1943: Hamburg Bombarded by Firestorm
The Hamburg Firestorm
Today in 1943, the worst British bombing raid on Hamburg so far virtually sets the city on fire, killing 42,000 German civilians.
On July 24, British bombers launched Operation Gomorrah, repeated bombing raids against Hamburg and its industrial and munitions plants. Sortie after sortie dropped fire from the sky, as thousands of tons of incendiary bombs destroyed tens of thousands of lives, buildings, and acreage. But the night of the 28th saw destruction unique in more than three years of bomb attacks: in just 43 minutes, 2,326 tons of bombs were dropped, creating a firestorm (a word that entered English parlance for the first time as a result of these events). Low humidity, a lack of fire-fighting resources (exhausted from battling blazes caused by the previous nights’ raids), and hurricane-level winds at the core of the storm literally fanned the flames, scorching eight square miles of Hamburg.
One British flight lieutenant recalled seeing “not many fires but one… I have never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again.” Despite the terrible loss of civilian life, there strange and awful irony: The horrific bombing runs affected Hitler’s war machine only marginally. It did more to wound the morale of the German people and its army officers than it did to the production of munitions, which was back running full speed within a matter of weeks.
Henni Klank was a young mother in the city of Hamburg. She was to have a very fortunate escape from the bomb shelter which should have been her sanctuary but which proved to be a death trap for so many people that night:
For many weeks before the firestorm we had already had a horrible heat-wave without any precipitation worth mentioning. The rats romped about in the dried-up canals!Until now we had survived the falling of the bombs all around, the roar of bombs striking, and the shaking of walls and the floors.
Anyone who had experienced such a thing, knew the characteristics of a bomb whistling down: Whenever a person hears a “singing” or “whistling”, it doesn’t matter if he is in a cellar or in a living-room, the impact of the bomb is some distance away. But you’ll be sorry whenever the air-pressure blast is perceptible ( entirely unpleasant); then the bombs are falling directly in the vicinity!
One hears no booming, nothing! Only this terrible blast of air pressure; how often we experienced this! At first, we only got a little of the dreadful firestorm from about 2am, and we were surrounded by it in the air-raid shelter of the small house. Panic spread as the oxygen became scarce.
The light was already no longer burning, the candles as emergency lighting had not enough air to burn any longer, and it became unbearably hot. My little baby was covered by a wet woolen blanket in its pram so that it would not suffocate. Thank God we still had a jug of water.
The streets were already burning, the firestorm was now raging through all the streets! We only just reached the door of the air-raid shelter. At this moment something snapped in a neighbour and, caught up in a panic, he took his bed cover and wanted out. None of us could stop him. We saw him still, but only as a living torch carried by the firestorm, “flying through the air”.
We were all deeply shocked by this.Our situation at this point was almost hopeless. We were surrounded by fire and would probably die from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. Gradually despair spread around us, and we had to give some thought to our position. Apart from the firestorm stemming from incendiary bombs, phosphorous, and liquid canisters (Flüssigkeitskanister), and the hurricane that raged through the streets, there stood opposite our apartment building a big timber business that would provide additional violence in the hell of fire.
It was a fact that behind it was the Kammer-Canal, but how were we to reach that? Or to the other side, to the street named Stadtdeich and the Upper Elbe? This was, at this moment, a mirage! At the last moment a neighbour came up with the idea to attempt a lifesaving breakout through the wall which was half-stone. My man remembered a pointed pickax that stood in a corner.
And that was our deliverance! The men hammered out chunks of the wall and we tested to see if the pram would pass through, and it did! We came out at the Stadtdeich but into a thundering, blazing hell. The streets were burning, the trees were burning and the tops of them were bent right down to the street, burning horses out of the “Hertz” hauling-business ran past us, the air was burning, simply everything was burning!
The hurricane was so strong, that we could scarcely breathe, and I still know today that I screamed, “Don’t fall down!”, at my mother. Our goal was the harbour shed at the Elbe River, a distance of some hundred meters. We reached it and waited there till the morning.
A subsequent German official report on the firestorm raid described it worst effects:
Firestorms and their characteristics are established phenomena well known in the history of urban fires. The physical explanation for them is simple. As a result of a combination of a number of fires the air overhead becomes heated to such an extent that, because of its reduced specific gravity, it develops a tremendous upward pressure which creates a very strong suction effect on the surrounding air masses pulling them towards the center of the fire in a radial direction.
As a result of the firestorm and, in particular, the tremendous suction effect, winds are produced which are even stronger than the well-known wind strengths [1-12]. As in the case of meteorology so also in the case of firestorms the air movement is produced by a rebalancing of differences of temperature.
But, while in the case of meteorology these temperatures are generally of the order of 20–30 degrees Celsius, in the case of firestorms there are temperature differences of 600 or even 1,000 degrees. This explains the huge force generated by the firestorms which cannot be compared with normal meteorological processes.
Trees three feet thick were broken off or uprooted, human beings were thrown to the ground or flung alive into the flames by winds which exceeded a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The panic-stricken citizens knew not where to turn. Flames drove them from the shelters, but high-explosive bombs sent them scurrying back again.
Once inside, they were suffocated by carbon monoxide poisoning and their bodies reduced to ashes as though they had been placed in a crematorium, which was indeed what each shelter proved to be. The fortunate were those who jumped into the canals and waterways and remained swimming or standing up to their necks in water for hours until the heat should die down.