Saturday, 24 July 2021

A step back in time: The Hamburg Air Raid Shelter Museum


This article first appeared on the blog in February 2013 but to mark the 78th anniversary of the beginning of the "Gomorrah" raids, we have slightly updated the piece slightly to present it to you once again.

I first visited Hamburg's only Air Raid Shelter Museum in February 2013 and have returned twice since to this fascinating but still relatively little-known museum located in the eastern inner suburbs of Germany's second largest city.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the war will be aware that between 24th July and 2nd August 1943, Hamburg was laid waste by a series of  RAF and smaller USAAF air raids with the macabre codename Operation Gomorrah, that peaked, if that is the correct word, on 27th July with a vast firestorm that devastated the districts of Hamm, Hammerbrook and Borgfelde causing casualty figures that are difficult to comprehend even today and which left a generation of survivors scarred with mental images of the hellish scenes that they had witnessed. 

We have already covered the raid in the February 2011 edition of this blog but before one of my regular visits to Hamburg, I learned of the Air Raid Shelter Museum located on the Wichernsweg in the Hamm district, one of the hardest hit areas of the 1943 raids. The opportunity to visit such an important piece of wartime history was too good to miss and after a brief exchange of emails, a guided tour was arranged for myself and the group of friends who were visiting with me.

The steps to safety (author's photo)

We arrived at the entrance to the Shelter promptly at 11:00 and were greeted by Gunnar Wulf, our friendly and knowledgeable guide for the tour. A brisk descent down in excess of twenty steps took us out of the chilly Hamburg weather down into a subterranean world, which in the summer of 1943 would have represented the best hope of surviving the horrors about to rain down on the city. The shelter was built between April 1940 and April 1941 as part of a country wide scheme of shelter construction in anticipation of British air raids following the outbreak of war in September 1939. The shelter was built approximately five metres underground from reinforced concrete with walls one metre thick. This substantial construction provided protection from everything except a direct hit. 

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered a chamber, which during the war would have acted as a gas-proofed airlock area, from which we saw four parallel tunnel like chambers, which formed the actual shelter part of the bunker. Each tunnel is 17 metres long and has a headroom of 2.25 metres, which allows even the tallest amongst us to stand upright, which as Gunnar explained later was very important in 1943. Each chamber had bench type seating for 50 people as well as shelves for personal belongings. Each tunnel is interlinked with a small passageway into the adjoining chamber as well as being served by an emergency exit at the opposite end to the main stairs so as to allow speedy evacuation in case of a bomb breaching the shelter or blocking the entrance.

The Gas-tight entrance or Gasschleuse (author's photo)

We were then led into one of the tunnel-like chambers, now in use as a small lecture theatre where after sitting down, Gunnar formally greeted us and introduced us to Timothy Hulme, a post-graduate military history student from Wales who had been enlisted to assist with translating any technical terms. The introduction started by explaining the different types of shelter used in Germany during the wartime years. In Hamburg, there were two types of above ground shelter as well as the underground type that we were visiting. The above ground shelters consisted of the brick clad shelters, looking rather like overgrown pepperpots, which were often located close to main railway stations and of which several still survive in Hamburg. The other type of above ground shelter were the Flakturm or Flak Towers, which doubled as anti-aircraft gun emplacements and fortresses as well as shelters. These huge reinforced concrete structures have often proved impossible to destroy and one of these towers survives in the St Pauli area of the city, close to the Millerntor Stadion, home of St Pauli FC.

This is Wichernsweg in 1940 - the shelter entrance was to the left of the church (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

Going back to 'our' shelter, we then moved to an explanation as to who was allowed to use the shelter and Gunnar described how local residents were registered with the Shelter Warden as being permitted to use this particular shelter. Residents were expected to make their whereabouts known and if a person was travelling and unable to use a shelter for a particular length of time, he or she was under instructions to inform the Warden of their non-attendance; failure to do this and not to attend for three consecutive nights, meant that permission to use a particular shelter could be withdrawn. Most of the shelter residents were the very young and the elderly; the majority of the younger men were in the armed forces and many of the younger women by 1943, were involved in some form of war work. The unpalatable truth concerning the fate of Jewish would-be shelterers was also touched upon and Gunnar explained that the Nazis simply would not permit people of that faith to use the public shelters. Jews who by 1943 had not been shipped off to one of the death camps were expected to remain in their homes, not to take shelter and basically take their chances. The Allied bombers could do the Nazis' job for them without the expense of shipping these people away.

Elderly male shelterers pass the time with a card game (Stadtteilarchiv Hamm)

We then moved to what for me was the most striking part of the entire tour. We were played a recording, some of which was taken during an actual raid. For this recording, the lighting in the shelter was extinguished and we listened in complete darkness, in much the same way as if a nearby bomb falling had extinguished the lighting, as happened frequently. The recording started with a radio broadcast; the ticking metronome sound being interrupted by a voice telling us that enemy raiders were approaching and instructing the listeners to take shelter, followed by the haunting sound of the air raid sirens. We then heard the sound of approaching bombers and the steady drone of the engines of 800 plus Lancasters and Halifaxes. Up until now, I have always considered the noise of the Merlin engine to be a friendly, reassuring sound but sitting in the total darkness waiting for the bombs to start falling, even in a simulation like this, it was anything but friendly and oozed menace. Next we heard the sound of bombs falling, including one or two that must have been very close to the person making the original recording and finally we heard the somewhat distressing sound of people screaming and crying; quite possibly the sound of people being killed.

At this point, the recording finished, the lights were raised and we moved to the next stage of our tour. On the way out of this chamber, we examined the many photographs, taken unofficially at the time of various groups of shelterers; many were elderly and they made poignant viewing of people playing cards, knitting, chatting or just trying to get some sleep. These were ordinary people and looked no different to their counterparts in London, Coventry or any other city under fire.

The Shelter Wardens' Area (author's photograph)

In the next chamber, we visited the area which would have been used by the Shelter Warden and saw some artefacts from the shelter's wartime past, including a noticeboard, a shelter telephone and an air raid siren, which obviously was not originally located in the shelter but was there for display purposes. We were also showed the location of the emergency exit at the other end of the tunnel, which could be reached from the other three by means of connecting passageways between the four chambers. Also included in this area were a series of photographs from the Holborn area of London following damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz of 1940-41, as well as several personal accounts of Londoners during this time. Gunnar explained that he always went to great lengths to explain to visiting school groups that London was bombed first, in 1940 and that what subsequently happened to Hamburg and other German cities was a direct result of this. He also mentioned that he frequently showed school groups the Holborn photographs without captions and that the children often confuse them with photos of Hamburg. As Gunnar pointed out, one bombed city looks much like another.

Re-creation of how shelterers' luggage was stored (author's photo)

We then moved into the third chamber, the layout of which has been recreated as the shelter would originally have been in 1943. This included bench type seating on one side, with wooden luggage racks on the opposite side. Today, these racks were filled with suitcases and luggage of the period, including some donated by Gunnar's Mother. He explained that each shelterer was issued with a list of what they should bring with them. This included a change of clothing, washing things, knives and forks - basically what one would take on an overnight stay or a short camping trip. This part of the shelter also contained the toilet - a dry chemical type - and the First Aid area, which contained the only beds to be found - a bunk bed arrangement for anyone who was taken ill during the night, or who was unable to sit or stand. We also saw the air filter, designed to provide a source of 'fresh' air into the shelter and which in theory could help filter out poison gas. The outside chamber leading into the main entrance stairs was also used as a Gasschleuse or airlock, where poison gas, being heavier than air would roll down the stairs and dissipate on the floor, with the main shelter chambers being sealed by large blast and gas proof steel doors. Mercifully, neither side used poison gas during the Second World War, so this was never put to the test. However, the filter could not keep out smoke and during the raids of 1943, when fires were burning out of control up on the surface, the filter had to be switched off in the hope that the shelterers would have enough air to see the raid out.

The Air Filter with the only two bunk beds visible in the background and the toilet behind them. The emergency exit is at the far end of this area (author's photo)

Gunnar described how, although the shelter was designed for 200 people, during the great raids of 1943 anyone and everyone was allowed in. He related one story told to him by a shelterer of the time that during the firestorm raid of 27th July 1943, so many people were crammed into the shelter that it was impossible to move from one end of the tunnel to the other and consequently toilet visits were impossible. Combined with being in near darkness, the sound of bombs falling and the air fetid with smoke and unwashed bodies, the conditions do not bear thinking about. Despite this, everyone who sheltered here during the raids of 1943 survived to tell the tale; many others elsewhere were not so lucky. 

Bottles twisted into fantastic shapes by the intense heat of the Firestorm (author's photo)

This room also contained many other artefacts of the wartime years, including a misshapen bottle found buried outside the shelter. The bottle was intact but had assumed a very peculiar shape. Hamm was in the centre of the firestorm and this bottle had been partially melted and it was explained to us that the temperature required to achieve this was between 800 - 1200 degrees Celsius. Obviously people could not survive outside in these conditions and eye witness accounts tell us of people seeing what they thought were 'tailors dummies' lying around on the streets, including the nearby main thoroughfare, the Hammer Landstrasse. These 'tailors dummies' were human bodies, charred often beyond recognition. Usually though, there was even less left to find - the official death toll is usually shown in the region of 42,000 to 45,000 but the true human cost of these terrible nights will probably never be known.

Knives and Forks suffered the same fate in the heat (author's photo)

For the final part of our tour, Gunnar took us to a part of the bunker that is not usually open to the public but which is used for storing artefacts not normally on display. These included more partially melted bottles which had assumed crazy shapes, knives and forks also twisted in the firestorm as well as many items of wartime ephemera unearthed from the ground around the area. In the main entrance hall as we gathered to leave the shelter was a large piece of shrapnel from a British 500 lb bomb, also discovered close by.

A large piece of shrapnel from a British bomb (author's photo)

After bidding our farewells, it was a somewhat more reflective group which climbed the stairs back to the surface and as we crossed the Hammer Landstrasse on our way back to the U-Bahn Station, it was hard to imagine that this was the same road, that almost seventy years ago was strewn with 'tailors dummies' and a scene of unimaginable hell on Earth.

Thanks are again due to Gunnar and Timothy for guiding us so expertly around the shelter and for making us so welcome. A short article of this nature cannot possibly compare with making a personal visit and if visiting the city of Hamburg, this is to be recommended. The museum is open to the public on Thursdays but private visits for groups of upto thirty in number can be arranged by prior appointment and this can be arranged via the museum's website.

Finally, apart from the February 2011 blog post linked earlier, for further in depth reading of the 'Operation Gomorrah' raids, I can thoroughly recommend 'Inferno - The Devastation of Hamburg 1943' by Keith Lowe, published in 2007 by Penguin Viking, which is a superbly written study of the raids dealing with the background, the planning, the raids themselves both from the viewpoint of the airmen and those on the ground and also dealing with the aftermath.

Lest we forget.


Published Sources:

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945 - Patrick Bishop, HarperPress 2007
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007

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