Category Archives: Today in History

14 October 1944 – Rommels Suicide

Rommel with his aides in the Libyan desert in the spring of 1942.

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had achieved worldwide fame as the ‘Desert Fox’, after the Wehrmacht ‘Afrika Korps’ were sent to save the Italian forces on the brink of defeat in North Africa in 1941. He had then taken a leading role in building the Atlantic Wall across occupied France and had played his part in the Normandy battle against the D-day landings, before being seriously wounded in an Allied airstrike on 17th July 1944..

He had long been outspoken and Nazi spies were well aware that he could be critical of Hitler. The Wehrmacht members of the 20 July bomb plot against Hitler saw him as a potential German leader if they succeeded in overthrowing the Nazi regime. When they approached Rommel to support them he had been sympathetic, like many senior members of the Wehrmacht he could see the way the war was going. Nevertheless, he had opposed the killing of Hitler, believing that this would lead to civil war.

The Gestapo interrogation and torture of the conspirators soon revealed Rommel’s involvement. However, Hitler wanted to avoid putting someone of his stature on public trial. There were other ways that he could be dealt with.

His son Manfred Rommel saw his father on this fateful day:

..I arrived at Herrlingen at 7:00 a.m. My father was at breakfast. A cup was quickly brought for me and we breakfasted together, afterward taking a stroll in the garden.

‘At twelve o’clock to-day two Generals are coming to discuss my future employment,’ my father started the conversation. ‘So today will decide what is planned for me; whether a People’s Court or a new command in the East.’

‘Would you accept such a command,’ I asked.

He took me by the arm and replied: ‘My dear boy, our enemy in the East is so terrible that every other consideration has to give way before it. If he succeeds in overrunning Europe, even only temporarily, it will be the end of everything which has made life appear worth living. Of course, I would go.’

Shortly before twelve o’clock, my father went to his room on the first floor and changed from the brown civilian jacket which he usually wore over riding-breeches, to his Africa tunic, which was his favorite uniform on account of its open collar.

At about twelve o’clock a dark-green car with a Berlin number stopped in front of our garden gate. The only men in the house apart from my father, were Captain Aldinger, Rommel’s aide, a badly wounded war-veteran corporal and myself. Two generals – Burgdorf, a powerful florid man, and Maisel, small and slender – alighted from the car and entered the house. They were respectful and courteous and asked my father’s permission to speak to him alone. Aldinger and I left the room. ‘So they are not going to arrest him,’ I thought with relief, as I went upstairs to find myself a book.

A few minutes later I heard my father come upstairs and go into my mother’s room. Anxious to know what was afoot, I got up and followed him. He was standing in the middle of the room, his face pale. ‘Come outside with me,’ he said in a tight voice.

We went into my room. ‘I have just had to tell your mother,’ he began slowly, ‘that I shall be dead in a quarter of an hour.’ He was calm as he continued: ‘To die by the hand of one’s own people is hard. But the house is surrounded and Hitler is charging me with high treason.’

‘ “In view of my services in Africa,” ‘ he quoted sarcastically, ‘I am to have the chance of dying by poison. The two generals have brought it with them. It’s fatal in three seconds. If I accept, none of the usual steps will be taken against my family, that is against you. They will also leave my staff alone.’

‘Do you believe it?’ I interrupted. ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘I believe it. It is very much in their interest to see that the affair does not come out into the open. By the way, I have been charged to put you under a promise of the strictest silence. If a single word of this comes out, they will no longer feel themselves bound by the agreement.’

I tried again. ‘Can’t we defend ourselves…’ He cut me off short. ‘There’s no point,’ he said. ‘It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed in a shooting affray. Anyway, we’ve practically no ammunition.’ We briefly took leave of each other. ‘Call Aldinger, please,’ he said.

Aldinger had meanwhile been engaged in conversation by the General’s escort to keep him away from my father. At my call, he came running upstairs. He, too, was struck cold when he heard what was happening. My father now spoke more quickly.

He again said how useless it was to attempt to defend ourselves. ‘It’s all been prepared to the last detail. I’m to be given a state funeral. I have asked that it should take place in Ulm. [a town near Rommel’s home] In a quarter of an hour, you, Aldinger, will receive a telephone call from the Wagnerschule reserve hospital in Ulm to say that I’ve had a brain seizure on the way to a conference.’ He looked at his watch. ‘I must go, they’ve only given me ten minutes.’ He quickly took leave of us again. Then we went downstairs together.

We helped my father into his leather coat. Suddenly he pulled out his wallet. ‘There’s still 150 marks in there,’ he said. ‘Shall I take the money with me?’

‘That doesn’t matter now, Herr Field Marshal,’ said Aldinger.

My father put his wallet carefully back in his pocket. As he went into the hall, his little dachshund which he had been given as a puppy a few months before in France, jumped up at him with a whine of joy. ‘Shut the dog in the study, Manfred,’ he said and waited in the hall with Aldinger while I removed the excited dog and pushed it through the study door. Then we walked out of the house together. The two generals were standing at the garden gate. We walked slowly down the path, the crunch of the gravel sounding unusually loud.

As we approached the generals they raised their right hands in salute. ‘Herr Field Marshal,’ Burgdorf said shortly and stood aside for my father to pass through the gate. A knot of villagers stood outside the drive…

The car stood ready. The S.S. driver swung the door open and stood to attention. My father pushed his Marshal’s baton under his left arm, and with his face calm, gave Aldinger and me his hand once more before getting in the car.

The two generals climbed quickly into their seats and the doors were slammed. My father did not turn again as the car drove quickly off up the hill and disappeared round a bend in the road. When it had gone Aldinger and I turned and walked silently back into the house…

Twenty minutes later the telephone rang. Aldinger lifted the receiver and my father’s death was duly reported.

It was not then entirely clear, what had happened to him after he left us. Later we learned that the car had halted a few hundred yards up the hill from our house in an open space at the edge of the wood.

Gestapo men, who had appeared in force from Berlin that morning, were watching the area with instructions to shoot my father down and storm the house if he offered resistance.

Maisel and the driver got out of the car, leaving my father and Burgdorf inside. When the driver was permitted to return ten minutes or so later, he saw my father sunk forward with his cap off and the marshal’s baton fallen from his hand.”

Field Marshal Rundstedt delivers the eulogy at Rommel’s funeral in Ulm. At the time he was not aware of the true circumstances of his death, believing the Nazi version that he had died from his wounds.
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Start of the Battle of Moscow – September 30, 1941 – January 7, 1942

As early as July 1941, the Russians knew the Germans were going to breach their defenses and threaten Moscow. On 3 July, Lenin’s body was moved from Moscow to Tumen to prevent German capture or destruction. Little over two weeks later, on 22 July, 127 German bombers raided Moscow, even lightly damaging the Kremlin. As a response, Moscow residents were ordered to build mock houses on Kremlin’s grounds and paint the distinct roof of the building in order to blend it in with the rest of the city. Streets were also barricaded in preparation of a German attack. Moscow was proud, however, aided by Joseph Stalin’s propaganda machine. One such example was the 7 Nov parade in celebration of the anniversary of the October Revolution, where Russian soldiers marched straight through Red Square toward the battlefields to the west.

After a series of attacks and counterattacks from both sides, the German troops were beginning to show signs of fatigue. Replacements came slowly partly due to the unplanned action in the Balkans and Crete, while the brutal Russian winter loomed dangerously near. The Russians, on the other hand, saw relatively fresh reinforcements from the recently arrived Georgi Zhukov and his troops from the Far East; the inability of the Axis powers to negotiate for a joint-attack on Russian had a significant impact on the German ability to quickly bring down Russia, but Adolf Hitler was too egotistical to see.

After a few days of preparations in Moscow’s suburbs, on 2 Oct 1941, Fedor von Bock led German troops to assault directly against Moscow. German advances were slower than they had hoped with a rainy fall season and later a cold early winter. As German vehicles become immobilized, the German army continued to advance, however, the cold weather was affecting the morale and fighting ability of the troops to a high degree. On 15 Nov, another push for Moscow was launched, and within two weeks the Germans reached the 27km marker to Moscow, with some soldiers claiming the sighting of the towers of Kremlin.

The weather also significantly harmed the German ability to supply the Moscow contingent by rail, despite Minister Dorpmüller and the German Reich Railways dramatically expanding its operations during the campaign. The water tanks of the locomotives regularly froze under sub-zero conditions, pushing the number of broken-down locomotives at any given time to the hundreds. Additionally, the Russian railways were of a different gauge, forcing the German engineers to re-bed all the railways before the German locomotives could use them. In Dec 1941, with the transport situation so desperate that a special motor transport organization was formed to alleviate some of the pressure. Despite the superhuman results the Germans had achieved in the arena of logistics, it was just not enough. The German frontlines troops, including the air force, required the equivalent of 120 train loads of supplies daily for normal operations (ie. not counting supplies needed to mount major operations); only about 100 train loads worth of supplies were delivered on a regular day. To make matters even worse, Russian partisans regularly sabotaged railway tracks to slow things further.

Russians had been launching counteroffensives of various sizes since early Sep to slow the progress of the German army. The counteroffensives were largely planned under the leadership of Zhukov, a man who Stalin feared as a political threat but yet relied on so much to defend his capital. On 5 Dec, Zhukov saw the opportunity to launch a major counteroffensive, while at the same time he knew he could no longer take any chances; the German troops were too close to Moscow for his comfort. He called in his troops of Siberia and the Far East, who had been resting nearby for such a counteroffensive. T-34 tanks and Katyusha rocket launchers led the way for the fresh Russian soldiers, some of whom donned the white winter camouflage that became the subject of nightmares to the freezing retreating German troops. By 7 Jan 1942, the front lines were driven back anywhere between 100km to 250km. German forces would never again threaten Moscow directly for the rest of the war.

The final tally tilted amazingly harsh on the Russian side of the battle. Russia suffered over 600,000 casualties, with some estimates going as high as 700,000. Meanwhile, the German troops suffered a smaller 250,000 casualties, though the German momentum was stopped while the Russians built up their own. For the efforts of Moscow residents to defend the capital city, Moscow was honored with the title Hero City in 1965.

 

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End of the Bombing of Hamburg – 24 Jul to 2 Aug 1943

Hamburg aftermath.

During the night of 23 Jul 1943, British bombers took off for the German city of Hamburg, which delivered 2,300 tons of bombs to the city between 0100 and 0200 in the early morning of 24 Jul. This began Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign against Hamburg. Once again, 8,000-pound “blockbuster” and 4,000-pound “cookie” bombs, both explosive bombs, knocked out roofs and windows, and subsequent waves of bombers dropped 350,412 incendiary bombs to start fires. Crews of the Halifax bombers of the RAF 6 Group, which were among the latter waves, reported “a mass of raging fires with black smoke rising to 19,000 feet”.

RAF bombing practice called for lead bombers to drop markers so that the following bombers would know where to release bombs in the dark.

Flak Tower Hamburg.

Hamburg resident Johann Johannsen, who manned a flak battery that night, recalled being directly underneath one such marker:

High above us, we could hear the drone of the enemy machines. Suddenly countless flares were above us so that the whole city was lit up in a magically bright light…. With incredible swiftness, the disaster was suddenly upon us. Before and behind our battery heavy chunks of metal were striking. Howling and hissing, fire and iron were falling from the sky. The whole city was lit up in a sea of flames!

Ruins.

Paul Elingshausen, the deputy air raid warden of his block, remembered the frustration of not being able to fight the massive fires:

There was no running water, the Tommies had smashed the waterworks first… we had to abandon house after house. Finally, Dr. Wilm’s house caught fire, and I, as deputy air-raid warden, stopped fighting the fire since there was neither sand or water, and the flames were already licking the side of our roof. We started to save what could be saved…. I had all of fourteen minutes to rescue the most important things, some clothes and other stuff…. One cannot imagine how fast fire is, and how easily it can cut off your escape route; this is why I also gave up, no matter how much I would have liked to have this or that. And so I stood below with what little stuff I had and was forced to watch, full of impotent anger, as our beloved building burned.

The RAF bombers’ entrance over German air was aided by “Window”, the code name for strips of paper coated with foil on one side, which successfully blinded German short-range radar and the anti-aircraft flak weapons that depended on the radar. Once they completed their attack on Hamburg, however, German night fighters arrived in response and shot down a number of British bombers.

Only 12 aircraft were lost during the raid of 24 Jul 1943.
At 1440 in the afternoon on the next day, 25 Jul, United States Army Air Force bombers arrived during daylight. The Americans, operating under a separate command, chose to follow up the British bombing for military reasons. Top American commanders noted Hamburg’s aircraft parts factories and submarine builders, and the chaos caused by the British bombing the day before might increase the rate of success for the raid. Brigadier General Frederick L. Anderson, Jr. gave the order that day to launch his B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, with the Blohm & Voß shipyards and the Klöckner aircraft engine factories as the primary objectives. When 109 bombers arrived at Hamburg, crews reported that the smoke rising from fires were so heavy that they were having trouble locating their targets. They thought the fires were caused by the first wave of American bombers; little did they know, the fires had actually been burning since the first British raid.

Firestorm.

German fighters inflicted a heavy toll on the American bombers. Even as the bombers were fleeing after unloading the bombs, fighters hovered on the edges of the flight groups, looking for bombers that were unable to stay with the group. German fighters were typically afraid of flying into a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, as the high concentration of defensive guns meant certain death. However, there were reports of fighters directly challenging bombers, with most of them employing the strategy of flying from the direction of the sun to mask their attacks. The American bombers returned to Britain around 1930 in the evening, finding that they had lost 15 aircraft.

In the afternoon of Sunday, 25 Jul, Gauleiter of Hamburg Karl Kaufmann decided to seal the city. As the city continued to burn, he announced no one would be allowed leave, reasoning that it would maintain the manpower needed to fight fires and to help survivors. Little did he know that it was only the start of an entire bombing campaign on the city. Keeping the population in the city “ensured the deaths of thousands in the coming days”, said Keith Lowe.

At dawn on 26 Jul, USAAF bomber crews gathered again for another mission. To their surprise, they found themselves staring at a map of Hamburg once again. They took off around 0900 that morning. When they arrived at Hamburg at noontime, they were once again blinded by smoke, but this time, the smoke was generated by German efforts to mask areas of the city. The attacking bombers released their 126 tons of bombs in a short one-minute window, scoring direct hits on the Blohm & Voß shipyards and MAN diesel engine works. Neuhof power station was hit by the 303rd Bomber Group, which disabled the power station for the coming two weeks. This precision bombing killed few civilians outside the intended military and infrastructure targets. Only two American bombers were lost on this raid.

Bismarck Leaving Blohm & Voss Shipyard a few years earlier.

The American bombings on 25 and 26 Jul did serious damage to the Blohm & Voß shipyards. Construction shops, ship fitters shops, engine shops, boiler house, power station, foundry, and tool stores were all seriously damaged, while two of the dry docks were also considerably damaged. The Howaldtswerke factory lost several furnaces, shipbuilding and machinery sheds, and the diesel engine shops. Oil stores near the Rosshafen rail station were hit. Putting the Neuhof power station out of commission was probably the most important achievement.

During the night of 26-27 Jul, 6 British Mosquito aircraft conducted a nuisance raid on Hamburg, just like the night before. They were not meant to cause much damage to the city. Instead, they were sent to keep the Hamburg residents on their toes. By depriving them of sleep, the RAF Bomber Commanded intended on destroying their morale bit by bit.

British bombers.

During the night of 27-28 Jul, 787 British bombers attacked Hamburg from the northeast. The direction was chosen so that creep-back would cause damage to a totally different part of town, thus systematically destroying the area from city center outwards. “Creep back” was the term used to describe the fact that, as subsequent bomber crews saw explosions and fires near the target caused by the first waves, they would grow more excited, which led them to release their bomb slightly early. Thus as each subsequent waves released their bombs earlier and earlier, the area of impact crept toward the direction that the bombers were coming from. As city center buildings were already damaged, the British Lancaster, Halifax, and Stirling bombers carried far more incendiary bombs tonight, instead of explosives. The 722 aircraft that reached Hamburg dropped more than 2,313 tons of bombs on Hamburg in the span of 50 minutes. The resulting fire destroyed 16,000 buildings and killed thousands of people. Trevor Timperley of 156 Squadron RAF, who flew two missions over Hamburg, recalled the city being “a sea of flames” on this night. Leonard Cooper, a British flight engineer aboard a 7 Squadron RAF Lancaster bomber, recalled smoke rising to the altitude of 20,000 feet, carrying the stink of burning human flesh. “It’s not a thing I’d like to talk about”, he told his interviewer emotionally. On the ground, the scene of destruction exactly mirrored what the RAF bomber crews imagined.

Dead bodies burned beyond recognition.

Erich Titschak recalled his entire neighborhood engulfed in “one enormous sea of fire”, while Hans Jedlicka expressed a similar experience, noting “[t]he whole of Hammerbrook was burning!” A 40 year-old survivor gave the following account, which without a doubt contributed to some of the awful smell that the RAF bomber crews took note of high above.

The stretch of the road upon which we now traveled brought ever-worsening scenes of horror. I saw many women with their children held in their arms running, burning and then falling and not getting back up. We passed 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. Many men and women fell over suddenly without having caught fire…. Silently and with the last of their force, women tried to save their children. They carried them pressed close. Many of these children were already dead, without their mothers knowing.

The British bombers that flew over Hamburg on the night of 27-28 Jul met a tougher defense. Realizing that “Window” took away their ability to use radar to direct flak, more stress was put on the use of night fighters. Particularly, Major Hajo Herrmann’s Wilde Sau, or “Wild Boar”, tactics were deployed; Wilde Sau tactics called for flak to explode at the particular altitude that enemy bombers traveled, while night fighters hovered at a safe distance higher above. As the fighters flew high above, the fires on the ground easily contrasted the outlines of bombers, and Wilde Sau fighters would sweep down against targets of opportunity. Over Hamburg and on the British bombers’ return journey, Wilde Sau and conventional fighters claimed many hits.

Goebbels.

The 27-28 Jul raid killed about 42,600 people and destroyed over 16,000 residential buildings. Goebbels called this raid “the greatest crisis of the war” in his diary a few days later. British newspaper The Daily Express published, on the front page, the headline “RAF blitz to wipe Hamburg off the war map”.

During the night of 28-29 Jul, four Mosquito aircraft performed a nuisance raid on Hamburg.

On the following night, 29-30 Jul, 777 British aircraft attacked the northern areas of Hamburg. En route, the bombers flew straight into a huge storm, and almost all crew members who participated in this raid reported the St. Elmo’s fire phenomenon as their aircraft became electrified.

Pilot J. K. Christie of a Lancaster bomber of the 35 Squadron noted his spectacular experience in his diary:

There were huge luminous rings around the propellers, blue flames out of the wing-tips, gun muzzles and also everywhere else on the aircraft where its surface is pointed. For instance, the de-icing tube in front of my window had a blue flame around it. Electrical flowers were dancing on the windows all the time until they got iced up when the flowers disappeared. The wireless operator told me afterward that sparks were shooting across his equipment all the time and that his aerials were luminous throughout the lengths. I didn’t feel a bit happy and tried to go down below the clouds.

The unexpected electrical storm was not the only danger the British bombers faced. With additional anti-aircraft weapons brought into the city, the density of flak at and below 4,500 meters altitude was far greater than during previous raids; above that altitude, aside from the dangerous storm clouds, Wilde Sau fighters continued to sweep down from above on unsuspecting bombers. 28 aircraft were lost during this raid. They caused damage but did not start another firestorm.

The final large-scale raid conducted on Hamburg took place on the night of 2-3 Aug, where 740 aircraft launched for Hamburg, but bad weather prevented many of the bombers from reaching the target; many of them were diverted to bomb secondary targets instead. 30 of the 740 bombers were lost.

In the mere ten days, Hamburg was utterly destroyed. Perhaps a personal correspondence from German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to his wife dated 3 Aug 1943 captured the fear instilled in the German people after the bombings on the city:

German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.

Hamburg has been a catastrophe for us, and last night there was yet another heavy air raid on it. The same must be expected for Berlin as soon as the nights are long enough for the longer flying time involved. That is why I want you to leave Berlin as soon as possible in view of the enormous danger there now is of fires breaking out; fires are far more dangerous than high explosive…. I am afraid of vast conflagrations consuming whole districts, streams of burning oil flowing into the basements and shelters, phosphorus, and the like. It will be difficult to escape from the shelters then, and there is the danger of tremendous heat being generated. This will not be cowardice, but the sheer realization that in the face of phenomena like this one is completely powerless; in the heart of the city you will be quite powerless.

Although the bombings put a halt on Hamburg’s war industries, production was recovered relatively quickly. By the end of 1943, the aircraft industry was operating at 91% of pre-bombing levels, while electrical goods, optics, and precision tools either returned or surpassed pre-bombing levels. The chemical industry, which suffered greatly during the ten days, returned to 71% of pre-bombing capacity by the end of 1943 as well. Most importantly, the submarine-building industry, which the Allies targeted, returned to near pre-bombing capacity within two months. René Ratouis, a French worker who witnessed the destruction of the shipyards, recalled his surprise when he returned in Sep and saw nearly no sign of any attack; by 28 Sep, submarine Wa 201 was completed and launched from the Blohm & Voß shipyards.

Blohm & Voß shipyards.
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24 July 1944 – Operation Cobra Bombing of Normandy

B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers in flight above the clouds.

After many delays, mainly caused by inclement weather which restricted flying, the Allies were now poised for a breakout in Normandy. The British in the east continued to engage the bulk of the Panzers, while the Germans were making every effort to transfer some across to face the Americans, where they anticipated new problems.

Now Omar Bradley decided that he needed the extra support of the heavy bombers to blast apart the German lines facing his sector. He flew to England to confer with the Allied Air commanders over their direct intervention on the battlefield. A plan was developed for 1,500 heavy bombers and 350 medium bombers, supported by 350 fighter bombers to pulverize 5 square miles of countryside.

However, the weather continued to conspire against the Allies, when the attack was launched prematurely on the 24th.

This is the account of German medical sergeant Walter Klein:

On the morning of 24 July 1944, I just came back from the dressing station to the position when we were attacked by artillery. Our anti-aircraft platoon had two dead, three severely wounded.

My own company, the heavy company of Kampfgruppe Heintz, lost only one man. With the help of two stretcher-bearers and the medical unit of the neighboring company, we went back to the dressing station, to bring the wounded there. We arrived there at about 0900 hours.

At 0915 hours, there was such strong air activity over the combat line that we had to take St Lo — Vire road to get back from the dressing station to the position. We had the prescribed insignia and knew that the American aviators would not fire on us.

Over the sector held by my company were approximately 18 to 25 Lightnings, which were firing systematically on every hedge. Our position was situated in a wooded sector. We left the road to reach the position and took a sunken road. It was 1100 hours. According to orders I had to report back to the company command post, but on the sunken road, I found five wounded parachute gunners of the 5th Para Division, injured by a splinter bomb.

What happened during the following hours was terrific. By our calculation, 1,000 to 1,200 bombers took part in the attack The effect was devastating; all our anti-aircraft guns and artillery were destroyed. Tanks that tried to get away were destroyed by pursuit planes.

When a wave of planes had passed, one could hear the crying of the wounded and shout for the help of medical personnel. I had just the time to carry one of my comrades, who had been wounded badly in the thigh, into the dugout when a second wave started bombing.

It was impossible to give help as long as the air raid lasted. Several companies of the 5th Para Division who tried to withdraw to the north in the direction of Marigny were entirely destroyed by Lightnings, pursuit planes and bombers. On that day my company lost one officer, and 34 non-commissioned officers and enlisted men. The attack lasted approximately three hours.

At 1930 I brought the last wounded to the dressing station. The unit had moved to another position. The general opinion of my comrades and even the officers was that, if the enemy made another attack, it would be our end. Only one heavy weapon was left and it only had six rounds of ammunition. Of our heavy trench mortars, only two were left.

The St Lo front had suffered very much from this attack. Worse than the loss of weapons was the effect that the attack had made on our morale.

On 25 July, the Americans started to make the breakthrough. At daybreak, as on the day before, innumerable pursuit planes and artillery-spotting planes were over the battlefield. Almost every rifle pit was shelled. At 1400 hours, when I accompanied some wounded to the dressing station, I found that American tanks were already driving along St Lo — Vire road.

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Start of the Bombing of Hamburg – 24 Jul to 2 Aug 1943

Hamburg aftermath.

During the night of 23 Jul 1943, British bombers took off for the German city of Hamburg, which delivered 2,300 tons of bombs to the city between 0100 and 0200 in the early morning of 24 Jul. This began Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign against Hamburg. Once again, 8,000-pound “blockbuster” and 4,000-pound “cookie” bombs, both explosive bombs, knocked out roofs and windows, and subsequent waves of bombers dropped 350,412 incendiary bombs to start fires. Crews of the Halifax bombers of the RAF 6 Group, which were among the latter waves, reported “a mass of raging fires with black smoke rising to 19,000 feet”.

RAF bombing practice called for lead bombers to drop markers so that the following bombers would know where to release bombs in the dark.

Flak Tower Hamburg.

Hamburg resident Johann Johannsen, who manned a flak battery that night, recalled being directly underneath one such marker:

High above us, we could hear the drone of the enemy machines. Suddenly countless flares were above us so that the whole city was lit up in a magically bright light…. With incredible swiftness, the disaster was suddenly upon us. Before and behind our battery heavy chunks of metal were striking. Howling and hissing, fire and iron were falling from the sky. The whole city was lit up in a sea of flames!

Ruins.

Paul Elingshausen, the deputy air raid warden of his block, remembered the frustration of not being able to fight the massive fires:

There was no running water, the Tommies had smashed the waterworks first… we had to abandon house after house. Finally, Dr. Wilm’s house caught fire, and I, as deputy air-raid warden, stopped fighting the fire since there was neither sand or water, and the flames were already licking the side of our roof. We started to save what could be saved…. I had all of fourteen minutes to rescue the most important things, some clothes and other stuff…. One cannot imagine how fast fire is, and how easily it can cut off your escape route; this is why I also gave up, no matter how much I would have liked to have this or that. And so I stood below with what little stuff I had and was forced to watch, full of impotent anger, as our beloved building burned.

The RAF bombers’ entrance over German air was aided by “Window”, the code name for strips of paper coated with foil on one side, which successfully blinded German short-range radar and the anti-aircraft flak weapons that depended on the radar. Once they completed their attack on Hamburg, however, German night fighters arrived in response and shot down a number of British bombers.

Only 12 aircraft were lost during the raid of 24 Jul 1943.
At 1440 in the afternoon on the next day, 25 Jul, United States Army Air Force bombers arrived during daylight. The Americans, operating under a separate command, chose to follow up the British bombing for military reasons. Top American commanders noted Hamburg’s aircraft parts factories and submarine builders, and the chaos caused by the British bombing the day before might increase the rate of success for the raid. Brigadier General Frederick L. Anderson, Jr. gave the order that day to launch his B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, with the Blohm & Voß shipyards and the Klöckner aircraft engine factories as the primary objectives. When 109 bombers arrived at Hamburg, crews reported that the smoke rising from fires were so heavy that they were having trouble locating their targets. They thought the fires were caused by the first wave of American bombers; little did they know, the fires had actually been burning since the first British raid.

Firestorm.

German fighters inflicted a heavy toll on the American bombers. Even as the bombers were fleeing after unloading the bombs, fighters hovered on the edges of the flight groups, looking for bombers that were unable to stay with the group. German fighters were typically afraid of flying into a group of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, as the high concentration of defensive guns meant certain death. However, there were reports of fighters directly challenging bombers, with most of them employing the strategy of flying from the direction of the sun to mask their attacks. The American bombers returned to Britain around 1930 in the evening, finding that they had lost 15 aircraft.

In the afternoon of Sunday, 25 Jul, Gauleiter of Hamburg Karl Kaufmann decided to seal the city. As the city continued to burn, he announced no one would be allowed leave, reasoning that it would maintain the manpower needed to fight fires and to help survivors. Little did he know that it was only the start of an entire bombing campaign on the city. Keeping the population in the city “ensured the deaths of thousands in the coming days”, said Keith Lowe.

At dawn on 26 Jul, USAAF bomber crews gathered again for another mission. To their surprise, they found themselves staring at a map of Hamburg once again. They took off around 0900 that morning. When they arrived at Hamburg at noontime, they were once again blinded by smoke, but this time, the smoke was generated by German efforts to mask areas of the city. The attacking bombers released their 126 tons of bombs in a short one-minute window, scoring direct hits on the Blohm & Voß shipyards and MAN diesel engine works. Neuhof power station was hit by the 303rd Bomber Group, which disabled the power station for the coming two weeks. This precision bombing killed few civilians outside the intended military and infrastructure targets. Only two American bombers were lost on this raid.

Bismarck Leaving Blohm & Voss Shipyard a few years earlier.

The American bombings on 25 and 26 Jul did serious damage to the Blohm & Voß shipyards. Construction shops, ship fitters shops, engine shops, boiler house, power station, foundry, and tool stores were all seriously damaged, while two of the dry docks were also considerably damaged. The Howaldtswerke factory lost several furnaces, shipbuilding and machinery sheds, and the diesel engine shops. Oil stores near the Rosshafen rail station were hit. Putting the Neuhof power station out of commission was probably the most important achievement.

During the night of 26-27 Jul, 6 British Mosquito aircraft conducted a nuisance raid on Hamburg, just like the night before. They were not meant to cause much damage to the city. Instead, they were sent to keep the Hamburg residents on their toes. By depriving them of sleep, the RAF Bomber Commanded intended on destroying their morale bit by bit.

British bombers.

During the night of 27-28 Jul, 787 British bombers attacked Hamburg from the northeast. The direction was chosen so that creep-back would cause damage to a totally different part of town, thus systematically destroying the area from city center outwards. “Creep back” was the term used to describe the fact that, as subsequent bomber crews saw explosions and fires near the target caused by the first waves, they would grow more excited, which led them to release their bomb slightly early. Thus as each subsequent waves released their bombs earlier and earlier, the area of impact crept toward the direction that the bombers were coming from. As city center buildings were already damaged, the British Lancaster, Halifax, and Stirling bombers carried far more incendiary bombs tonight, instead of explosives. The 722 aircraft that reached Hamburg dropped more than 2,313 tons of bombs on Hamburg in the span of 50 minutes. The resulting fire destroyed 16,000 buildings and killed thousands of people. Trevor Timperley of 156 Squadron RAF, who flew two missions over Hamburg, recalled the city being “a sea of flames” on this night. Leonard Cooper, a British flight engineer aboard a 7 Squadron RAF Lancaster bomber, recalled smoke rising to the altitude of 20,000 feet, carrying the stink of burning human flesh. “It’s not a thing I’d like to talk about”, he told his interviewer emotionally. On the ground, the scene of destruction exactly mirrored what the RAF bomber crews imagined.

Dead bodies burned beyond recognition.

Erich Titschak recalled his entire neighborhood engulfed in “one enormous sea of fire”, while Hans Jedlicka expressed a similar experience, noting “[t]he whole of Hammerbrook was burning!” A 40 year-old survivor gave the following account, which without a doubt contributed to some of the awful smell that the RAF bomber crews took note of high above.

The stretch of the road upon which we now traveled brought ever-worsening scenes of horror. I saw many women with their children held in their arms running, burning and then falling and not getting back up. We passed 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. Many men and women fell over suddenly without having caught fire…. Silently and with the last of their force, women tried to save their children. They carried them pressed close. Many of these children were already dead, without their mothers knowing.

The British bombers that flew over Hamburg on the night of 27-28 Jul met a tougher defense. Realizing that “Window” took away their ability to use radar to direct flak, more stress was put on the use of night fighters. Particularly, Major Hajo Herrmann’s Wilde Sau, or “Wild Boar”, tactics were deployed; Wilde Sau tactics called for flak to explode at the particular altitude that enemy bombers traveled, while night fighters hovered at a safe distance higher above. As the fighters flew high above, the fires on the ground easily contrasted the outlines of bombers, and Wilde Sau fighters would sweep down against targets of opportunity. Over Hamburg and on the British bombers’ return journey, Wilde Sau and conventional fighters claimed many hits.

Goebbels.

The 27-28 Jul raid killed about 42,600 people and destroyed over 16,000 residential buildings. Goebbels called this raid “the greatest crisis of the war” in his diary a few days later. British newspaper The Daily Express published, on the front page, the headline “RAF blitz to wipe Hamburg off the war map”.

During the night of 28-29 Jul, four Mosquito aircraft performed a nuisance raid on Hamburg.

On the following night, 29-30 Jul, 777 British aircraft attacked the northern areas of Hamburg. En route, the bombers flew straight into a huge storm, and almost all crew members who participated in this raid reported the St. Elmo’s fire phenomenon as their aircraft became electrified.

Pilot J. K. Christie of a Lancaster bomber of the 35 Squadron noted his spectacular experience in his diary:

There were huge luminous rings around the propellers, blue flames out of the wing-tips, gun muzzles and also everywhere else on the aircraft where its surface is pointed. For instance, the de-icing tube in front of my window had a blue flame around it. Electrical flowers were dancing on the windows all the time until they got iced up when the flowers disappeared. The wireless operator told me afterward that sparks were shooting across his equipment all the time and that his aerials were luminous throughout the lengths. I didn’t feel a bit happy and tried to go down below the clouds.

The unexpected electrical storm was not the only danger the British bombers faced. With additional anti-aircraft weapons brought into the city, the density of flak at and below 4,500 meters altitude was far greater than during previous raids; above that altitude, aside from the dangerous storm clouds, Wilde Sau fighters continued to sweep down from above on unsuspecting bombers. 28 aircraft were lost during this raid. They caused damage but did not start another firestorm.

The final large-scale raid conducted on Hamburg took place on the night of 2-3 Aug, where 740 aircraft launched for Hamburg, but bad weather prevented many of the bombers from reaching the target; many of them were diverted to bomb secondary targets instead. 30 of the 740 bombers were lost.

In the mere ten days, Hamburg was utterly destroyed. Perhaps a personal correspondence from German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel to his wife dated 3 Aug 1943 captured the fear instilled in the German people after the bombings on the city:

German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.

Hamburg has been a catastrophe for us, and last night there was yet another heavy air raid on it. The same must be expected for Berlin as soon as the nights are long enough for the longer flying time involved. That is why I want you to leave Berlin as soon as possible in view of the enormous danger there now is of fires breaking out; fires are far more dangerous than high explosive…. I am afraid of vast conflagrations consuming whole districts, streams of burning oil flowing into the basements and shelters, phosphorus, and the like. It will be difficult to escape from the shelters then, and there is the danger of tremendous heat being generated. This will not be cowardice, but the sheer realization that in the face of phenomena like this one is completely powerless; in the heart of the city you will be quite powerless.

Although the bombings put a halt on Hamburg’s war industries, production was recovered relatively quickly. By the end of 1943, the aircraft industry was operating at 91% of pre-bombing levels, while electrical goods, optics, and precision tools either returned or surpassed pre-bombing levels. The chemical industry, which suffered greatly during the ten days, returned to 71% of pre-bombing capacity by the end of 1943 as well. Most importantly, the submarine-building industry, which the Allies targeted, returned to near pre-bombing capacity within two months. René Ratouis, a French worker who witnessed the destruction of the shipyards, recalled his surprise when he returned in Sep and saw nearly no sign of any attack; by 28 Sep, submarine Wa 201 was completed and launched from the Blohm & Voß shipyards.

Blohm & Voß shipyards.
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19 July 1944 – End of the Battle of St. Lo

A young German soldier surrenders as the US Army approaches St Lo.

The strategic town of St Lo had been the American objective in Normandy for weeks. Finally, they emerged from the hedgerows of the bocage to begin the liberation of the town on the 18th of July. It was a scene of devastation, shattered by Allied bombing and shellfire. Now German shellfire added to the destruction, as they fired very close to their own troops in an attempt to assist the withdrawal.

Grenadier Karl Wegner had arrived in France in January 1944, along with a group of other 17-18 year old German youths sent to rebuild the 352nd Infantry Division. After only basic training in Germany the experienced officers and NCOs of the Division, veterans of the Eastern Front had sought to train them as best they could, despite the limitations on the equipment available to them. The young men had formed close friendships, and it was as a group of friends that they fought in St Lo:

Many times our little group had to dive for cover. Kalb was very mad about this and I knew why. The artillery was ours.

We skirted through the city, peering cautiously around every corner or pile of rubble. Often Kalb would look around a corner then pull back quickly, telling us quietly to go the back the other way. It was like a game of cat and mouse and we were the mice. Then it happened, I suppose it was inevitable.

Kalb looked around a corner and was shot at. The bullet hit him in the right hand, but it was only a scratch. I sent off a burst from the machine gun and we bolted down another alley. Kalb was in the lead followed by Willi, Gunther, then myself. We went from the frying pan into the fire.

When Kalb rounded the next corner he ran right into a group of Amis and armored vehicles. He turned and yelled for us to go back down the alley we just passed. Gunther and I were able to make the turn on the run.

The Amis were reacting by now. Willi was not able to stop quickly enough, he slid forward on the cobblestones because of those damn hobnailed boots. He bumped into Kalb, knocking him down, then tripped over him falling around the corner into the open. Gunfire pierced the air, screams and shouts followed.

Gunther and I got down behind this destroyed wall in a hole made by a shell, we then sprayed mad gunfire over our friends’ heads to keep anyone from coming around the corner. I watched Kalb drag Willi by his boots back around the corner. Then by the belt with his good hand, he dragged Willi towards us, both toppled over the wall.

Willi’s cries of pain sent shivers down my spine. I gave the machine gun to Gunther and told him to fire at anything that came around that corner. I went to Willi and Kalb, whose bloody hands were placing a second bandage on Willi’s chest. The Wounds were bad, through the lung and stomach. My God how Kalb tried to save him as if he were his own brother, the look on his face told me that.

I held Willi’s hand and cradled his head in an attempt to calm him. Kalb looked at me and shook his head, Willi was going to die. His face became sunken and lost its color. He knew he was finished. He stopped shrieking in pain and began to cry, softly. He looked at me with eyes one cannot I describe and said his last; I never forgot it. Willi said to me ‘Karl, through all this just to die in the rubble, it makes no sense.’

Question or statement I didn’t know, either way, it struck us both. I held him until he died. The whole event only took a few moments. Willi’s last words may have been the trigger for Kalb’s next action. He took off his helmet and placed it over Willi’s face, then broke off the bottom of Willi’s identity disc. He took this, his watch, medals, wedding ring and the pictures of his family and wrapped it all in his handkerchief, which he thrust down the front of his trousers. No one would look here. He placed his battered cap on his head and told us to do the same.

He took Gunther’s rifle, tied a dirty undershirt to it and waved it above the wall. He told us that he would go first if everything was OK, we should follow. He stepped over the wall with his arms held high. I looked one more time at Willi’s lifeless body lying there in the rubble, then scrambled out into captivity. Thank God it was finally over.

A German photograph of the devastation in St Lo, taken in June or early July 1944.
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25-26 Jun 1942 – Terror Bombing of Bremen

The British launched the third Thousand Bomber Raid against the German city of Bremen during the night of 25-26 Jun 1942. 1,067 aircraft, most of which from the Bomber Command but also with participation from Coastal Command and Army Cooperation Command, were launched against Bremen. Although only 696 successfully reached the city, they were able to damage the capacity of the Focke-Wulf factory and destroy 572 houses. 85 were killed on the ground, with a further 497 wounded, at a cost of 48 Bomber Command and 5 Coastal Command aircraft.

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