The Inferno; the Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe. Penguin 2008, paper.

Hamburg was one of the many German cities firebombed by the British and US air forces in the last years of World War II. The city had been a supporter of the Nazi Party, and most of its administrators were good Party members.

Hamburg had been the beneficiary of German rearmament in the 1930s. It was a major center for both aircraft and naval production. Plus a mix of smaller industrial plants that supplied those major industries. Not far inland from the North Sea, it was an important port with huge docking facilities.  Royal Air Force bombers could reach the city, drop their bombs, and return to their bases in the UK on one tank of gas.

The city was subjected to an aerial strategy that the British called blanket bombing, which operated under the assumption that bombing of civilian targets would lead to public demoralization. The flights of bombers, mostly night flights, and the frequent air raid alarms, made life miserable for Germany’s city dwellers. To say the least, they suffered from sleep deprivation. The cellars and basements of Hamburg where its citizens spent a lot of time, were not only unsafe structurally. They were “unlivable.”

The German coast and Hamburg were well guarded. Long-range radar could pick up planes within one hundred miles of the coast. They had to contend with German fighter aircraft on the way, over the city, and on the way home as well.  Also the Germans had a new weapon, Düppel, bundles of strips coated with metal foil – could confuse targeting controlled by radar.

There were always a good percentage of British and American pilots who, for one reason or another, never made it to their assigned target. Hence they could choose a “target of opportunity,” If they could see the ground.

An alternative strategy was pinpoint bombing. There was a list of priorities of value to the German war effort: railroads, oil reserves, air fields, armaments industries, etc. There was, however, an even greater visibility problem with pinpoint bombing. These crucial industrial targets could soon be back in production after a raid.

Also these flights that involved specific targets needed to be bombed during day-light hours. Which made British and American bombers more vulnerable to German air defenses. In addition to the normal anti-aircraft guns, Hamburg was well endowed with flak batteries.

Allied bombers also faced heavy black smoke, the result of previous bombing runs. The mixture of bombs had included incendiaries which created fires and fire storms throughout the city, with gusts of up to 170 miles per hour. The smoke rose to 30,000 feet. Fires burned for hours using up the oxygen in the atmosphere over the city.

Hamburg was not the only city subject to Bomber Command (British). The historic cities of Lübeck and Rostock were selected initially because of their historic value. On to Dortmund, Düsseldorf, Wuppertal, Essen, Würzberg, and Dresden.

It must have occurred to many a German living through these destructive air raids that their Führer was tucked away in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, while they were desperately making their way through their destroyed neighborhoods, its streets littered with charred corpuses. After the raids of 27, 28 July 1943, the remains of 36,918 of Hamburg’s residents were buried in four massive graves. And the survivors had to deal with evacuation and finding a place to live until the fires were extinguished and the city functioning once again. By 1943 many Germans were convinced that they had lost the war.

In May 1945 Hamburg was handed over to the British, without firing a shot. And the British occupied the city for the remaining few weeks of the war. The Marshall Plan helped restore the city’s economy.  Nevertheless the housing stock was badly damaged.

The carpet bombing had destroyed the central part of the city and had had a negative effect on the city’s morale. The bombing of German cities had not recognized the difference between citizens and soldiers. Perhaps that was not inappropriate since “good Germans” mostly supported the National Socialists.

Iowa State University required undergraduate males to take the first two years of ROTC – Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. Mostly we marched around the football field. But in the Iowa winter there had to be some other activity; we watched reconnaissance films that were taken during the aerial assault on German cities some twelve years previously. The message was Success! Aerial warfare had made an important contribution to our victory. Keith Lowe questions this judgment call.

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