Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940–1945(The Fire: Germany in the Bombing War, 1940–1945)
Brandstätten: Der Anblick des Bombenkriegs(Scenes of Fire: A View of the Bombing War)
From the cockpit of an RAF Lancaster bomber, the approach to a major German city at night in 1943 must have been a bit like entering a brightly lit room stark naked—a moment of total vulnerability. Trapped in the blinding web of searchlights, tossed about by flak explosions, terrified of fighter planes attacking from above, freezing in temperatures well below zero, exhausted through lack of sleep and constant tension, limbs aching from having to sit in the same cramped position for many hours, ears tormented by the screaming engines of a plane fighting for its life, the pilot knew he might be blown to bits at any time. And that is indeed what happened to the more than 55,000 airmen in Bomber Command who lost their lives somewhere over Germany.
If they were lucky enough to make it through the flak, however, the bomber crew would have seen something of the inferno they helped to set off. Billows of smoke and flame would reach heights of six thousand meters. Essen, an industrial city in the Ruhr, was described by one bomber pilot as a huge cooking pot on the boil, glowing, even at a distance of more than two hundred kilometers, like a red sunset. Another pilot recalls: “This is what Hell must be like as we Christians imagine it. In that night I became a pacifist.”1
Now imagine what it must have been like to be stuck in a dark cellar in Hamburg or Bremen, gasping on carbon monoxide and other gases. Gradually the fires outside turn the cellar into an oven, so those who have not already been asphyxiated have to face the firestorms raging with the force of typhoons outside. Firestorms suck the oxygen out of the air, so you cannot breathe or, if you can, the heat will scorch your lungs, or you might die in melting asphalt or drown in a cooking river. By the end of the war, in the spring of 1945, up to 600,000 people had burned, or choked, or boiled to death in these man-made storms.
Then consider the aftermath, when concentration camp inmates were forced to dig out the charred remains of people in the air raid shelters, whose floors were slippery with finger-sized maggots. One of the rare German writers to describe such scenes, Hans Erich Nossack, wrote:
Rats and flies ruled the city. The rats, bold and fat, frolicked in the streets, but even more disgusting were the flies, huge and iridescent green, flies such as had never been seen before. They swarmed in great clusters on the roads, settled in heaps to copulate on ruined walls, and basked, weary and satiated, on the splinters of windowpanes. When they could no longer fly they crawled after us through the tiniest of cracks, and their buzzing and whirring was the first thing we heard on waking.2
Same events, different perspectives.
Were all these victims—the bomber pilot blown up in the sky, the civilian…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.