Sunday, 15 March 2015

Parallel Cities: The Second Great Fire of London, Bomber Harris and Operation Gomorrah

Hafenbunker at Hamburg (author's photo)

Following another of my regular visits to Hamburg, it seems a good time to repeat below a post first written in 2011 about the connections in war and peace between London and the great port city on the River Elbe.

This writer was lucky enough recently to pay a visit to Hamburg, the great Hanseatic port located on the River Elbe, the second largest city in Germany and the second largest port in Europe after Rotterdam. I’ve visited this city many times over the past twenty years or so and have often been struck by the many similarities between Hamburg and London. Some are perhaps not so evident these days now that many aspects of working London have been reduced to museum status but both cities have a thriving port, even though the main Port of London is located downriver at Tilbury and both cities are centres of transport, media, culture and sport

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the similarities were much more noticeable. Hamburg was known as ‘The English City’ due to the Hanseatic League’s trading connections with London going back to the Thirteenth Century. Both cities had been ravaged by fire in the past – London in 1666 and Hamburg no fewer than four times, in 1284, 1684, 1711 and 1713. Both cities rebuilt after these fires and seemed to grow stronger as a result consequently becoming amongst the wealthiest in Europe. Sadly, during the Second World War both cities were to suffer from further fires and especially in the case of Hamburg, would suffer catastrophic loss of life as a result. The picture above shows the Hafenbunker, one of Hamburg's surviving air raid shelters.

In 1940, London and many other towns and cities in the United Kingdom began to suffer from the onslaught of the Luftwaffe in what was quickly christened The Blitz. One of the heaviest raids on London was on Sunday 29th December 1940, when large parts of the City of London were destroyed in what was to become known as ‘The Second Great Fire of London’. Caused by a combination of a lack of Firewatchers due to the Christmas holiday period, the narrow streets and alleys of The Square Mile and an exceptionally low tide in the River Thames, this raid caused the huge fires started in Gresham Street, Moorgate, Queen Victoria Street and around St Paul’s Cathedral to join up and devastate vest swathes of the City, some areas of which were not fully rebuilt until the 1980s. Over three hundred incendiary bombs a minute were falling at times and the area around the Cathedral became the scene of the heaviest of the fires, causing Winston Churchill to instruct that Wren’s masterpiece was to be saved at all costs. This was achieved, somewhat against the odds in a story that we shall tell in a future article. Suffice to say, the survival of St Paul’s, with the help of Herbert Mason’s iconic photograph flashed around the World, seemed to personify British defiance against Nazi aggression.

One of Hamburg's two Flak Towers - this one at Heiligengeistfeld (author's photo)

It was also on this night when a senior RAF officer, who was as yet little known outside his own service, called Arthur Travers Harris stood on the roof of the Air Ministry in Holborn watching the fires raging with his service chief, Air Chief Marshall Charles Portal. As the two men silently gazed at the huge fires burning the heart out of the City of London, Harris suddenly felt vengeful and remarked quietly to Portal “They have sown the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind.” Harris was a career airman and had made the study and practice of bombing his life’s work. He was one of those airmen who felt that future wars would be fought and won solely through the use of air power and that armies and navies would be rendered redundant through the use of air forces.

In February 1942, Harris was to get his chance of vengeance when he was appointed as Air Officer Commanding RAF Bomber Command. When he took over, the bomber arm of the RAF was at low ebb in its fortunes. Apart from some heroic attempts at raiding Wilhelmshaven, targets in the Ruhr and strikes against the gathering fleet of German invasion barges, all of which were achieved at high cost in casualties and with questionable accuracy, much of Bomber Command’s efforts had been spent in dropping leaflets on German cities, all of which left the personnel of Harris’s new command somewhat demoralized. Shortly before Harris’s appointment, the Air Ministry issued the Area Bombing Directive, which decreed that the focus of Bomber Command’s attention should be switched to undermining the morale of the German civil population, especially the industrial workers. As such, the cities of Cologne, Duisburg, Dusseldorf and Essen were allocated as priority targets with other cities such as Hamburg and Bremen being designated as secondary targets.

Harris built up his forces, replacing the obsolete Whitley and Hampden bombers with the new four engine Halifax and Lancaster aircraft, the latter of which was to become the mainstay of the RAF’s bomber force. On the night of 30th/31st May 1942, Harris took a major gamble when he committed the entire force of his command into the first ever thousand bomber raid, codenamed Operation Millennium, in which the city of Cologne was devastated. The huge numbers of aircraft attacking the city overwhelmed the defences and coupled with the element of surprise achieved, ensured that from a British viewpoint at least, the raid was an overwhelming success. Although the death toll was mercifully light – some 486 people were killed – the effect on the population gave the Nazi authorities food for thought. Out of a population of some 700,000 approximately 135,000 fled the city and some 45,000 were ‘bombed out’ of their houses. This was all achieved for the loss of 43 RAF bombers, some 3 percent of the bomber force. Ironically, Hamburg had had a close escape from destruction that night; it was the primary target for Operation Millennium and had only avoided the fate eventually meted out to Cologne by having the good fortune to be shrouded from the bombers by bad weather.

However, Hamburg’s good luck was not to continue as in 1943 Harris selected it for a series of raids prophetically called Operation Gomorrah. The object was to attack the city during the summer months, when the city would be tinder dry with the objective of starting uncontrollable fires with incendiary bombs whilst keeping the fire fighters at bay by dropping high explosive bombs simultaneously.

Inmates from Neuengamme Concentration Camp removing a victim of the raid (author's collection)

The first raid took place on the night of 24th July 1943 when 792 heavy bombers of RAF Bomber Command attacked the city. Some of the RAF bombers dropped propaganda leaflets on other German towns and cities along the way. These leaflets mocked Hitler’s own bombast by stating ‘Die Festung Europa hat kein Dach’ which translated means ‘Fortress Europe has no roof’. This raid marked the first use of another of the RAF’s secret weapons; thin strips of aluminium foil, known as ‘Window’ were dropped from the bombers. Cut to the same length as the German radar wavelength, these strips caused the radar picture to be jammed with hundreds of false reflections, effectively blinding the defenders. Once the pathfinders dropped their Target Indicator (TI) flares over the western part of the city, there was an element of 'creepback' from the following waves and the bombs seemed to fall in four main areas of the city; near Grasbrook, in Wandsbeker Chausee, Hasselbrook and in the Altona area. The destruction was bad enough but although the city centre had been spared, worse, much worse was to come.

On the 25th July, the Americans joined the party with the USAAF taking part in a daylight raid, which fell mainly on the Neuhof area around the power station, the MAN engine works and the Blohm & Voss and Howaldswerfte shipyards. On the 26th July the Americans again bombed in daylight and to ensure that the populace stayed in a constant state of tension, the RAF staged 'nuisance' raids on both of these nights with small numbers of Mosquito aircraft which kept the citizens of Hamburg awake even though the number of bombs dropped in these raids was miniscule.

Hamburg was by now a city in a state of shock; the daylight raids especially had shaken the populace and the first night raid had seemed to be bigger than anything they had ever thought possible. They had never seen an enemy air raid in daylight since the war began and some began to think privately that perhaps their enemies were stronger than Dr Goebbel's propaganda had led them to believe. By the 27th July 1943, some of the fires started by the earlier raids were still burning but concern for Hamburg’s fire fighters was not on Harris's agenda and at 2340, the sirens sounded again.

During this raid some 787 RAF bombers attacked the city and this time, the weather and visibility was perfect for the attackers. The first Pathfinders dropped their TI flares over the eastern suburb of Hammerbrook and unlike the first raid, when the second wave of Pathfinders arrived they dropped their flares over the same location. This meant that the raid would be unusually concentrated and when the main force arrived, they dropped their bombs - some 2,300 tons of them – inside just fifty minutes. On the ground, the devastation and death was appalling; the fires were spreading out of control into the district of Hamm and the masses of individual fires were joining up into one huge conflagration. It was London all over again but on a much larger and altogether more terrifying scale. The firestorm had begun.

A firestorm occurs when a fire becomes so large that it sucks in air from all around and generates its own winds and energy. It becomes almost a living thing and when unchecked, can move at a frighteningly fast pace and can reach temperatures of as much as 800 degrees Celsius. In Hamburg on the night of 27th/28th July 1943, the fires were reaching staggering proportions, so much so that even the crews of the attacking bombers could smell the smoke and stench of burning flesh at 17,000 feet. On the ground, asphalt roads spontaneously combusted, fuel from ruptured oil tanks and from damaged ships spilled onto the surface of the River Elbe and the many waterways and also caught fire; people were suffocated inside seemingly safe air raid shelters and perhaps most horrifically of all, people who remained on the streets were swept off their feet by the huge winds generated by the firestorm and sucked into the flames. Operation Gomorrah had been named a little too accurately.

Following this appalling loss of life, the authorities ordered an evacuation of the city and some one million people tried to leave the city, although with the rail network shattered and many of the roads reduced to ruins, this was easier said than done. Coupled to this, the bombing still wasn’t over – another nuisance raid on the night of the 28th July kept people in a state of panic and the following night, 777 bombers of the RAF started a second firestorm in the suburb of Barmbek and wreaked further damage over the already shattered city. A final raid on the night of 2nd/3rd August was disrupted by a mixture of high winds over the North Sea and a huge thunderstorm raging over Hamburg itself. Mercifully for those remaining in the city, few bombs fell and when the battered RAF force returned to their bases, the operation was at last brought to an end.

Operation Gomorrah had caused the deaths of some 45,000 Germans, mainly civilians and left some 37,500 wounded. Somewhere in the region of a million people had fled the city. The RAF and USAAF had deployed in the region of 3,000 aircraft with a loss of some 118 with their crews killed or captured for the most part.

Perhaps it should also be mentioned that the Neuengamme Concentration Camp was located in the Bergedorf district of the City of Hamburg and was responsible for the deaths of something in the region of 55,000 of its inmates during the war. Ironically, although the camp was spared any bombing, many of the inmates were used by the authorities for the recovery of victims of the bombing from fire ravaged buildings as well as for 'bomb disposal' duties.

Neuengamme inmates on Bomb Disposal duties (author's collection)

To put matters further into perspective, we should remember a visit to London in late 1945 by a senior officer of the Hamburg Fire Brigade. He was shown around the bombed out areas of the City of London by Cyril Demarne, a senior London Fire Brigade officer. As he was being shown the pulverised areas beyond Aldersgate Street (the site of today’s Barbican Estate) to the wastes of Paternoster Row, the German fireman showed no signs of emotion. When finally they arrived at St Paul’s at the end of their tour, he asked Demarne: “Is this the worst?” When Demarne replied that the area he had shown him was as bad as anything in London, the German official simply replied “But it is nothing.” At first, Demarne had some reservations about that comment but a subsequent return visit to Hamburg revealed that the German fire chief had not been exaggerating.

It is a sobering thought indeed to reflect that during the entire six years of the war, London lost 30,000 civilians due to enemy air attacks. Hamburg lost half as many again in eight days, most of them during the firestorm night of 27th/28th July 1943. The Germans had indeed reaped the whirlwind on the most horrendous possible scale and as always in modern warfare, it was the civilians who had suffered the most.

In the next post, we shall take another look at the Hamburg raids and what evidence can still be found in the City today.

Published Sources:

Bomber Boys - Patrick Bishop, Harper Press 2007
Bomber Harris, His Life & Times - Henry Probert, Greenhill Press 2001
Inferno, The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Viking 2007
The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE - After The Battle 1991

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