operation gomorrah -- 9/5/23

Today's selection -- from The Devil's Element by Dan Egan. The week-long 1943 Hamburg attack code-named ‘Operation Gomorrah’: 

“On July 21, 1943, Hans Nossack, a coffee merchant and parttime writer, left his home in Hamburg for a two-week vacation from work, and from the war that had been raging for the previous four years. The cottage he rented was a good ten miles from Hamburg city limits, but three nights after arriving the couple was roused from their slumber by an air raid siren warning of an attack on the city. ‘I jumped out of bed and ran barefoot out of the house, into this sound that hovered like an oppressive weight between the clear constellations and the dark earth, not here and not there but everywhere in space; there was no escaping it …’  Nossack recalled just weeks later. ‘It was the sound of eighteen hundred airplanes approaching Hamburg from the south at an unimaginable height.’

“The plan to unleash the roaring swarm of bombers on Germany's northern industrial hub was seeded by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt at a secret meeting earlier in 1943 in North Africa. They directed their military leaders to basically hold nothing back in the future aerial bombardment of German cities. The first objective in the onepage Casablanca Directive: ‘The progressive destruction and dislocation of German military, industrial and economic systems, and the undermining of morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.’

“It might have been more honest to swap out the word ‘morale’ in the directive for ‘lives,’ because the bombs of that era dropped on cities thousands of feet below were anything but precise. ‘We believe the Nazis and Fascists have asked for it,’ Roosevelt explained to Congress. ‘And they are going to get it.’

“The British were even more graphic in their public statements of what they intended to do to the German population. ‘The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everybody else and nobody was going to bomb them,’ Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, head of the British Royal Air Force, proclaimed. ‘At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put that rather naive theory into operation.’ Then Harris used an Old Testament phrase to put fear in the minds of German civilians. ‘They sowed the wind,’ he said of the Nazi Luftwaffe raids, ‘and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.’ It was a proclamation that proved to be as literal as it was biblical. 

Lancaster over Hamburg, 30/31 January 1943

“The Royal Air Force used Britain's early air strikes on smaller cities, along with forensic analyses of Germany's raids on England's own cities at the war's outset, as laboratories and case studies for their engineers, mathematicians, and architects to develop a more devastating style of urban bombing. Rather than trying to destroy a city with concussive blasts and shrapnel from a relatively small number of large bombs, including for thousand-pound ‘blockbusters,’ the British researchers concluded it would be more effective to pack RAF bombers with loads of smaller explosives, some as little as four pounds. Those baton-shaped magnesium-fueled incendiaries weren't designed to blow things up. They were made to burn them down. 

“The fire sticks did their damage by igniting small blazes that set aflame the everyday stuff that a family might stash in an attic. Portraits. Love letters. Furniture. Baby clothes. Targeting civilians on this level might seem cruel and futile in a war being waged by millions of soldiers on three continents, but the British came to see that even a family's most intimate and mundane possessions as something militarily significant-fuel. 

“After a first wave of big bombs blew out an entire neighborhood's doors, roofs, and windows, subsequent waves of airplanes unleashed their loads of incendiary bombs upon the same area. The flames from these little firebombs, fanned by the drafts roaring through all the freshly ventilated homes and businesses, raged so ferociously they could quickly burn into a structure's timbers. This allowed the fires to intensify and spread down a block, the other end of which might already be on fire in a similar fashion. Harris believed if enough little fires were started on enough blocks fast enough-faster than fire crews on the ground could douse them-all the little fires could merge into a super blaze and a whole city might be reduced to ash. 

“Harris also liked to use a special class of thirty-pound torpedo-shaped firebombs because they could be better aimed than the smaller fire sticks that flitted from the sky with all the precision of falling oak leaves. And the flame these larger bombs made was a unique sort-once exploded, the bombs' contents splattered glowing globules that not only burned at steel-bending temperatures but also stuck like glue to anything they hit. People included. This, Harris concluded, had a ‘marked effect on morale of the enemy.’ The bombs were packed with phosphorus. 

“Hamburg had been harassed but largely unharmed by smallscale English air raids beginning in 1940, but by 1943 even Nazi bosses knew it was only a matter of time before the ever-swelling fleet of Allied bombers struck en masse at Hamburg's oil refineries, shipyards, and U-boat installations-and the neighborhoods that supplied their workers.


“The Nazis prepared for the attack by creating a fire-fighting brigade of thousands and building more than one thousand fortified bunkers for Hamburg's 1.5 million residents. 

coffee dealer Nossack scrambled for safety with his wife behind their cottage's cellar door, but he eventually ventured outside and was stunned to see what looked like ‘glowing drops of metal’ falling from the sky ten miles north in Hamburg. By the time the bombs stopped dropping fifty minutes later, Nossack described the sky to the north as red and aglow as if it were a spectacular sunset. It was 1:30 a.m. 

“None of the raids were as devastating as the one launched on the third night of the attack, during which English bombers hit a handful of Hamburg's cramped working-class neighborhoods with some two thousand tons of explosives, more than half of them incendiary bombs. The thousands of fires lit on that unusually hot, dry night merged in a matter of minutes into something war planners had never seen-a two-mile-wide whirlwind firestorm that burned hot as a furnace. The winds that were sucked into the cyclone to feed the oxygen-starved flames were powerful enough to topple trees three feet in diameter, ferocious enough to tear children from their mothers' arms. 

“British pilots that night reported seeing nothing below but a swarm of roaring orange flame lashing from a vast bed of red coals, all of it fueling a tight column of smoke and superheated gases that mushroomed miles into the sky. On the ground, wine bottles melted. Fork tines glowed. Giant embers whipped through the city like tracer bullets on winds so loud one survivor described them as the sound of ‘an old organ in a church when someone is playing all the notes at once.’ 

“Civilians were hit by globs of phosphorus falling from the sky that caused their heads to burst into flames ‘like torches.’ Some jumped into canals to snuff the chemical fires but they inevitably had to come up for air, at which point the phosphorus flames flared back to life, like wicked versions of trick birthday candles. 

“The death toll of Operation Gomorrah was put at about thirty-eight thousand. But a precise body count was impossible, given that in many cases there were literally no bodies to count; in some instances physicians resorted to weighing piles of ash and estimating from there. 

“Central Hamburg today is a glassy metropolis peppered with stone and brick facades that survived the firebombing. On the streets there is little physical evidence of the horror that forced nearly one million residents to flee, but reminders do surface periodically. Literally. Some fire bombs missed their mark, and their globs of phosphorus landed in the Elbe River and its canals, where they cooled and congealed and persist on the riverbed today as harmless as a pebble, provided they stay submerged. But if one of these nubs is removed from the water and warmed to about eighty-five degrees, it will flare to life with all the ferocity it had when it hit the water in July 1943. Phosphorus pebbles also show up northeast of Hamburg on the Baltic Coast-Simanski's neighborhood-where a V-1 and V-2 rocket factory on the island of Usedom was similarly fire bombed in summer 1943,just two weeks after Hamburg. 

“As for formal memorials to Operation Gomorrah, a statue of a melted human form on its knees in a prayerful pose can be found today on a bustling Hamburg street. It marks the site where 370 civilians died of carbon monoxide poisoning when the fires raging above their bomb shelter consumed all the oxygen. There is also a cross-shaped patch of grass in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery near the Hamburg airport that holds the charred remains of the firestorm victims. The gravesite is marked with a statue called ‘Crossing the River Styx’ that depicts a mother on a boat comforting her child as they float the mythical current toward the underworld, along with a few other passengers, including a naked man sitting slouched in the stern, head hanging with hands clasped behind his neck. 

“And just north of the Elbe River in downtown there is a statue of a barefoot man in a similarly distraught pose, but with his face buried in his hands. It sits on the site of the old St. Nicholas church, a neo-Gothic masterpiece built in the 1800s, whose 483-foot-high spire was listed as the tallest building on Earth for a couple of years in the second half of the nineteenth century, and it was still tall enough in 1943 that the night-raiding English pilots used it as a bullseye to hit the neighborhoods below. The body of the church burned to the ground in the firebombing, though its underground crypt has been restored and functions today as a museum to the carnage."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Dan Egan


The Devil's Element


W. W. Norton & Company


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