When Hamburg was attacked in July 1943 none of the survivors would have failed to remember what had occurred on the days that the ancient city was enveloped by a firestorm. The memories of those survivors and the memories of those who were brave enough to write about the attack on Hamburg – the Gestapo was ever present and anything considered defeatism was severely punished – have given historians a first hand account of what happened.
The man in charge of Hamburg’s civil defence was Major-General Kehrl. He reported that:
“The scenes of terror in the firestorm area are indescribable. Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire. People who thought that they had escaped fell down, overcome by the devouring heat, and died in an instant. Refugees had to make their way over the dead and dying. The sick and the infirm had to be left behind by the rescuers as they themselves were in danger of burning.”
Adolf Galland, a Luftwaffe ace, also wrote about the attack:
“A wave of terror radiated from the suffering city and spread throughout Germany. Appalling details of the great fires were recounted, and their glow could be seen for days from a distance of 120 miles. A stream of haggard, terrified refugees flowed into the neighbouring provinces. In spite of the strictest reticence in the official communiqués, the ‘Terror of Hamburg’ spread to the remotest parts of the Reich. Berlin was evacuated with signs of panic.”
An anonymous Hamburg resident wrote:
“A great flame was shooting straight towards us. A flame as high as the houses and nearly as wide as the street. As I stared in fascination, the giant flame jerked back and then shot upwards again. “My God, what is it? I said. “It’s a firestorm” an old man answered.
A secret report only released to high-ranking Nazi officials stated:
“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 150 mph. The panic-stricken citizens did not know 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.”
On July 29th, Kehrl ordered that all non-essential civilians leave Hamburg. Over the next hours, it is estimated that one million people fled the city.
The next bombing raids were on July 30th and August 2nd.
The number of dead has never been accurately established but an accepted figure is 50,000. Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary that the devastation caused at Hamburg was so great that it was the first time that he had considered a negotiated peace with the Allies – regardless of his public stance of defiance. The Gestapo and other forms of internal security were put on full alert to ensure that as little as was possible about the destruction of Hamburg leaked out to the German public at large.