Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris called it Operation Gomorrah. On four nights between July 24 and August 2, 1943, he dispatched huge formations of heavy bombers to blitz Hamburg, Germany’s largest seaport and a leading ship-building and industrial center, from end to end. Bomber Command had never mounted such a destructive and continuous attack before. By the time it was over, around 10,000 tons of bombs had been dropped on the stricken city and more than 45,000 of its inhabitants had been killed.
HARRIS’S SECRET WEAPON
In theory, Hamburg was well-defended. General Josef Kammhuber, whom Goering had put in charge of the Reich’s air defenses, had built up a sophisticated chain of overlapping radar “boxes” running the length of the coast from northern Germany to Belgium and around the country’s most important cities. Hamburg had no fewer than 15 of them, plus nine night fighter bases in its immediate vicinity. It was also plentifully protected by searchlights and batteries of the latest radar-controlled antiaircraft guns. Previous raids had shown the RAF that these defenses could inflict heavy casualties on any attacking force.
Each of Kammhuber’s “boxes” was equipped with Freya long-distance radar to provide early warning of the bombers’ approach. As the Luftwaffe’s night fighters scrambled to intercept them, the shorter-range Würzburgs took over. Each “box” had two of them, one to track a bomber more accurately and the other the intercepting night fighter, which orbited around a beacon until it was called in to attack. The ground controller guided the night fighter toward its target until its own Lichtenstein airborne radar could take over. The system had its drawbacks. The Würzburgs could only track one bomber and one night fighter at a time and the system could be swamped if a big enough stream of bombers was directed to fly through a single sector of it. Nevertheless, it proved extremely effective.
Harris, however, had a new weapon at his disposal, which he now employed for the first time. It was hoped that it would paralyze the German radar network on the ground and hopelessly confuse the night fighters by jamming their Lichtenstein radars. The weapon, codenamed “Window,” was simple enough. It consisted of clouds of aluminum foil strips, which the attacking bombers would drop as they neared the enemy coast. The false images the strips produced would blind German radar. There were no immediate countermeasures that could be taken to neutralize the effect.
Window did exactly what was expected of it. When Harris’s bombers attacked for the first time on the night of July 24, dropping bundles of the strips at one-minute intervals as they approached the city from the north, Hamburg’s defenses were quickly thrown into confusion. The searchlights wandered aimlessly across the sky as the city’s 56 heavy and 36 light antiaircraft batteries fired desperate blind box barrages, helpless because of their inability to use radar to track the bombers flying into the attack above them. None of the small number of night fighters that got into the air managed to make contact with the bomber stream. The result spoke for itself. Out of the 728 RAF aircraft which claimed to have attacked the city, only 12 were lost.
THE BOMBING BEGINS
The attack itself had been planned down to the last detail. Just before zero hour at 1:00 a.m., 20 Pathfinder aircraft dropped yellow target indicators on the city, using H2S, a revolutionary new airborne radar system, to get a clear picture of the ground below. Eight more Pathfinders then dropped red target indicators followed by a further 53 dropping their green ones. The main force then dropped 2,396 tons of bombs on their clearly marked target. Johann Johannsen, who was manning an antiaircraft battery in the city, recalled the moment the markers started to fall and what happened next.
“High above us, we could hear the drone of the enemy machines,” he wrote. “Suddenly countless flares fell above us so that the whole city was lit up in a magically bright light… With incredible swiftness, the disaster was suddenly upon us. Before and behind our battery, heavy chunks of metal were striking. Howling and hissing fire and iron were falling from the sky. The entire city was lit up in a sea of flame.”
The whole raid was over within just under an hour and the results were impressive: 306 of Harris’s bombers dropped their bombs within three miles (4.8km) of their aiming points. There was to be no letup. The following afternoon, 123 Flying Fortresses from the 1st Bombardment Wing of the US 8th Army Air Force attacked Hamburg in broad daylight; 121 of them returned the next morning. The Fortresses badly damaged their main targets—the Blohm & Voss shipyards and the Klöckner aero-engine factory. The second attack also knocked out the Neuhof power station, putting it out of action for a month.
Harris renewed his assault the following night, when 735 of his bombers attacked the city from the east, using much the same tactics they had previously employed. There was one difference. The Halifaxes and Sterlings participating in the attack were carrying a greater number of incendiaries. The result was the creation of a vast firestorm, which raged through the working-class areas of the city.
The fires the bombers had started swiftly merged into one great conflagration, which sucked the air out of the surrounding area at hurricane force and spread inexorably outward. The howling spark-filled wind turned people caught on the streets into human torches. In the cellars and basements, in which many had taken shelter, thousands were killed either by carbon monoxide poisoning or suffocation as the collapsing buildings around them blocked exits and air vents. Hamburg also had the misfortune to possess many old wooden dwellings, which, at the height of a hot dry summer, were tinder for the flames. “We came out into a thundering, blazing hell,” wrote one eyewitness. “The streets were burning, the trees were burning and the tops of them were bent right down to the street. Burning horses out of the Hertz hauling business ran past us, the air was burning, simply everything was burning.”
Many survived through sheer good fortune. Others were not so lucky. “There were people,” one 19-year-old survivor recalled, “on the roadway, some already dead, some still lying alive but stuck in the asphalt… they were on their hands and knees screaming.” After the firestorm finally burned itself out once all combustible material had been consumed, many corpses were found black and shrivelled. Some were lying in pools of coagulated body fat. More than 40,000 people died; thousands of others desperately sought emergency medical aid.
Harris had not finished with Hamburg yet. On July 29, 777 aircraft raided the still-burning city. The RAF lost 30 of the attacking aircraft. The fourth and final mass raid took place on the night of August 2 when Bomber Command dispatched 740 aircraft to the city. They flew into a huge electrical storm as they approached. One Lancaster pilot recorded in his diary what it was like flying through it. “There were huge luminous rings around the propellers, blue flames out of the wing-tips, gun muzzles, and also everywhere else on the aircraft where its surface was pointed. For instance, the de-icing tube in front of my window had a blue flame around it. Electrical flowers were dancing on the windows all the time until they got iced up, when the flowers disappeared. The wireless operator told me afterwards that sparks were shooting across his equipment all the time and that his aerials were luminous throughout their length. I didn’t feel a bit happy and tried to go down below the clouds.”
The intention had been for one wave of bombers—498 of them preceded by 54 Pathfinders—to attack the wealthy areas west of the Alster, Hamburg’s central lake, while 245 bombers and 27 Pathfinders targeted the industrial area to the south. The appalling weather broke up both attacks. Many bombers dropped their bombs on small towns and villages in the countryside or turned back before they reached the actual city. Thirty-five of them were shot down by night fighters and antiaircraft fire. The Luftwaffe had speedily adopted its tactics to cope with Window. It now allowed its interceptors—day fighters as well as the Junkers Ju 88s and Messerschmitt Me 110s that were the mainstays of the night-fighting force—a free rein in the night skies, guiding them into the bomber streams by a continuous radio commentary from the ground.
The battle of Hamburg was over. For the RAF and the USAAF, it had been an unmitigated success. In one week, Bomber Command had killed more people than the Luftwaffe had managed to do during the eight months of the blitz. In total, 45,000 people had lost their lives and a further 125,000 required medical treatment, many of them for the severe burns they had received: 40,345 houses, 275,000 flats, 580 factories, 2,632 shops, 277 schools, 24 hospitals, 58 churches, 83 banks, 12 bridges, 76 public buildings, and the city’s zoo had been obliterated. Starting directly after the first raid, more than a million refugees fled from the city in despair to seek shelter in other parts of the Reich.
Morale throughout Germany plummeted. Even the Nazi leadership was shaken by the devastation. Goebbels said that it was “a catastrophe, the extent of which simply staggers the imagination.” Field Marshal Milch warned: “If we get just five or six more attacks like Hamburg, the German people will lay down their tools, however great their willpower. What the Home Front is suffering cannot be endured for very much longer.” Albert Speer, the Minister for Armaments, was as blunt, if not blunter. “If air raids continue on this scale,” he prophesied, “three months will see us relieved of many problems. Things will glide downhill smoothly, irrevocably, and comparatively fast.” Speaking after the war to Allied interrogators, he declared that the effects of the raids could only be compared to those of a major earthquake and that more attacks on the same scale against six more cities would have brought the Third Reich to its knees.
Speer, however, underestimated German resilience. Even while the ruins of Hamburg were still smouldering, 14,000 firemen, 12,000 soldiers, and 8,000 technical experts were laboring night and day to deal with the fires and repair the worst damage caused by the attacks. The National Socialist People’s Welfare Organization ferried in fresh water supplies and field kitchens to provide survivors with food and drink. Karl Kaufmann, Hamburg’s Gauleiter, organized 625 special trains to evacuate more than 750,000 of the homeless to safety. He, like other Gauleiters, was also empowered to raise ration allocations, distribute extra food supplies, and issue emergency ration cards to those who had lost theirs. The National Socialist Women’s League was also playing its part by caring for bombed-out families with children.
By the end of 1943, the recovery was well under way. The city’s aircraft factories were operating at 91 percent efficiency; the shipyards had returned to near pre-bombing capability within two months. Why Harris did not bomb Hamburg again is unclear. Possibly, he was worried that, without the benefit of Window, the Luftwaffe would inflict unsustainable losses on his bombers. In any event, Bomber Command and the 8th Army Air Force were both poised to move on to new targets and even more destructive attacks.