The Second World War was marked by many things – the Holocaust, Japanese suicide bombings, U-boat warfare, the beach landings of Normandy – but one of its most salient horrors, perhaps, was the way that the arial bombardment of civilians in populated areas was both pioneered and exploited to, arguably, its furthest extent in history.
Great Britain’s civilian population was first introduced to the terrible use of air-dropped explosive weapon use in populated areas, when German Zeppelins struck London during the First World War. These attacks killed over five hundred people.
Similarly, the bombing of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War was a wound that still harms. Whilst the Blitz of London and other cities in the UK took the lives of some 70,000 British civilians, a sharp rise to the 2,000 who died in WWI.
But one bombing campaign remains relatively under-reported in the history of modern war – and that is the utter devastation caused by Anglo-American bombing that brought Germany to its knees.
The numbers of civilians killed and injured by this campaign are numbingly terrible.
In a three year campaign of fire from the skies, almost half a million Germans were killed, three-quarters of a million were wounded, and seven and a half million were left homeless – vast figures that just touch on the sheer volume of destruction unleashed upon the German civilian population between 1942 and 1945.
In the prelude to the Second World War, Adolf Hitler declared to the Reich Chancellery: “Göring wants to use innumerable incendiary bombs of an altogether new type to create sources of fire in all parts of London. Fires everywhere. Thousands of them.”
It was, though, a violence so desired that it was to be paid back in kind: over the coming years, firestorms would incinerate Germany’s cities, creating a devastating reality on Hitler’s own home front.
Those fires are starkly recalled by memories of the night of the 29th May 1943, when the city of Wuppertal was hit by the first of two consecutive night-time air raids. These raids resulted in the destruction of eighty percent of its residential area, and the death of over 3,400 people.
Ruth Adamsen, who was twenty-four at the time, recalls fleeing through the burning streets when she heard “terrible screams out of the fire. ‘Help me, I’m burning!’” Later she learned the screams had belonged to Mr Döring, the retailer from whom she had bought her school supplies.
Heinrich Biergann, a sixteen-year-old apprentice, was part of the clean-up operation in the days following the attack. “It was said: there six dead, there twenty dead, etc.,” he would later recall in an interview. “Sometimes the people lay there very peacefully, as if they were sleeping. They had suffocated. Others were completely burned. The charred bodies measured about fifty centimetres. We put them in zinc bathtubs and boilers. Three bodies fit in one boiler, seven or eight in a tub. The normal corpses no longer had much to do with people, they were like black parcels. But if an intact body part was attached, one suddenly became aware of what this was about.”
From the first bombing raid over Germany, in 1940, to the end of the war in 1945, Allied forces all but perfected the art of aerial warfare.
To evade Germany’s Luftwaffe as much as possible, British Bomber Command concentrated all its efforts on night-time attacks. While this severally compromised accuracy – a bomb had around a one in three chance of hitting within five miles of its primary target, even on a clear night – it afforded their bombers cover as they flew hundreds of miles into enemy territory. The use of incendiary, or fire bombs, such as those that devastated Wuppertal, had a dual purpose. They marked targets for planes flying in second and third waves, and caused huge physical damage. Many German cities were particularly prone to incineration at their centre, where most of the architecture consisted of timber-framed brick.
Indeed, many brick cities were flattened. On the 24th February 1945, fire bombs rained down on the city of Pforzheim, a town in southwestern Germany and a gateway to the Black Forest, killing 20,277 people – one third of its population. It appeared that Pforzheim had no strategic value other than it was undefended. The heat of the firestorm created by the bombing rose to over 1700°C – enough to melt steel. The bombing lasted from 19:50 – 20:12. By 23:30 the whole city was burning.
Otto Riecker remembers entering his brother-in-law’s cellar. “One of our relatives was leaning against one wall, both hands propped against the wall, her face turned towards the emergency shaft as if she were alive,” he recalled, years later. “Opposite her was a man with his back against the wall and arms outspread. Four women on a bench, bent over a little and arms crossed as if peacefully asleep. All had died in an instant, the air pressure killed them.”
Hermine Lautenschlager, whilst searching her sister’s house, said that all she found were “heaps of ash here and there, and in the middle of the cellar was a part of a human torso that looked like a charred tree stump.”
“There was a bag by a pile of ash in the corner. It disintegrated at the slightest touch. It was my sister’s bag and key. My brother-in-law told me that she always sat there when there was an air raid. Later they even found a piece of fabric from her dress there.”
Other voices come from the past.
On the 8th April 1945, in the town of Halberstadt, Mrs Schrader, who owned ‘Capitol’ cinema, was busy managing the matinee showing of the film ‘Heimkehr’ when a sudden blast tore through the building, from roof to cellar. Rousing herself from the corner the pressure wave had thrown her into, Mrs Schrader was immediately concerned for the welfare of her patrons, and forced her way through the plumes of smoke and dust obscuring the wreckage.
She found six attendees lying in the cellar. The explosion had torn through the central heating pipes and a jet of heating water had poured over their bodies. Mrs Schrader, not knowing what else to do, tried to create a semblance of order. She put the boiled and disjointed body parts in the wash basin of the laundry room. She wanted to report to someone in charge but could find no one. Shocked and tired, she sought out her neighbours. The reports would have to wait until morning.
Such effects of bombing raids on German civilian populations were felt long after the last fires were put out. But the toll on civilian lives was profound.
By 11th February 1944, under orders from Heinrich Himmler, any person unlikely to survive their injuries were removed from hospitals and, likewise, any incoming patients deemed too seriously injured were turned away.
As the number of injured civilians soared, so did the desperation to find suitable hospital beds. Patients suffering from mental illness were forcefully removed from hospitals , with many murdered by the regime. The removal of patients from psychiatric units in the towns of Hadamer and Waldniel, resulted in the murder of 946 adults and 30 children, many of whom suffered from schizophrenia.
The racist policies of the Nazi party also led to a strict social structure being imposed on who was to be allowed a place in an air raid shelter, and who would not. Women and children, boys under sixteen and men over sixty were given priority, followed by foreign workers. The few Jewish citizens left in Germany were expected to seek out their own designated shelters, and prisoners of war and foreign workers from occupied territories had to dig shallow, grave-like holes dug for cover.
The casualty statistics for allied forces engaged in the bombing of Germany should also be noted.
RAF pilots, over thirty missions, had a 44% chance of being killed, wounded, or captured. For US airmen, flying twenty-five missions, just 38% survived their full tour of duty. As many as 37% were killed before completing five missions. In comparison, 1.5% of German civilians were killed in allied bombing raids – statistically speaking, not exactly a favourable outcome.
It is difficult to measure the cost of war and ask: ‘Was this right?’ Perhaps a better question to consider is, ‘Could any of it have been done differently?’ Albert Speer, Minister of Armaments and Munitions, argued that had the allies ended the bombing of Germany by late summer of 1944 – before the worst of the Allied bombing campaign really took effect – the Third Reich may have survived as late as 1946. While this may have spared many civilians the horrific deaths described above, and prevented the near total destruction of 131 cities, what would have happened to the true victims of the regime? What of the camps, the prisoners of war, the forced labourers?
Wasyl B., a Polish forced labourer between 1942 and 1945, remarked, “I should be grateful because one thinks, I [wouldn’t] like to be in [my] position if Hitler [had] won, because I was [a] slave and I [would have remained a] slave for rest of my life.”
It may be impossible to ever fully measure the human cost of WWII. Over six million Jews were murdered; twelve million foreign workers enslaved; eight million Germans and twenty-two million Soviets killed; 20% of the Polish population and one in five Yugoslavs dead; and for the Allies, 140,000 airmen killed in action. Numbers which are almost too huge to comprehend, and yet which beg the question, how can we prevent it from happening again?
A small sign once hung from a water pipe at a train station between Mainz and Koblenz. It read, “Whilst at this tap you stand and queue, Admire what Adolf’s done for you.” Cities were burned to the ground, and a generation of survivors were left scarred by terror and ruin. Hitler and his henchmen set in motion a tidal wave of death and destruction across Europe for which Germany, its cities and people, paid the price.
Perhaps in this sign, as we all step towards lessening the effects of such violence on civilian populations, we would do well to remember the very worst of what history has shown us.
Additional reporting by Barnaby Papadopulos
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