Hans, Hamburg Autumn 1942
By this time, the easy victories had ended. The British and their RAF terror-flyers had got the range of us. Each night we heard bombers going over. Huge numbers of bombers. On moonlit nights you could see formations of them that stretched from horizon to horizon.
On those nights you just prayed that it was someone else’s turn to die. It was someone’s turn… the important thing was that it was not my turn, or my parents’, or my family’s turn.
It had already been my love’s turn… so now I knew it was possible… That was what made it so very frightening.
I had now come to know the fear that my Waldi must have felt as the bombs fell, and as they came closer and closer. Did he realise that he was going to die? I hoped that it had been as sudden as we kids told ourselves it would be. But the nightmares! I would wake from dreams in which I was trapped in a cellar with the dead body of my love. Sometimes I would feel a desire to… a last…no I cannot say that… war and fear are terrible.
Be grateful if they do not happen in your lifetime.
It was November 1942 that they first seriously bombed Hamburg. There were a few night raids that started a number of fires and seemed to do a lot of damage, although nothing on the scale of what was to follow.
In the first week of the following June we had nightly visits by just a few RAF Mosquito aircraft. They were a nuisance because they set off the air-raid alarms and we all rushed about like headless chickens; mothers and small children to the shelters and Hitler Youth to the fire service posts or anti-aircraft units that we were assigned to help.
It was the night of the 24 July that it all changed. That night nearly eight hundred bombers made a concentrated attack on us.
My assigned post was an anti-aircraft battery in Hamburg’s Stadtpark.
Because of our war materials factories Hamburg was exceptionally well protected. We already had the bigger 105mm anti-aircraft flak guns, over fifty heavy and nearly thirty light flak batteries with about twenty five searchlights. It was fascinating to see the searchlights waving about in the sky apparently randomly. We flak gunners knew that in fact something called radar was being used to help them. Then… one of the terror-flyers would be caught in a search light beam. They would dive and spiral and try to shake it loose, but other beams would join it. We gunners would be told exactly the angles where the searchlights were pointing, so that we could fire in those same directions. It took hundreds and hundreds of our shells before a bomber was hit… and many of them escaped.
Meanwhile, it was not only their bombs that were falling on us… Out in the open, our only protection a steel helmet that was… no protection! No, at the same time as the bombs fell, the hundreds of shells that we had fired up were now falling back, as thousands of sharp fragments… it really was not a good place to be. I was assigned to help a sixteen year old flakhelfer called Klaus. Just after midnight our battery was ordered to open fire.
The enemy came in six waves, and the attack lasted an hour. In that time we received nearly fifteen hundred tonnes of high explosive and nine hundred tonnes of incendiaries. When you consider that an incendiary is not much bigger than a soda bottle… that is a lot of bombs.
When it was over, we were exhausted but pleased with ourselves. Our commander said that In our first really big raid we had, between us, altogether fired over fifty thousand rounds of flak. So we had sent up about as many things at them as they had sent down at us!
Our shooting had not been terribly successful though. The razor sharp strips of metal we found lying around turned out to be why. Word was that the RAF planes were throwing it out in huge quantities, so that reflections from it would confuse our radar. That was why the radar guidance of our searchlights had not been as good as it should have been.
When the all clear sounded we tidied up the flak battery, piling up the empty shell containers, and clearing away the general debris. We Hitler Youth helpers were sent home to rest, with orders to return immediately if we heard a siren.
We did…The siren went at 3am, not for a raid, but to call out as much help as possible for fire-fighting. For boys of our age, being allowed to play with hoses and get near a big fire was a great game at first. Boys sprayed each other for fun… but then it got serious. We found ourselves in a hailstorm of hot sparks. The boys who had been doused with hoses earlier were best off, being already wet. We quickly made sure that we had all been thoroughly soaked. We fought the fires for nearly two hours and then ran messages until it was daylight. A few hours sleep and then back on duty.
That first night, we heard that over ten thousand people were killed. What had started as a lark had become terrifying, then terrifyingly hard work… and finally a disaster.
The disaster had barely started however.
In the afternoon about a hundred American Flying Fortresses (we were boys… we knew all the planes by sight) came over, and at midnight a small number of RAF Mosquitoes flew low and fast. We knew they were reconnaissance planes and that they were photographing the damage so we waved rudely at them in the hope that our defiance would be seen on their photographs when they got home.
The Americans came by day and again at night on the 27th with another huge RAF raid, over seven hundred bombers, this time approaching from the east.
Freak weather and the phosphorus incendiaries combined to give the raiders a dreadful success. Our city became a series of huge bonfires. Then the fires joined up to create one vast area of burning. The hot air above the fire rose rapidly and air to replace it was drawn in around the edge, that in turn fanned the flames and the column of fire finally reached fifteen hundred feet high… a firestorm.
The winds created were so strong that trees up to a metre thick were uprooted and blocked roads. Smaller trees and anything else that wasn’t tied down were drawn into the fire, and that included people.
Mind you, those hiding in cellars and shelters were no better off. Within the area of the firestorm they were incinerated or asphyxiated where they sat. Trying to run for it was no better. Those surviving the hurricane level winds found that the tarmac roads were melted like sticky flypaper, while falling building were crushing people and blocking roads, hampering the rescue workers. It was a good night to be in the middle of the park!
That night another eighteen thousand were killed.
Our city’s Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann now reversed his previous order. He had said that people should not cause chaos on the roads by fleeing. Now he ordered that Hamburg should be evacuated by any means possible, road, rail and steamers. Where there had previously not even been enough petrol to run our flak battery’s generator properly, now suddenly fuel was un-rationed for evacuation transport, but still there was none for our flak battery generators!
People whose homes had been bombed now streamed into Stadtpark. The authorities sent lorry loads of bread and tinned foods. There was no serious attempt to organise the distribution. Lorries simply shot their loads at the road side. People would pick up a loaf and some fruit, eat some and then throw the rest away. The waste was shocking! The people of Hamburg might have no homes or shops, but many had never eaten so well. Food in such wasteful quantity was good for morale though.
It needed to be… the night of the 29th killed another ten thousand!
It was two days later before I was free to go home. Home was still there. Our block was untouched. Mother wanted to flee, but I said to her…
“Now that foreign prisoners and inmates from the shipyard concentration camp are clearing the debris we are surrounded by an enormous firebreak. There couldn’t be another firestorm in our area of the city even if the RAF did return.”
However, to keep her happy, we spent the day moving much of our furniture into the basement… just in case. If we were going to get killed it was going to be in comfort. I wondered if the first thing I would see would be my Waldi waiting for me…. I smiled. No… it was more likely to be Mama saying “I told you so!”… Do mothers spank fourteen year-olds in Heaven? I hoped not!
Our flak commander was an old veteran, and he said that the experience of the raids was worse than he had experienced in the Polish and French campaigns. He said that shooting at people then was not nearly as scaring or tiring as laying flak guns with extreme precision in the middle of a bombing raid. He laughed and said that if you missed one Pole you generally hit another, but it didn’t work like that with aircraft!
It was a strange mixture of fear and adventure and… normality. We bathed in the lake of Stadtpark, and that was a great lark. But it was strange what mattered. Some of our helpers bothered the flak commander for his signature on their papers for school. They needed an adult to sign their school report and their parents were missing. Others just wanted to get back to the model aeroplane that they had been building at school. It was strange what could become very important.
We heard that the victims of the raids were buried in mass graves in the Ohlsdorf cemetery. It brought back my loss of Waldi in Naples, but now I understood why there had been no opportunity to sit at his graveside in dignified grief… there was nothing very dignified about grief in wartime!
The only good thing was that someone was making sure that we didn’t collapse in the same way that the civilians did in 1918. Suddenly everyone was drinking brandy and coffee… with real coffee-beans… you just needed to still have an unbroken coffee-pot. In the bombed areas not everyone did!
The raids were never quite as bad again that year. The English bomber losses were unsustainable. It wouldn’t be so bad again until the new long-range American fighters became available to protect the bombers.
Not all civilian morale was as it should be. Some working class boys became tired of admiring the Jugend and resented all the praise they were getting. They just wanted to hang out in parks, smoking and making a nuisance of themselves. In Hamburg one teen gang called itself “Deaths Head” and carried daggers that they had stolen from Hitler Youth that they caught out alone.
There were now special courts to deal with this sort of nonsense. Defeatist talk could easily get you executed. Most civilians concluded that it was better to get killed by the enemy than by their own side, and kept quiet. They were encouraged when the Party built massive bunkers that held 10,000 each. They had four metre thick ferro-concrete walls… I was less impressed… How many such bunkers did a city like Hamburg need? I kept the thought to myself.
We were glad that we had not evacuated. We heard that refugees to Bavaria had found the un-bombed locals so unwelcoming that they had returned to Hamburg. As the evacuation had been official their return was not well received. In some places they were refused rations until… it was a mining district in Westphalia… the miner fathers held a sit in.
We were quite proud of the fact that, as a family, we had stayed together and had stayed in Hamburg… in our apartment block that stood like a solitary tooth in a toothless face.
That life, the life as a boy who had a home and a family and no cares beyond homework and rations, a boy who turned out in the middle of the night to play soldiers. That life ended early one evening in 1944.
As Uncle Felix had said, there is no need to lie about such things but there is even less reason to tell the truth, so Mama never had found out what I had done for Herr Rohme in the difficult times… There was no reason for her to know. I hadn’t really enjoyed it, but it was no big thing. It had kept my family fed. He had only wanted to do what I had already done with my Jugend friends. So… he was fat and hairy and it was a lot less fun than with them, but the family ate so much better. I felt good that I had been able to do it for them… so that night I had once again been sent to Herr Rohme’s shop to buy provisions.
Although my brother Solon was only just over a year younger than me and perfectly capable of doing the shopping I always insisted that it was my job. He went a few times and was keen to go again. He said Herr Rohme was nice to him… he hadn’t yet experienced the full niceness of Herr Rohme, and I had no intention that he would!
It wasn’t just that I loved him as my brother. He was also my closest young friend as well as my brother. I was determined that harm shouldn’t come to him. He was a much more delicate child than I, and I suspected that the grocer’s baser tastes would come as more of a shock to him than they had to me. He wasn’t yet in the Jugend and so had not yet met the Jugendfuhrers and their introduction to our preparation for populating the east with beautiful blond babies. No, that was a large part of my reason for keeping him away from the grocer but it wasn’t the whole story.
My real worry was also that Herr Rohme would upset him… upset him so that he would run to Mama, and… Mama would then realise why and how I had been able to keep the family so well fed for the last few years. I couldn’t face that. I was quietly proud of what I had been able to do, but I couldn’t bear for her to know. How could I look her in the eyes if she could picture me in the grocer’s shop with my pants around my ankles and the grocer’s… no, she must never know!
So the next time the grocer had my trousers down, I said to him…
“Herr Rohme… I know you have been fancying my brother Solon, but… this ass you can have any time you like.” I patted my bottom suggestively.
“His bottom… is likely to get you killed. Touch him and I will turn you in!”
He looked very satisfactorily scared, so I went on.
“If you touch him he may run to tell Mama, and if he doesn’t he will tell me, and I will tell our policeman. I’m in the same Jugend bann as his son.
“So… let’s go on as we have been… You can shag my ass and we can eat your groceries and we shall all be happy… but, touch my brothers and you will swing for it!”
Then I stuck out my hand… “Friends?”
He shook hands. His hand was shaking.
“I have something extra special for you tonight!”
The fear had quite unmanned him, so he gave me the most splendid sucking, and then half an Emmental cheese.
Mama was very pleased with me!
I haven’t said much about my younger brothers; David, Jan and Martin. I had better do so while there is still time. They were twelve, ten and eight years old in 1944.
David was very insistent that he was not named for the Old-Testament prophet… that would have been too Jewish, and a recipe for teasing and bullying… no, it was the French artist David. When he was born French artists weren’t yet an unacceptable source of names! Still, as he said, if you were going to be named after a Frenchman it was best if he wasn’t a Jew!
The younger two were cute and I loved them dearly, but the distractions of wartime meant that I wasn’t as close to them as I was to Solo as I called him… that was the most Aryan contraction of another non-German name that I could contrive.
We were quite inseparable. We wandered about with our arms round each other’s shoulders.
Once or twice we talked about sex, and I could see that he was getting excited.
Did we? No we didn’t!
He was my brother. I loved him more than anyone, except Mama, but not like that.
I didn’t want to have to worry about whether he was shocked at me suggesting or even doing dirty things with him.
Soon he would join the Jugend and the boys would introduce him to the things they did with the Jugendfuhrer. That was what growing up meant.
But… I didn’t see myself in the role of the dirty mind that fondled his little bare parts a year before his time.
Did I regret that later? Maybe. He never experienced those things, and it was my fault that he missed out. No decision we make, no matter how well intentioned is completely without consequences.
The night things changed I was out on a trip to Herr Rohme’s backdoor, and as I anticipated… he was about to visit mine. I always went just after he closed for the night, knocking discreetly. He would look furtively up and down the alley before he let me in. Why do people do that? It’s a guaranteed way of looking suspicious!
I had my brothers’ passbooks with me, to obtain their rations as well as my own. Mama would go tomorrow for things like meat, using her and Papa’s passbooks.
I was older and stronger now and much more street-wise.
To be fair to him, Herr Rohme was still very generous. As we had agreed he had stayed away from Solo. Mama still sent me, and I was happy to go. I was now nearly sixteen and probably not as cute as I had been a year or so earlier, but Herr Rohme was happy to take what he could get. When he took me from behind I found that I could imagine him as some blond Aryan hero and that helped. So I didn’t mind. It was a thing I could do for my family. It cost me nothing… at least nothing that I hadn’t lost a long time ago.
The air-raid alarm sounded just as I entered the shop. Herr Rohme wanted me to stay with him in his cellar, but I already had some of the groceries, so I said that I should hurry home before the American bombers arrived. I said my parents would worry if I was away too long! I would call in tomorrow to pay for them.
Bombs were now falling. Sticks of bombs would fall, starting in one place and marching steadily in a line across the streets. If you were lucky you were not along the line of explosions… if you were not… then you probably knew nothing about it. We told each other that the shock stopped your brain working before the pain started… We kids clutched at straws to stay sane.
It didn’t bother me as much as it would have a year earlier. I had manned a flak gun (well helped, anyway) during the great raids, and a few stray bombs didn’t worry me.
I was running up the road to our home, we had a second floor apartment. My family were more worried than I was that I was out. I saw them; they were standing in the window watching for me.
I was looking at them and they were looking at me when it happened. I had waved and they were waving back when… there was a long wailing scream as the bomb fell. It hit the apartment block. For just a moment nothing happened, then in slow motion the explosion burst from the windows… our window, where they were standing and smiling.
Our apartment shattered and the ones above fell into the gap that the bomb had left. Then the ones either side fell in on top of ours. My knees collapsed and I sat down with a bump. I could not comprehend what I had just seen. One moment my family were standing in the window smiling at me and the next they were gone!
Of course I ran to them, but I knew that they were dead. I remember being grateful that it had been instantaneous. I knew what had happened but I was certain that they hadn’t. Where they had been there was just a huge pile of rubble and they were at the bottom of the heap. I found myself glad that it had been quick… and then I started to cry.
No-one came to help. It was the middle of an air-raid. No-one would be out on the streets for a while yet. I walked to the heap of rubble that had been my family and thought about what it must be like to be dead.
I straightened a little and tried to remember what our Jugend leaders had impressed on us… that my family had died for the Fatherland… I should be proud of them… and willing, even eager to follow them to heaven or Valhalla.
Suddenly, I felt different… Now that I was alone my only duty was to the Fatherland. Now I could dedicate myself to revenge for my family… as well as for my lost love.
I cried some more. I cried a lot more.
It was while I was sniffling that I heard a small voice calling “Hilfe, hilfe… help, help!”
Somewhere in the rubble there was life. I climbed the pile, to where next-door’s roof had been, the last thing to enter the hole. A hand poked out through the tiles. I pulled and heaved, hitting tiles with a brick until I had made a hole big enough for a small boy to climb through. He fell into my arms, and we stumbled back down onto the street.
He was a few years younger than I, but weak and didn’t look well fed.
“Thank you, thank you… I thought I would die.”
“You were lucky, my family were on the second floor, they…” and I started to cry again.
He took me in his arms, as if he were much older than his years…
“Sh, sh… there is nothing to be done, you are alive, you were alive and able to save me… we have each other… sh, sh” and he cuddled me until I was able to cope again.
He said quietly “Your family are dead and my family are dead, now we only have each other… and we were not even friends before…”
“We need help.” I said.
“We should go to the relief station and ask for help.”
“I can’t,” He said… “I have no papers.”
I thought about it…
“If we tell them that we are orphans they will take us into custody, send us to an orphanage.”
“Or worse!” My new friend said to himself quietly.
The bombs were still falling around, less than they were but enough.
“I know… lets go to my hide-out, we’ll be safer there, from the flak shrapnel anyway.”
I took him to the cellar of a bombed out shop in the next street.
“This is where I come to play with my friends. No-one comes here. You have to be a kid to get through the broken door. It won’t save us from a bomb but it’s as good as any other shelter, the flak can’t reach us here.”
“What do you do down here?” My new friend was trying to distract us I think.
“Oh, you know…”
I was not easily distracted. I had just lost my family, I had nowhere to live, very little money and… I don’t think there was an end to my list of things that had gone wrong. The only thing I had was another kid, another orphan… about whom I knew nothing at all… not even how he had survived the bomb!
“How much money have you got?” I asked.
“None. I don’t go out.”
“I’ve got some. I’d gone out to do the shopping when the raid started, so I’ve still got the week’s shopping money. If we are careful it will last us a little while.”
At that moment the pressing problems of survival were doing a good job of distracting me from thoughts of my family.
“Were your folks in the building too?” I asked.
“No… they were already dead. At least, I think they are dead, about a year ago I suppose.”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t want to talk about it, it’s not… I’ll tell you one day, but not now. We’ve got enough to be sad about with your folks!”
He sounded as much angry as sad, so I left it at that.
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