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Operation Gomorrah

The firebombing of Hamburg

On the evening of Saturday, July 24, 1943, members of the German military mingled with civilians and prepared to enjoy the concluding performance of the opera Die Meistersinger von Nüremburg that would cap the weeklong Bayreuth Festival, a celebration of the works of Richard Wagner. Meanwhile, about 350 miles north, the citizens and defenders of Hamburg were about to become not an audience, but participants in Operation Gomorrah, a real-life, fiery Götterdämmerung worthy of the final chapter in Wagner’s four-part Ring Cycle.

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice.

– Robert Frost

Located near the mouth of the Elbe River, Hamburg was Germany’s largest port, second-largest city, and an important center for Germany’s war industry, making it a prime target for Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s “Main Offensive” strategic bombing campaign. Main Offensive implemented the strategy advanced by Harris and senior U.S. Army Air Force commanders that air power alone was capable of forcing Germany’s surrender through aerial bombardment of major industrial and population centers, eliminating the need for Operation Overlord scheduled for spring 1944.

The offensive kicked off in March 1943 with the Battle of the Ruhr. In addition to bombing industrial centers, it included the dam-busting raids of Operation Chastise. Satisfied with that campaign’s results, in July, Harris began preparations for the raid on Hamburg. The U.S. Eighth Air Force promised assistance, a joint application of the “around the clock” bombing tactic initiated in January 1943.

Operation Gomorrah

Buildings on fire in Hamburg, Germany following the RAF Bomber Command raids in July 1943. Imperial War Museum photo

Extensive anti-aircraft artillery and night fighter defenses protected Hamburg. The key to their effectiveness was the line of Würzburg radars that provided accurate flight information to night fighters and flak gun and searchlight crews. To neutralize Würzburg and the Lichtenstein radar sets in the night fighters, Gomorrah would use for the first time a radar-jamming material called “Window.” An early form of chaff, Window was a low-tech product of aluminum strips 10½ inches long and ¾ inches wide attached to one side of coarse black paper. They were packed into brown paper bags containing 2,200 strips and dispensed by hand out a hatch in the bomber’s fuselage at the rate of a bag a minute.

Flying conditions were perfect on July 24 as 791 RAF heavy bombers lifted off for Hamburg. Freya, the German early-warning radar system, tracked the 203-mile-long stream of bombers and its operators relayed information to Würzburg ground controllers who alerted Hamburg’s defenders. About a half hour after midnight on the morning of July 25, the first of 7,000 bundles of Window were scattered into the night sky.

The offensive kicked off in March 1943 with the Battle of the Ruhr. In addition to bombing industrial centers, it included the dam-busting raids of Operation Chastise. Satisfied with that campaign’s results, in July, Harris began preparations for the raid on Hamburg. The U.S. Eighth Air Force promised assistance, a joint application of the “around the clock” bombing tactic initiated in January 1943.

Luftwaffe Gen. Josef Kammhuber, responsible for the aerial defense of Germany, later said, “The whole defense was blinded in one stroke.” Searchlights and anti-aircraft artillery tubes blindly oscillated in futile attempts to track and shoot down the bombers overhead. Night fighters, forced to rely on visual sightings for their attacks, were equally helpless. Only 12 bombers were shot down.

Hamburg’s summer had been hot and dry, creating ideal conditions for what was to follow. The first British bombers dropped 8,000 “blockbuster” and 4,000-pound “cookie” bombs that flattened buildings, tore off roofs, and, crucially wrecked telephone lines and water mains. Subsequent waves dropped onto the now-exposed building interiors hundreds of thousands of incendiaries. Lacking communication capability and, worse, water to fight the fires, Hamburg fire chief Otto Zaps and the fire crews could do nothing to stop the growing conflagration.

Operation Gomorrah Lancaster

An Avro Lancaster of 1 Group, Bomber Command, silhouetted against flares, smoke and flames during the attack on Hamburg, Germany, by aircraft of 1, 5 and 8 Groups on the night of Jan. 30/31, 1943. This raid was the first occasion on which H2S centimetric radar was used by the Pathfinder aircraft to navigate the force to the target. The pilot of the photographing aircraft (Lancaster ‘ZN-Y’ of 106 Squadron, based at Syerston) was Flight Lt. D. J. Shannon who, as a member of 617 Squadron, took part in Operation Chastise (the “Dams Raid”) during the following May. There were numerous raids on Hamburg during the war, but the Operation Gomorrah raids surpassed all others in their effectiveness and devastation of the city and its civilian population. Imperial War Museum photo

Later that day and on the July 26, Eighth Air Force B-17 raids added to the carnage, seriously damaging shipyards and factories, and knocking out the Neuhof power station.

Henni Klank, a survivor, said, “The streets were burning, the trees were burning … the air was burning, simply everything was burning … We passed fused masses of people made up of four or five corpses, each probably a family, visible only as a pile of burned substance no larger than a small child.”

On the night of July 27-28 Bomber Command returned, this time with 722 bombers. Within 50 minutes, an additional 2,313 tons of bombs, most of them incendiaries, had been dropped. This bombing combined with the existing fires to create an unstoppable fire storm with temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius and winds of 150 mph that raged for three hours, stopping only when all combustibles had been burned. Henni Klank, a survivor, said, “The streets were burning, the trees were burning … the air was burning, simply everything was burning … We passed fused masses of people made up of four or five corpses, each probably a family, visible only as a pile of burned substance no larger than a small child.”

Operation Gomorrah

Men search amid debris for survivors in Hamburg, Germany following the RAF raids of July 1943. The raids of Operation Gomorrah killed anywhere form 42,000 to 125,000 people and wounded 37,000. Imperial War Museum photo

The destruction of Hamburg, in which anywhere from 42,000 to 125,000 were killed, 37,000 wounded, and more than a million left homeless, was the second major body blow to the Nazi body politic, the first being the German Sixth Army surrender in February 1943 in the frozen hell that was Stalingrad. Reichminister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer later confessed, “Hamburg had put the fear of God in me.”

A color film of Hamburg during the firebombing raid can be seen on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKWyK9rtRtA.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...