Saturday, 24 August 2013

Gomorrah in Hamburg

In the summer of 1943, RAF Bomber Command and the Eight USAAF took on the most important German port Hamburg, also a major industrial center. Over the space of a week in late July the American and British bombers alternatied day and night raids targeting industrial, but also civilian areas. It was called operation Gomorrah. I was faced with some of the remains during my trip to Hamburg last week.

Indestructible flak tower built 1942 in central Hamburg
By the RAF standards of the time, the initial raid was a success. This means that losses were light and over 40% of airplanes claimed to have dropped their load within 5 km of the target. Yes, let that last bit sink in. So the other 60%... indeed.

The low losses were due to the first time use of Window, small tin foil strips that messed up the German radar defenses so that the flak defenses were firing blind into the night sky. However, the Germans quickly recovered from the surprise and reorganised their air defenses accordingly.

Plaque commemorating the destruction of the previous
building in 1943 and the rebuilding in 1956
With the limited aiming techniques of the time, large parts of the urban area were hit, but more critically,a firestorm was caused as the heat of fires sucked in more oxygen. The fire raged for days as the exhausted fire brigades watched helplessly. This resulted in the destruction of 60 % of the city and the death of about 42,000 to 50,000 people, according to your source. Although the firestorm was unintentional, Bomber Command was impressed with the results and would later try to recreate the effect.

The success of the Hamburg raids for a few months gave the Allies the hope that they could bomb Germany out of the war, and even gave the Nazi and Luftwaffe leadership a great scare. However, the Allies didn´t pursue their advantage and the Luftwaffe quickly found counter measures and the balance swung back to favour the defenders.

The 1943 raids were not the first nor the last of the war.  Civilian morale recovered and fugitives returned. Within months most Hamburg factories were up and running again. So the RAF had to go back  By 1945 three quarters of the town had been flattened. Although as brutal as Dresden, the Hamburg bombings are not as notorious as the former, probably because they occurred with victory a distant prospect in 1943.

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