FIRESTORM HAMBURG – Review by Mark Barnes



The Facts Surrounding the Destruction of a German City 1943
By Martin Middlebrook
Published by Pen & Sword Aviation
ISBN: 978 1 78159 035 5

Before endless repeats on cable and satellite became the norm, the television series World at War fixed my attention on a conflict fought decades before my youth in the skies and city streets and in the lanes and pastures of the countryside of this our continent of Europe.  Seventy years on and not all of us Brits within and without parliament sit comfortably with the notion that our islands are European, geographically or politically and some time soon we will have to make our collective minds up for good; one way or the other.

Martin Middlebrook tells us that in Hamburg they had an affinity with England that stood for centuries and for some people they almost felt English. It was a bond that transcended the Nazis and it stood out sharply defining the Hamburger spirit in elections; in the popular vote when the National Socialists faired less well there than in practically any other major city in the Reich.  The Nazis responded carefully with well chosen figures to run the city. They were not fools. No one could accuse of them of that. But for Hamburgers the Nazis were but a speck in the history of the Hanseatic League. Empires had risen and fallen. Had not Germany been created from a multitude of states, gained great wealth and power and then fought and lost a cataclysmic war with the English only a generation earlier? Such links could not be broken by wars to end all wars.  And then the bombers came.

They came by night and by day and set light to the old port from end to end. The firestorm raised by the worst of them killed, perhaps, fifty thousand people; as many as the entire Nazi Blitz on Great Britain. It is impossible to put a gloss on it.

Mr Middlebrook is one of the great authors who has given us classics that have stood the test of time. His account of the first day of the Battle of the Somme should be required reading for all students, especially in a time when our government seems obsessed with poetry and oversimplification of the Great War at the approach of it’s centenary. His work with other authors is of equal importance and one of my favourite books, the sort of things you take to desert islands is the story of the loss of the Repulse and Prince of Wales in 1941. It is a slow motion tragedy brimming with detail and pathos. This story of Hamburg dates from 1980 and has lost none of the sharpness and pure quality that must have made it a gem when it first went to print, let alone now. Time has not added anything to the debate or the sadness of the tragedy that engulfed that great city. I have only been there once, as a ten year old; so I have nothing to offer in respect of an opinion on the atmosphere of the place in 1969. I can hardly remember it. I recall the waterways and some of the colour and that is all. But I do remember the modernity of it and that must only have been because of the scale of destruction caused by the bombing.

The author explains how the bombing campaigns by the RAF and USAAF were formulated and how the series of raids known as the Battle of Hamburg were carried out. The mechanics of the raids are carefully explained from all perspectives. We see that the city was just one of many and not anything special except that the conditions of a hot summer conspired to make a Hades from a Hell for the hapless populace.  At every stage the author sets out to achieve balance and I believe he achieves it.

What you the reader have to do is decide where you stand.  It isn’t easy.  I’ll give you my view.  The men of RAF Bomber Command have been my heroes since I was a lad and that will not change.  They took my country’s war to an evil despotic regime that conquered peaceful nations and they murdered millions and the bomber men paid a terrible price to make the Nazis suffer.  They did it that way because some men in Britain believed these air fleets would smash the industries and will of the Nazis and save the need for a land invasion. They were wrong. But aside from that it was the only way my country could hit back at the enemy for a very long time and the ghosts of Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, Plymouth and a dozen more cities demanded it.  The rights and wrongs of it are not difficult to debate or refute. If you read the civilian experience of Hamburg and you are not moved, then there is something profoundly wrong with you.  As we would walk round our neighbourhood my mother would point out the new builds on the blocks where older properties had stood in our area and tell me the names of the people who had lived there and when they had died in the German bombing of London. There was the night she had seen a policeman killed in front of her as he ushered her and her sister into a shelter. Hearts harden.  The people of Britain demanded reply. The voices against this was few.

Arthur Harris did not set the policy to devastate the cities of the Reich, but it was a ball he was more than happy to pick up and run with. That clip of him on World at War is frozen in time. “They have sown the wind. They shall reap the whirlwind.”  Hamburg is perhaps the supreme example of his vision.  It was not by design that the city would burn so terribly, but it did.

The British Army that took Hamburg in 1945 behaved very well and relations with the locals were good if not as warm as they could have been. In the post war years the RAF could hardly be a welcome presence. As time progressed, the old bond with England faded and there is no doubt the destruction of 1943 was a direct reason for it. The Battle of Hamburg was not just the story of the British by night, it was at the beginning of the great American campaign by day and they had much to learn and were prepared to admit it.  The book gives us an insight into the intensity and heroism of their effort. The Germans called them ‘soldiers’ and with some of the accounts collected by Martin Middlebrook, it is not difficult to see why.  The Flying Fortresses were hammered by the fighter defences but they came back time and time again.  The drama of the US raids is played out in a wholly different scale to the Brits but the commitment was total and growing. It has a remorselessness about it, like a juggernaut – the 8th Air Force would become legend. It is not difficult to see why, for some, they are giants.

Seventy years on it might prove difficult to make a judgement on the realities and motives for Hamburg just as it does for so many other events from the Second World War. There can be only so much analysis and the author sets it all up for us and leaves us to draw our own conclusions once the facts have been set out with great care. It isn’t right to treat it all as black and white, whether your family survived some of this bombing or not.  It pays to be objective, but despite my contention that what happened to the people of Hamburg and their city was an awful tragedy my heart remains firmly with the bomber crews.  Arthur Harris is said to have pronounced that all the German cities were not worth the bones of a British grenadier. You have to get that in context. He was unrepentant but the people who directed him lost their stomachs and it was only recently that the state had the balls to unveil a monument to the bomber boys. Shame on them.  But where does all this leave the people of Hamburg? I can’t answer that. For however sorry you might want to be for them, someone else will quickly remind us of a crime committed by the Nazis and in the wider argument will rumble on without end. It was ever thus.

By Mark Barnes for War History Online
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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.