Friday, February 20, 2009


The Zoo Flak Tower’, by Horst Kesner, a sixteen-year-old Flakhilfer, describing the night of 22/23 November 1943.

There was a so-called Hüfszug Bayern, a column of lorries which brought food to the Bunker when a big raid was expected. It was named after the organization which had supplied the Nuremberg rallies and the May Day rallies of the Hitler Youth each year, hence the name, Hilfszug Bayern (Bavarian Relief Column). We soldiers had to unload the food; because it was so much better than our own rations, we naturally organized some of it for ourselves. The food was wonderful but, because so many people were so well fed, the toilet problem became terrible. 

There was an Oberfähnrich who was in charge of keeping the passageways open to the toilets. He got a decoration for this, and for his other work of course, which included sorting people out with a megaphone when they were crowding in before a raid. But it was good for the people in the bunker; the good food satisfied them and the walls were so thick that they could not hear the bombs outside, only our guns on top, firing away. 

The people were crammed in every room and in every section, right up to the fourth floor where the military section began. They crowded into the passages so that we had to step over them as they slept on the floor. I think we had up to 20,000 people on the worst night. In the morning, when the raid was over, it took hours to get everyone out.

The ‘Battles’ of Bomber Command were not fought out between two sets of formed adversaries as in conventional combat. It is true that the Luftwaffe tried to engage the bombers and wear down their strength, but more than nine out of every ten bombers usually reached the target area unscathed, and it was here that the true battle was fought, between the tonnage of bombs dropped and the target city itself. The true German ’side’ in the Battle of Berlin were the city’s air-raid organization and civil administration, the resilience of its public services and of its industrial and commercial firms and, above all, the spirit and will-power of the civilian population.

There is no need to devote much space to a description of Berlin as it stood awaiting the bombers in August 1943. It was huge, being not only the capital and largest city in Germany, but the third largest city in the world, with an area covering nearly 900 square miles and a pre-war population of more than four million of the tough stock of local inhabitants. Now, in 1943, it was the administrative centre not only of Germany but of the new empire that had been carved out of Europe by conquest. Those massive government departments alone would have been a sufficient attraction for the R.A.F. interest, but Berlin’s war factories and its rail and canal communications, standing halfway between the Western and Eastern Fronts, made it both a major arsenal and the hub of Germany’s interior lines of communication. The ‘big five’ in war industry terms were the Alkett factory at Spandau, which produced large numbers of self-propelled guns and half of the Wehrmacht’s field artillery; the Borsigwerke, making locomotives, rolling stock and heavy artillery; the D.W.M. and D.I.W. combines, both producing large quantities of small arms, mortars and ammunition; and Siemens, the huge electrical firm not only located in its self-contained ‘Siemensstadt’, a huge area packed with various factories, but with other plants all over Berlin. A selection of some of the other well known names of firms with premises in Berlin confirms the obvious importance of the city to Germany’s war effort: at least ten A.E.G. factories, the Arguswerke where V-1 engines were built, a B.M.W. and two Daimler-Benz motor factories, two Henschel and one Dornier aircraft factories, a Mauser weapons factory, three Rheinmetall and three Telefunken factories, V.K.F. ball-bearings, Zeiss cameras. Most of this had been hardly touched by the war so far. When Britain rearmed in the mid-1930s a bomber force was planned with the range to reach Berlin. But the first attack was delayed for nearly a year, initially by the general bombing restraint which held until the German offensive in the West in May 1940, and then by the R.A.F.’s preoccupation with the Battle of France and the home invasion threat. The first raid was carried out by about fifty Wellingtons and Hampdens on the night of 25/26 August 1940, in retaliation for a raid on London the previous night. It was a disappointing raid. Strong head winds, thick cloud and the navigation problems which were to hamper the bomber crews for much of the war resulted in only a handful of aircraft reaching the Berlin area to drop a few bombs in the countryside south of the city. But Bomber Command persisted for more than a year. The records for that period do not make it clear exactly how many sorties were dispatched to Berlin, but possibly a thousand aircraft attempted to bomb the city between August 1940 and November 1941. At least sixty-two bombers were lost in these operations. The climax came on the night of 7/8 November 1941, when 169 aircraft were dispatched to Berlin, despite a poor weather forecast.

Twenty-one of these did not return. It was the culmination of a disappointing period and the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Sir Richard Peirse, departed.
When Sir Arthur Harris took over early in 1942, he ignored Berlin for the whole of that year, preferring to build up the strength of his force carefully and to experiment with new tactics against easier targets. Then, in early 1943, came a series of five raids, with 1,415 four-engined aircraft sorties being sent to Berlin. These raids produced moderate results; various residential areas were damaged and about 650 Berliners were killed. By no more than chance, all of these raids hit only the southern districts of Berlin; the administrative centre and the industrial areas which were mainly in the north were hardly touched. Now, in August 1943, after the shorter nights of summer, Harris was ready to start with his main effort against the German capital. The tonnage of bombs he would be able to deliver to Berlin in the coming winter would be more than fifteen times greater than the tonnage dropped in all of the preceding years of the war.

German historians stress how the slow expansion of the British bomber effort over the early years of the war enabled the German authorities to develop both the armed defences of their cities and the local air-raid services without ever being overwhelmed — at least, not until the recent disaster at Hamburg. Berlin, with its gradual introduction to the experience of being bombed and with the priorities afforded to a capital city, was particularly well prepared to meet the coming test.

The preparations received an urgent boost from the experiences of Hamburg three weeks earlier. Evacuation of children before then had been a voluntary matter; the result had not been effective, and many of the children sent away in the early days later returned. But after Hamburg, Goebbels, who besides being Minister of Propaganda was also Gauleiter of Berlin, ordered that all children and young mothers were to leave the city. Entire schools, children and teachers together, went off to the east, out of range of the British bombers. The school buildings thus emptied would become valuable emergency hospitals and collecting centres for the people bombed out of their homes in the coming raids. Because of the pressure on the railways, this mass evacuation was not complete by the time the first R.A.F. raids came, but it continued with even more urgency after the first series of raids and would be complete before the Battle of Berlin was resumed in November. A total of 790,000 women and children left, an exodus which saved many lives and reduced the pressure on Berlin’s services during the main battle. This was in direct contrast to the recent Hamburg experience, when the children of that city had figured prominently in the huge death toll.

Berlin was and still is a city of flats (apartments to Americans), vast numbers of four-, five- or six-storeyed blocks filling street after street, and it would be in these flats and in their basements and courtyards that the outcome of the battle would be decided. The life of Hamburg had been temporarily stopped because its housing had been destroyed by fire. In those August days, the people of Berlin worked hard to learn the lessons of Hamburg and make their homes as fireproof as possible. Each family in a block had a partitioned section of the building’s attic; now, all belongings had to be removed from these, and the Todt Organisation then came and ripped down the partitioned walls of the attics to enable incendiary bombs to be reached. Fresh supplies were added to the sand and water which every family was obliged to have in their flat and corridor. Berlin was particularly well equipped with air-raid shelters. As in London, the underground railway stations- in Berlin the U-Bahn - provided deep and safe shelter for thousands of people. But the Berliners had an advantage over the people of London; every block of flats had a large basement area and these became sturdy air-raid shelters for the families upstairs. No German city dweller of the war years will forget the countless hours spent with their neighbours in those basement shelters. To avoid being trapped in a shelter by rubble-blocked exits, holes were knocked through the walls separating each basement. These holes were then re-covered, to preserve the privacy of each shelter, but only with a thin layer of easily removable bricks. In this way, the people in a threatened shelter could move from one basement to another, the whole length of a street if necessary, to find an unblocked exit.

Again, comparison can be made with both London and Hamburg. Berlin was a more modern city, the streets of its residential districts were wider, with more room for an incendiary-bomb attack to waste itself and less chance of the rubble blocking the streets to fire-engines or of fire leaping from one side of the street to the other. There were more open spaces. There were no streets of the flimsy terraced houses which had suffered so badly from high explosive bombs in the London ‘Blitz’, and the Berlin blocks of flats were acknowledged to be of sounder construction than those in Hamburg which had burnt so fiercely in the Firestorm.

Then there were the Flak and the searchlights - the armed defence of the city. Berlin was known to all Bomber Command men as ‘the Big City’ because of the extent of that defence. Flying Officer R. E. Luke, of 426 Squadron, was a bomb aimer who had to fly over Berlin.
[The ranks and squadrons of R.A.F. contributors are those of the Battle of Berlin period.]

The murmur which swept through the briefing room when the target map of Berlin was revealed paid tribute to the severity of the defences, which, particularly on a cloudless night, struck fear into the hearts of those crews ordered to attack it. It seemed to us that only the best German personnel were posted to defend the city. An enormous cone of searchlights ringed the city, which could be seen a long way off, and it did not seem possible to breach them. In all our thirty-three operations we encountered no target more heavily defended than Berlin.
Flight Lieutenant R. B. Leigh was another bomb aimer, in 156 Squadron.

Lying in the nose of a Lancaster on a visual bomb run over Berlin was probably the most frightening experience of my lifetime. Approaching the target, the city appeared to be surrounded by rings of searchlights, and the Flak was always intense. The run-up seemed endless, the minutes of flying ’straight and level’ seemed like hours and every second I expected to be blown to pieces. I sweated with fear, and the perspiration seemed to freeze on my body. 

A Bomber Command map of the period shows that the Flak area around Berlin measured forty miles across, and the searchlight belt around it was sixty miles wide! Certainly no other target in Germany was better defended than Berlin, though some Bomber Command men say that the Ruhr defences were of comparable strength.

Some aspects of the Berlin defences are of particular interest. The Flak defences had been installed early in the war, with an outer and an inner ring of guns. When the R.A.F. started to use a ‘bomber stream’ this system was no longer suitable, and the guns now operated under combined control and simply filled various ordered sections of the sky with a box barrage, although bombers which arrived early, stragglers or those caught in searchlights could still be engaged by aimed fire. The main feature of the old inner ring of guns was twenty-four massive 128-millimetre guns mounted in pairs on three Flak towers built in parks in the Zoo, Friedrichshain and Humboldthain districts. These guns had been developed by the local Borsigwerke factory. The eight guns on each tower could fire a salvo every ninety seconds, to a maximum ceiling of 45,000 feet (14,800 metres) and, when the eight shells exploded in the planned pattern, they had a lethal zone of 260 yards (240 metres) across. The gun platform crews on the towers were all trained German soldiers, unlike most German Flak batteries which had many pressed Russian prisoners and German schoolboys in their crews; the only Russians were down in the basement ammunition chambers, loading the shell hoists. Many of the gunners on the towers were from a Hamburg unit with much to avenge.

The construction of the towers themselves, by the Todt Organisation on plans by Speer, had commenced as early as 1940. Hitler wished to show the people of Berlin and of the world that the city was ‘Fortress Berlin’ which would survive the war and last forever. Hamburg and Vienna were the only other places to be blessed with such massive edifices. The Flak towers in Berlin were to be the first buildings of the proposed post-war remodelled city named Germania which would replace old Berlin. The towers had thick concrete walls, steel windows, air-conditioning and an independent Daimler-Benz generating plant six metres underground. All had a hospital floor, and the Zoo tower had one level in which the most valuable of Berlin’s art treasures were stored. The local residents were, at first, not happy to see their parks disfigured in this way but they were later to be well pleased when certain levels in the towers were thrown open to the public as air-raid shelters. The Humboldthain tower had passages leading to the nearby Gesundbrunnen Station, one of the deepest of the U-Bahn system. Up to 21,000 people at a time would take shelter in the combined tower and U-Bahn during the coming winter.

Another interesting aspect of Berlin’s anti-bomber defences is the extent of the decoy methods employed. Decoy fire sites were a feature of every German city, but Berlin is believed to have had fifteen such sites, including one particularly large one at Staaken, on the western approaches to the city, which was based on the sets of a prewar film studio. One wartime schoolboy Flakhilfer asked me about the wartime rumour that one night several bombers separated from the main stream and dropped some wooden bombs on the Staaken decoy site!

There was another, more serious ‘decoy’ story I was told in Berlin that I had not encountered before. The Germans realized that the lakes around Berlin were an important aid to the British H2S radar operators. Consideration was given during the summer of 1943 to covering over these lakes to prevent their distinctive radar reflections being used by the bombers. This was not possible because of the amount of material required, but the Germans did produce large numbers of timbered floats, each in a cruciform shape about five metres across, which were moored at about 300-yard intervals, certainly on the Tegeler See and probably on the Havel too. These two large lakes were on the westerly route into Berlin. The effectiveness of these floats — called Tripel- Spiegel— is not known, but they may have contributed to the difficulties encountered by the Pathfinders in establishing their positions on the marking runs into Berlin that winter.

So Berlin - with its tough population of mainly Prussian stock, its great war factories and government buildings, its stoutly constructed housing, its gradual introduction to the bombing war, its well established fire and air-raid services, its Flak towers and underground shelters, its powerful gun and searchlight defences, its range of decoy devices — Berlin awaited the arrival of the bombers.


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