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Posts Tagged ‘Air Marshal Arthur Harris’

Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that.  But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times.  The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month.  So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.

Max Hastings is a brilliant historian.  At least I think he is.  And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me.  The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader.  Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go.  Whichever, it works.

The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe.  But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view.  Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander.  For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed.  There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.

Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens.  Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding.  They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood.  Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.

The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again.  The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters.  And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload.  Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.

But it still wasn’t over.  The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF.  And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.

As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words.  “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance.  Even in war, the ends must relate to the means.  Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends.  I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target.  I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities.  But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.”  His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.

The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink.  Germany was clearly beaten.  Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east.  Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air.  The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.

In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“.  I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme.  London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it.  For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”

Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945

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When I published yesterday’s piece on Tears in the Darkness, I forgot that I still had a history lesson for the day.  So now that it’s the 28th and I’ve checked my spreadsheet, we get to play a bit of “catch-up”.  My apologies for missing this.

Operation Gomorrah was a joint U.S. – British air operation conducted over the span of a little more than a week.  It’s target?…the heavily industrialized port city of Hamburg, Germany.  During the day, U.S. bombers would carry out smaller, precision attacks (as much as “precision bombing” could be defined in 1943) during the day, while the Brits filled the night sky with massive numbers of bombers for less precise (read: terror) bombing.

On four different evenings, between 700-800 bombers would lift off and head for Hamburg.  Though the British ostensibly were going after non-civilian targets, let’s be honest about it.  Bombing was pretty imprecise, and sending 700+ bombers to a set of targets and then asking the bombadiers to hit those targets at night was…well…it’s safe to say this wasn’t just about hitting specific targets.

But this is review, isn’t it?

Late at night on July 27, 1943 (shortly before it became the 28th), nearly 790 bombers arrived again over Hamburg.  In 30 minutes, they had blanketed an area just two miles square.  The fires, combined with warm, dry conditions, blended together to create an immense firestorm.  It generated hurricane-force winds that reached 150mph.  Temperatures reached 1,500°F, hot enough to cause asphalt to burn.

For more than 40,000 people, this was their last night alive.  Many of them had sought the protection of their underground air raid shelters, but fires need to breathe, and the firestorm’s insatiable appetite for oxygen sucked it from the shelters and the people, killing them where they sat and waited.

Morning’s light brought a smoldering ruin, shells of buildings, and death.  Air Marshal Harris had begun collecting the debt owed for the bombing of London.  Japan would experience similar attacks two years later, as the War was nearing its conclusion.

Recommended Reading:  Masters of the Air

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Revenge is a dish best served cold.

It’s an axiom long used and pregnant with wisdom.  If someone does me wrong, it’s best to walk away and give myself some time for reflection and thought before responding.  Otherwise, my immediate reaction, in the heat of the moment, is often more wrong than that which was done to me.

In my not-so-vast reading experiences, I’ve discovered that, where warfare is concerned, this wise old saying is usually written on the first piece of paper to be tossed out the window.  In most cases, war is an act of revenge.  And that revenge is almost always served steaming over a bed of white-hot coals.

Germany’s Luftwaffe spent much of 1940’s latter half bombing London in an effort to drive her people to despair and the country out of the war.  One evening, as the bombs fell, British Air Marshal Arthur Harris supposedly turned to the man standing next to him and said, “The Germans are sowing the wind.”

The statement is mysterious until you know that it’s part of a phrase taken from the book of Hosea in the Bible’s Old Testament.  In its entirety, it reads, “For they sow the wind, and they reap the whirlwind.”  It’s a statement of revenge.  “Bomber” Harris (as he was known) was laying the groundwork for payback.

And three years later, in the early morning hours of July 24, 1943, payback began with the commencement of (again, Biblically-sourced) Operation Gomorrah.  Gomorrah was an extremely heavy bombing campaign waged by large British air groups (at night) and small American forces (for daytime precision attacks) against Hamburg, Germany.

As one of Germany’s primary industrial centers and a major port city, Hamburg was home to many industries and a bunch of oil refineries.  All of this stuff was central to the German war machine, which made it a top target.  And as such, Hamburg had been a bombing target numerous times already.  But Operation Gomorrah was different.  The nighttime attacks would be carried out by formations of more than 700 aircraft.

The enormity of these raids leaves little doubt that Gomorrah was not just about bombing industrial and military targets, because previous attacks had been carried with much smaller bomber forces.  The city was home to a large civilian population, and WWII’s lack of precision-guided munitions (which were still 20 years away) meant they were going to suffer heavily as well.  Operation Gomorrah served the dual purpose of war-time raid and retribution for the bombing of London.

By the time it ended on August 3rd, there had been 4 major raids.  Hamburg was a shambles, with hundreds of thousands of homes destroyed, thousands and thousands dead, and upwards of a million people homeless.

I hadn’t planned on it, but we may visit this topic again in a few days.

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