The weather that July in Hamburg had been very hot, mostly dry. Two days before, a heavy thunderstorm had rumbled through, but the rain evaporated in the heat. On Saturday, July 24, 1943, the citizens of Hamburg were taking a rest from the heat and the backbreaking strain of World War II.
All across Germany’s leading seaport, Hamburg’s 1.75 million people enjoyed her cafes on the Alster and Elbe rivers, the huge zoo and the Ufa-Palast cinema, the Reich’s largest. Once again Hamburg was free of air raids. To the average citizen, it must have seemed unlikely that the city would ever be bombed.
But Hamburg was about to be destroyed.
The architect of that destruction was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber Harris, head of British Bomber Command. The stocky Harris had great intelligence, enormous determination and an unyielding hatred of Germany. His aim as chief of Britain’s bomber offensive was to destroy Germany’s cities.
By 1943, Bomber Command’s four-engine Avro Lancaster bombers could deliver 8,000-pound bombloads on German cities nightly, guided to their targets by radar. The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) flew daylight missions and made precision attacks on German factories. Round-the-clock bombing was becoming a reality.
On May 27, 1943, Harris picked a target for the RAF. Because of the short summer nights, they targeted a city relatively close to Britain. Hamburg was Germany’s second largest city, producing warships like Bismarck and churning out U-boats–400 during the whole war. Hamburg was protected by flak, rings of searchlights and night fighters, all controlled by a string of radar stations. But Harris had a new secret weapon, code-named Window, to use on Hamburg. British scientists said Window would blind the Nazi defenses.
Harris’ plan to bomb Hamburg, Operation Gomorrah, was simple: Hit Hamburg by day and night, dropping at least 10,000 tons of bombs and destroying the city. The Royal Air Force, accustomed to area bombing by night, selected the center of Hamburg, just north of the Alster River, as its target. The Americans, who planned to hit Hamburg by day with precision attacks, chose giant factories south of the Alster.
On July 22, the only question remaining was what the weather would be like. Harris and Brig. Gen. Frederick L. Anderson, commander of the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s 4th Bombardment Wing, met with meteorologists and learned that skies were clearing. Harris set the attack to begin at precisely one minute after midnight on Sunday, July 25. Bomber Command would dispatch 792 planes loaded with a variety of ordnance, ranging from 4-pound incendiary sticks to 8,000-pound high-explosive bombs that looked like giant dustbins.
Window also was prepared. The new device seemed an unlikely weapon to RAF crews. It consisted of bundles of metalized paper strips–each bundle had 2,200 strips–made of coarse black paper with aluminum foil stuck to one side.
Operation Gomorrah began at precisely 9:45 p.m., when a Short Stirling bomber of the 75th New Zealand Squadron took off from RAF Mepal in Cambridge. The last bombers took off at 11 p.m. Pathfinders dropped marker bombs–a mix of benzol, rubber and phosphorus that detonated at preset heights, set off by a barometric fuse–to blaze the route to Hamburg. Flying conditions were perfect as bombers advanced at 160 mph, using radar fixes to stay on course. The stream of aircraft was 203 miles long.
The Luftwaffe picked up the advancing British planes on its radar and sent up twin-engine Messerschmitt Me-110 and Junkers Ju-88 night fighters to intercept. The British reached their assembly point at about 12:20 a.m. and began dropping Window, which turned out to be a brilliant device.
British scientists had theorized that the strips of metalized paper floating in the air would swamp German radar with false echoes. The idea was not new. Japanese naval aircraft had used such a weapon–called Giman-shi, or deceiving paper–during night attacks on Guadalcanal. Adolf Hitler’s scientists had developed their own, called Duppel, in Berlin and tested it. The test was so successful that the Germans were afraid it would fall into British hands and be used against them. Incredibly, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe, not only ordered all research on Duppel stopped but forbade development of a counter to the device.
Now, from Lancasters and Handley Page Halifaxes, bundles were hurled out flare chutes into the freezing dark, a wearying task. In all, 7,000 bundles were dropped.
Down below, Luftwaffe radar stations that had been easily plotting RAF bomber streams were flooded with false returns. Hostile planes were everywhere. The whole defense system was blinded.
German ground controllers panicked. All Luftwaffe planes were ordered to simply fly toward Hamburg and find their own targets. Rolf Angersbach, in a Dornier Do-217, obediently headed for the city and found himself surrounded by slow-moving radar contacts…but no planes. After firing his guns all over the sky, he was ordered to land to tell his bosses what was going on. Angersbach later recalled that he found everyone helpless and bewildered.
Not every Luftwaffe pilot was flummoxed. A Lieutenant Bottinger shot down one Halifax bomber. But 740 planes roared on untouched toward Hamburg. Ahead of them flew the Pathfinders. Bombardiers looked down through their H2S radar sets, which were unaffected by Window, to find Hamburg glowing beneath them. There were no clouds, and a gentle wind blew. Bombing conditions were perfect.
At precisely 12:57 a.m., the lead de Havilland Mosquitoes opened their bomb doors and dropped 39 yellow and red target indicators, marking out a 4-by-3-mile rectangle over downtown Hamburg. Minutes later, the main force of Lancasters arrived to find the German defenses defeated by Window.
The master searchlights and all the others were waving aimlessly about the sky like a man trying to swat a flying ant in a swarm. All the crew were delighted, said Flight Lt. G.F. Pentnoy. For 50 minutes, RAF crews bombed the city in security.
German night fighters hung at Hamburg’s edge, hoping to hit a bomber. The main force lost only three bombers over Germany’s most heavily defended city. The attack seemed incredibly easy.
Down below, it was nightmarishly different.
In the confusion of the evening, the air raid alarms had been set off at 9:30 p.m., followed by the all-clear at 10, and then set off again at 12:33 a.m. The Hamburg police logged their 319th air raid alarm of the war at 12:51 a.m. as the target indicators skittered down in the night, each looking like a large fireball in the sky. Within minutes, the target indicators and 30-pound incendiaries started exploding, and people dived for the air raid shelters.
Most of Hamburg was burned to ashes. Firefighters, reserve police and Hitler Youth, the backbone of Hamburg’s civil defense, were overwhelmed. More than 54 miles of street frontage was burning. Karl Kaufmann, the district party leader, sent for reinforcements, and as many as 86 brigades were working in 692 teams by the end of the night.
The bombing was concentrated and continuous. Within minutes, the city’s telephone lines were snapped and police headquarters was hit. Kaufmann had to take his maps and message forms to Gestapo headquarters. Fire Chief Otto Zaps could not get through the wrecked streets.
Nonetheless, Hamburg fought back. City flak defenses were jammed by Window but still fired off 50,000 rounds. Traugott Bauer-Schlichtgeroll of the 267th Heavy Flak Battalion was dismayed that his radar had gone crazy. As the other defenders blazed away anyway, the 17-year-old gunner looked uneasily at the blood-red sky over Hamburg.
Whole neighborhoods were going up in flame. The Rathaus, the Nikolaikirche, the central police station and the telephone exchange were all gone. So was the Ufa-Palast cinema. Helpless firefighters stood by, unable to save the great theater because armor-piercing bombs had burrowed through the streets and sliced the water mains.
Police later estimated 1,500 dead, many more injured and thousands homeless. The RAF had dropped 184 flares, 263 target indicators, 1,346 tons of high explosives and 938 tons of incendiaries.
Overhead, the last bomber to fly over the burning city that night, a Halifax of No. 102 Squadron, turned for home at 1:55 a.m. Flight Sergeant E.M. Cartwright said the RAF crews could see the fires of Hamburg behind them for much of their flight home.
The return trip was fairly easy. The crews dumped more Window bundles. One Lancaster flew over flak at Cuxhaven and was brought down. Another was caught by a lone German fighter. The bombers started landing at 3:19 a.m., and the final plane, a Canadian bomber, came in at 5:15 a.m. Only 12 bombers were lost. Eighty RAF crewmen were dead, and seven had been captured.
In Hamburg, the sirens warbled the all-clear signal at 3:02 a.m., and citizens trooped out to the streets to find Window strips blowing around. They also found scenes of horror. Otto Mahncke saw sailors rescuing people from a burning house, passing them from balcony to balcony. Suddenly the house collapsed, and everyone fell into the ruins.
Order seemed to break down. Mahncke tried to save a woman trapped in a burning house but failed. As he left, he saw policemen at a nearby station not doing anything to help. All over Hamburg, people searched for their ruined homes and lost families. Dawn brought little daylight, since burning fires cast a huge pall of smoke across the city.
The Nazi civil defense machine rumbled into action. At 4:10 a.m. the fire department logged, Situation of Major Catastrophe declared, which placed every man and woman working in the city under Nazi Party control. Firefighters from Bremen, Kiel, Neumunster, Oldenburg and Eidelstedt were on their way, joined by Ukrainian Wehrmacht recruits from Training Corps VIII. In all, 35,000 men were soon at work quelling blazes. The fire department logged at 8:50 a.m., Eight large areas of fires are still without firefighting forces.
While Hamburg firefighters labored to fight fires without phones or water, another assault was coming. The U.S. Eighth Air Force was going to hurl 323 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and 3,230 airmen at Hamburg that afternoon, targeting the Blohm & Voss U-boat yards and the Klockner Aero-Engine Factory. Briefings and aircraft preparation took all morning at 15 airfields. Each B-17 was loaded with 10 500-pound high-explosive bombs or 16 250-pound incendiaries and 1,850 gallons of aviation octane.
Takeoff was at 1 p.m. Unlike the RAF fliers, Americans flew in close formation all the way over and all the way back. Much of the time after takeoff was spent marshaling the wings of graceful Flying Fortresses into tight boxes and out over the North Sea.
About 10 percent of the American planes had to abort–the U.S. crews were still gaining experience–but the rest rumbled over the North Sea under clear skies, climbing to 28,000 feet. Gunners in exposed positions pounded their fingers on their guns, trying to maintain their circulation in the freezing temperatures.
The Luftwaffe was having problems, too. The Germans sent 24 Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters to attack an incoming force that was presumed to be American bombers. It turned out to be a diversionary raid of British Douglas A-20 Havoc bombers heavily escorted by Supermarine Spitfires. The RAF lost seven Spitfires, and the Luftwaffe lost two Me-109s, but the B-17s were not touched.
Finally, the Luftwaffe realized what was happening and hurled Me-109s and Ju-88s at the American force. But the B-17s changed course, and the Luftwaffe only had them in radar contact for four minutes. As a result, the Americans swept in on Hamburg from the southwest with little aerial interference but facing heavy flak.
As the Americans homed in on Hamburg, 30 Me-109s swooped in. But the tough B-17s were able to take great punishment and stay in the air. When the Americans reached their initial point, the pilots saw a fantastic sight–Hamburg burning under a dense pall of smoke. One crewman, unaccustomed to the effects of RAF bombing, thought it was a thunderstorm. Others thought it was a smoke screen.
As the American planes closed in, so did German flak. It was the densest the Americans had yet seen. At 4:34 p.m., the lead planes opened their bomb bay doors and, 40 seconds later, released their loads. The Blohm & Voss yard was completely covered by smoke.
The American assault lasted 12 minutes, mostly because one wing dropped its bombs late. As soon as the bombs were gone and photos had been taken by bombsight cameras, the B-17s corkscrewed east and regrouped for the journey home. Ninety B-17s delivered 186 tons of bombs, but 78 planes suffered flak damage.
As the Americans approached, Hamburg had gone to Danger 15–the highest alert level, meaning air attack due within 15 minutes–to prepare for its first bombing by the USAAF. Smoke and flame interfered with U.S. efforts. Some bombs fell far short and killed cows in fields south of the city. Others missed the U-boat shops at Blohm & Voss. But more bombs wrecked important buildings, including the Blohm & Voss casting foundry, and destroyed ships.
Bombs tore apart oil tanks and apartment blocks, but others fell harmlessly into the Alster River. Two of Hamburg’s U-boat yards and minor industrial areas were damaged, and 20 people were killed. The raid was not a great success, but Hamburg had not been given a chance to recover. All across the city, groggy firefighters returned to their work, while engineers struggled to restore phone lines. Luftwaffe bomb disposal squads wrestled with delayed-action bombs dropped the previous night.
Everyone knew the Americans would return. But first they had to make it back to England.
The Luftwaffe regrouped fast. It refueled its fighters, which then took off again and scored quickly. Eleven American planes were straggling due to damage–none of those reached home. Meanwhile, the rest of the formations flew home under heavy attack. Gunners blazed away, littering their planes with spent shells. Some hit their own planes. The 379th Bomb Group alone fired off 63,544 rounds of ammunition.
They [the Germans] threw up everything that had a propeller, Lieutenant Howard Cromwell remembered. They came in from every direction….I only did three or four raids and this was certainly the worst one for fighters.
After the Me-109s departed, the Luftwaffe sent in their night fighters. The Me-110s took on B-17s for the first time. The Americans lost 15 B-17s, with 36 killed and 104 taken prisoner. The Luftwaffe lost six fighters.
That evening, Bomber Harris, learning that Hamburg was still covered by smoke, decided to send his Lancasters to Essen but keep nerves jangled in Hamburg with a high-speed nuisance raid by Mosquitoes. While the wooden planes did little damage, Hamburg residents got little sleep.
In Hamburg, all the local military district’s assets had been called out. The Hitler Youth, Marine and Hamburg brigades posted warnings, carried messages through blitzed streets, and boiled tea and cabbages at soup kitchens.
The next day, July 26, the Americans returned in force. Two bomber wings again hit the Klockner and the Blohm & Voss factories. Takeoff was at 9 a.m., and many Americans were flying on only five hours of sleep. The Luftwaffe responded with heavy fighter attacks, to which the Americans put up a determined defense. But a number of B-17s, flown by exhausted crews, turned back.
Hamburg greeted the USAAF with heavy flak and a smoke screen. The bombers hit their targets precisely at noon, and the attack lasted one minute, a tribute to tight formations. Some 91 tons of high explosives and 27 tons of incendiaries fell on Hamburg.
Down below, Hamburg had been trying to get back to work when the bombs hit. Many factory workers were absent, still digging out, but at least 150 citizens were killed. Fires started in soybean oil tanks and lanolin factories, and a 500-pound bomb hit the Neuhof power station, one of Hamburg’s two biggest. The station was out of action for a month. Hamburg had lost 40 percent of its power.
The Americans flew home without much interference. Most Luftwaffe pilots were defending against a simultaneous air attack on Hanover. Only two B-17s were lost in the second Hamburg strike, but 22 were lost over Hanover.
That night was quiet. The RAF had flown bombing runs for three nights. The next day was also quiet. The Americans needed a rest, too. In Hamburg, the Germans began to evacuate homeless people and roll in additional mobile flak batteries of 88mm guns. Fires started by the RAF three days before continued to burn.
That evening, Bomber Harris ordered the RAF to hit Hamburg again. This would be the most important raid of the battle. The RAF would attack the city by flying from east to west, taking a roundabout route over Lübeck to confuse the Germans. More incendiaries would be used to lighten the bombloads in favor of fuel.
A total of 787 bombers were hurled at Hamburg, and some high-ranking officers made the trek to see the effects of Window for themselves, among them General Anderson of the Eighth Air Force. The Lancaster he flew in, R5868, is now preserved at the RAF museum in Hendon.
Takeoff was near sunset, and only 41 planes aborted. Most of the bombers now had Window chutes, and dropping the aluminum foil was becoming a matter of routine.
The Luftwaffe was trying to cope with Window’s effects. Night fighters were ordered to fly at higher altitudes and broadcast what they were doing as a running commentary to help fellow night fighters. Even so, the Luftwaffe shot down only five RAF bombers on the journey in. At Lübeck, the Luftwaffe flak did not open up. It is believed the local commander was holding fire so as not to reveal his blacked-out city, hoping the RAF would bomb elsewhere.
The RAF did. The first yellow target indicators of July 28 went down on Hamburg at 12:55 a.m., under clear skies. The main force of 729 planes swept in, and soon pilots saw a great fountain of burning debris thrown up for what seemed to be thousands of feet.
As far as I could see was one mass of fire, said Sergeant W.G. Lamb of No. 460 Squadron. ‘A sea of flame’ has been the description and that’s an understatement.
Down below, the Germans opened up with their new flak guns but scored few hits. They were handicapped by Window, heavy smoke, lack of electricity and an order to limit fire to a maximum altitude of 5,500 meters (18,000 feet). Above that point, German fighters could operate freely, a new Luftwaffe tactic that would later prove successful. That evening, however, the new tactic was not too effective. Another failed German tactic was to light decoy flares that might be mistaken for target indicators, but German flares were red and British flares were yellow.
The last bomb fell at 1:47 a.m., and the RAF headed home, having dropped 2,326 tons of bombs and lost 21 planes–2.8 percent–a staggering success. In Hamburg, most fire engines were on the west side of town extinguishing three-day-old blazes from the first raid when Danger 15 was sounded at 11:40 p.m. Incendiary bombs started fires across the city. Then the Hamburg citizens heard a shrill howling in the streets.
The howling was something that had never before been recorded. The Germans named it Feuersturm or firestorm. High temperatures, low humidity, concentrated bombing that started a large number of fires and the fact that Hamburg’s firefighters were all on the west side of town were all factors in the spread of the firestorm. The firefighters struggled to reach the area but could not get through the wreckage.
The impact was tremendous. Within 15 minutes of the RAF attack, most fires were blazing unchecked. As the fires linked and grew, they needed more and more air. Temperatures reached 1,400 degrees as the blaze actually began to suck all the air out of the city.
The firestorm spread over a 4-square-mile area and hit 16,000 apartment-block frontages totaling 133 miles, most of them older buildings. Beneath these buildings were air raid shelters, where many people died either from heat or from asphyxiation. Some fled.
As Kate Hoffmeister, 19, fled, she found that the Eifestrasse asphalt had melted. People were trapped, lying in the sticky goo, screaming. Hoffmeister, herself burned, slid down a bank and hid under a wool blanket. Her father, aunt and two uncles died.
Erika Wilken and her husband Willi took shelter in a public toilet and soaked cloths with water from the tanks. A phosphorous bomb fell directly outside, setting off panic and flame. The only way out was through the fire. Erika and her husband hid at the back for a while, then ran through the fire, barely burned.
All across Hamburg, the firestorm sucked air to feed itself. The fire raged three miles up, and winds were moving at 150 miles per hour. As the heat hit clouds overhead, a greasy, black rain started falling. On the ground, the intense heat set many people afire.
Many people saved themselves by diving into canals or taking refuge in open spaces like soccer fields. Others survived in public shelters that had gas- and smoke-tight doors. But there were few of those. In most shelters, the firestorm drew out the oxygen and replaced it with carbon monoxide. Others were felled by flying timbers or falling bricks or were even dragged off into burning buildings by the wind. In all, more than 40,000 people perished in the three-hour firestorm.
Around 4 a.m. the wind gradually dropped, and firefighters were able to set up a perimeter. Even so, the firestorm center was still too hot for rescue workers to enter.
Hermann Kroger and his firefighting team felt fresh air enter their shelter at 6 a.m. Traute Koch, 15, emerged from her burrow to find large heaps of rubble where there had been houses, and what appeared to be tailor’s dummies everywhere. She said to her mother, Mummy, no tailors lived here and, yet, so many dummies lying around. Traute’s mother told her not to look too closely. The dummies were corpses.
Kaufmann sealed off the firestorm area to civilians and deployed armed guards. Using loudspeaker vans, he ordered Hamburg citizens not engaged in essential work to leave the city. Many left Hamburg on foot; 15 of Hamburg’s 18 railway stations were out of action.
The massive and complex Nazi apparatus came to Hamburg’s aid. Sixteen thousand liters of milk, beer and coffee were supplied, along with half a million loaves of bread. Trucks and trains were commandeered to evacuate refugees. Hamburg University students transported 63,000 people. Others were taken on ships or Luftwaffe Junkers Ju-52 transports. Most left on foot, pushing or pulling carts loaded with personal goods.
In one respect, Bomber Harris had succeeded. Hamburg could no longer function. Harris still was not finished, however. He left Hamburg alone the night of the 28th because there was too much smoke for accurate bombing. But on the morning of Thursday, July 29, Harris ordered one more strike on the wounded city. Seven hundred eighty-six Lancasters thundered down runways that evening.
The Luftwaffe had begun to figure out how to deal with Window. Its radar operators began to separate aluminum foil strips from Lancasters. More searchlights were brought in. The RAF lost 31 bombers on that raid.
Hamburg was easy to spot. Pathfinders saw fires still burning and spewed target indicators at 12:40 a.m. Crews were stunned at the sight of vast tracts of Hamburg that lay beneath them, burning and smoking from a two-day-old raid. A New Zealander said, The whole area glittered like the sun shining on early morning dew.
Seven hundred bombers dropped 2,323 tons of bombs over Hamburg in about an hour. Despite Kaufmann’s orders, Hamburg was still full of people–essential workers, firefighters, the elderly and the infirm.
Massive fires broke out in Barmbek, a residential district, and other areas not hit the previous few nights. Hamburg’s exhausted firefighters simply tried to contain the edge of the blaze. About 800 people died.
Harris wanted to hit Hamburg again, but the Air Ministry wanted strikes on Italy instead, to tip that demoralized country into surrender. Hamburg got four days and three nights of rest.
The last Hamburg strike was August 2, 1943, with 737 bombers that ran smack into a massive thunderstorm, the worst many pilots had ever encountered. Four hundred bombers plowed through lightning to hit the city, but there was no order in the attack. Bombs rained down on all kinds of different areas, damaging a vegetable oil factory and the opera house. The auditorium was burned out, but the stage, loaded with bread, was undamaged.
The last aircraft to bomb Hamburg was a Vickers Wellington captained by Flight Lt. J.C. Morton of No. 466 Squadron, who released his incendiaries at 2:55 a.m. on August 3. The RAF lost 33 bombers. The last plane to return from the raid, a 75th New Zealand Squadron Stirling flown by Pilot Officer Clifford Logan, wobbled down at RAF Mepal at 6:30 a.m.
In Hamburg, Kaufmann and his aides went straight to work. Convict labor was sent to defuse unexploded bombs. Concentration camp prisoners and Wehrmacht men slowly moved into the ruined firestorm area to extract corpses, which were buried in mass graves. No attempt was made to identify the victims.
Evacuees received free rail transport to relatives’ homes across the length and breadth of Germany. War production in Hamburg slowly began to return to normal, though it never quite reached that goal.
Casualties were estimated at 45,000, most of those during the firestorm. Fifty-six percent of Hamburg’s residential units were destroyed, along with 436 public buildings.
Kaufmann begged Hitler to visit Hamburg to buck up morale. The Führer refused. Instead, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who had boasted that if one bomb fell on a German city he could be called Meier, visited the ruins. He decorated some flak gunners, met with city officials, then toured the wreckage. Hamburg citizens, gathered about hoping to return to inspect their smashed homes, greeted Göring with taunts of Well, Hermann Meier, what have you got to say now?
This article was written by David H. Lippman and originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!