Sunday, 16 March 2014

Remembering Gomorrah: Mahnmal St. Nikolai, Hamburg

As regular readers will be aware, this writer is a frequent visitor to Germany and to the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg in particular. The near destruction of the city in July and August 1943 by the RAF and USAAF in a series of major air raids has been well documented on this blog in February 2011 and again last February, when I visited the Air Raid Shelter Museum in Hamm. Therefore, it was with great interest than I learned of a new permanent museum that has opened in the crypt of the ruined Nikolaikirche, which lay at the heart of the firestorm started by the RAF's first raid of Operation Gomorrah, as this sequence of air attacks was christened, on the night of 24th July 1943. Having learned of the museum's opening, a visit was a 'must' and along with my companions on the trip, we made the short journey by S-Bahn from our hotel on a sunny Monday morning a couple of weeks ago.

There has been a church on this site since the year 1195 and the current building's immediate predecessor with it's Baroque tower had been a familiar sight to the people of Hamburg as well as visitors to the great port until this fell victim to the great fire that devastated the city in 1842. The present building was designed by the British architect George Gilbert Scott and took 36 years to be completed following the commencement of construction work in 1846. 

This magnificent Gothic church soon became a well known Hamburg landmark and on 24th July 1943, such was the devastation, both to the Nikolaikirche and the surrounding area, that many local people were under the impression that the RAF used the spire of the church as their aiming point. This is an urban myth, sadly perpetuated in the otherwise excellent guidebook produced by the museum; the RAF pathfinders were simply ordered to mark the area between the Alster and the River Elbe. It would not have been possible to discern the spire of the church from 20,000 feet in pitch dark conditions, whereas it was eminently possible to make out the two large expanses of water and mark the space in between. Given the fact that the church was, and still is, a potent symbol for the city, it is perhaps understandable that Hamburgers felt that the RAF would use it as a target. It is interesting to note that the vicar of the nearby Michaeliskirche - the 'Michel' as the church is known affectionately - claimed that his church was the main target. As with raids on London, people took these things personally and asserted that their neighbourhood was the focal point of any bombing.

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

When the Gomorrah raids finally ceased on 2nd August 1943, some 45,000 civilians had been killed and somewhere in the region of one million people had fled the city. There was very little left to bomb and although the RAF and USAAF did return, most of their attentions were occupied in bombing the shipyards and surviving industries along the River Elbe.

Hamburg was surrendered to elements of the British 7th Armoured Division, the famed Desert Rats, on 3rd May 1945 and when the Union Flag was hoisted over the Rathaus, or Town Hall, the British had taken possession of a city that carried the 'Stink of Death' as one British soldier there at the time eloquently put it, for there were still many bodies laying beneath the rubble nearly two years after the Gomorrah raids.

It was understandable, given the huge task of rebuilding the city, that reconstruction of the Nikolaikirche was never seriously considered. Coupled with the expense that this would have entailed, there was in the 1950s, a general antipathy towards Gothic architecture and following the demolition of the nave and choir areas in 1951, coupled with the removal of all remaining rubble, the church was left as a 'cleaned up' ruin. In 1977, the decision was taken to turn the ruin into a permanent memorial dedicated to the victims of war and tyranny from 1933-45. The memorial has gradually evolved thanks to the efforts of the Forderkreis Mahnmal St Nikolai (Friends and Supporters of St Nikolai Memorial) who had long wished to make a permanent exhibition within the crypt of the church. Thanks to a generous donation from Reinhold Scharnberg, a retired Senior Senate Executive who as a young man, witnessed the destruction of the city first hand, this new permanent exhibition was made possible and opened in September 2013, some seventy years on from the Gomorrah raids.

Surviving Altar fragments (author's photo)

Upon entry to the exhibition, visitors are greeted by the words 'Hamburg is falling' taken from Bertolt Brecht's diary entry of 26th July 1943 which is superimposed on a large format photograph of the ruined city. The history of the Nikolaikirche is reviewed as well as an explanation of the relationship between the Nazi state and the church, which is supported by documents recovered from the church archives. The early effects of the war upon the church are explored and as a result of these early raids, the decision to remove and evacuate the stained glass windows is explained. Following the church's near total destruction in 1943, we see surviving fragments of the altar and pulpit as well as learning of the destruction of 27 other churches within the Hamburg area during this time. We also learn of the transformation of the Nikolaikirche into a memorial as well as the construction of a replacement church at the Klosterstern.

Moving into the next area of the exhibition, we see how the citizens of Hamburg prepared for the onset of Allied air raids. Civil Defence exercises and Air Raid Precautions all look remarkably similar to the preparations made by the British authorities but with one chilling difference which this exhibition honestly tackles. In Britain, Air Raid Precautions and Civil Defence were available and designed to cater for all people, whilst in Nazi Germany, these facilities were denied to Jews and other minority groups. This exclusion is explained, and a series of reports document deportations and expropriations of Jewish people, whilst a compilation of letters from a Jewish citizen of Hamburg give a telling insight into her experiences in Hamburg before she was deported to a concentration camp. We also learn of the Luftwaffe's air raids on Guernica, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry and London, as well as other cities and discover how this hardened the attitude of the British once they were able to allocate resources to strengthening their own bomber force, resulting in the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF in 1942 which provided for a change in strategy in order to undermine the morale of the German Civil Population. This culminated in the destruction of Lubeck in March 1942 and we see the evidence of this in some large format photographs.

Civil Defence equipment, including Babies gas mask and stirrup pump (author's photo)

We now entered the main gallery where Operation Gomorrah itself is described. At the centre of the room is a large 'media desk' which shows the locations of shelters, the extent of the areas damaged and destroyed, information on the various types of bombs used as well as an explanation of the 'firestorm' effect that occurred with devastating consequences as a result of this raid. We also see an insight into the raids from the perspective of the Allied air crews and see first hand accounts as to how they felt and what they saw when dropping their deadly loads onto the city below. We also see examples of 'window', basically foil strips cut to the same wavelength as the German radar, which was used for the first time during the Gomorrah raids and which succeeded in blinding the radar defences of the city.

Strips of 'Window' dropped by the RAF (author's photo)

We also learn of the German defences based in the flak towers, as well as learning of the blackout regulations and how to react when the air raid sirens sounded. We also see the 'emergency suitcases' which all Hamburgers were required to have packed and ready in the event of being bombed out.

After the city had been effectively razed to the ground in some areas, a darker side of the rescue and recovery operations emerged. Forced labourers and inmates from the nearby Neuengamme Concentration Camp were used to recover bodies, clear rubble, seal off the worst areas and most appallingly of all, were used for bomb disposal work, despite having no know-how of this. Unsurprisingly, many of these people became further, albeit indirect victims of the raids and the exhibition explains their involvement in great detail.

Neuengamme Concentration Camp inmates at work in Hamburg (Mahnmal St Nikolai/Author's collection)

The final phase of the exhibition focuses on how people lived amongst the ruins and the difficulties encountered in tracking down relatives. We also learn of the flight and evacuation of the population from Hamburg and see many diary extracts and letters covering the subject. We also learn of the dwindling morale of the city's population and the peaceful surrender of the city in May. Finally, we see something of the early peacetime reconstruction and temporary accommodation supplied to the people of Hamburg in the form of Nissen Huts, which were also used in British cities, some of which survived until the late 1950s.

On leaving the exhibition, we see a quotation from Klaus Mann dating back to 1943:

"Hamburg as I knew it will never exist again. The city will certainly be rebuilt but it's face and atmosphere will be fundamentally changed."

As if to reinforce the changes in the cityscape, visitors can now climb the surviving tower and spire of the church, fortunately by lift, where a viewing platform affords panoramic views of the city.

View of the Rathaus and the Binnenalster from the Viewing Platform (author's photo)


Devastation of Stadthausbr├╝cke in 1943 (Mahnmal St Nikolai/Author's collection)
This is a fascinating and well constructed exhibition which as one would expect is admirably anti-war in it's outlook. It also pulls no punches in apportioning blame for the catastrophe which befell Hamburg in 1943 and leaves the visitor in no doubt regarding the worst excesses of the Nazi regime which brought about tyranny, persecution, discrimination and extermination, not only of Jews but of many other minorities, simply because they did not fit into the system. Had the Nazis not been permitted to attain power in 1933, Hamburg could have been spared, as could have the rest of the World. The complexities and controversies surrounding Operation Gomorrah along with German post-war attitudes to the affair are explored in great detail and with great honesty.

When in Hamburg a visit to the Nikolaikirche is highly recommended. The St Nikolai Memorial can be reached by S-Bahn lines S1 and S3 to Stadthausbr├╝cke or U-Bahn U3 to Rodingsmarkt. The museum and the viewing platform are both open daily and combined entrance to both is just 5 Euros.

Published Sources:

Churchill's Desert Rats: From Normandy to Berlin with 7th Armoured Division - Patrick Delaforce - Alan Sutton Publishing 1994
Gomorrah 1943: Hamburg's Destruction through Aerial Warfare - Mahnmal St Nikolai, 2013
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe - Viking, 2007







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