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

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