As a centre of the German armament industry, the city was ringed by a strong and well-manned belt of anti-aircraft guns, making the town a fearsome target for Allied bombers, who could look forward to heavy losses.
Right near Braunschweig also lay:
Furthermore, the airfields at Braunschweig-Waggum, Braunschweig-Broitzem and Braunschweig-Völkenrode as well as, by and by, the whole city, were swallowed up in the destruction.
Operation Hurricane foresaw Duisburg as its main goal for the RAF's thousand or so bombers, and Cologne for the USAAF's 1,200 or so bombers. A further 233 RAF bombers were detailed for Braunschweig, which in October 1944 had about 150,000 inhabitants.
The planning for the attack on Braunschweig was finalized as of 15 August 1944. After Darmstadt became one of the first German cities to be destroyed using a new tactic (a special target marking technique, fan-shaped flying formation, staggering of explosive and incendiary bombs) on 11 September 1944, resulting in about 11,500 deaths, the Allies turned their attention to Braunschweig.
Braunschweig was to be largely destroyed not only as an important centre of the armament industry, but also, and above all, as a living place, thereby making it uninhabitable and useless. The goal, namely the greatest possible destruction, was to be reached through detailed attack plans and careful execution thereof, and also using the attributes of the materiel that was to be deployed (see under 14 October 1944 mission orders and RAF Bomber Command military journal: 15/10/1944). The means whereby the goal was to be reached would be the aforesaid firestorm, whose production was no accident; it was scientifically based (see under Literature, Jörg Friedrich) and developed through painstakingly detailed work.
On 13 October, the chief meteorologist at High Wycombe advised RAF Bomber Command Headquarters of the weather forecast for the weekend of 14-15 October: Slight cloudiness, good visibility throughout the night, moderate winds. The next day, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur "Bomber" Harris issued the orders to carry out the attack on Braunschweig and other cities. The operation was codenamed Skate.
RAF Bomber Command had sought four times in vain during 1944 to inflict lasting destruction upon Braunschweig, failing each time as a result of, among other things, bad weather and strong defences.
On Saturday 14 October 1944 at No. 5 Group's headquarters at Morton Hall, the preparations for the attack were finalized.
Partial transcription of mission orders with slight, handwritten alterations:
According to plan, the RAF's No. 5 Group began its flight to the target, Braunschweig, towards 2300 hours local time on 14 October. At the same time, a further thousand RAF bombers from other groups began bombing Duisburg. The group bound for Braunschweig took a course leading far south of the target that lay ahead to avoid the Ruhr area, which was defended quite heavily by a band of anti-aircraft batteries. Near Paderborn it turned towards the north, overflew Hanover, and then proceeded to Braunschweig. The group consisted of 233 heavy, four-engine bombers – Lancasters, types I and III – each with a bomb load of about six tonnes. The Lancasters were guided by seven Mosquitos.
The film is provided with the following informational text:
Before long, about 847 tonnes of bombs had been dropped on the city, first about 12,000 explosive bombs – the so-called "Blockbusters" – in many "carpets" on the old half-timbered town to get the intended firestorm started in the most efficient way – with the old town's wooden houses. The blast waves blew the houses' roofs off, exposing the insides, blew windowpanes out, splintered the inner structure, broke walls down, tore electricity and water supplies up, and drove firefighters and rescue service personnel, as well as damage observers into cellars and bunkers.
After the wave of explosive bombs came about 200,000 phosphorus and incendiary bombs whose job was to ignite the firestorm, for as with attacks on other cities, for instance Hamburg (Operation Gomorrah), the firestorm was no accident, but rather a carefully planned tactic that was the result of years of thorough scientific research. It would be completing its task even after the bombers had long returned to England.
By about 0310 hours, about 40 minutes after the first explosive bombs had been dropped on Braunschweig, the RAF bombing was over.
The hot masses of air were sucked upwards by the powerful thermal that arose from the conflagration. Cooler air was thereby brought down from great heights, making the local weather much like a windstorm with constantly changing winds that only worsened the fires, thereby further strengthening the winds, which were actually strong enough to sweep small pieces of furniture up and toss people about.
About three and a half hours later, towards 6:30 in the morning, the firestorm reached its peak in the downtown core. About 150 ha of historic old Braunschweig was going up in flames. The city's tallest church steeples – those of St. Andrew’s at about 100 m tall – could be seen burning far beyond the town, and they also rained embers down over the whole city. Streets, buildings and the ruins of the downtown core were heavily littered with incendiary bombs, greatly slowing rescue vehicles and fire engines, which had to fight their way through this and many other dangers in the firestorm to reach into the fire.
The city burnt so intensely and brightly that the light from the fire could be seen far and wide. From all directions, helpers and firefighters thronged into the burning town to help. They came from, among other places, Hanover to the west and Helmstedt in the east, from Celle to the north and Quedlinburg to the south.
Within the 24 hours of Operation Hurricane, the RAF dropped about 10,000 tonnes of bombs in all on Duisburg and Braunschweig, the greatest bomb load dropped on any one day in the Second World War.
The fire brigade very soon realized the threat to these 23,000 trapped people – the fire was growing ever hotter, and the oxygen in the bunkers and shelters thereby ever thinner. The danger was clearly that the victims would either suffocate for lack of oxygen if they stayed in the bunkers, or be burnt alive if they tried to leave and escape through the firestorm outside.
Die Wassergasse ("water alley")
Towards 5 o'clock in the morning, before the firestorm had reached its full intensity, the idea of building a "water alley" was conceived by Lieutenant of the Fire Brigade Rudolf Prescher. This "water alley" would allow the trapped people to flee their shelters for safe areas of the city.
The water alley consisted of a long hose that had to be kept under a constant water mist to shield it against the fire's tremendous heat as the firefighters led the hose through to the shelters where the people were trapped. The reach of each of the little jets issuing from the holes in the hose overlapped each other making a continuous, artificial "rain zone".
The bunkers were reached towards 7 o'clock Sunday morning, after the fire storm had reached its greatest intensity. All the trapped people were still alive, but had no idea what lay outside for them. All 23,000 managed to get out of the danger zone and reach safe areas, such as the museum park. Only at the Schöppenstedter Straße 31 air shelter did the help come too late, where 95 of the 104 people suffocated by the time the fire brigade reached them. The firestorm had been so intense in this particular part of the city that it had used up nearly all the oxygen, making it impossible to save more than nine people.
A great part of Braunschweig's tightly packed city centre was made up of about 800 half-timbered houses, many of which dated back to the Middle Ages. There were also stone buildings dating mainly from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The narrow streets with their wooden half-timbered houses that could so easily catch fire and burn, all built cheek by jowl with each other, saw to it that the British tactics were successful. First dropping explosive bombs, and then incendiary bombs, not only started a fire, but made sure it would spread quickly and turn into a firestorm that raged for 2½ days, destroying virtually everything. Braunschweig lost many irreplaceable cultural monuments in the short time after the air raid.
In an ironic twist of fate, the old cathedral, which the RAF had used as a reckoning point for the whole operation, and which the Nazis had turned into a "National Shrine" in 1935, was left standing.
Along with whole streets in the city centre, many important historic buildings were largely or utterly destroyed. What follows is a selection of those:
|Building||time built||Condition after 15 October 1944|
|Aegidienkirche (church)||13th - 15th cen.||heavily damaged|
|Alte Waage||1534||utterly destroyed, from 1990 - 1994 rebuilt|
|Andreas-Kirche (church)||about 1230||heavily damaged|
|Bierbaumsches Haus||1523||utterly destroyed|
|Braunschweiger Schloss (Palace)||1833 - 1841||heavily damaged, demolished in 1960 amid great controversy; being partly reconstructed (2007)|
|Brüdern-Kirche (church)||about 1361||heavily damaged|
|Burg Dankwarderode (castle)||1887 - 1906||heavily damaged|
|Gewandhaus (cloth hall)||before 1268||heavily damaged|
|Haus Salve Hospes||1805||heavily damaged|
|Katharinen-Kirche (church)||about 1200||heavily damaged|
|Liberei||1412 - 1422||heavily damaged|
|Magnikirche (church)||about 1031||heavily damaged|
|Martini-Kirche (church)||about 1195||heavily damaged|
|Meinhardshof||about 1320||utterly destroyed|
|Mumme-Haus (brewery)||16 cen.||utterly destroyed|
|Nicolai-Kirche (church)||1710 - 1712||utterly destroyed|
|Pauli-Kirche (church)||1901/06||heavily damaged|
|Petri-Kirche (church)||before 1195||heavily damaged|
On the next morning, 16 October, Braunschweig lay under a thick cloud of smoke. A British reconnaissance aircraft sent to take photographs of the bombing's aftermath for analysis actually had to turn back and return to England without completing its job, which had been rendered impossible by the opaque pall that hung over the town.
By the evening of 17 October, the last of the fire's main hotspots had been put out, but it took another three days to quench lesser fires, until 20 October. Eighty thousand of the townsfolk were left homeless by the attack.
The destruction was so widespread and thorough that ordinary people and the experts alike, even years after the war, were convinced that the attack had come from one of the dread "thousand-bomber attacks", such as the one that had laid Cologne waste. The extent of the damage could seemingly not otherwise be explained. Only after the British opened their military archives did it become plain that it had been "only" 233 bombers.
These "light" losses – compared with those suffered in the great air raids on Dresden, Hamburg, Pforzheim and other German cities – according to expert opinions stem from various factors. For one thing, Braunschweig lay on the direct flight path, that is, the "lane" leading to Magdeburg and Berlin, and right near the armament industry centres of Salzgitter (Hermann-Göring-Werke) and Wolfsburg (Volkswagen Works), meaning that Braunschweigers were used to – even in a sense "trained for" – quickly responding to alarms (there were 2,040 warnings and 620 air raid alarms between 1939 and 1945). This may have prepared them for the attack, even though many of the earlier attacks from which they had sought shelter actually targeted the other cities mentioned. Furthermore, the city also had at its disposal a great number of the latest type of air raid bunkers and blockhouses known as Hochbunkers . Lastly, the fire brigade's "water alley" alone saved 23,000 people's lives.
The RAF lost a single Lancaster bomber to anti-aircraft fire that night.
Braunschweig had, compared to other German cities, a great number of the most modern air raid bunkers, which nevertheless suffered from regular overcrowding as the war wore on. As modern and robust as they were, the fact is that the so-called Braunschweig Armour was developed at the Institute for Building Materials, Massive Construction and Fire Protection of the Technical University of Braunschweig. It became a kind of safety standard for building air raid bunkers throughout the Reich.
|1||1940||Alte Kochenhauerstraße||813||still standing, on synagogue property|
|2||1940/41||Alte Waage||220||still standing|
|3||1941/42||Bockstwete||750||still standing, altered|
|6||?||Kalenwall (old railway station)||428||still standing, altered|
|9||1941/42||Madamenweg||1.500||still standing, altered for use as flats|
|10||ab 1942||Glogaustraße in Melverode||350||still standing|
|11||1941/42||Methfesselstraße||1.250||still standing, altered|
|12||1941/42||Münzstraße (Polizei)||450||still standing|
|13||1940/41||Okerstraße||944||still standing, altered for use as flats|
|14||1944||Ritterstraße||840||still standing, altered for use as flats|
|15||1940/41||Auerstraße in Rühme||650||torn down|
|16||1940/41||Sack||700||still standing, altered|
|17||1940/41||Salzdahlumer Straße||986||still standing, altered|
|18||?||Stollen im Nussberg||10.000||demolished with explosives|
|19||?||Stollen im Windmühlenberg||1.000||eliminated|
The same night, Braunschweig had another heavy air raid. This time the bombers were USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses. The last air raid on Braunschweig came on the morning of 31 March 1945, carried out by the 392nd US Bomber Group. Their main target was the East Railway Station.
The text makes it plain that RAF Bomber Command was well aware very soon after the 15 October 1944 attack of just how devastating the aftermath was for Braunschweig.
Exact figures are available only for destroyed houses and flats. By the time the war was over, about 20% of Braunschweig's dwellings had been left utterly undamaged, but about 24% of them had been utterly destroyed. The remaining 55% were somewhat damaged, with the extent of damage to any particular dwelling varying greatly with others. In 1943, before the area bombing of Braunschweig, there were 15,897 houses in the city, but by mid-1945, only 2,834 (about 18%) were left undamaged. The city also had 59,826 flats, of which 11,153 (about 19%) were still undamaged by the time the war ended. The level of destruction with regard to residential buildings stood at 35%, leading to homelessness for almost 80% of the townsfolk by war's end. Sixty percent of the city's places of cultural interest, including the municipal buildings, were likewise destroyed, along with about 50% of its industrial areas.
On 17 June 1946, the rubble clearing officially began in Braunschweig. The job took 17 years, with the city only officially declaring the task accomplished in 1963. Actually, however, smaller messes were still being cleared up years after that.
Braunschweig's reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s proceeded very quickly, as housing was so badly needed, and the city's infrastructure needed to be built all over again. Since the downtown core was a rubble-strewn wasteland, city and spatial planners seized the chance to build a new, modern, and above all car-friendly city, an idea promoted by Hans Bernhard Reichow. This once again led in many places to further destruction (through new roadways, for instance) and the removal of city scenery that had become historic, since in part the former city layout was ignored. Ruins were hastily torn down instead of being restored, and the car was raised as the new "yardstick" whereby the "new" Braunschweig was to be measured. Thus was wrought, especially in the downtown core, a "second destruction" of Braunschweig.
The later destruction of historic buildings and cultural sites, such as the demolition of many medieval, baroque and classical buildings or the controversial demolition of the damaged Braunschweiger Schloss (palatial residence) in 1960 led much as with the Dresden Frauenkirche, the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace) and other prominent buildings in other cities to a further loss of identity for the local people, and was the cause of much controversy for decades.
Reconstruction of damaged or destroyed buildings continues in part down to the present day, as can be seen in the partial reconstruction of the Braunschweiger Schloss.
Since the end of World War II, the question has been raised as to whether the destruction of Braunschweig in October 1944 was still a military necessity given that the war was into its final phase. This is part of the debate on whether the destruction of other German cities and loss of life that occurred once the Allied strategic bomber forces were released from their tactical support of the Normandy landings and resumed the strategic bombing campaign in September 1944 (a campaign that would last without further interruption until days before the end of World War II in Europe in May 1945,) can be morally justified.
Since the attack, memorial events and exhibitions have been held in Braunschweig every 14-15 October. The events of those two days also echo strongly in local historical literature (see under "Literature"). On 14-15 October 2004 – the sixtieth anniversary of the destruction of Braunschweig's historic old town – there were once again many events. Among other memorials that took place was Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, conducted at the Braunschweig Cathedral in the presence of British Ambassador Sir Peter Torry