The large port city of Hamburg
, was very heavily bombed many times by the Royal Air Force
(RAF) and the United States Army Air Forces
(USAAF) during World War II
. During one of the attacks in July 1943 a firestorm
was created that caused tens of thousands of mostly civilian casualties.
Battle of Hamburg
The Battle of Hamburg, codenamed Operation Gomorrah, was a series of air raids conducted by the RAF on the city of Hamburg beginning in the end of July 1943. It was at the time the heaviest assault in the history of aerial warfare and was later called the Hiroshima of Germany by British officials.
The operation was originally formulated by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill with help from Air Chief Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris (who famously said of the Germans "They have sown the wind, and now they shall reap the whirlwind") and was actually a joint effort between the RAF Bomber Command, the RCAF, and the USAAF (specifically 8th Air Force Bomber Command), who combined to create an "around-the-clock" bombing mission spanning 8 days and 7 nights — The British conducting the night raids and the Americans following with the daylight raids.
On 24 July, at approximately 00:57AM, the first bombing started by the RAF and lasted almost an hour. A second daylight raid by US Army Air Force was conducted at 2:40PM. A third raid was conducted on the morning of the 26th. The night attack of 26 July at 00:20AM was extremely light (due to a severe thunderstorm and high winds over the North Sea during which a considerable number of bombers jettisoned the explosive part of their bomb loads) with only two bomb drops reported. That attack is often not counted when the total number of Operation Gomorrah attacks is given. There was no day raid on the 27th.
On the night of 27 July, shortly before midnight, 739 aircraft attacked Hamburg. A number of factors combined to give the enormous destruction that followed; the unusually dry and warm weather, the concentration of the bombing in one area and that the city's firefighters were unable to reach the initial fires — the high explosive "Cookies" used in the early part of the raid had prevented them getting into the center of the city from the periphery where they were working on the results of the 24th. The bombings culminated in the spawning of the so-called "Feuersturm" (firestorm). Quite literally a tornado of fire, this phenomenon created a huge outdoor blast furnace, containing winds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph) and reaching temperatures of 800 °C (1,500 °F). It incinerated some eight square miles (21 km²) of the city, causing asphalt on the streets to burst into flame, killing many that had both taken shelter and not. Most of the casualties (40,000) caused by Operation Gomorrah happened on this night.
On the night of 29 July, Hamburg was again attacked by over 700 aircraft. The last raid of Operation Gomorrah was conducted on 3 August.
Operation Gomorrah caused at least 50,000 deaths, mostly civilians, and left over a million other German civilians homeless. Approximately 3,000 aircraft were deployed, 9,000 tons of bombs dropped, and 250,000 houses destroyed. No subsequent city raid shook Germany as did that on Hamburg; documents show that German officials were thoroughly alarmed and there is some indication from later allied interrogation of high officials, that Hitler thought that further attacks of similar weight might force Germany out of the war. Hamburg was hit by air raids another 69 times before the end of World War II.
RAF Bomber Command lost 12 bombers on the first day of the attack. In total during the war, 440 were lost over Hamburg.
Time line of Hamburg air raids during World War II
Bombing raids by the RAF on Hamburg took place:
- The night of 10/11 September 1939: 10 aircraft dropped leaflets.
- The nights of 15/16 November and 16/17 November 1940: A heavy raid by a total of over 200 aircraft. On the first night damage was caused to the Blohm & Voss shipyard and over 60 fires were started. On the second night only 60 aircraft found their target and damage was far less. These two nights of bombing were only 24 hours after a very large raid by the German Luftwaffe on Coventry on the night of 14/15 November 1940. However the raid must have been planned more than 24 hours in advance, so although these raids are often stated to be revenge attacks, it is unlikely that they were planned to be so.
- The night of 12/13 March 1941: heavy raids on Hamburg, Bremen and Berlin by a total of 257
- The night of 13/14 March 1941: 51 people were killed, the highest number in a single raid to date
- April 1941. During this month Hamburg was a main target.
- May 1941. Hamburg was bombed several times during the month. Raids now usually contained about 100 bombers.
- The night of 11/12 May 1941: a heavy raid by 92 aircraft.
- The night of 27/28 June 1941: a raid on Bremen but most bombed Hamburg - an error of 50 miles. 11 out of 35 bombers were shot down by night fighters.
- The night of 14/15 January 1942: Heavy raid by 95 aircraft. Only 48 aircraft claimed to have bombed Hamburg. Altona station hit and 12 fires, 7 of them large ones, were started. Six people killed and 22 injured. No aircraft reported lost.
- The night of 15/16 January 1942: Heavy raid by 96 aircraft. 52 bombers claimed to have bombed Hamburg successfully. 36 fires started 3 of them large, 3 people killed and 25 injured. 11 Bombers lost.
- The night of 17/18 January 1942: Bremen the main target for 83 aircraft, but Hamburg bombed as a secondary target causing 11 fires and casualties of 5 dead and 12 injured in Hamburg. Four bombers lost.
- The night of 16/17 February 1942: small raid by one or two bombers. No details.
- The night of 8/9 April 1942: largest raid to date on a single target. Carried out by 272 aircraft. Raid was considered a failure. 17 people were killed and 119 injured. 5 planes lost.
- The night of 17/18 April 1942: large raid by 173 aircraft. 75 fires, 33 classed as large were started. 23 people were killed and 66 injured. 8 aircraft lost.
- The night of 3/4 May 1942: small raid by 81 aircraft, dispatched on the 100th anniversary of a great fire in Hamburg. 53 aircraft were estimated to have hit the target. 113 fires started, of which 57 were large. 77 were killed, 243 injured and 1,624 bombed out. 5 aircraft were lost.
- The night of 26/27 July 1942: Large raid by 403 aircraft. Widespread damage was caused, mostly in housing and semi-commercial districts rather than in the docks and industrial areas. At least 800 fires started, 523 of which were large. 823 houses were destroyed and more than 5,000 damaged. More than 14,000 people were bombed out. 337 people were killed and 1,027 injured. 29 aircraft were lost, 7.2% of the force.
- The night of 28/29 July 1942: large raid by 256 aircraft. Bad weather meant only 68 bombed in the target area. 56 fires, 15 of them large, were started. 13 people were killed and 48 injured. Bomber losses were high, 15.3% for the main group bombing that night.
- The day of 3 August 1942: light raid by 10 aircraft.
- The day of 18 August 1942: nuisance raid by 1 Mosquito.
- The day of 19 September 1942: nuisance raid by 2 Mosquitos.
- The night of 13/14 October 1942: light secondary target raid. 2 large fires were started. 8 people were killed and 43 injured.
- The night of 9/10 November 1942: heavy raid by 213 aircraft. There were 26 fires started of which 3 were large. 3 people killed and 16 injured. 15 aircraft lost, 7.0% of the force.
- The night of 30/31 January 1943: medium raid by 148 aircraft. It was the first H2S radar attack of the war. H2S use was not successful and the bombs were scattered. However 119 fires were started of which 71 were large. 58 people were killed and 164 injured. 5 aircraft were lost, 3.4% of the force.
- The night of 3/4 February 1943: heavy raid by 263 aircraft. Bad weather affected the bombers with many turning back early. Damage was light for what was planned to be a large raid. 16 bombers were lost, 6.1% of the force, many to night fighters.
- The night of 3/4 March 1943: heavy raid by 417 aircraft. The Pathfinders marked the wrong target, mistaking a mud bank for the docks with their H2S radar, so most of the bombs landed 13 miles downstream from the centre of Hamburg, around the small town of Wedel. Those bombs which landed on Hamburg did considerable damage starting 100 fires, killing 27 people and injuring 95. The damage to Wedel was extensive. 10 aircraft lost, 2.4% of the force.
- The night of 13/14 April 1943: nuisance raid by 2 Mosquitos.
- The night of 26/27 June 1943: nuisance raid by 4 Mosquitos.
- The night of 28/29 June 1943: nuisance raid by 4 Mosquitos.
- The night of 3/4 July 1943: nuisance raid by 4 Mosquitos.
- The night of 5/6 July 1943: nuisance raid by 4 Mosquitos.
- The night of 24/25 July 1943: large raid by 791 aircraft, marked the opening of the "Battle of Hamburg". A countermeasure against the radar-directed German nightfighters in the form of "Window" was used for the first time. In the clear weather visual and H2S marking was accurate and on the town centre. 728 aircraft dropped their bombs in 50 minutes. Less than half the force bombed within 3 miles of the centre with a bomb creepback of six miles. Damage was caused in the central and north-western districts, particularly in Altona, Eimsbüttel and Hoheluft. The Rathaus (Town Hall), the St. Nikolai church, the main police station, the main telephone exchange and the Hagenbeck Zoo were among the well-known landmarks to be hit. About 1,500 people were killed which was the largest outside the range of the "Oboe" radio navigation system which helped to concentrate the bombing pattern. Thanks to the use of Window only 12 aircraft were lost, 1.5% of the force.
- The night of 25/26 July 1943: diversionary nuisance raid by 6 Mosquitos.
- The night of 26/27 July 1943: nuisance raid by 6 Mosquitos.
- The night of 27/28 July 1943: large raid by 787 aircraft guided in by Pathfinders using H2S. Bombing about 2 miles east of city centre. Because of the unseasonally dry conditions, a firestorm was created in the built-up working-class districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm, Borgfelde and Rothenburgsort. The bombing was more concentrated than the RAF was usually able to manage at this stage of the war. In just over half an hour it is estimated that 550-600 bomb loads fell into an area measuring only 2 miles by 1 mile and this gradually spread the fire eastwards. The firestorm lasted for about three hours, consuming approximately 16,000 multi-storyed apartment buildings and killing an estimated 40,000 people, most of them by carbon monoxide poisoning when all the air was drawn out of their basement shelters. Fearing further raids, two-thirds of Hamburg's population, approximately 1,200,000 people, fled the city in the aftermath.
- The night of 28/29 July 1943: nuisance raid by 4 Mosquitos.
- The night of 29/30 July 1943: large raid by 777 aircraft guided in by pathfinders using H2S. The plan was to bomb the untouched northern suburbs. But a mistake in mapping led to the bombing of an area just north of the area devastated by the firestorm three nights before. The residential areas of Wandsbek and Barmbek districts and parts of the Uhlenhorst and Winterhude were severely damaged and widespread fires but no firestorm. 28 aircraft 3.6% of the force was lost.
- The night of 2/3 August 1943: A large raid by 740 aircraft dispatched on a raid to Hamburg but bad weather stopped all but a few bombers reaching Hamburg; many bombed secondary targets instead. 30 aircraft, 4.1% of the force was lost.
- The night of 22/23 August 1943: diversionary nuisance raid by 6 Mosquitos.
- The night of 5/6 November 1943: Hamburg and other cities raided by a total of 26 Mosquitos.
- The night of 1/2 January 1944: diversionary raid by 15 Mosquitos.
- The night of 11/12 March 1944: nuisance by 20 Mosquitos.
- The night of 6/7 April 1944: raid by 35 Mosquitos. One aircraft lost.
- The night of 26/27 April 1944: diversionary raid by 16 Mosquitos.
- The night of 28/29 April 1944: raid by 26 Mosquitos.
- The night of 22/23 June 1944: diversionary raid by 29 Mosquitos.
- The night of 22/23 July 1944: diversionary raid by 26 Mosquitos. 1 aircraft lost.
- The night of 26/27 July 1944: diversionary raid by 30 Mosquitos. 1 aircraft lost.
- The night of 29/29 July 1944: large raid by 307 aircraft. The raid was not a success, the bombing was scattered and German sources estimated that only 120 bombers landed their load on the city. 22 aircraft were lost mainly to night fighters.
- The night of 26/27 August 1944: diversionary nuisance raid by 13 Mosquitos.
- The night of 29/30 August 1944: diversionary nuisance raid on Hamburg, one of five cities bombed by a total of 53 Mosquitos.
- The night of 6/7 September 1944: nuisance raid by 32 Mosquitos.
- The night of 26/27 September 1944: diversionary nuisance raid by 6 Mosquitos.
- The night of 30/1 October 1944: raid by 46 Mosquitos.
- The night of 12/13 October 1944: raid by 52 Mosquitos. 1 aircraft lost.
- The night of 30 November 1944 – 1 December 1944: diversionary raid by 53 Mosquitos.
- The night of 11/12 December 1944: raid by 28 Mosquitos.
- The night of 27/28 December 1944: nuisance raid by 7 Mosquitos.
- The night of 16/17 January 1945: diversionary nuisance raid by 9 Mosquitos.
- The night of 8/9 March 1945: large raid by 312 aircraft. It was an attack intended to destroy the type XXI U-boats being built in the Hamburg shipyards, but cloud cover limited the damage done. 1 aircraft lost.
- The night of 21/22 March 1945: raid by 159 aircraft on the Erdölwerke refinery, which was put out of action for the rest of the war. 4 aircraft lost.
- The night of 30/31 March 1945: raid by 43 Mosquitos.
- The day of 31 March 1945: large raid by 469 aircraft on the Blohm + Voss shipyards to destroy the type XXI U-boats under construction. Cloud cover prevented serious damage to the target, but there was considerable damage to houses, factories, energy supplies and communications over a wide area of southern Hamburg. 11 aircraft lost mainly to German day fighters.
- The night of 2/3 April 1945: nuisance raid by 1 Mosquito.
- The day of 8 April 1945: USAAF raid on the shipyards.
- The night of 8/9 April 1945: large raid by 440 aircraft on the shipyard areas but partial cloud caused the raid to become dispersed. There was some damage to the yards by it was not clear whether the damage was American or British or both.
- The day of 9 April 1945: 57 Lancasters of No. 5 Group RAF attacked oil-storage tanks (40 aircraft) and U-boat shelters (17 aircraft of No. 617 "Dambuster" Squadron with Grand Slams and Tallboy bombs). Both attacks were successful. 2 Lancasters were lost from the raid on the oil tanks.
- The night of 9/10 April 1945: diversionary raid by 24 Mosquitos.
- The night of 13/14 April 1945: diversionary raid by 87 Mosquitos.
The totally destroyed district of Hammerbrook, in which mostly longshoremen lived, was not rebuilt as housing area but as a commercial area. The adjoining district of Rothenburgsort shared the same fate, as only a small area of housing was rebuilt. The underground line which connected these areas with the central station was not rebuilt either.
In the destroyed residential areas many houses were rebuilt across the street and therefore do not form connected blocks anymore.
The hills of the Öjendorfer Park are formed by the debris of destroyed houses.
Several memorials in Hamburg remind at the air raids during World War II:
- The Nikolaikirche, which was largely destroyed during the bombing, has been made into a memorial against the war. The spire of the church, which was used by the bomber pilots as aiming point, endured the attacks.
- Memorial at the Hamburger Strasse - a memorial for those who died in a shelter under the Karstadt department store at the corner Desenißstrasse/Hamburger Strasse. The department store was hit by a bomb in the night of 30 July. The people in the air raid shelter below were killed by the heat and carbon monoxide poisoning.
- The victims of the air raids were buried on the Ohlsdorf cemetery in mass graves. The memorial "Passage over the Styx" by Gerhard Marcks is in the center and shows how Charon ferries a young couple, a mother with her child, a man and a desperate person over the river Styx.
- Many houses rebuilt after World War II show a memorial plaque with the inscription "Destroyed 1943 - ... Rebuilt" to remind of their destruction during the air raids in July 1943.
- „Gefangen im Glut-Orkan“ small picture and "video"-documentation about the July of 1943, einestages: Zeitgeschichte auf Spiegel Online, 24-7-2008
- Lowe, Keith (2007). Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943. Viking. ISBN 0-670-91557-2.
- Friedrich, Jörg (2006). The Fire: The bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-13380-4.
- Grayling, A. C. (2006). Among the Dead Cities. New York: Walker Publishing Company Inc.. ISBN 0-8027-1471-4.
- Interrogation of Captured Prisoners, United States Strategic Bombing Survey, Summary Report, (European War), September 30, 1945
- Memories of a 14 year old girl (in German)
- Nossack, Hans (2004). The End: Hamburg 1943. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-59556-0.
- Sebald, Winfried (2003). On the Natural History of Destruction. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-50484-2.
- Speech given by Sir Paul Torry, British Ambassador, in Hamburg, [[24 July] 2003 (in English)]
- Spaight. James M. style="font-style : italic;">"Bombing Vindicated" G. Bles, 1944. ASIN: B0007IVW7K (Spaight was Principal Assistant Secretary of the Air Ministry (U.K))