The nine Windows Openers aircraft were the first to arrive over the darkened city. The Mosquitos had been marking the route from the coast for the Main Force bombers, now they began illuminating the target area with bombs and flares. They also dropped Window [aluminised-paper strips] to confuse enemy radar and provided information on weather conditions, particularly wind speed and cloud cover.
Soon after 24 Blind Marker-Illuminators and 62 Supporters arrived. The Blind Marker-Illuminator [aka fire starters] Lancasters were flown by elite crews and carried radar. Their task was to mark the target area for the 800 aircraft of the Main Force; to set out a box in which, if all went according to plan, tens of thousands of people would die.
The Supporters were there as diversions. They also marked the target but their main purpose was to create a ‘shoal’ in which the Blind Marker-Illuminators could hide. If the raid was to succeed it was essential that the Blind Marker-Illuminators carried out their work accurately. They had a number of techniques for finding and marking the target.
Parramatta used navigation aids such as H2S radar or Oboe radio signals to drop the markers. Newhaven used illumination flares dropped above the target area to light it up sufficiently for a visual marking by the Pathfinder aircraft. Wanganui was used when the target was obscured by cloud or a smoke screen. Radar was used to identify the target and then parachute flares used to mark it.
Circling above the city was a man the enemy called The Master of Ceremonies. More prosaically, the attackers called him the Master Bomber. He was in charge of the entire event. He directed the marking of the city and then the bombing.
The enemy understood his importance and tried to destroy him but he was hard to find when there were hundreds of aircraft over the city. Many enemy pilots claimed to have shot down a Master Bomber when they had only shot down an ordinary Main Force aircraft. Even if the enemy got lucky he had deputies who could take over his work.
If the Master Bomber did his job correctly an enormous pillar of fire would rise from the city as its buildings and people were consumed in a phenomenon known as a firestorm.
Firestorms can occur naturally. Examples are the Black Saturday bushfires, the Great Peshtigo Fire and the Ash Wednesday fires. They can also be created. The Master Bomber was going to try to create a firestorm in the city below him.
Firestorms occur when individual fires join together into oner gigantic fire that might cover several square miles. The fire sucks in oxygen and burns even more fiercely. Everything within the firestorm is consumed. Shelters are no protection. Firestorms can reach temperatures of 800 °C (1,500 °F) and either the inhabitants are baked to ash or their oxygen is sucked out and they die of suffocation. People who try to flee can be lifted off their feet and pulled into the fire by winds of up to 240 km/h (150 mph). In Hamburg a firestorm destroyed eight square miles of the city and killed 42,600 people.
Firestorm were hard to start. The target city had to have an high concentration of combustible material, navigation and marking had to be right, the Main Force had to drop its bombs within a short period of time and the city’s fire-fighters had to be overwhelmed.
When they were started they were devastating.
A Firestorm Raid
Pforzheim was a pretty little town of about 50,000 inhabitants in the Black Forest. It dated back to Roman times and had precision jewellery and watch making industries. Its centre was made up of typically German “ginger bread” half-timbered houses. It had little military or economic significance.
It was highly flammable because of its historic buildings and narrow, winding streets. On the evening of 23 February 1945 the Royal Air Force dropped 330 high explosive bombs and 1551 tonnes of incendiary bombs. The incendiaries were designed to break through the old tiled roofs of houses and burn within. Hundreds of small fires merged into a firestorm.
“On the floor of the cellar, there were piles of ashes here and there. Part of a human torso that looked like a charred tree stump was in the middle. Near a pile of ashes in the corner lay a key chain. They were the keys of my sister. That’s where she always sat during the air-raids, that’s what my brother-in-law told me. Later they even found a small piece of fabric from her dress.”
The smoke over the town rose to about 3,000 metres, and the returning bomber crews could still see the glare of the fire up to 160 km away. The bombing of the town lasted from 7.50pm to 8.12pm: just 22 minutes. As many as 17,600 people, or 31.4% of the town’s population, were killed and thousands injured. Some people drowned in the Enz or Nagold rivers into which they had jumped while trying to escape, but even the rivers were burning as phosphorus floated on the water. About 83% of the town’s buildings were destroyed, two-thirds of the complete area of Pforzheim and between 80 and 100% of the inner city. Not even the pattern of the streets was visible the following morning.
Master Bomber Major Edwin Swales, a South African, aged 29, whose plane was shot down by a night fighter over Belgium on the way home, was posthumously awarded a VC.
The raids destroyed centuries of culture, architecture, beauty and history in 160 towns, most of them with medieval hearts. Five hundred and fifty thousand Germans were killed; 76,000 were children or babies. Thousands of POWs were killed.
Bomber Command crews suffered horrendously high casualty rates with 55,573 aircrew killed out of a total of 125,000. That is a death rate of 44.4%. Only one in six was expected to survive their first tour of duty (30 sorties). The death rate was far higher than infantry officer rates in the trenches of WW1. Bomber Command losses represent a staggering one in five of all British losses in the six years of world war. More Britons died flying raids over Germany than the Luftwaffe managed to kill here during the long months of the Blitz (40,000).
During the first years of the war bombing was highly inaccurate. It became more effective as the attackers improved their technology and tactics. Even so, most of the damage to cities was caused in the last few months of the war when enemy air defences had almost collapsed. Why did we continue bombing German cities when it was obvious that the war was almost over?
Several reasons have been advanced. I would like to suggest another reason, one that has not been advanced elsewhere. I suggest that the bombing campaign was pursued to the bitter end to show Germans the consequences of failed aggression.
The Second World War was the third time that Germany had started a war in less than 70 years. The Franco–German War of 1871 had ended in victory. Germany had been defeated in 1918 but was never occupied [apart from the Rhineland]. Very little territory had to be given up.
At the time of the armistice, no Allied force had crossed the German frontier; the Western Front was still almost 900 miles from Berlin; and the Kaiser’s armies had retreated from the battlefield in good order. Nobody was prosecuted for war crimes [despite the British having claimed that Germany had committed numerous atrocities] and the Kaiser was allowed to go into comfortable retirement in the Netherlands. These factors enabled Hindenburg and other German leaders to claim that their armies had not really been defeated. This resulted in the stab-in-the-back legend, which attributed Germany’s defeat, not to its inability to continue fighting, but the supposed intentional sabotage of the war effort, particularly by Jews, Socialists, and Bolsheviks.
The British had had enough of German aggression and I suspect that at the highest levels [e.g. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris (aka Bomber Harris or Butcher Harris)] there was a determination to unambiguously show the Germans that they had been defeated and what defeat felt like. In October 1944 the Joint Intelligence Committee of SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces] wrote that area bombing could be used “to bring home to the whole population the consequences of military defeat”. German cities were devastated, war criminals tried and the entire country occupied to teach that lesson.
The bombing campaign was morally indefensible and its military value doubtful. However, its political effect has been profound. Germans lost their taste for aggression and we have had peace in Europe for 67 years.
The Bombing War, Richard Overy. Allen Lane. 2013. The definitive work on the bombing campaign.
The Battle of Hamburg: the Firestorm Raid. Martin Middlebrook. (Cassell Military Paperbacks). Best history of the Hamburg Firestorm raid.
Bomber by Len Deighton. Best fictional account of a RAF raid.