Within a week, the German metropolis of Hamburg was largely bombed by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) 79 years ago. In a few nights, around 43,000 people died in a series of airstrikes called Operation Gomorrah. What was the cause and what exactly happened? And was this action justified?
The night between 27 and 28 July 1943. While the British bombs fall on Hamburg, the inhabitants huddle together in the many air raid shelters in the German city. These air raid shelters seem like a safe haven, but in many cases turn out to be a deadly trap.
Hamburg burns through the many incendiaries, the incendiary bombs used by the British to create the largest possible fire. It is harsh, but the RAF succeeds very well on the hot and dry summer night. The bombs fall close together, the fire brigade is on the other side of the city due to the interrupted communication and the fire can continue undisturbed.
The many fires together form a firestorm, where wind speeds of well over 200 kilometers per hour are achieved. The temperature in some places is 800 degrees Celsius. Asphalt melts and people walking on it spontaneously combust. Others jump into the water. But the water is so hot because of the high temperatures that they are boiled to death.
Burning people reach for colder water and try to extinguish the glowing phosphorus on their skin and clothes. When they reappear, it burns again. The firestorm sucks all the oxygen out of the shelters, which suffocates thousands of people. Refugee parents feel their children are being ripped from their hands by the firestorm. Building after building collapses, crushing victims. Hamburg has turned into a never-before-seen inferno.
The dead lie in rows after the attack on Hamburg.
Second attack results in the firestorm the following night
The attack on 27 July followed the opening of Operation Gomorrah, which was carried out between 24 and 25 July. On the night between 29 and 30 July, the RAF returns again with almost eight hundred bombers, just like the first two times.
The first and third attacks are quite successful for the British, but the second night will go down in history as the night of the firestorm. In addition to the nearly 43,000 deaths, about 37,000 are injured. Many of them have severe burns. More than a million people have been displaced.
How did it get this far?
There were three reasons why the British chose the carpet bombing tactic. The first is revenge: Germany had certainly wreaked havoc in the United Kingdom in the early years of the war during the so-called Blitz.
More than 18,000 tons of German bombs fell on London, Birmingham and Coventry, among others, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths. In addition, of course, the German Luftwaffe had reduced cities such as Rotterdam and Warsaw to ashes. Or as Arthur Harris, the chief of Bomber Command, put it: “They have sown the wind, now they are reaping the whirlwind.”
The second reason was powerlessness. The British preferred to bomb at night because it was far too dangerous over Germany during the day. Initially, the RAF mainly wanted to hit strategic targets such as factories and ports.
However, accuracy was a problem. In the early years, only one in three aircraft dropped the bombs within 5 miles of the target. Often the Germans did not even know what the target had been after a British air raid. Carpet bombing of cities was much easier to do. A large cathedral in a city center is a better target than a factory in a residential area.
The British tried to break the will of the German people
The third reason was that this was the only way the British could bring the war to Germany. The British army was not large enough for an invasion and also fought in the Mediterranean. Only by bombing was Nazi Germany itself hit. The goal was to break the will of the German people by burning their cities to ashes and making workers in, for example, factories homeless. Although there was opposition to this strategy and its effectiveness was not always proven, the British continued to use it until the end of the war. Anyone who contributed to German industry was seen as a legitimate target.
The Americans, meanwhile, were also active over Germany, but had a different doctrine. They mainly believed in strategic bombing and daytime bombing. Factories and the German oil industry were their targets. The British also carried out such missions, but once in a while a German town was reduced to ashes. Berlin in particular was a frequent target, although such intense destruction was never achieved there as in Hamburg.
The British were good at playing chess with the Germans
The British were good at it: playing chess with the Germans to succeed in the night air war over Germany. Various navigation systems were developed, as well as the first radar system that could scan the ground below the aircraft. The Germans in turn developed countermeasures.
For the attacks on Hamburg, the RAF used a novelty that marked a breakthrough in this ongoing game.
Between northern Germany and the border with northern France lay a defensive line of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and night fighters to stop the RAF bombers as much as possible. An important element in this was radar, which was especially used to control the night fighters.
Radar works with radio waves that, when reflected from an object, bounce back to the transmitter, making it possible to calculate the distance. In this way, aircraft over German territory could be detected and tracked, after which night fighters were dispatched.
A British Lancaster bomber over Hamburg.
Trick to make bombers less conspicuous
However, the British had a trick: window. They were bundles of strips of aluminum foil that the pilots threw out of the plane at regular intervals. Only an elongated stream of tens of thousands of dots appeared on the German radar screens, so that the British bombers no longer stood out. The British could therefore fly on to Hamburg almost unimpeded and suffered few losses. It was striking that the Germans had also made this discovery, but had decided not to use it. They did not, because they were afraid that the British would then also use the trick against them.
Among other things, window Operation Gomorrah was such a success for the British. It was also because the British had researched how best to illuminate a city. High explosives, i.a blockbusters £4,000, blew the roofs off houses and also created obstacles for firefighters. A barrage of incendiary bombs then completed the job.
Deadliest air raid in Europe during World War II
Hamburg, Germany’s second largest city, was in British eyes an important industrial and port city that also played a major role in the Battle of the Atlantic, where German submarines wreaked havoc on British supply ships.
The air raid is considered to be the deadliest on the European stage of World War II and was therefore more deadly than the attack on Dresden in February 1945. However, the latter attack was much more controversial because a city was destroyed when the war had already been decided. It was striking that the Americans also participated in this and thereby abandoned their doctrine.
The destruction of Hamburg in pictures.
Churchill advocated carpet bombing
Bomber Command pilots did not receive the same recognition as many other members of the British armed forces after the war. Harris continued to defend his strategy, further stating that “more important people than him” were also in favor of carpet bombing. In that he was right. Approval of this strategy went all the way to the top. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill supported the strategy of destroying as many German cities as possible, including Dresden. But after Dresden, Churchill distanced himself from the strategy.
The actual effect of the bombings cannot be measured. What is certain is that the German war machine suffered much more from the attacks on the oil industry, infrastructure and weapons factories than from the bombs against the cities. Morale in Germany was not broken either. But the British suffered heavy losses and saw that half of Europe was overrun. The question is whether you can blame them for using all means to defeat Nazi Germany.
The eyewitness account of a German soldier arriving after the bombing is typical of ‘Hamburg’. “We got to the outskirts of the city and saw a large stream of refugees. A boy of about twelve years old walked up to us with a backpack, with a black object in it. When the boy got closer, he told us what it was: his burnt brother’s head.”