Friday, July 27, 2007

July 27

On the fourth night of Operation Gomorrah -- the Allies’ July 1943 air assault on the German city of Hamburg -- a tornado of fire immolated tens of thousands of people, nearly all of whom were civilians.

Known by such variously understated terms as “area,” “strategic” or “morale bombing,” massive air campaigns became a general feature of World War II, used by all sides with an increasing lack of restraint or discrimination. Among its many unfortunate legacies, the second world war thus institutionalized a particular species of war crime to which the world has since become accustomed. The Hamburg raids were largely the concoction of Arthur “Bomber” Harris, squadron leader of the British Royal Air Force, who outlined his strategy to his six group commanders in a memo he composed two months prior to the raids:
The total destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy's war machine. This, together with the effect on German morale, which would be felt throughout the country, would play a very important part in shortening and in winning the war.
Two decades earlier, Harris had led the destruction of Arab and Kurdish towns in Iraq, which Great Britain was trying to subjugate at the time. He bragged that within 45 minutes, a squadron could destroy an entire village and kill or injure a third of its inhabitants.

On the night of July 27, 1943, more than 700 aircraft heaved 9000 tons of bombs over Hamburg, turning the city into a blast furnace whose flames reached several kilometers into the air. Winds of up to 150 miles an hour, combined with temperatures that reached 1500 degrees, asphyxiated the city, liquefied the asphalt streets, and turned humans into matchsticks. Even air raid shelters provided no refuge, as the vacuum created by the firestorm sucked the oxygen from the tunnels. Many of the victims were coated in a residue of phosphorous, which could not be extinguished with water. Many survivors told stories of people in flames, jumping fruitlessly into the River Elbe, only to reignite when they resurfaced.

A German firefighter described the apocalyptic scene:
There was no smoke, only flames and flying sparks like a snowstorm. The heat melted the lens in my protective glasses. I saw a crowd of people lying and sitting on the street, moaning. They had given up. I joined them and lay down, put my steel helmet against the wind, and tried to suck oxygen from the pavement. My clothes kept catching fire and I had to beat the flames out.

The air was so hot it burned my windpipe. Everyone around me died. The clothing on the women was baked off them, leaving their bodies naked. The bodies didn't burn but dried out completely.
Of the more than 40,000 people who perished during Operation Gomorrah, nearly three-quarters were women and children. Their bodies -- at least the estimated 30% that had not been totally reduced to ash -- were bulldozed into a mass grave carved into the shape of a cross.

Labels: , ,