Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg 1943

Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg 1943

by Keith Lowe

In the summer of 1943, British and American bombers launched an attack on the German city of Hamburg that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. For ten days they pounded the city with over 9,000 tons of bombs, with the intention of erasing it entirely from the map. The fires they created were so huge they burned for a month and were visible for 200


In the summer of 1943, British and American bombers launched an attack on the German city of Hamburg that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. For ten days they pounded the city with over 9,000 tons of bombs, with the intention of erasing it entirely from the map. The fires they created were so huge they burned for a month and were visible for 200 miles.

The people of Hamburg had no time to understand what had hit them. As they emerged from their ruined cellars and air raid shelters, they were confronted with a unique vision of hell: a sea of flame that stretched to the horizon, the burned-out husks of fire engines that had tried to rescue them, roads that had become flaming rivers of melted tarmac. Even the canals were on fire.

Worse still, they had to battle hurricane-force winds to escape the blaze. The only safe places were the city's parks, but to reach them survivors had to stumble through temperatures of up to 800°C and a blizzard of sparks strong enough to lift grown men off their feet.

Inferno is the culmination of several years of research and the first comprehensive account of the Hamburg firestorm to be published in almost thirty years.

Keith Lowe has interviewed eyewitnesses in Britain, Germany, and America, and gathered together hundreds of letters, diaries, firsthand accounts, and documents. His book gives the human side of an inhuman story: the long, tense buildup to the Allied attack; the unparalleled horror of the firestorm itself; and the terrible aftermath. The result is an epic story of devastation and survival, and a much-needed reminder of the human face of war.

Includes nineteen maps and thirty-onephotographs, many never seen before

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Freelance author Lowe presents the 1943 Hamburg firestorm raids as a case study in WWII's defining characteristic: the tension between desire to destroy at random and will to restrain that desire. Historically inclined to the liberal and socialist Left, Hamburg complied with the Nazi New Order, but didn't celebrate it. The city was also a major industrial center and legitimate target�especially given the Allied belief that air attacks could make war shorter and less destructive. Lowe vividly describes the death, destruction and accompanying horrors, such as blocks of people being sucked into the firestorms. He's at pains to show the airmen's lack of triumphalism, after suffering heavy losses in attacking the well-defended target. But when he says that Hamburg is regarded as a byword for horror, he seems to mean in Germany�Europe has not developed much sympathy for the tribulations of the Third Reich. He's on even shakier ground arguing that Britons and Americans developed a "legacy of guilt" for the bombing, and positioning the later years of the combined bomber offensive on a continuum with the Holocaust, because neither distinguished between combatants and civilians. Nevertheless, this balanced and evocative analysis makes a provocative contribution to moral studies of the air war over Germany. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This book, by a British novelist and history editor, joins Jorg Friedrich's The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945and Marshal De Bruhl's Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresdenin covering the firebombing of Germany. Lowe goes into considerable detail about the effects of the ten-day assault, both on the ground and on the bomber crews. Recommended for subject collections.

—Edwin B. Burgess
Kirkus Reviews
A thoroughgoing history of the Allied bombing campaign that leveled a great German city-but did little damage to the Nazi war machine. "I have very little problem with the fact that Hamburg was bombed," writes history editor and novelist Lowe (New Free Chocolate Sex, 2005, etc.). The city was, he writes, a center of war-related manufacture, a place where U-boats and aircraft were produced in great number. Yet the historically anglophilic city, a center of resistance to Nazi rule early on, had to be sacrificed: At that stage of the war, bombing German cities, Lowe argues, was the one way the Western allies had to show the long-suffering Russians that they were doing anything meaningful against their common enemy-and, at the same time, diverted resources from the Russian Front. Moreover, Hamburg was a victim of a British leadership schooled in the trenches in WWI, convinced that bombing enemy civilians was not such a bad thing given the morale-reducing effects this could have on their loved ones in the military. The head of the British air command, "Butcher" Harris, selected two advance targets, the seaport cities of Lubeck and Rostock, because "their crowded wooden buildings were highly flammable, and would provide a perfect opportunity for Harris to test his belief that incendiaries, rather than high explosive, were the most efficient means of destroying a city." They were indeed, and Harris hurled wave after wave of bombers against the heavily defended city, raining a hell of fire and killing nearly 45,000 civilians in a week and leaving another million homeless. Describing this carnage in gruesome detail, Lowe reckons that this apocalyptic attack on Hamburg was "more akin to theannihilation that would soon become possible in the nuclear age" than to anything that passed as conventional bombing at the time. A worthy companion to Frederick Taylor's Dresden (2004), shedding new light on a neglected chapter of the air war in Europe. Agent: Simon Trewin/PFD

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The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943
By Keith Lowe


Copyright © 2007 Keith Lowe
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780743269001


He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

-- Friedrich Nietzsche

In his eyewitness account of the Hamburg firestorm and its aftermath, Hans Erich Nossack admitted to feeling a mixture of awe and elation whenever he saw the fleets of British bombers flying over the city. Despite his natural fear during an air raid, he often found himself willing the bombers on, almost hoping for the opportunity to witness a truly catastrophic event. Rather than going to the shelter he would stand spellbound on his balcony watching the explosions rising above the city. He did not blame the British and American airmen for the havoc they were wreaking, but saw it rather as the inevitable expression of man's urge to destroy -- an urge that was mirrored in his own morbid fascination. The fact that this fascination was accompanied by a simultaneous revulsion, both at what was happening before him and at his own emotions, did not lessen the power of his darkest cravings.

There is a sense in which the whole of the Second World War can be seen as a battle between these dark cravings -- the human urge to destroy and the desire to keep suchinstincts in check. From the victors' point of view the war has often been portrayed as an almost mythical struggle by the "free" world to rein in the destructive urges of Hitler's regime. And yet the Allies were just as destructive toward their enemies as the Axis powers ever were -- necessarily so, since destruction is the very business of war. The tragedy of this particular conflict was that both sides should so completely abandon all restraint, until there was no way out of the war but by the total devastation of one side or the other.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the bomber war. Each side began bombing with relative caution -- especially the British, who promised early on that all bombing would be confined to strictly military objectives. Each side gradually descended into varying degrees of what the Germans called Schrecklichkeit ("frightfulness") -- the deliberate terrorizing of civilian populations. And each side accompanied its bomber raids not only with increasingly bloodthirsty calls for the utter destruction of its enemy, but with jubilation whenever that destruction was partially achieved. The uncomfortable elation experienced by Nossack at the bombing of his own city was merely a token of what was happening across the whole of Europe.

At the end of the war, when things had returned to "normality," both sides tried to distance themselves from these events. This denial of the past has been most pronounced in Germany, where it seemed that the only way the population could cope with the horrors they had witnessed was to pretend they had never happened. In 1946, the Swedish journalist Stig Dagerman described traveling through the moonscape of Hamburg on a train: Despite the massive expanse of ruins not a single other passenger looked out of the window. Dagerman was immediately identified as a foreigner precisely because he looked out. The story is an apt metaphor for the way Germans have collectively avoided looking at the ordeal they experienced. Until recently, there have been very few German authors willing to engage emotionally with the subject, because to do so would open too many wounds. The peculiar mix of collective guilt for being a part of a nation that unleashed war upon the world, and anger at the heartlessness of their own treatment -- so that they were simultaneously both perpetrators and victims of atrocity -- has made it much easier simply to turn away and pretend that life continued as normal.

In Britain and America there has been a corresponding avoidance of the consequences of our bombing war. We know all about what it was like for our airmen, and the bravery they displayed in the face of formidable German flak and fighter defenses is a strong part of our collective folklore. Triumphant films have been made about it, such as The Dambusters, or Hollywood's Memphis Belle. There are countless books about the airmen's experience -- about the stress of waiting at dispersal, the nerves of the long flight into battle, the terror of flying through flak, or even of being shot down by fighters. This is as it should be -- these are the things we did, and it is important that we remember them. But after the bombs have been dropped, and the surviving bombers have returned home, that's where the story tends to end. What happened on the ground, to the cities full of people beneath those falling bombs, is rarely talked about; even when it is discussed, it is usually only in terms of the buildings and factories destroyed, with only a cursory mention of civilian casualties. We, too, like to pretend that nothing terrible actually came of those bombs. (I am talking here about our collective consciousness. The airmen themselves are among the few of us who actually do seem to have thought about it, understood what it was they were doing, and either come to terms with it or made a conscious decision not to try to square the impossible -- there was a war on, and they know what we don't, that war is a terrible thing out of which no one comes out looking good.)

The one exception to this rule is, of course, Dresden. The disproportional amount of attention Dresden gets is our one act of contrition for the destruction we rained down on the cities of Germany. There are various reasons why this particular city has become the emblem for our guilt -- it was a truly beautiful city, the scale of its destruction within just a few days was awe-inspiring, and since it occurred toward the end of the war many people have wondered with hindsight whether it was not an unnecessary tragedy. All this is worthy of discussion, but it does not excuse our forgetfulness about other cities in Germany. What about Wuppertal, Düsseldorf, and Berlin? Berlin suffered more bombing destruction in terms of area than any other city in the war: almost four times as much as Dresden.4 And what about Hamburg? Just as many people died in Hamburg as in Dresden, if not more, and in ways that were every bit as horrific.

In Continental Europe the destruction of Hamburg is regarded as a defining moment in the Second World War. It happened eighteen months before Dresden, at a time when much of Germany was still confident of final victory. It was a far greater shock to the system than Dresden was, unleashing almost a million refugees across a nation that had still not quite accepted the consequences of bombing. These refugees brought with them tales of unimaginable horror: fires hot enough to melt glass, a firestorm strong enough to uproot trees and hurl them into the flames, and rumors of 200,000 people killed within the space of just a few days and nights (although in fact the total was more like 45,000).

I have been consistently surprised by the general ignorance of these facts among my own countrymen. In the course of the two years of writing this book I have come across very few people outside the world of military historians who knew that Hamburg was ever bombed at all, let alone the sheer scale of the destruction that took place. On the Continent the bombing of Hamburg is a byword for horror, and yet in Britain few people know it even happened. In North America, too, there is widespread ignorance of the basic facts, although to some extent America's geographical and emotional distance from Hamburg excuses this. Even those who have heard of the Hamburg firestorm are generally unaware of its ghastly human consequences.

The main purpose of this book is to put this right. My intention is to convey the events as they appeared at the time, not only to the British and American airmen who fought their way across the skies of Europe, but to the people of Hamburg who became the victims of their bombs. Hamburg was a handsome and prosperous city before it was destroyed, and I will explain some of the city's history in Part I, and try to re-create the atmosphere in this Hansestadt in the years leading up to 1943. The logic is that it is only by knowing what was there before the bombing that we can truly appreciate what was lost -- both physically and psychologically. I have devoted several chapters to the immediate and long-term aftermath of the firestorm because this has never adequately been described before, in Germany or abroad. The effect of the catastrophe on the German people, and on Germany itself, was extremely far-reaching, and continues to cause controversy today.

The second purpose of this book is to try to correct the erroneous belief that war is somehow a glorious or heroic undertaking. During the course of my research I have interviewed dozens of bomber veterans, and they are unanimous on this point: There is nothing glorious about sitting in a Lancaster or a B-17 bomber for upward of five hours, in the freezing temperatures of the upper atmosphere, waiting to see if you will live to return home safely. At best it is dull, at its worst it can be utterly terrifying: The rare moments of exhilaration are insignificant compared to this.

There is nothing glorious about being bombed, either, as the British learned during the Blitz when over 40,000 British civilians were killed. The most infamous German raid was on the city of Coventry, where local industries, civilian houses, and historic buildings in the center of the city were completely devastated. In their collective imagination this is what British people believe it must have been like for the Germans -- a little like Coventry, or perhaps slightly worse. This is a false impression. What happened in Essen, Bochum, Düsseldorf, and the other cities around the river Ruhr was like two years of Coventrys, night after night after night. Coventry suffered only a single major bombing raid -- Essen was bombed on a much larger scale, twenty-eight times. Hamburg is on another level altogether. What happened in Hamburg is more accurately compared to Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Until recently America did not really know what it was like to be bombed at all. Geographically remote from any hostile neighbors, the United States has always enjoyed almost total immunity from air attack, and until a few years ago it had never been seriously threatened. The shock was therefore all the greater when a group of Al Qaeda terrorists flew two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The sheer horror of this action still consumes Americans with righteous indignation -- and so it should -- but tragic as this event was, it was essentially only the destruction of a handful of buildings. True, almost 3,000 people perished, but imagine the sense of awe, of shock, if it had been the whole of Lower Manhattan that had been destroyed. Imagine an area from the tip of the island all the way up to Madison Square entirely consumed by a single fire, and the rest of the city as far as Central Park reduced to rubble. What would have been America's reaction if the death toll had not been 2,800, but ten times that number, fifteen times? Imagine eight square miles of the city without a single building left standing -- mountains of rubble literally as far as the eye can see, corpses littering the streets, the smell of decay pervading everything. This is what happened in Hamburg in the summer of 1943.

This book would not have been possible without the help of scores of former Allied airmen and German civilians who consented to be interviewed. Their willingness to share their diaries and to rake over painful memories from more than sixty years ago has been quite humbling, and I can only thank them for the patience with which they answered my questions. I am aware that there is something distasteful about some of the questions I was obliged to ask, especially in the specific details I demanded. Indeed, when interviewing people who lived through the firestorm I often found myself experiencing a mixture of emotions similar to that described by Nossack as he watched the bombers fly over his city -- excitement at the prospect of gathering good material, a perverse hope that their descriptions would become even more graphic, and a faint sense of shame at the inappropriateness of my enthusiasm. Writing about catastrophe (or, for that matter, reading about it) is not the same as experiencing it, and there is inevitably something voyeuristic about examining someone else's misery in this sort of detail. I hope, therefore, that this book will convey not merely my own uncomfortable fascination at the terrifying stories these people told me, but also the lingering feeling of revulsion they have communicated to me at the human cost of war.

There is no space here to list the scores of people and institutions on both sides of the Atlantic who have helped me over the past few years. Some of them are named in an Acknowledgments section at the end of this book, but this cannot do justice to the enormous contribution these people have made, or to their selfless enthusiasm for my project. There are, however, a handful of people who deserve special mention. First and foremost I am deeply indebted to Mirko Hohmann and Malte Thießen for sharing their knowledge of the German sources, and for looking after me on my various trips to Hamburg. Paul Wolf was a huge help in gathering elusive American material, and Sonia Stammwitz helped with the translation of some of the denser German documents, as did Jenny Piening and Sylvia Goulding. Ion Trewin and Ian Drury both took time out of their busy schedules to read early drafts of the manuscript, and their comments were extremely useful. I am tremendously grateful to my agents Simon Trewin, Claire Scott, Nicki Kennedy, and Dan Mandel, and to my editors Eleo Gordon and Lisa Drew: Without their support this book would never even have been started.

Last I must thank Liza and Gabriel for giving me a reason to leave my study each evening, and lock away the terrible stories and photographs that have been my companions by day. Several years of research into some of the most frightening events of the twentieth century have taught me not to take their presence for granted.

Keith Lowe, 2007

Copyright © 2007 by Keith Lowe


Excerpted from Inferno by Keith Lowe Copyright © 2007 by Keith Lowe. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Keith Lowe is an editor in the United Kingdom and the author of Tunnel Vision. He lives in London.

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