Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
On August 24th 1940 despite Hitler’s strict orders not to attack the city centre Luftwaffe (German army air force) aircrafts drop bombs over the heart of London. The original target were London docks but for some not entirely explicable reason German pilots caused great damage to the City and to Oxford Street. Whether by mistake or to get rid of the heavy load that was making the aeroplanes more difficult to steer, slower and an easier target for counter-attack, Luftwaffe literally set the sky on fire. And this fire was only beginning to rage.
Churchill was livid – that is not what he expected (even by then, aware of the terror the Nazis were spreading in Poland, the Brits did not really believe Hitler and his serfs to be capable of such bestiality) and that was not something he would leave unanswered.
The next day in the evening RAF (Royal Air Force) Bomber Command reached Berlin. Despite Hermann Göring’s, Luftwaffe’s Commander-in-Chief, boasting on behalf of his Führer that no enemy army aircraft could ever appear in the sky over Berlin, that is precisely what happened that night. 70 bombers: A.W.38 Whitleys, V. Wellingtons and HP52 Hampdens were sent over from Blighty to put an end to the armament factories in the north of Berlin and to turn Tempelhofer Flugfeld into a pile of ashes.
Unfortunately, flying and aiming in those conditions – with dusk and night falling fast but no proper night-navigation equipment, with anti-aircraft cannons pounding at the British bombers with no holds barred, and running out of fuel, the whole escapade was practically fruitless. Forced to turn around and return to the base the British – but also Polish (read more about Polish contribution in this chapter oh WW2 history here) – pilots who were unable to pinpoint their targets at too high an altitude they were pushed to, dropped their bombs mostly at random. Still, they were clearly avoiding harming the common people. They hit mostly uninhabited areas and no-one died during that first air raid on Berlin (at least no official casualties were announced).
What it did damage though was the invincible image of Germany among the Germans themselves: after all, the Führer promised Berlin would not be harmed. To make things slightly better and to perform what today could be called “crisis management”, Hitler’s Secretary of State for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, inspected some of the affected streets. The moment was duly filmed and photographed and presented to the public as final proof that the Party has everything unter Kontrolle.
Which they of course did not. Luftwaffe attacks on London that followed the first air raid on Berlin and the bombing of the city centre were no longer casual or accidental. Every night of the last weeks of August bombers of each of the sides were crossing the enemy’s lines and causing indescribable suffering. And despite the casualty balance being clearly tipped to the side of the Brits (in England thousands of people were dying or suffering injuries while the cities were burning), it did not take long before first Berliners had to pay for Hitler’s policy of power through total destruction.
On August 30th the Deutsche Zeitung in Nordchina in an article entitled Feige Mordgesellen der Royal Air Force Werfen in Der Nacht Bomben auf Wohnviertel in Berlin (“Cowardly Assassins of RAF Drop Bombs over Berlin Residential Area Overnight”) informs its readers about the death of 10 residents of German capital and about the at least 28 wounded during the night bombing of the city. According to the reporter, it was the first ever systematic air raid targeted at a residential area of Berlin. RAF bombers managed to break through the air-craft defence lines and fly deep into the heart of the city. Which turned out to be Kottbusser Tor in Kreuzberg.
Hit by both explosive and incendiary bombs (during the previous raid of the night 26-27 August only explosive bombs were used) the area between Kottbusser Tor and Marianennstraße was particularly affected. Here one house was completely wrecked: the bomb went through the attic and the 4th floor only to explode in the 3rd one. Allegedly (so the newspaper and the Ministry of Propaganda), the residents and the soldiers staying in the neighbourhood on leave from the front managed to control the fire until the fire brigade proper arrived. Also allegedly no-one was hurt as all the residents of that particular building did what every good citizen learnt to do then and stayed in Luftschutzkeller (air-raid shelter) until the alarm was called off.
Of course that was not the only damage that night. The façades of other buildings got pretty much wrecked, too. A Blindgänger (a bomb that failed to explode, a dud or an UXO in military parlance) hit the surface of the street and made a 2-metre wide hole in it. Splitters hit doorways and walls, killing people standing and watching the gruesome show (all the victims of the air raid were NOT in a shelter as they were taught to – there seemed to be a lesson behind it).
A couple of houses behind Kottbusser Tor two more bombs – explosive ones – fell. In one of them as many as 5 people died killed by the splitters while others got wounded. One of the dead was an old lady who was getting dressed as the world around her exploded. Her sleeping daughter survived.
The owner of a local Kneipe “Am Kottbusser Tor” (himself only scraped by the splitters) told the reporter that the British bombers were dropping their cargo from the altitude of around 300 metres and seemed to be doing so at random (he is actually mocking them, saying “unless they were trying to hit such an important military target as the tram tracks”).
Apart from Kreuzberg, RAF pilots managed to hit other targets in Berlin that night. Again, according to the same newspaper those were such highly valuable addresses as a wooden shed in Greifswalder Straße, an allotment in Thysenstraße in Reinickendorf and an attic of a house in Grünau.
Those might not have been the most desirable targets that the enemy bombers could destroy but what counted was the overall effect: the Führer broke his promise. Berlin was not safe any more.
In order to save his image again and to give vent to his ire, Adolf Hitler announces on September 4th: “Where the British air force drops two or three or four thousand kilos of bombs, we will drop 150, 230, 300 or 400 thousand kilos in one night – we will raze their cities to the ground!” On the 7th of September 1940 the Blitz will begin.
Three years later in Berlin and then again two years further down the line much more than just Kottbusser Tor will pay the price for the Nazi lust for power.