Warning: Post Contains Graphic Images
I attended graduate school to receive my Master’s Degree in History many years ago. 2001-2003 to be exact. I had been working as a firefighter for several years prior and continued to work while in school. In fact, I made Lieutenant during that time! A few years later, I went over to the dark side of the force and became a police officer and eventually a detective who worked arson cases. I say all that to say this: I’ve always been interested in Fire Service History, not just here in the States, but also abroad. In a previous post many moons back, I discussed the gallant efforts of the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz. Friends, their story of wartime firefighting is truly the stuff of legend. But what of the view from the other side of the fence? 10 times as many German civilians died in Allied bombing raids as British citizens died in German raids. What was it like for their firefighters? For their rescue workers?
Precious little in the way of sources exist in the English language, probably due to a general lack of interest. Of course, you find passing references in plenty of places, but not much else. Truthfully, there isn’t a whole lot in the German language either. There is, however, one notable exception. After the war, Civil Defense authorities in the United States commissioned a report on the experiences of the Hamburg Fire Brigade during the week of Operation Gomorrah which included a firestorm that killed nearly 40,000 people. You can view the report here. In the appendix of the document, it contains the Hamburg Police President’s report on the raids as well as the Fire Brigades report. I will draw from that for the below paragraph.
By the summer of 1943, Hamburg had a multilayered fire protection system. As a large city, it naturally had a professional fire brigade. However, you also had community volunteer fire brigades, Nazi Party volunteer fire brigades, industrial fire brigades (to protect important factories around the city), military rescue squads, and Luftschutz personnel who functioned sort of like civil defense volunteers or CERT teams today. During the height of the attacks, aid was sent from all over Germany including volunteer companies and professional brigades. However, each night, those units (except members of the Berlin Fire Brigade) were withdrawn from the city so the Hamburg and Berlin men bore the brunt of the response during the heaviest raids. By the end of the week, 55 Hamburg firefighters were dead, and scores more wounded, often seriously. The chief spoke of their suffering many symptoms brought on by nervous exhaustion after working for 36 hours straight with no food or water. For any of you who have fought a fire, you know how tough that must have been on them. Imagine going from fire to fire for 36 hours without a break and no way to hydrate. The Police President (whom the fire brigades reported to) wrote that aid provided by the volunteer brigades both in the city and from the surrounding area “was trifling” due to their lack of training and outdated equipment. What follows is a quote from page four of his report about what the aftermath of the raid was like:
The streets were covered with hundreds of corpses. Mothers with their children, men, old people, burnt, charred, unscathed and clothed, naked and pale like wax dummies in a shop window, they lay in every position, quiet and peaceful, or tense with their death throes written in the expressions on their faces. The situation in the air raid shelters was the same and made an even more gruesome impression because, in some cases, it showed the last desperate struggle which had taken place against a merciless fate. Whereas in one place the occupants were sitting quietly on their chairs, peaceful and unscathed as if they were sleeping and had unsuspectingly been killed by carbon monoxide gas, elsewhere the existence of the fragments of bones and skulls showed how the occupants had sought to flee and find refuge from their prison tomb. Source
There is another great source (in German) which describes the multiple levels of Civil Defense in Germany. The specific chapter on the Luftschutz you can see here. My interest was never so much how they were structured but rather how they responded. What affect did continuous raids have on them? Whereas the Blitz in London last 9 months (with a second Blitz later on in the war from V-1 and V-2 rockets), German cities endured raids of varying intensity for years. Every German city of any consequence was bombed at least once. Some of the cities were as much as 80% destroyed by the end of the war. Increasingly, young women and teenage boys too young for service at the front found themselves drawn in the battle to save German cities from fires as the war dragged on.
I’ve been fortunate to speak to dozens of people who lived through this era. Some served in the Germany Army, but my biggest area of interest was the civilian side of it. Therefore, I’ve spoken to teenage boys who crawled into rubble to search for trapped occupants, teenage girls of 18 or 19 who learned to fight fires caused by incendiaries, and military personnel who served in what would, in a modern fire department, be called a Heavy Rescue Squad. Some of the stories they told me were humorous. Most were tragic.
They spoke of seeing firefighters cut down by shrapnel from high explosive bombs in the midst of trying to put out a fire. Of piles of dead bodies in the streets. Of the many ways bombs can kill you. They spoke of going into shelters and seeing women and child apparently sleeping, victims of carbon monoxide poisoning. Of shelters fulled of charred human remains who burned alive from the phosphorus incendiaries designed to penetrate into underground shelters and torch the occupants. One man told me of falling into what he thought was water, only to find it was liquified human fat. He was a young boy of 13 when that happened. They spoke of fear for the safety of their loved ones while they tried to save strangers. Of hours spent digging into the rubble of a building to reach trapped occupants, only to find them all dead. The lives of the occupants summarized by a simple chalk mark on the side of the building (20 Tot). The remains to be collected later.
But, Dear Reader, to even discuss this invites criticism. Most will tell you they deserved their fate. I do not necessarily disagree with that. Some have called the British practice of area bombing and the deliberate targeting of non-combatants a war crime. I do not. Total War is a devastating thing. We’d do well to keep that in mind. War is not a video game. I do, however, feel sympathy for the children and the animals. Neither of them were responsible for what their government or the adults in their society did. Did a five year old child deserve to be burned alive, trapped below ground, because of what his government was doing? But they suffered just the same. The Berlin Zoo was hit during a heavy raid in November 1943 and many of the animals died. For the residents of Berlin, the dead animals led to a temporary increase in their meat ration.
Dear Readers, I’m working on a book length project which compiles most of the research I’ve done off and on for twenty years. It gives a ground level view of the bombing raids Berlin suffered during the war and what it was like for the inhabitants and, most importantly, the Civil Defense and Rescue Workers. It is difficult for a few reasons. First of all, there is the language issue though thankfully I know enough German to get by. Second, I have the gnawing idea that no one cares about the subject, so why bother writing about it. Third, I have to walk a very, very thin tightrope. When describing the aftermath of a raid, if I appear too sympathetic, then I risk being called all sorts of names (Nazi sympathizer, etc, etc). But at the same time, as a historian, I also have an obligation to the truth. Therefore, my approach is to simply report the facts without judgement or observation. I just describe what happened and leave it at that. I think, perhaps, that is the best way to handle it. As I said above, I do not consider adult German civilians to be innocent victims of air raids. However, that does not somehow change the fact that firebombing raids were a horrific, horrific thing, no matter if justified or not. Maybe if we read graphic descriptions of what those raids were like, we as a society will strive to live in a world in which bombs are no longer necessary. History tells us human nature doesn’t change, so sadly, a world without bombs is not possible.
Here, Dear Reader, is but a small excerpt from a passage dealing with the raid on Berlin on the night of November 22-23, 1943. The heaviest in the war up to that point:
The heavy stench of smoke mingled with the sickly sweet odor of burned flesh filled the air. A young girl sits on a pile of rubble, clutching a stuffed bear under one arm and a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under the other. A group of teenage Luftschutz boys in blue-gray coveralls with helmets too big for their heads stand near the charred remains of two bodies, one a child. Cigarettes dangle from their mouths as they stare with vacant eyes too old for their young faces. When a military truck arrives, driven by a young woman in a similar uniform, they scrape the bodies off the pavement and toss them in the back. A group of firefighters spray a limp stream of water on the facade of a collapsed building as workers scurry back and forth across the pile of brick and concrete as if they were ants constructing a colony. The screams of the trapped occupants are muffled, but you can hear them from the street. Smoke curls upward from within the debris. Something inside is burning. A young boy in a Hitler Youth uniform stands in front of the hose stream to wet his clothes before he worms his way into a hole made in the rubble. No one takes any notice of the zebra, freed from the confines of his zoo home courtesy of a bomb, as it gallops down the street. Such is the nature of war.
It is a difficult topic to write about, one that gives you nightmares. But I do think it is an important one. Since I’m a historian cross trained as a novelist, I take a bit of dramatic license with my descriptions, but all of them are born out by my research. Is this something even worth writing about? I don’t know. If it is worth it or not isn’t a question that I can answer. Only the reading public can. But what I do know is that it is an important topic, fraught with peril though it may be. So thank you for reading my post and excerpt. May we all learn something from the lessons the 1930s and 40s should have taught us.