aviation in World War 2

bomber tactics
the Blitz
bombing of Coventry
bombing in the Bristol area
Combined Bomber (CBO)
Bomber Command
the Dambusters
bombing of Hamburg
1000 bomber raids
bombing of Dresden
bombing of Nuremberg
the Schweinfurt raids
German Night Fighters
the Pathfinders
Soviet bombing raids
Pearl Harbour
the Doolittle raid
the B-17 and B-29
fire bombing raids on Japan
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

the bombing of Hamburg

Hamburg before the bombing

This is a letter, dated as early as 27 May 1943, and written by Harris to his six group commanders, setting out his future intentions. The first part can usefully be included here.


Copy No: 23 Date: 27th May, 1943


The importance of H A M B U R G. the second largest city in Germany with a population of one and a half millions, is well known and needs no further emphasis. The total destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy's war machine. This, together with the effect on German morale, which would be felt throughout the country, would play a very important part in shortening and in winning the war.

2. The 'Battle of Hamburg' cannot be won in a single night. It is estimated that at least 10,000 tons of bombs will have to be dropped to complete the process of elimination. To achieve the maximum effect of air bombardment, this city should be subjected to sustained attack.

Forces to be Employed

3. Bomber Command forces will consist of all available heavies in operational squadrons until sufficient hours of darkness enable the medium bombers to take part. It is hoped that the night attacks will be preceded and/or followed by heavy daylight attacks by the United States VIIlth Bomber Command.


4. To destroy HAMBURG.

At the end of July, 1943, in the tinderbox of a summer heat wave, Bomber Harris ordered his air force to begin a massive air raid on Hamburg, Germany's most important industrial centre and the largest seaport on the European Continent.

To protect the flyers, Bomber Command had a new technological trick, nicknamed "window." One of the crew would hurl thin strips of aluminium foil out the rear doors of the plane as it flew across German territory. Fluttering in the slipstream, the metal confused the radar that controlled the searchlights and flak guns, sending them swinging erratically across the sky. The Germans would eventually discover the ruse, but not before Hamburg was levelled during a week of devastating raids.

At 9 p.m., July 24, sirens wailed through the streets of Hamburg. People hurried to their basements and to the underground bunkers as bombs exploded a few miles away. Searchlights raked the sky. The people knew what they had to do. There was no particular panic.

Lancaster in bombing stream

Within minutes, high explosive, incendiary, phosphorus and napalm bombs pounded the city core. Buildings erupted in flames that shot 20 feet into the sky.

With hurricane force, 150 mile per-hour winds were sucked into the oxygen vacuum created by the fire, ripping trees out by their roots, collapsing buildings, pulling children out of their mothers' arms. Twenty square miles of the city centre burned in an inferno that would rage for nine full days.

"There was no smoke, only flames and flying sparks like a snowstorm," recalls a German firefighter. "The heat melted the lens in my protective glasses. I saw a crowd of people lying and sitting on the street, moaning. They had given up. I joined them and lay down, put my steel helmet against the wind, and tried to suck oxygen from the pavement. My clothes kept catching fire and I had to beat the flames out.

The air was so hot it burned my windpipe. Everyone around me died. The clothing on the women was baked off them, leaving their bodies naked. The bodies didn't burn but dried out completely."

burnt bodies on the street after the raids

Inge Einspenner, 16 years old, was with her cousin in Hamburg, planning to join her parents at their cottage on the 0st See the next day.

"We were caught in a big, big fire," she recalls in halting English. "We came to a street crossing and the houses were all coming down on us. We didn't know where to go. Bombs were everywhere... We went this way, this way... We were lost. We were trying to go away from Hamburg.

"We went down in a basement of a house. Then the next minute, we heard a big bomb. So we went out of the house, on the street. And there was a large fire-all the houses.

"Everything was burning, even the paving stones in the street. We were blind from the fire. Burning dust. Ashes. People were burning. We went anywhere. We were only concerned to escape the fire.

"I saw a child stick in the tar in the street. And it didn't come out again. It burned to death. And the mother tried to save her child. But she couldn't. She made one step. That was all.

"A lady was seeing the girl burning and the mother sticking. Then she started to burn on her back, so she jumped into the river. But when she came out, she burnt again."

On August 2, 1943, Doug Harvey boarded his Halifax to fly the last of the four raids that firebombed Hamburg. It was his seventh mission; he had logged 500 hours and he felt as he always did when he flew over Germany-"in total terror that the German fighters were going to shoot me down."

Taking off over the North Sea, the plane headed into a solid bank of clouds. Even though the ground crew had rubbed anti icing paste on the leading edges of the wings and sprayed the windscreen and propellers with deicer, the Halifax was coated with a heavy, transparent shell. So thick was the cloud cover that Harvey didn't notice the ice. He was having a hard time controlling the plane. Thunderstorms erupted and lightning streaked the clouds.

"St. Elmo's Fire danced across the inside of the windscreen and all over the flying panel," says Harvey, "making it difficult to concentrate on the instruments."

In the distance, the clouds above Hamburg glowed red from the raging fires. A huge cumulus nimbus drifted into the flight path of the Halifax.

"If I got into that thunderhead our bomber would be in terrible danger. Trying to keep on course and yet avoid the storm, I inched my way around the storm cloud, or so I thought."

there were four firebomb raids over Hamburg in nine days

Except for the smouldering ruins and the fresh fires started by the succession of British and Canadian bombers, the city of Hamburg was black. There was no electricity. No water. Everything was wreckage and dead bodies. People were crushed under tons of bricks. Others were baked. Those who sought shelter in the underground bunkers suffocated. Families were asphyxiated in their cars. In the summer heat, the bodies rotted and stank. Rats and flies multiplied. Forty thousand people were dead. And the survivors, such as Inge Einspenner, would live forever with the horror and the incalculable loss.

Most of the dead were ploughed into a mass grave dug in the shape of a cross.

From the British military perspective, the Bomber Command incendiary attack on Hamburg was outstandingly successful. Only 9,000 tons of bombs had killed 40,000 people and reduced a major industrial port to ashes. "None of our other attacks had produced effects that were a tenth as destructive as the effects of a firestorm," wrote Dyson after the war. The operation was nicknamed "Gomorrah."

Hamburg after the bombing

But bombers could only produce a firestorm when their planes were able to bomb without serious interference. Soon after Hamburg, the Germans developed radar to see through the Allies' aluminium-strip "windows." Only once more- 'at Dresden, in February, 1945-would the British in the Second World War succeed in burning a city to the ground.

Air Vice Marshall Harris was pleased with the Hamburg raids. To the outraged voices protesting the high civilian casualties, he replied, "In spite of all that happened at Hamburg, bombing proved a relatively humane method ... there is no proof that most casualties were women and children."

In fact, according to meticulous German records revealed later, of the 40,000 people killed, 20 percent were children. For every 100 men who died, 160 women were killed. In all, the body count was 13,000 men, 21,000 women and over 8,000 kids.