1940-1949 | Bombing towns & cities | Germany | RAF crimes

RAF fire bombing destroys Hamburg, killing over 18,000

RAF reconnaissance photo of the devastation caused by the bombing in the early hours of 28 July 1943 – © IWM (CL 3400).

28 July 1943

At about 12.55 am on Wednesday 28 July 1943, RAF Pathfinder aircraft began to drop their target indicators, lighting up the German city of Hamburg.  791 aircraft had already bombed Hamburg three nights earlier [see 25 July 1943], and Bomber Command planners had been impressed with how well the city burned, killing as many as 10,000 people. As they took off again on Tuesday evening from their bases in Yorkshire, East Anglia and Lincolnshire, the 787 bombers carried an additional 240 tons of incendiaries.1 In total, over 1,000 tons of high explosives and 1,200 tons of incendiary bombs were dropped, most falling on a densely populated area of just two square miles.2

After days of hot dry weather the city was particularly vulnerable, but the tragedy which followed was no accident, as Bomber Command understood the deadly consequence of such intense bombing with an internal memo noting that incendiary bombs dropped on ‘terraces of box-like buildings dating from the Middle Ages’ should ‘yield a good dividend.’3  However, even the planners must have been taken aback by the scale of the resulting conflagration.

By 1.02 am the first fires erupted across the working class district of Hammerbrook and as more incendiary bombs were dropped additional fires were ignited in the equally overcrowded neighbouring areas of Borgfeld and Hamm.4  These quickly merged into one devastating inferno, with the rising hot air drawing in the relatively cooler air from surrounding areas, and in so doing generating a hurricane of fire which sucked in  chunks of masonry and timber as well as entire roof tops and human bodies into its flames.  Even the asphalt on the roads started to boil and among those who made it into underground shelters, most soon died from carbon monoxide poisoning as the fire consumed the available oxygen.

The bombs were deliberately dropped on residential areas, and few inhabitants in the targeted districts survived. The death toll that night exceeded 18,000 and was to climb even higher as the city suffered two further RAF bombing attacks on the nights of 29-30 July and 2-3 August, killing another 10,000 people and forcing over a million residents to flee.5  British newspapers were exuberant, competing with one another in their boasts about the unprecedented bombing.  Typically, a headline on the Sunday Post‘s front page declared ‘Hamburg has Ceased to Exist,’ and quoted a Danish consular official as stating ‘I saw with my own eyes – district after district literally burned to the ground. When you drive through Hamburg you drive through corpses. They are all over the streets and even in the tree-tops.’6

An RAF Lancaster crew about to embark on a bombing mission over Hamburg
© IWM (CH 10714)

FOOTNOTES

  1. Keith Lowe, Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, Penguin Books, London p. 187 and Martin Middlebrook and Christ Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book 1939-1945, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2019, p. 413
  2. Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45, Allen Lane, London, p. 334.
  3. Ibid., p. 329.
  4. Keith Lowe, op. cit., p. 192.
  5. Richard Overy, op. cit., p. 335 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, op. cit., p. 412.
  6. ‘Hamburg has Ceased to Exist,’ The Sunday Post, 1 August 1943, p. 1.

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