The first RAF fire bombing raid on Hamburg kills thousands

An aerial photograph of the bombing – 25.07.43. Glowing fires started by incendiaries can be seen and a photoflash bomb lower left. © IWM (C 3677)

25 July 1943

At about 00.57 on 25 July 1943,  RAF bombers unleashed hundreds of bright red and yellow marker bombs, followed by thousands of incendiary bombs, on the densely populated German city of Hamburg. It was the first of four RAF fire bombing raids endured by the inhabitants over the following ten days, which destroyed or damaged an estimated 61% of the buildings and killed approximately 36,500 civilians.1  Two day time air raids  by the United States Air Force on 25 and 26 July killed an additional 468.

The RAF air assault on the first night lasted just fifty minutes.  791 aircraft, comprising 718 Lancaster, Halifax and Stirling heavy bombers and 73 older Wellington medium bombers, dropped a total of 350,412 incendiary bombs, averaging nearly 6,000 per minute and approximately 17,000 incendiaries per square mile, across large areas of central and north western areas of the city.2 The bombing was inaccurate with less than half the bombs falling within the target area, which included over 90% of the city’s residential districts, but due to the sheer scale of the raid thousands of bombs still fell on residential buildings starting enormous fires.  Some death toll estimates were as high as 10,289 people.3

The following day British newspapers carried front page headlines gloating over the carnage. Typically the Daily Mirror trumpeted ‘War’s Heaviest Raid: Hamburg’s 2,300 tons,’ while the Scotsman under ‘The Greatest Air Raid in History’ reported that ‘ when the raid ended a pall of smoke four miles high lay over the obliterated city,’ and it quoted Lancaster navigator Flight Lieutenant J.D. Henderson as commenting that when he ‘looked down at the fire below it was like a huge mushroom of flames.’4

In the preceding months leaflets had been dropped on Hamburg warning the citizens, that they, like other German cities, would soon suffer an appalling and deadly punishment, even though as Henry Tizard, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, had warned Churchill prior to the raid, its population was ‘anti-Prussian and anti-Nazi’.5  His plea did nothing to deter the indiscriminate nature of the planned assault. One member of a German AA gun crew recalled how ‘howling and hissing, fire and iron were falling from the sky. The whole city was lit up in a sea of flames.’6  In the wake of such destruction, few Germans could have anticipated the scale of the horror that would be inflicted just three days later in a far more terrible fire storm generated by another fifty minutes of RAF incendiary bombing just after midnight on 28th July.

Rescue workers search for victims in the rubble.
German Federal Archives – CC BY-SA 3.0 DE – via Wikimedia.
A street photograph taken four years later in 1947.
General Federal Archives – CC BY-SA 3.0 DE – via Wikimedia.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Allen Lane, London, 2013, p. 333 and 335.
  2. Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945, Pen and Sword, 2019, p. 411 and Richard Overy op. cit. p. 333.
  3. Although initial estimates put the death toll of the first night’s bombing at 1,500, subsequent estimates were far higher See Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, Penguin Books, London, p. 107 and Richard Overy op. cit. p. 333.
  4. ‘War’s Heaviest Raid: Hamburg’s 2,300 tons,’ The Daily Mirror, 26 July 1943, p. 2 and ‘The Greatest Air Raid in History,’ The Scotsman, 26 July 1943, p. 5.
  5. Keith Lowe, op. cit., p. 107 and Richard Overy op. cit. p. 329
  6. Keith Lowe, op. cit., p. 113.

Please feel welcome to post comments below.  If you have any questions please email alisdare@gmail.com

© 2020 Alisdare Hickson All rights reserved

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