The Operation Gomorra
The red nights of a thousand stones
Henni Klank

It seems appropriate to me to give a few introductory explanations at the beginning. It is naturally clear to me and probably to many other Germans, that terrible horrors had happened to other nations under Hitler's regime. No one can completely acquit themselves of it. However what happened on the night of July 27th and 28th July 1943 to Hamburg, was in itself unique.This bombing of the population of Hamburg was planned a long time previously, and was unforeseen in its monstrous consequences.1)

The time of the air-raid warning on the night of the terrible firestorm in Hamburg was 11:40pm. A hot hurricane storm swept through Hamburg and destroyed streets and hurled everything which wasn't riveted or nailed down through the air...charred pieces of wood, tattered pieces of clothing,burnt paper and foliage. The sun was not to be seen and there was a 7 km high black mushroom of smoke over the city. It was the 28th July 1943, the day after a colossal fire storm had raged through the streets, a firestorm such as no other German city during the war had ever experienced. At times the air speed over the houses amounted to 45m/sec, and at 7 km higher it was 60m/sec. On these streets through which the firestorm raged, the tops of the trees bent almost to the ground. There raged a hurricane of extreme force. At the Berliner Tor in the Wallstrasse, trees with a diameter of 30cm were simply uprooted, and in other streets uprooted trees had a diameter of almost 50cm. It raged like a kind of wind vortex through many streets, and the people who ran in there were, in the blink of an eye, incinerated as if they were in a fiery furnace. There remained either a little heap of ashes or one found a black mummified figure, very little more remained. In the centre of the firestorm a temperature of 800° C. was measured. 2)

The bombing for us Hamburg people began with all its terror. There were nights we didn't take our clothes off at all, since we had to go to the air-raid shelter two or three times. Anyway, the suitcase with the important papers and the most necessary possessions remained below in the cellar. On such nights there was no thought of sleeping, despite the beds erected in the shelter. Nevertheless for many, and also for me, the next day was a workday and we had to go to work again. For years our lives were certainly gripped by the fear of being hit by a bomb, the fear of waiting for something that could come from above. Nevertheless, life went on, as well as it could. There were still cinemas, concerts, and theaters, and no one suspected at that time that in the summer of 1943, a dreadful catastrophe would descend upon us. It was so appalling and unique, that probably no one who survived it, even after 50 years, would ever forget this inferno. There are still many people today who still cannot talk about it, so horrible was the experience.

In 1942, after I had handed my notice in to my firm, I started as a clerk in the commission/fee job in the Brinkman Barracks in Wentorf near Hamburg. Since I was still single I had like other unmarried young girls, to find employment as an armed forces helper. To this end I spent some hours of training with the 10 th General Command. We were supposed to be transported with a unit to Oslo and later to Narvik. It was clear to me, that hardly one of these undertakings would take place. There was a war with Norway and the U-boat war raged in the Atlantic. My luck held for me in this. At that time I met a friend again with whom I was already acquainted since our time during the four years we played together in a youth orchestra. My sister and I went to the "Haus Fatherland" to a dance ( with a variety show). As chance would have it, it led to a meeting and an intention "to get to know each other " and to have a speedy engagement, and after a short time, a marriage. As a result of this I was spared the transfer with the Wehrmacht to Norway.

In February 1943 our first son Harald was born. Unfortunately he often experienced the frequent air-raids. Each time we had to transport thelittle one in the pram from the second floor to the air-raid shelter. We were really young and this didn't bother us. But on the night of the terrible firestorm the pram, presumably, was the baby's salvation! Without this "wrap-around" for a small baby of 5 months, our oldest today would not be alive.At 11:40pm on the night of July 27th 1943, the air-raid, known as the operation "Gomorra", began. It was the 142 nd air-raid. The sirenshowled, and no Hamburg resident could at that moment suspect what catastrophe awaited them.At that time my father was the treasury manager of the Nazi welfare association and responsible for the balancing of the moneys from street collections. In addition, when the air-raid alarm sounded he wasresponsible for the telephone service in the administration office on Banksstrasse. On Bankstrasse at that time there were, almost exclusively, only big sturdy 4 storey houses. Banksstrasse ran parallel to Danielstrasse, in which we had at my parent's, a two-room apartment, with separate entrances. There is no longer a Danielstrasse; after the war it had been raised around the entire South Hammerbrook.

My father still remained with us in the air-raid shelter for about an hour, but he had an uncomfortable feeling and didn't want to violate his "duty". After the bombing of the British planes had slackened, my father went to Banksstrasse after all (he also had to crawl in the gutter at times). We won't see him again! Our parents had just celebrated their Silver Wedding anniversary on the 20th of July, a week before the firestorm. All flowers, mainly roses, floated in the bathtub which had been filled with water. For many weeks before the firestorm we had already had a horrible heat-wave without any precipitation worth mentioning. The rats romped about in the dried-up canals!Until now we had survived the falling of the bombs all around, the roar of bombs striking, and the shaking of walls and the floors. Anyone who had experienced such a thing, knew the characteristics of a bomb whistling down: Whenever a person hears a "singing" or "whistling", it doesn't matter if he is in a cellar or in a living-room, the impact of the bomb is some distance away. But you'll be sorry whenever the air-pressure blast is perceptible ( entirely unpleasant); then the bombs are falling directly in the vicinity! One hears no booming, nothing! Only this terrible blast of air pressure; how often we experienced this!At first, we only got a little of the dreadful firestorm from about 2am, and we were surrounded by it in the air-raid shelter of the small house. Panic spread as the oxygen became scarce.

The light was already no longer burning, the candles as emergency lighting had not enough air to burn any longer, and it became unbearably hot. My little baby was covered by a wet woolen blanket in its pram so that it would not suffocate. Thank God we still had a jug of water. I don't know why, but suddenly the Devil possessed me...I wanted to go into our house one more time! Perhaps I thought I could still get some things out, like papers, photographs, and such things. But as I stood in the corridor the ceiling was already crackling, and I wanted to go to my father's desk in the living-room, but there I saw only fire. The blazing and burning drapes flew in the room, the window panes burst and there was a hissing and crashing all around me. I couldn't manage the few steps to the desk, which stood at the window, my legs felt paralyzed. While dashing out of the apartment I hadn't even grabbed an article out of the wardrobe. I was in that kind of panic that had me rushing to the shelter as quickly as possible. The streets were already burning, the firestorm was now raging through all the streets! We only just reached the door of the air-raid shelter. At this moment something snapped in a neighbour and, caught up in a panic, he took his bed cover and wanted out. None of us could stop him. We saw him still, but only as a living torch carried by the firestorm, "flying through the air". We were all deeply shocked by this.Our situation at this point was almost hopeless. We were surrounded by fire and would probably die from hypothermia or carbon monoxide poisoning. Gradually despair spread around us, and we had to give some thought to our position. Apart from the firestorm stemming from incendiary bombs, phosphorous, and liquid canisters (Flüssigkeitskanister), and the hurricane that raged through the streets, there stood opposite our apartment building a big timber business that would provide additional violence in the hell of fire. It was a fact that behind it was the Kammer-Canal, but how were we to reach that? Or to the other side, to the street named Stadtdeich and the Upper Elbe? This was, at this moment, a mirage! At the last moment a neighbour came up with the idea to attempt a lifesaving breakout through the wall which was half-stone. My man remembered a pointed pickax that stood in a corner. And that was our deliverance! The men hammered out chunks of the wall and we tested to see if the pram would pass through, and it did! We came out at the Stadtdeich but into a thundering, blazing hell. The streets were burning, the trees were burning and the tops of them were bent right down to the street, burning horses out of the "Hertz" hauling-business ran past us, the air was burning, simply everything was burning!

The hurricane was so strong, that we could scarcely breathe, and I still know today that I screamed, "Don't fall down!", at my mother. Our goal was the harbour shed at the Elbe River, a distance of some hundred meters. We reached it and waited there till the morning. Above, on the floor of the shed, burnt giant rolls of newspaper paper, but the men were able to extinguish them. Afterwards, towards morning, the roaring of the firestorm abated, and some men ventured out on the streets and found in the Danielstrasse, a single house standing, a champagne shop(!), and brought us a bottle. As a result of the heat we had an incredible thirst! Fortunately I could breast-feed my small one, and I also had a bottle of formula-feed and baby-underclothes hidden under the mattress of the pram.Since the firestorm began almost an hour after the alarm, it raged through the streets of Hamburg for about two to three hours, between 1 o'clock and 4 o'clock in the morning. Between 4 and 5 am it slackened off. On the following day the sky was black until late in the evening. Hamburg was covered by a cloud of black smoke to a height of 7 km.

Towards morning, when the storm slackened, I and some women ventured out a few meters onto the street, but there could be no talk about "grabbing some fresh air". Houses were burning everywhere, even the streets were unbearably hot! Nevertheless, we had to get away from here, and where to, didn't matter. At this moment we were witness to a terrible thing: We looked at our street, Danielstrasse, which ran parallel to the Stadtdeich and ended at the so-called "Sonnenburg", a street-front with big balconies and a big restaurant on the ground floor. About 10 to 15 people came out of the exit door loaded with household goods, mattresses, blankets, and so on. Exactly at the moment they stepped out into the open and were almost in safety, the big four-stories high corner of the house collapsed and buried them all under it! This is a sight I will never forget!

Nothing was more important than getting away: to the water on the Upper Elbe at the Stadtdeich, then to the landing stage for the paddle-steamer from Basedow. The Elbe was strewn with countless remnants of wreckage, but no steamer came. Big lighters, big open ships like barges, did come, and that was our savior! And people came in their hundreds out of Hammerbrook from ,every direction, burnt, wounded, mainly women with children. While we were still waiting for a lighter to fill, a flight of aircraft came and fired at us. We were lucky, for the attack was directed at a transport train which was travelling on nearby bridge over the Elbe, probably a troop train or a prisoners' train. Half of the train plunged into the Elbe!

The lighter was supposed to go to Lauenburg, and what took place aboard it on the journey is almost beyond description. There was no wound-dressing material, only paper bandages. I helped a young mother dress her half-burned baby with my makeshift gauze-nappy. We couldn't do more. She came out of the densest Hammerbrook courtyard and in running away had lost her 5-year-old daughter who had been buried alive by debris. The woman and also the others were all in a state of shock. We glanced back once more at our broken and beloved Hamburg, across which a giant mushroom-cloud was spreading, as if it wanted to say: I'll cover up all of this horror which descended on Hamburg tonight, for ever! I still don't find it easy to tell about this dreadful event, and yet it releases me in a away, from a burden which I have already carried around with me for 50 years.

The center of the firestorm lay now just a few hundred meters distance from our destroyed district; approximately in the area around Süderstraße/Grevenweg/Ausschlägerweg (my old school!). It was estimated that 41,800 people died on this one night. The attacking force of British aeroplanes numbered about 790. ( The Americans attacked mostly during the day). About 2230 high-explosive bombs and 325,000 incendiary bombs were dropped. All the fires were not finally extinguished until the beginning of October. The entire Hammerbrook region, one of the most densely populated parts of Hamburg, had been declared a prohibited area. More than 90% of Hammerbrook was destroyed.

Our lighter arrived at some time or other in Lauenburg and the entire landing stage and around it smelt of burnt people; it was terrible! The citizens of Lauenburg were self-sacrificing with their help and absorbed hundreds of despairing people. We were taken in by a nice married couple and for the first time we could rest and attend to my baby. The woman baked an extra gateau, for on the next day I had a birthday... I would be 24. Unfortunately I could not keep any of it down and when I vomited, I established firmly that I was again pregnant. In this situation, a shattering realization! To this day I don't know what devil possessed me, on the next day of all days, my birthday, the 29th July, I returned once more to the battered Hamburg in order to visit my father. My mother was busy with washing clothes, for everything smelled of smoke, and my small baby had also to be looked after. My husband couldn't get into his shoes any more, since his heels had been burnt by phosphorous when extinguishing the fire in the hole through which we had been rescued.Therefore I set off alone on my way and travelled with a lighter to Hamburg as far as the Stadtdeich. And then my search got going. First I went toDanielstraße.Everything, really everything, was a single landscape of debris. One could not recognize the sun, the giant mushroom of smoke still darkened the sky, it was an eerie silence; almost ghostlike. And it was hot, the heat came out of the cellars, burnt-out houses, and from cave-like holes where windows had been. It would have been a lot better to have turned around again.

I stood in front of the ruins of our burnt-down houses, then ventured into the air-raid shelter. Strangely enough the heavy iron baffle-door was open, the door which we could not get open on that terrible night and had almost been the undoing of us. I glanced into the small room and the hair on my neck stood on end. Complete wooden support pillars were burnt to a small pile of ashes. Not through fire, but rather, as a result of the abnormal heat! No one among us could have survived this heat, all would have come to their death through carbon monoxide or hypothermia. After this shocking realization I set off on my way to Banksstrasse, which ran parallel to Danielstrasse. At the corner of Amsinckstrasse/Lippeltstrasse I met, by chance, a colleague of my father; to me it was like a miracle. He gave me again some hope; it meant aside from him, still some others had come out of the air-raid shelter and had gone to Moorweide, the big assembly-point for bombed-out people at the Dammtor Railway Station. Therefore, away I went! But what appeared so easy to me, was an absolute horror. Already on Banksstrasse I became anxiously aware that the hot storm was till blowing light wood and paper and other things through the air.

In the middle of the street was a burnt-our fire-brigade car, and at the kerb lay the charred, unrecognizable, shrunken remains of was terrible! For the second time in my life a lucky chance rescued me from a similar situation. I went to the right side of the road, and along the Bahndamm. At the same moment, the four-storied building in which our family doctor, Dr. Reuter, had his practice, crashed down with a mighty roar right out to the middle of the street. If I had gone along the left side of the street my relatives would have never again found me. No one knows how many bodies or parts of bodies lie under this area, especially since a 6m high bank of debris was deposited here after the war. Hammerbrook was a prohibited area for weeks. I had to first of all digest this horror; my knees were completely weak and it became difficult to go further. And yet I managed to get to Mönckebergstrasse, Hamburg's main business street in the center of the city. There were ruins and despair everywhere, people wandering about; it was a depressing sight. At the level of the Karstadt department store I had to make a pause; in any case, the street didn't go any further, for in the middle of the roadway gaped a giant bomb crater.

So I sat down exhausted on the step of a shop, or what was left of the shop, and had to cry. Yes, the tears ran down my cheeks...this is what our former fine-looking city, Hamburg, looks like! This knowledge was so painful, so hopeless, that in general, I just could not imagine ever being able to go through fine decent streets again.But I really wanted to look for my father and still hoped that I would find him. Thus, I came via the Jungfernstieg, the lovely Alsterpavillion which was a giant burnt-out ruin, as far as the Moorweide at the Dammtor Railway Station. On the square was a gigantic crowd of despairing people awaiting transport, either to Schleswig Holstein, to the south, or even further away. They stood, shuffling around with their last possessions, with boxes on carts and bundles of bedclothes on bicycles; they had lost everything, as I had. Among them giant mountains of bread had been built, also butter and other foodstuffs. What madness, the butter was melting in the heat! And in this hubbub of thousands of people I wanted to find my father. An impossibility, as I found out after some time. Therefore, I made my way back, back through the destroyed houses and streets. In the afternoon, defeated, I arrived back in Lauenburg again by means of the lighter.

What was supposed to become of us now; where should we go to; how can life go on? Questions of despair and uncertainty piled up. But as so often in my life, "fate" came to us here to help, just as to many other people as well.

It is my feeling that the following comments and points of view can contribute a little to those readers among you, who themselves cannot anymore imagine this, and give the necessary pieces of advice about it, so that no one will have the wish to long for the Third Reich again! Whoever nevertheless, for whatever reason, is convinced from it, that he feels it is desirable again to idolize a "Führer" like Hitler, he has either not experienced this era or has learned nothing in general from this era.

Excerpt from the book "Hamburg, July 1943 by Martin Middlebrook"; Page 99 to 100.
On a morning at the beginning of the 90's in London, a monument, 'for outstanding service', for Sir Arthur Harris, Air Chief Marshall of Great Britain's Royal Air Force, was unveiled. There can be no doubt that, on that morning, Sir Arthur Harris had only one main target...Hamburg. Luckily a very important document survived the war. That is a letter dated 27th May 1943, from Harris to the commanders of his six Bomber Groups, in which he explained his intentions.

TOP SECRET: Bomber Command Operation Orders, No.173. Issued May 27th 1943.
1) The importance of Hamburg, the second biggest city in Germany with a population of one and a half million, is well-known and need not be especially emphasized. The total destruction of this city would produce immense results through the reduction in the industrial capacity of the enemy's war machine. This would, together with the effect on the German moral which will be felt throughout the entire land, play a very important role in the shortening of the war and thereby, in winning it.

2) The "Battle of Hamburg" cannot be won in a single night. It is estimated that at least 10000 tones of bombs will be required in order to complete the obliteration. In order to achieve the maximum effect of the air-raids, this city must be exposed to a continuous attack.

3) Forces involved. The forces of Bomber Command will consist of all heavy bombers of the operational squadrons, and the medium bombers providing there is sufficiently long darkness to make possible their participation. It is to be hoped, that heavy daylight raids, through the 8th Bomber Command of the United States of America, will go in front first and/or follow, the night raids

.4) Purpose:To destroy Hamburg.Excerpt from the Book, "Hamburg, July '43", by Martin Middlebrook. From the book's jacket."The vulnerable point in the German populace during the war is the morale of the civilian population regarding air-raids... As long as this morale is not broken, it won't be possible to place land forces on the mainland of Europe with a prospect of success." So, Air Marshal Sir F.A.Portal, one of the strategists of the British Bomber Command, summarized the reasons for the attacks on the civilian targets in the densely populated German cities. On four nights, in the period from 24th July to the 3rd August 1943, Hamburg was the target of successful air-raids by bombers on a German city. In the "Battle of Hamburg" 45000 people were killed, among them 22500 women and 4500 children. On the night of July 27/28, the night of the great firestorm, alone, 40000 were killed. "In the center of this 'Hell of fire' there was a temperature of 800 º C. The air was sucked, with great velocity, out of all directions reached by the force of the hurricane. That was the firestorm.

Excerpt from the book, "Hamburg, July '43", by Martin Middlebrook; Page 306, tells of a visit by Anne Lies Schmidt to Hammbrook to find her parents after the "firestorm" : I went further on foot into the horror. No one was allowed into the region which had been destroyed. I believe the will to resist grows in the face of such sacrifices. We fought with the commander of the road block and got through. My uncle was arrested.Four-storey apartment buildings, right to the cellars, just a glowing heap of stone. Everything had melted and pushed the bodies in front of it. Women and children charred unrecognizable. Half charred bodies, of recognizable remains of people dead from a lack of oxygen. Brains poured out of temples that had been burst, bowels hung out from under the ribs. The death of these people must have been dreadful. The smallest children lay like roasted eels on the surface of the road; in death, their features still showing how they had suffered with their hands stretched out to protect themselves from the pitiless heat. I had no more tears. My eyes became bigger and bigger, but my mouth remained mute.

2) Excerpt from the book, "Firestorm over Hamburg", Page 271 to 273. After the war the weather factor regarding the Hamburg firestorm was looked into, especially by the Americans Horatio Bond and Ch. H. Ebert. In the opinion of Ebert, the development of the firestorm was made possible, together with a pronounced cyclone spinning, through the following weather conditions prevailing at the beginning:

3) The long existence of a stagnating high-pressure system, through which the intense radiation of the sun could heat up the city-zone in an extraordinary manner.

4) The long, incessant, very low value of the relative humidity, with an unusual drying of all flammable materials, the result of which was... After a rough calculation from H. Bond it is said, that during the approximate six hours of the firestorm, about an incredible 2 billion tones of fresh air had been consumed through this "furnace". Only 4% of this draught-air could have been sucked through the heat of the fire alone, compared to the 96% "draught air" supplied by the abnormal weather situation. Hamburg had the bad luck, that the air-raid came just on this particular night and at this time. A firestorm of such weather-influenced effect would not have been possible if the attack had come before or after that particular night.The size of the area of Hammerbrook burnt in the firestorm, and almost entirely destroyed, was about 56 hectares. A report of an investigation, after the war, on the building density and fire-risk in the destroyed area, was made in order to be able to draw a conclusion on the danger of a firestorm. Before the air-raid 27,440 people lived in this region; at first, after the attack, only 66 people still lived there! Most people were probably killed while fleeing on the streets in the currents of the "tornado of fire" hot air. The evidence is also the number of those brought out dead: up until Sept. 9th 1943 there were 26,409 who were found mainly on the streets and squares. The systematic opening of the air-raid shelters didn't take place until later, after the cooling of the masses of rubble. Hans Brunswig writes furthermore in his book, that the last fires of the firestorm were not extinguished until the beginning of October!

Translated from the German by John Milloy (

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© 2002 Henni Klank