Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)

There is a great amount of truth to the idea that the Red Army destroyed Konigsberg militarily and then the Soviet Union followed up by destroying it politically. A majority of the damage was done by the Soviets, but the destruction of Konigsberg really did not start with their military or political forces. It began in earnest at 1:00 a.m. on Wednesday, August 30th. That is when a firestorm started by large payloads of incendiaries dropped on the city by British Lancaster bombers conjured up a flaming false dawn. In the darkest hours of night, the city was lit by all-consuming fires that burned a deadly swath across whole parts of the city. The factual tone of the official British military report only provides a hint of the destructive force of the bombing: “Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected…..Bomber Command estimates that 41 percent of all the housing and 20 percent of all the industry in Konigsberg were destroyed.”

British Lancaster bomber - dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2

British Lancaster bomber – dropping incendiary bombs on Germany during World War 2 (Credit: Imperial War Museums)

Ground Zero – Total War Delivered By Air
One of those aiming points was likely the Konigsberg Castle. Just as Cologne’s splendid cathedral had provided a large target that could act as a central focus for strategic bombing of that historic city on the Rhine River, so too did the soaring Gothic styled Konigsberg Castle provide an inviting target in another historic German city, this one straddling the Pregel River. The Castle sustained a multitude of hits and was set alight. The heat was so ferocious that civilians who sought relief in the nearby castle pond found that its water was nearly past the boil point. This liquid fire was just as deadly as the blistering heat which raged in a tornadic vortex throughout the city center. Most of the castle burned and was still burning several days later. The only thing left standing were some of the walls and towers in very poor condition, anything wooden had been mere kindling for the napalm laden bombs that fell in, on and around it. The first stone castle on the site had been constructed by the Teutonic Knights in 1257. For nearly seven centuries the castle had been the iconic symbol of the city. After the bombing it was still iconic, albeit a very different type of icon. A smoking ruin symbolic of the old Konigsberg, one that would soon cease to exist.

The human toll exacted by the firebombing was just as horrific as the priceless architectural and cultural losses. The innocent, which included a  large proportion of mothers, small children and the elderly were most vulnerable. Some who thought they were safely sequestered in shelters were never able to escape them, burnt alive in what quickly became closed door infernos. Even those who safely fled from them found the medieval streets and alleyways engulfed by a firestorm of hellish proportions. In the Old Town there was nowhere to seek relief from the searing heat that torched nearly everything and everyone. The close quarters only added to the catastrophic damage. Apocalyptic scenes with flaming people running through the streets were a common sight during and after the bombing. In some areas of the Old Town, it would be several days before anyone could walk on the white hot cobblestones such was the ferocity of the firestorm. Eyewitnesses reported that the Pregel River caught on fire. In actuality, it was the wooden pilings in the river which were aflame. Hell could not have burned any brighter.

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Streetcar in front of badly damaged Konigsberg Castle in 1944

Mortal Danger – Chaos & Conflagration
When dawn arrived later that morning, a gruesome cloud of ash, debris and residue mushroomed ominously above the city. Smoke billowed forth from hundreds of burning buildings. The detritus of structures and materials floated through the air falling both on the city and in villages across the East Prussian countryside. Konigsberg had been home to the largest bookstore in Germany, Grafe und Unzer. All those books filled with information and invaluable knowledge, printed to educate and illuminate, now blew through the air as incomprehensible specs of flickering dust. Debris fell from the skies like drizzle. Emergency services were overwhelmed by the human casualties, many of whom were gruesomely burned. This was a dire warning of the horrible atrocities that would befall ethnic Germans in Konigsberg during the coming year.

Much of the industrial infrastructure and war making capacity of the city was still intact after the bombing. This was a telling sign. The fact that twice as much housing was destroyed as industry meant that the Allies were looking to make the population suffer and break their will. The damage to the civilian infrastructure was immense. The British calculated that well over a hundred thousand people had been left homeless. Half of all housing in the city was now uninhabitable. The Old Town was a burnt out shell of its former self. Both the Central and North train stations were in ruins. World class cultural and academic institutions would no longer be operable. Those left in Konigsberg suddenly realized how insecure their situation was. Many either fled or began to make their initial plans to flee the city. The city had been a second home to Germans that were bombed out of cities further west, such as Berlin. Now they realized there was no escaping the war. The war fronts were closing in, Germany was surrounded and even the most far flung cities were in mortal danger.

Where It All Ends - The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945

Where It All Ends – The Ruins of Konigsberg in 1945 (Credit: FriedrichTh)

The Face Of Total War – Suffering For The Sin of Nazism
The firebombing of Konigsberg was just the beginning of a very long and drawn out ending. The attack signaled that East Prussia was now within reach of the Reich’s mortal enemies both east and west. That the Allies would be merciless in dealing with a province they considered to be the heart of German militarism. The city’s role as an historic outpost of Germanic learning and culture, the home of Immanuel Kant and the highest intellectual discourse cultivated within the walls of Albertina University for five centuries, the coronation capital of Prussian kings and all of its splendid Gothic architecture meant nothing in the face of total war. Rightly or wrongly, Konigsberg and East Prussia was to suffer gravely for the sins of Nazism. It was to be a place where the Soviets could sate their appetite for revenge. As deadly as the British bombing was, even worse would soon follow.

Click here for: A Lower Level Of Hell: Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)

 

A Lower Level Of Hell – Rain of Terror: The Bombing Of Konigsberg (Part One)

Years ago I had a discussion with an English friend, who also happened to be a Cambridge educated historian, on the reasoning behind Britain’s strategic bombing campaign, specifically the firebombing of Dresden. His historical focus was not on military history or World War II, BUT he had been born during the war. His mother was forced to take him into an air raid shelter several times when he was a baby. Of course he did not remember these traumatic experiences, but what he could recall were two things. One memory was of the four monuments on his street marking where German bombs had struck. The second, was that no one in the 1950’s talked about whether the bombing campaign was strategic or not. It was chiefly about one thing, “revenge”. He said that word with such brutal force and searing vigor that it startled me. At the time of our discussion many decades had passed since the end of World War II. Yet time had not moderated his opinion or assuaged his anger. I had the feeling that nothing ever would.

A target rich environment - Konigsberg along the Pregel River

A target rich environment – Konigsberg along the Pregel River

Beyond Recovery – The Irreplaceable City
Dresden. That name usually denotes one thing and one thing only in the English language, destruction of a beautiful, historic city by Allied bombers in the winter of 1944. To Germans it was a needless act of wanton destruction, to the Allies it was the targeting of a large and important city that was contributing to the German war effort. Was it revenge or good strategy? Perhaps an infernal combination of both? Another issue arises when the subject concerns the destruction of Dresden, the city seems to stand as a proxy for all other German cities bombed into smoldering ruins by the Allies. Other historic cities in Germany suffered grievous damage to irreplaceable architectural and cultural treasures, not to mention the horrific loss of human life by multiple bombings. And unlike Dresden some of these places would never be rebuilt or recover. Take for instance the historic city of Konigsberg, coronation site of Prussian kings and home to the Albertina, one of the most revered universities in Europe. After British bombing raids on August 26th-27th and August 29th -30th, the city would never be the same again. These bombings set the stage for the city’s apocalyptic destruction at the hands of the Red Army seven months later.

World War II had been ongoing in Eastern Europe since the conflict had begun with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 For most of the next five and a half years a war of unprecedented violence raged beyond the eastern frontiers of Germany. In a strange paradox, the conflict left Germany’s easternmost province of East Prussia relatively untouched. In its largest city of Konigsberg life went on much as before, except for the city’s mentally ill and its Jewish inhabitants  who were deported and subsequently murdered. The greatest hardship incurred by the ethnic German population of Konigsberg had been shortages of food and certain  goods. There were complaints, but compared with the suffering of other large German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg – that had been intensely targeted by British and American bombers, the citizens of Konigsberg had little cause for grievance until a firestorm from hell was dropped from the skies and onto the city.

Targeted - Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Targeted – Aerial photo of Konigsberg Castle

Falling From The Sky –  Zero Hour
It was late August 1944, summer in the northern part of East Prussia was slowly coming to an end. The days were getting shorter and the nights longer. The German Army was retreating on all fronts. The prospect of a Red Army breakthrough into German territory looked like a near certainty by the start of 1945. At the same time, British and American bombers were intensifying their bombardment of German cities. The citizens of Konigsberg were more worried about the looming Soviet threat on the eastern horizon. The city had not been immune from aerial attack, but such raids had done little damage. These attacks had come from the east. Soviet bombers had targeted the city on five separate occasions with minimal success. A bombing run by British or American bombers had seemed unlikely due to the distances involved. It was 950 miles one way from Britain to Konigsberg. Nevertheless, on August 26th-27th, as Saturday gave way to the first hours of Sunday morning, 174 British Lancasters began to be heard in the distance as they flew towards the city. The air raid sirens soon let loose their screaming wails.

The citizens of Konigsberg jumped out of bed and hurried into air raid shelters.  It was a crystal clear night, perfect for targeting. The entire city was lit up by flares and anti-aircraft fire. Only a handful of Lancasters were shot down, most were able to drop their bombs. These ended up a bit off target, striking the eastern part of the city. There was a great deal of damage in the neighborhoods that were struck. Casualties were light though. This was because many people were on the Baltic coast, enjoying the last bit of summer at the seaside. Those returning to the city on Sunday had narrowly escaped injury or worse. They would not have to wait long for the next attack

Among the ruins - Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

Among the ruins – Church in Konigsberg following August 1944 aerial bombings by the British

An Hour After Midnight – From The Ground Below
A mere three  nights later the whine of engines could once again be heard in the near distance. Konigsberg’s citizen were roused from their sleep an hour after midnight and made their way to the shelters. It was a cloudy night, so much so that the bombers nearly abandoned the run. They had to wait a good twenty minutes before there was a sufficient break in the clouds. This time there were 189 Lancasters with 480 tons of bombs zeroing in on the heart of Konigsberg. Four different aiming points were selected for their infernal payload. This bombing run was quick and efficient. Those in the shelters could only sit and wait in mortal terror. The booms, shockwaves from explosions and thunderous roar that vibrated through to them was horrifying in the extreme. If they were not in hell, than they were pretty close to it. For what must have what seemed like forever, a rain of terror fell upon the city. Then after an hour the bombers were suddenly gone, so too was much of Konigsberg, as those leaving the shelters would soon discover.

Coming soon: Flames That Could Never Be Extinguished – Infernal Rendering: The Firebombing Of Konigsberg (Part Two)