July 28th in German History: A Firestorm Engulfs the City of Hamburg

The Eilbek district after it was gutted by flames.

Germany began the Second World War confident in its prospects of victory and assured that it would itself see the devastation of conflict. Germany’s leaders promised that German cities would be free of violence, and that the battles would be fought far from the nation’s borders. These promises were broken. Even before Germany itself was invaded, Allied bombers wreaked havoc on the cities and towns of the Reich. One of the most deadly incidents occurred on July 28th, 1943, when a firestorm started by bombing the night before burnt much of the city to the ground.

Of course, the early years of the war saw Germany rain death on cities in Poland, France, and most notably Britain. The Battle of Britain saw the Luftwaffe nearly gain air superiority over the British Isles. However, the UK’s aircraft production along with advances in RADAR allowed the RAF to maintain control of its skies. Their effort was helped by the German decision to switch from bombing military targets to bombing London after a small air raid accidentally bombed Berlin. This raid, while important symbolically, had little impact on Germany’s war production. That would not be the case for long, as the RAF increasingly turned its attention to German cities. As the American and British air forces increasingly overwhelmed the German one, the Allies were able to undertake ever bolder actions against German population and industrial centers. Beginning on July 24th, 1943, the RAF undertook Operation Gomorrah, a bombing campaign on the city of Hamburg. However, the culmination of these efforts did not come until three days later. On July 27th, 787 aircraft from the Royal Air Force took off from British airfields and, shortly before midnight, dropped their bombs on the city. The warm and dry weather, along with damage done to the city’s fire department by earlier raids, resulted in massive fires erupting in a concentrated area. This in turn led to a firestorm, which saw winds as high as 240km per hour and temperatures as high as 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit. All told, over 40,000 people were killed, most suffocating while seeking shelter. Eight square miles of the city were left in ruins. One fourth of the city’s large factories and half of the small ones were destroyed, along with more than half of its housing. Yet, the bombings did not stop, and they would not stop until the city was occupied by the Allies in May of 1945.

There is a certain irony in the devastation visited upon German cities during WWII. Hitler and his underlings promised the German people prosperity and safety during the war, and threatened to destroy his enemies from above. In fact, his attempts to force Britain to submit were to end in disaster, and it would be his people that experienced the worst devastation from the air. Germans, especially Nazis, believed that they could achieve victory with comparably little sacrifice. Instead, they would suffer utter destruction in their defeat.

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