Friday 28 March 2014

More from Mahnmal St Nikolai

Mahnmal St Nikolai (author's photo)

Following the last article on the Mahnmal St Nikolai in Hamburg, this week has seen several requests to see some more of the exhibition, so this week, I am happy to include some more photographs taken during our visit, although as the lighting in parts of the museum is somewhat subdued, some of the photographs taken are not of the highest quality.

As mentioned in the original piece, the museum takes an admirably anti-war stance and is quick to recognise that before Hamburg was destroyed by air power in 1943, the Luftwaffe had been meting out plenty of devastation itself. One city that was particularly on the receiving end was Coventry, Blitzed on 14th November 1940. So widespread was the damage that a new word entered the German language, which was to "Coventrate", in other words to devastate a particular target by bombing. 

Not long after this, on 29th December 1940, whilst watching the 'Coventration' of the City of London during the Luftwaffe's great fire raid, Sir Arthur Harris, soon to become C in C of RAF Bomber Command, uttered his now famous phrase "The Germans have sewn the wind, now they shall reap the whirlwind." After the War, Harris mentioned that it was the only time that he had felt truly vengeful and although it was originally a private comment spoken in the heat of the moment, there was no doubt that Harris, as the RAF's leading exponent of area bombing meant what he said.

It is therefore fitting that one of the first exhibits that the visitor sees in the museum is a cross of nails, taken from the ruined Coventry Cathedral and presented to another destroyed place of worship as an act of reconciliation.

Cross of Nails from Coventry Cathedral (author's photo)

The exhibition also pulls no punches when it comes to the twisted philosophy of the Nazi regime in apportioning blame for the war and shows a film poster for a movie shown in Hamburg and indeed across Germany during the war called 'Der Jude ist schulde am Krieg!' ('The Jew is guilty for the War') and posters such as this highlight the uneasy position that the church filled during the Nazi years in Germany.

Film poster (author's photo taken at the exhibition)

Another exhibit shows a truly bizarre board game, unbelievably aimed at German children, called 'Luftschutz tut not!' - which loosely means 'Air Raid Precautions are essential!' which was presumably meant to impress upon children what could be expected if or when Germany found itself at war.

Luftshutz tut not! (author's photograph taken at the exhibition)

On a more practical level, is a poster listing which items members of the public should pack into an 'Emergency Suitcase' in case they were unfortunate enough to be bombed out of their homes but lucky enough to survive. Similar posters were produced in this country and the packing list includes common sense items such as washing kit, toothbrushes, shoes, socks, towels, blankets, knives and forks and so on.

Emergency Packing List (author's photo taken at the exhibition)

It is a common misconception about the Second World War that the Germans were superbly organised and geared up for war, whilst the British were woefully ill-prepared and for the early years of the War, content to muddle through and improvise. As with all stereotypes, this theory does not always stand closer examination and the exhibition is very quick to point out that Hamburg, although Germany's second city and largest port, was an obvious target for the RAF in any future war, almost no effort had been made prior to the outbreak of war to provide any sort of protection for the civilian population against air raids. Perhaps this was borne of Nazi arrogance, that in any future war, no enemy would get close to bombing the Fatherland but faced with such staggering complacency, it is perhaps no wonder that the death toll from the Gomorrah raids was so high. Even by 1st April 1940, fewer than 3 percent of the Hamburg population had access to a safe air raid shelter and even by the summer of 1943, shortly before Gomorrah, this figure had only risen to 22 percent. For all their bluster, the Nazis had little regard for their own civilian population.

In contrast, the British, although still under-prepared, had at least started a massive expansion of the Civil Defence services in 1938 and had made a serious attempt to provide every household with either an Anderson Shelter for those that had gardens, or a Morrison Shelter for those that had not, or at the very least access to trench shelters. They had also instigated a mass evacuation of children and other vulnerable people and although the British authorities were to get some things seriously wrong, such as initially not allowing public access to the London Underground for shelter purposes, they quickly learned from their mistakes and were infinitely better prepared than the Germans when it came to protecting their civilian population.

As well as the precautions (or lack thereof),  the exhibition also shows us some of the hardware of destruction, both in archive photos and in reality. We see the main instrument of Hamburg's demise being loaded aboard a British bomber - the 4lb incendiary bomb. These were the bread and butter of the RAF's firebombing armoury and although larger incendiaries were available, it was these 4 pounders which rained death by fire upon German cities. Incredibly, the RAF dropped some 4,000,000 of these on Germany during the war.

RAF Ground Crew preparing 4lb incendiaries (author's photo taken at exhibition)

Also visible for real in the museum is the real thing, firstly an unexploded 250 lb bomb, obviously now made safe! 

Unexploded RAF 250 lb bomb (author's photo)

Although seemingly big enough, the 250 lb was an average sized High Explosive weapon and it is a sobering thought indeed when one considers that many of the Lancaster bombers on the raid carried a 4,000 lb 'Cookie' or blast bomb in addition to their load of incendiaries. The theory and practice of the RAF's bombing technique is explained at the exhibition, which put very basically was that the High Explosive bombs would initially blast off roofs and create openings in buildings, after which the incendiaries could be dropped into openings, thus allowing the fires to get a good hold. All of the while, further bombs would be dropping, forcing the firefighters to continue to take cover.

Some of the deadly debris of the raids is also on show in the shape of shrapnel; lethal bomb fragments which could cause havoc amongst anyone still out in the open. Also on display are normal household objects such as bottles and eating implements twisted into fantastic shapes by the tremendous heat generated by the firestorm.

Bomb fragments and other items (author's photo)

The exhibition also concentrates on the aftermath of the raids, both immediate and longer term. In the previous piece, we learned how inmates of the Neuengamme Concentration Camp were put to work in clearing rubble, removing bodies and most awfully of all, bomb disposal but one of their other tasks was to effectively seal off some areas of the ruined city until they could either be made safe, or in the longer term, rebuilt.

Gothenstrasse in Hammerbrook sealed off as a restricted zone (author's photo taken at exhibition)

In the immediate post-war era, we see how many families were literally living amongst the ruins in incredibly primitive conditions.

Living amongst the ruins early post-war (author's photo taken at exhibition)

Despite the appalling death toll, massive destruction and terrible privations suffered by the survivors, Hamburg rose again to once again become one of the premier ports and trading cities of post-war Europe and a visit to the wonderful viewing platform shows us the true extent of Hamburg's recovery. 

When in Hamburg, please visit the Mahnmal St Nikolai for it is a sobering experience and a lasting monument to the horrors and injustices of war.

Published Sources:

Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg's destruction through aerial warfare - Mahnmal St Nikolai, 2013


  1. Thanks for taking the time to tell about this.
    My father was in the American Air Force in England for last year and a half of the war. I grew up hearing about the bombing.

    Ron Reitz, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA

  2. Thanks for your comments Ron.
    Kind Regards, Steve