second half of 1944 they directed their attention at the transport system, attacking railways and communications hubs. By the end of the year, they had halved the number of goods journeys on the German railway system. Arms factories suffered even more severely than before. By the end of January 1945 Speer’s Ministry calculated that the economy had produced 25 per cent fewer tanks than planned, 31 per cent fewer aircraft and 42 per cent fewer lorries, all because of the destruction wrought by bombing. Even had those production targets been met, they would in no way have matched the staggering military-industrial output of the United States, let alone the additional production of the war economy in Britain and the Soviet Union. Moreover, the need to combat the bombing absorbed more and more German resources, with a third of all artillery production going on anti-aircraft guns by 1944, and 2 million people engaged on anti-aircraft defence or repairing and clearing up after raids. German air superiority was lost on the Eastern Front, where fighters and bombers were no longer present in numbers sufficient to offer the ground forces the support they needed to defeat the Red Army, support that had played such a key role in the early stages of the war. Allied bombers were able to pulverize the roads, bridges and railways behind the Normandy beaches in 1944, making it impossible for the German army to bring up adequate reinforcements. Had the German air force retained the command of the skies, the invasion could not have taken place.73

It has been argued, therefore, that bombing helped save lives by shortening the war, and in particular that it saved Allied lives by weakening German resistance. Nevertheless, it also caused between 400,000 and half a million deaths in Germany’s towns and cities, the overwhelming majority of them civilian. Of these people, some 11,000 were killed up to the end of 1942, perhaps 100,000 in 1943, 200,000 in 1944 and between 50,000 and 100,000 in the last months of the war, in 1945. Around 10 per cent were foreign workers and prisoners of war. All these figures are extremely approximate, but about their concentration in the last two years of the war there can be no doubt. On the Allied side, some 80,000 airmen were killed in the bombing raids, along with 60,000 British civilians in German raids, and quite possibly as many again in German aerial attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, Leningrad, Stalingrad and other European cities. About 40 per cent of housing stock in German towns and cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants was destroyed; in some cities, like Hamburg and Cologne, the figure was as much as 70 per cent, and in some smaller towns like Paderborn or Giessen virtually every single dwelling was rendered uninhabitable. The devastation was enormous, and took many years to make good.74

The German dead were not mere ‘collateral damage’, to adopt the phrase made familiar by wars in later years and other places. Undermining civilian morale, even wreaking revenge on Germany and the Germans, unquestionably belonged among the aims of the strategic bombing offensive, although attacks on civilians have customarily been regarded as a war crime. Even if one does not accept that the entire bombing campaign was unnecessary, then it is at least arguable that it was continued longer than was strictly necessary, and conducted, especially in the final year of the war, in a manner that was too indiscriminate to be justifiable.75 Arguments will no doubt continue to rage over this difficult question. What is undeniable, however, is that the bombing had a huge effect on civilian morale. The hope of some in Britain that it would inspire ordinary Germans to rise up against the Nazis and bring the war to an early end by an act of revolution was unrealistic. Most Germans affected by the bombing were too busy trying to survive amidst the ruins, to reconstruct their shattered homes and disrupted lives, and to find ways of avoiding getting killed to bother about things like revolution. Asked after the war what the hardest thing had been for civilians in Germany to put up with, 91 per cent said the bombing; and more than a third said that it had lowered people’s morale, including their own.76 It did even more than the defeats at Stalingrad and in North Africa to spread popular disillusion about the Nazi Party. One not untypical example in this respect can be seen in the correspondence of the paratrooper Martin P̈ppel, by now serving in a unit fighting the invading Allied forces after D-Day. In 1944 he was receiving increasingly despairing letters from his wife at home in Germany. She could no longer understand or support the Nazis. ‘What have they made of our beautiful, magnificent Germany? ’ she asked. ‘It’s enough to make you weep.’ Allied bombs were destroying everything. It was surely time to call a halt to the war. ‘Why do people let our soldiers go to their death uselessly, why do they let the rest of Germany be ruined, why all the misery, why?’77

16. Allied Bombing Raids on German Cities, 1941-5

Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry poured out bile against the Allied bombing crews and their political masters. The Americans were gangsters, their air crews uncultivated mobsters taken out of the prisons. By contrast, the German media claimed, the British fliers were drawn mainly from the effete ranks of the aristocracy. Both, however, in the view propagated by the Nazi media, were in the service of Jewish conspirators, who were also manipulating Roosevelt and Churchill in their quest for the total destruction of Germany.78 The propaganda did have an effect.79 There were widespread reports from 1943 at the latest of people demanding reprisal attacks on London; but this was not so much in anger, rather in the belief that only this could prevent further raids on Germany and even defeat in the war in general.80 ‘Again and again,’ reported the Security Service of the SS, ‘one could hear: “If we don’t do something soon, nothing will help us any more,” or “We can’t watch much longer as everything we have is smashed to bits.” ’81

In 1944 there was some popular anger against the pilots and crew of Allied bombers, under the psychological pressure of constant alarms, raids, death and destruction, and encouraged by Goebbels’s mass media. It began to express itself in violence against Allied airmen who were forced to bale out after their plane had been hit. On 26 August 1944 seven American airmen who had baled out over R̈sselsheim were beaten to death by an angry crowd, while on 24 March 1945 a British airman who landed by parachute in a field near Bochum was attacked by a soldier with his rifle-butt. He fell over and was surrounded by a crowd who kicked him, hurting him badly. Someone tried to shoot the airman but the gun jammed, so he was dragged away until a member of the crowd produced a hammer and beat him to death. Three other British airmen who had also landed in the area were arrested by the Gestapo, tortured and then shot. One local works fireman who protested to his workmates against these murders was denounced, arrested and shot by the Gestapo. Not only did the police fail to intervene to stop such incidents, but anyone who did was likely to be arrested and tried for ‘forbidden contact with prisoners of war’. The Party Regional Leader for Southern Westphalia ordered on 25 February 1945 that pilots ‘who have been shot down are not to be protected from the people’s anger’. Altogether at least 350 Allied airmen were lynched in the last two years of the war and a further sixty or so injured without being killed. In a particularly notorious incident, when fifty-eight British airmen had escaped on 24 March 1944 from a prisoner-of-war camp near Sagan in Lower Saxony, all those who were recaptured were shot by the Gestapo on the explicit orders of Heinrich Himmler. Yet these incidents have to be kept in perspective. The total number of Allied airmen who were lynched or shot by the Gestapo made up no more than 1 per cent of the total captured.82 The hatred that animated such actions was a product above all of the last phase of the bombing, and was, as the Security Service of the SS noted, not really present before 1944. The Security Service’s observers noted calls among the population, especially those who had been bombed out of their homes, for the British to be gassed or ‘annihilated’, but added that ‘hate-filled-sounding words against England are often more an expression of desperation and the belief that the annihilation of England is the only rescue . . . One cannot speak of hatred for the English people as a whole.’ And they quoted one woman who had lost her home in a raid as saying: ‘It hurts me that all my things have gone for good. But that’s war. Against the English, no, I don’t have anything against them.’83

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