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Jul 24 59 tweets 11 min read Twitter logo Read on Twitter
Today marks the 80th anniversary of the start of Operation GOMORRAH, the 10-day Anglo-American campaign of day and night bombing of Hamburg. It’s an anniversary that ought to be remembered and mostly won’t be. A thread. An Avro Lancaster of No. 1 Group, Bomber Command, silhouetted against flares, smoke and explosions during the attack on Hamburg, Germany, by aircraft of Nos. 1, 5 and 8 Groups on the night of 30/31 January 1943.
The theory of area bombing was that the destruction of residential areas would indirectly disrupt industrial output by killing and ‘dehousing’ workers, and also that it might reduce German civilian morale to breaking point – though the latter aim was not universally agreed upon.
Some RAF leaders saw night area bombing as a regrettable necessity until such time as British bombers could again fly by day (ruled out until the German day fighter force was eliminated) and/or aiming methods became accurate enough to hit precise industrial targets.
This view was not however held by the AOC-in-C of Bomber Command since Feb 1942, Arthur Harris. He was not responsible for the area bombing policy (his boss the Chief of the Air Staff Sir Charles Portal was) but he had become a true believer.
Harris had had his eye on Hamburg for some time. In late May 1943 he wrote to his Group commanders that “The total destruction of this city would achieve immeasurable results in reducing the industrial capacity of the enemy’s war machine.”
The technical problem with Hamburg was that it lay outside the range of ‘Oboe’, the new radio-transponder targeting system which had been used to such dramatic effect in the raids on the Ruhr.
However, Bomber Command also had a new air-to-ground radar set, H2S, which could be carried in a heavy bomber and gave a rough visual image of the landmarks below, allowing navigation to the target.
H2S worked best when the target had clearly distinctive physical features, and the broad Elbe river and Hamburg’s dock basin were ideal for this.
Bomber Command also wanted to try out ‘WINDOW’, now known as chaff, a metallic anti-radar scrambling system which it was hoped would neutralize the German nightfighter and Flak defenses.
GOMORRAH opened on the night of July 24/25 with a mass raid which did widespread damage in the central and northwestern areas of Hamburg, killing about 1,500 people. But the effect was limited due to a seven-mile ‘creep-back’ from the aiming point.
Creep-back was a phenomenon by which bombers dropped their payloads earlier and earlier along the line of approach to the target. It meant that the bombs were less densely concentrated than they were intended to be, reducing their effectiveness.
On July 25 and 26 the USAAF 8th Air Force conducted daylight raids against Hamburg – GOMORRAH was a rare occasion in 1943 of cooperation between the two allied bombing forces. They attacked the dock and shipyard areas rather than housing.
Neither American raid was especially precise and the damage was limited. As was often the case in these early raids, the US day bombers suffered heavily from losses caused by German single-engine fighter interceptors.
On the night of July 27/28 the RAF heavy bombers returned. This was the night of Hamburg’s notorious ‘firestorm.’ Most of the 2,326 tons of bombs crashed down into a rectangle four square miles in area. There was almost no creep-back. Concentration was achieved in time and space.
From a technical point of view it was a bravura performance. Also, it had been a hot July, with low humidity and no rain for some time. Everything in Hamburg was very dry.
Hammerbrook, Hamm, and Borgfelde, the districts of the city which were hit, were composed of cramped, six-story nineteenth century tenement blocks divided by narrow streets and alleyways. Shipyard workers and their families lived there. There were a lot of children.
The high explosive ordnance dropped by the first bombers smashed in doors, windows, and roofs, exposing combustible furniture and timber joists and floors for the incendiaries to ignite.
The Air Ministry’s RE8 research department had been intrigued for some time about how under the right conditions of temperature and wind speed, small individual fires might be encouraged to merge together to form a single uninterrupted blaze sucking in everything flammable.
A density of 25,000 four-pound incendiaries per square mile, complemented by heavier phosphorus and benzol gel bombs to reach more inaccessible nooks, was calculated to be the optimum formula to provoke this.
Previous attempts to create such a ‘firestorm’ on a large scale had been foiled by inaccurate navigation, bad target marking, scattered bombing patterns, bad weather, or efficient German countermeasures. Now, RE8’s tireless and meticulous efforts were finally going to pay off.
The firestorm began at 1.20am on Wednesday morning, reached its crescendo at about 3am and began to ebb about one-and-a-half hours later when there was nothing left to burn. During that time the best modern estimates suggest that 18,400 people were killed in Hamburg.
The main cause of death that night was suffocation. Thousands of people sheltering in the city’s tenement basements asphyxiated as the oxygen was slowly sucked out of their lungs by the greedy fire above. They were baked a brownish color by the intense heat.
There was a third RAF raid on Hamburg two nights after the firestorm. This destroyed the suburb of Barmbek, but for technical reasons did not generate a second inferno. During it however a department store collapsed and 370 people sheltering in the basement beneath were killed.
A final raid on August 2/3 was scattered by thunderstorms and did little damage. Overall, no-one knows for sure how many people died in Hamburg during Operation GOMORRAH. Between 37-42,000 seems the most reliable range.
For Bomber Command, it was a triumph. H2S had done its job. Thanks to WINDOW, operational losses had been fewer than 3 percent, far better than in the Ruhr. The Air Ministry’s Director of Intelligence reveled in “the complete wipe-out of a residential area by fire.”
The effect on Hamburg was complicated. One million people trekked out the city in the immediate aftermath of the raids. Almost 2/3 of housing stock was damaged or destroyed. The Nazi leadership was horrified by the scale of the devastation and worried about the morale effect.
But Bomber Command was not in a position to follow up GOMORRAH with further immediate massive raids and so Hamburg slowly but steadily recovered over the remainder of the year in terms of industrial output. The trekkers returned to the city.
In terms of killing German civilians, which was Bomber Command’s explicit strategy by 1943 (though never stated in quite such unequivocal terms as that) GOMORRAH represented its single most effective week of the entire war, greater than Dresden in February 1945.
The industrial effort required to create a heavy bomber force powerful enough to carry out a GOMORRAH was intense. The bombing effort consumed something like 5 percent of all the United Kingdom’s wartime GDP.
As Len Deighton noted, a Lancaster bomber contained “55,000 separate parts. Over three miles of electrical wiring, generators enough to light a hotel, hydraulics enough to lift a bridge … fuel capacity enough to take it to a European town, and bomb-load enough to destroy it.”
This would have been impossible without Britain’s ability to utilize its global network of resources, labor, and money. Putting a Lancaster over Hamburg at night was an expression of the power of 20th century worldwide industrial capitalism, the power used to win the war.
For that reason alone GOMORRAH ought to be remembered as being the quintessential expression of Britain’s strategy during the Second World War, a war which is endlessly remembered, sanctified, and alluded to in popular discourse.
But of course no such thing will happen this July. Earlier this year the King visited Hamburg and visited St Nikolai church to lay a wreath along with the German president. That is the extent of public recognition of the raid in Britain in 2023.
The problem, of course, is that area bombing was a (possibly) exceptionally effective strategy the effects of which – a massive civilian death toll – people would prefer not to dwell upon when remembering ‘the good war’.
The sole pop culture monument to Bomber Command is the 1955 film The Dam Busters, a minor episode in the Ruhr campaign which featured a totally uncharacteristic precision-bombing attack not on workers housing but on a morally neutral target set.
A more reflective, sophisticated understanding of the war would involve putting GOMORRAH at the center of British memory where it belongs, and accounting for its consequences – economic, political, and moral – in the fullest sense. This is not going to happen any time soon. End. Aftermath in the Eilbek district of Hamburg.
Addendum: a few people have mentioned the Battle of the Atlantic and the counterfac of redirecting heavy bombers to closing the mid-Atlantic ‘Air Gap’ as a better use of British resources. I’m unpersuaded by this and I’ll explain why. Liberator above convoy
GOMORRAH took place in July 1943 after the Battle of the Atlantic was effectively won, so the issue wrt that is moot. The question is whether redirecting bombers in 1941 or 1942 would have made the outcome of the convoy war different.
First problem is that there just weren’t many heavy bombers in 1941 or 1942, period. Aircraft production of 4-engine heavies lagged behind quotas for most of the period. Only in 1943 was production potential finally achieved.
Second problem is that most heavy bombers were not very well suited to the VLR (very long range) reconnaissance role required to patrol the mid-Atlantic air gap. The Lancaster in particular would have needed extensive rethinking. This would have meant more delays.
Third problem is that the Admiralty wasn’t asking for VLR bombers for the Air Gap anyway. They wanted bombers to aggressively patrol the Bay of Biscay to hunt and sink U-Boats.
Which is fine, except … through 1941 and most of 42 they were pretty bad at it. What you needed to make such patrolling work was centimetric ASV radar (similar to H2S) which didn’t become widely available until 1943.
Fourth problem is that the VLR bomber wasn’t really the key to the Air Gap. The key was the escort carrier supplemented by surface craft with HF-DF (high frequency direction finding) aids. Again, these didn’t become available in large numbers until 1943.
Counterfacs about sending bombers to North Africa etc. run into similar problems. As Normandy showed, the heavies weren’t actually much use for close air support. What they were useful for was … strategic bombing.
It’s arguable that Britain should never have invested so much in the heavy bomber before 1942. However, it had, and that created a path dependency that had to be respected. Britain had made its bet by midwar and had to stick with it, for good or bad.
Whether strategic bombing was carried out using the right methods is a different argument, maybe for another day. End. Avro Lancaster
Addendum 2: some reading recommendations, since folks have asked.

Two books specifically on the GOMORRAH are the classic by Martin Middlebrook and the more recent retelling by Keith Lowe
Martin Middlebrook
Keith Lowe
For the aerial bombing of Europe in the Second World War more generally, Richard Overy’s book is as close to definitive as you will get (but don’t get the terrible gutted American version, buy the British one) Overy
I am a fan of Mark Connelly’s Reaching for the Stars, which looks closely at the cultural depictions of the bombing war and the British public’s knowledge of it and reaction to it. Reaching for the Stars
Daniel Swift’s Bomber County is a beautifully written meditation on life, death, and fate in the bombing war, inspired by the loss of his grandfather on an op over Germany in 1943. Bomber County
Not everyone will agree with every line of Jorg Friedrich’s The Fire (I don’t either), but it is a serious attempt to think about the German experience of the bombing in the full context of National Socialism and total war. Haunting. The Fire
Lastly, Len Deighton’s novel Bomber is an utterly unsparing account of a fictional firestorm raid the same summer as GOMORRAH which looks the bombing war square in the face without coming to any facile conclusions. End. Deighton
Addendum 3. A few people have asked what my own view is about the ethics of the bombing - or have jumped to conclusions about what my view is, based on a not-very-careful reading of the thread and a whole bunch of assumptions.
There tend to be three questions asked about the bombing - was it militarily effective? Was it legal? And was it moral? - and the three are typically packaged together.
So you have two rival camps - one that says the bombing was militarily effective, legal, and moral, and one that denies all three of these things.
My own view is that the bombing was

- Militarily effective;
- Legal (or at least not clearly illegal);
- And immoral.

It’s not a view which seems particularly popular and for all I know may be held by me alone.
If anyone wants to know why I hold the third of these views, I refer them to .
@AdrianGregory20 The Air Ministry’s lawyers were quite right to point out that such international law as existed in 1939 concerning air warfare was so vague and so open to exceptions on the grounds of military necessity that any restrictions on conduct were essentially self imposed ones.

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Jul 1
Today is an important day in British military history for reasons that have nothing to do with the Somme.

July 1, 1942 was the first day of the First Battle of Alamein, a far more consequential engagement than the more famous one that took place in October there.
In June, Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika had broken through the Gazala line, taken Tobruk, advanced into Egypt and smashed 8th Army again at Mersa Matruh. General Auchinleck held at Alamein with what was left of his force to defend the Nile base. On July 1 that was ‘not much.’
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All the V-1s targeting London were specifically aimed at Tower Bridge. None ever hit it, though one was reported to have passed between the towers before landing in the Thames.
V-1s did not impact deep enough in the ground to damage utility mains or sewers but they did tremendous blast damage esp. with flying glass. They did not kill at the same rate as bombs but maimed more.
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“The best historians don’t make moral judgments.”

Can we pause for a moment to consider what horseshit this truism is?

For one thing, it’s not practiced by the Reclaiming History folks themselves. Consider e.g. Andrew Roberts’ biography of Churchill.
It’s a good history by a talented author - and replete with moral judgments, expressions of praise and blame, accusations and compliments.

But more fundamentally, the practice of history itself is interwoven with moral judgments.

Nobody just ‘tells the facts’ because the …
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Well ok then Image
Ok, straight off, something I’m confused about. Image
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About 130,000 African-American military personnel were stationed in the UK by June 1944. The US military brought with it to Britain the same system of rigid racial segregation that it employed at home.

The response of ordinary Britons to this has become a small but important ...
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... provided a sharp contrast to essential British decency in a conflict already accelerating democratization at home.…

Like all good myths, there’s a kernel of truth to this. Few Britons in 1944 had ever met a non-white person. There was, then, no ...
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