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The Militant, 31 March 1945

200,000 Burned Alive in Hamburg Bombing

(20 September 1943)

From The Militant, Vol. IX No. 26, 30 June 1945, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The horror of aerial bombings can never be fully realised from the routine dispatches in the capitalist press which record, coldly and inhumanly, the obliteration of whole cities in Japan by incendiary bombs. These dispatches are written and edited to conceal the agonising fate of millions of human, beings trapped in densely-populated areas which the B-29’s have converted into roaring incinerators.

On Sept. 20, 1943, the newspaper Baseler Nachrichten, published in neutral Switzerland, ran an eyewitness account of the effects of Anglo-American bombing of the German city of Hamburg. The British and American press deliberately suppressed this horrifying word-picture, because they thought it would affect the war "morale” of the British and American peoples. We print it in full here because, better than anything else yet written, it helps to bring home the terrible fate of helpless civilians and the enormity of the crimes of capitalism against mankind.

* * *

During the bombing of Hamburg there was a catastrophe in one densely populated part of the town of several square kilometers which eclipsed all previous happenings of the bombing war. It occurred as a result of the area being covered with mines, high-explosives and phosphorous bombs and hundreds of thousands of ordinary incendiaries.

It must be emphasized that the effect was one which can only be achieved when bombing densely populated residential districts, but not when bombing factory districts. Every physicist of the air war could have calculated this effect in advance if the number of H.E. and incendiary bombs to be dropped on a given area were known to him. It is founded on the well-known fact that every open fire sucks in the oxygen it needs from the surrounding atmosphere and that large fires, unless there is a strong wind, will lead to the creation of so-called air chimneys up which the flames will rush with ever-increasing force. If the area of the fire covers several square kilometers, then the flames licking out of individual rows and blocks of houses will combine into one big blanket of fire, covering the entire area and rushing up to ever greater heights. According to English reports, the Hamburg fire reached a height of six kilometers, that is, up to that height the heat rose in one compact body.

Fire Consumes the Oxygen

Under these conditions the following occurs: within the area of the fire a rush of air is created, reaching the strength of a typhoon. The affect is that of enormous bellows pumping air into this district from all directions; for the sea of flames sucks in air from its surroundings. In this, the streets serve as channels through which the air passes towards the centre and at the same time the air rushing through the streets sucks the flames from the burning houses horizontally into the streets. Thus, human beings and flames will compete for the available oxygen and, naturally, a fire of this size will get the better of it.

The immediate result in the cellars is a shortage of oxygen and breathing difficulties for the people present. At the same time the temperature in the shelters rises unbearably, but the people are prevented from leaving the shelters during the early stages of the bombing by the constant rain of H.E., incendiary and phosphorous bombs, which release a fine shower consisting of a mixture of rubber and phosphorous. Experience has shown that when the people finally make up their minds to leave the cellars it is too late. They have no strength left to carry out their decision, and even if they have they lack the strength to resist the heat and the lack of oxygen in the street. It is easy to see that men, with their greater power of resistance and stouter clothing, are better able to resist such a method of attack than women and children. That is why the majority of the victims are women and children. Numerous completely charred bodies of women and children in light summer clothing who emerged from the cellars into the storm of fire in the street were soon converted into burning torches.

Death in a Fiery Whirlwind

Naturally, hundreds and thousands of men too lost their lives in the streets of this district. Hamburg experts who are in charge of the salvaging of bodies have stated that only a minute percentage of the population residing there can have escaped with its life under the conditions prevailing during the attack. The whirlwind surrounded the entire district with a fiery wall and only those were able to save themselves who escaped at the very beginning.

The condition of the cellar shelters, Which have meanwhile been opened, gives some indication of the temperature which must have prevailed in the streets. The people who remained in these rooms were not only suffocated and charred but reduced to ashes. In other words, these rooms which, without exception, became death-chambers for dozens and hundreds of people, must have reached a temperature such as is not reached in the burning chamber of a crematorium. One doctor who supervised the salvage of the bodies remarked that the incineration of the bones had in many cases been more complete in the cellars than it is in the normal process of cremation. Obviously, it is impossible to identify the bodies, as all the belongings of the people have also been reduced to ashes.

Women, Children Burn to Death

The 20,000 bodies salvaged so far in Hamburg come mainly from this district. Even today the ‘work of salvaging is still extremely difficult be cause the temperature in the cellars a fortnight after the fire is still such that any introduction of oxygen makes the fire flare up again.

The many reports of survivors of burning women and children, and of women throwing their children into canals, are, therefore, not invented. How great was the temperature prevailing in these streets is further proved by the fact that the glass in the windows and metal frames were reduced to ash and cinders.

As we have said, all this occurred in a strictly defined district of some kilometers square. Obviously, effects like those described can only be achieved in densely populated residential districts with high houses and relatively narrow streets. The streets, however, need not be very narrow, for roughly 50 women and children were found suffocated, half charred, and with their clothing torn from their bodies by the storm, on a playing field which was situated at the centre of a street crossing. It appears, therefore, that the air war in this form can indeed turn entire districts of a large city, and, above all, the residential quarters of workers and employees, into a fiery grave which no one can escape who has not the courage to flee in the early stages through the rain of phosphorous, H.E. and incendiary bombs.

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