Germany's Gomorrah and Ours

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Seventy years ago this month, the fires of Gomorrah fell on Germany.

For seven nights, Britain's Royal Air Force launched night-time raids of unprecedented savagery against Germany's second city, Hamburg, while U.S. forces joined the assault by day. The operation was code-named Gomorrah, from the sinful cities of the plain consumed by divine fire in the Book of Genesis. The choice of name was significant. Regardless of our personal religious beliefs, we often resort to Biblical language when we seek to describe something that lies at the furthest reaches of the human imagination. In this case, the Allies were venturing into wholly new levels of destructive violence, with the scientifically planned obliteration of an entire city. The Hamburg raids have rightly been characterized as "Europe's Hiroshima."

The Allied campaign was vast in scale, using thousand-strong fleets of heavy bombers. Making the attacks still more potent, British anti-radar measures effectively shut down German defenses, limiting any possible response by night fighters.

On the night of July 27-28, the vast onslaught of incendiary bombs, in their hundreds of thousands, created a firestorm. In this nightmarish phenomenon, fires burn so fiercely that they suck in oxygen, which in turns fuels the flames. When the fires have drawn in all available oxygen, they begin to consume everything flammable. People are literally sucked in to a giant crematorium.

Historians still debate the human cost of the Hamburg raid. Probably some 45,000 perished outright, the extraordinary damage of the flames making exact estimates impossible. A million people fled the ruined city, dispersing across Germany to stay with friends and relatives. Wherever they went, these refugees took horrible stories of the carnage they had witnessed. Rumors were rife. In Bavaria, diarist Friedrich Reck believed the dead probably ran to 200,000. He told tales of "streets of boiling asphalt into which the victims sank and were boiled alive."

Putting the overall numbers in context, German bombing of Britain during the whole war, by bombs, rockets and missiles, claimed a total of some 45,000 dead, roughly equivalent to Hamburg's losses in a single week. In terms of immediate fatalities, the Hamburg attack was actually more destructive than the nuclear raid on Nagasaki. Some eighty thousand died in Nagasaki, but that included casualties who perished over a period of several months. And although the Dresden bombing is much better known than Hamburg -- due partly to Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five -- Allied bombers killed perhaps twice as many in Hamburg as in Dresden.

Gomorrah was a pivotal moment in the Second World War. Accounts of the war often stress the German surrender at Stalingrad in February 1943 as the critical moment when the war was decisively lost, but that perception was not apparent at the time. Hamburg, in contrast, really did send a devastating message of German weakness. German leaders, military and civilian, spoke with one voice of catastrophe and crisis, of imminent disaster and even national destruction. Josef Goebbels confided to his diary that for the first time, he was driven to contemplate seeking peace with the Allies. Hamburg, he said -- not Stalingrad -- was the war's greatest crisis to date.

Reputedly, when viewing film of the raid's effects, Hitler himself showed signs of genuine distress. Albert Speer warned him that just six or eight more such attacks could so cripple Germany that it would lose the capacity to make war. He particularly stressed the collapse of civilian morale. Speer drew a striking comparison when he noted that Hamburg had suffered precisely the fate that Hitler had intended to inflict on London during his proposed invasion in 1940.

This sense of shock among the Nazi leadership had immediate practical consequences. If they hoped to preserve morale across the Reich, the Germans now had to concentrate intense efforts on anti-bomber defenses. That meant diverting guns, radar, construction materials and soldiers from other places where they could otherwise have been used, including the Eastern Front. That also meant pulling resources from the Western Wall that Hitler was building in preparation for the expected Allied invasion of France. Germany's cities became in effect the long-awaited "Second Front" that the Soviets were demanding so loudly.

It would take the British many months of terrible losses before they could again visit Hamburg-like destruction on other German cities. Even so, Germans retained their agonized memories of the attack. In 1945, anti-Nazi dissident Albrecht Haushofer was in Berlin's Moabit prison, as the Soviet armies approached the city. In his Moabit Sonnets, he still stressed the British bombing as the deadly danger to German lives, besides Russian bullets. He describes the "Rain of bombs" (Bombenregen), "the British bombs/given as Fate's winning throw of dice."

If the Hamburg raid was so effective, why is it so little remembered? Partly, it was overshadowed by later raids, especially the twin nuclear attacks on Japan in 1945. But much like those later episodes, Gomorrah raised immense moral difficulties. Already during the war, some British thinkers were horrified by the indiscriminate nature of the bombing, and pleaded for more consideration of civilians. In 1944, Anglican Bishop George Bell used the Hamburg attacks as a central point in his mighty denunciation of Allied bombing strategy.

Post-Hiroshima concerns about civilian losses further aroused popular concerns about such raids. Not until 2012 did the British erect an official memorial to RAF Bomber Command.

It was difficult, then, to admit that the attacks might really have had the impact that they did, and that they significantly shortened the war. Had these raids not been eclipsed by the atomic bombs, we would assuredly remember Gomorrah as a grim turning point in military history, and indeed in the history of humanity.

Philip Jenkins is a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University.

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