Wartime Issue 25 - The battle of Berlin

By Dr Daniel Oakman

When the curtain covering a map of Europe was pulled aside to reveal the plan for an attack on the German capital, more than the usual mixture of fear, excitement and anxiety swept over the assembled airmen. Among them was a young Australian air gunner from 10 Squadron, Flight Sergeant Stuart. He was confident in his abilities as a gunner, but this was different, this was Berlin – the Big City! That night Stuart gave his turret an extra polish and made sure his guns were in perfect condition. If he could handle this, he thought, he could handle anything.

The crew of “M for Mother”, a Lancaster bomber from 467 Squadron, preparing to talke off on a raid over Berlin.  AWM

From the outbreak of war, Berlin loomed large in the imagination of politician, military planner, soldier and aircrew alike. Berlin was unequivocally the cultural, economic and political centre of the Third Reich. Moreover, its war factories, its administrative infrastructure, its rail and canal communications were part of a centralised industrial power base. The Commander-in- Chief of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, desperate to deliver a crushing blow at the heart of Nazism, actually postponed the battle of Berlin in 1942 because he lacked sufficient numbers of aircraft, and navigation systems were too primitive to tackle such a difficult target.

The battle of Berlin was waged in two parts: the first, between late August and early September 1943, and the second – and most intense – between mid-November 1943 and late-March 1944. It was the longest, most sustained and most costly campaign against a single German city in the war. But although battered beyond recognition, Berlin was not destroyed. Why did the bombing of the city prove such a difficult undertaking? What, if any, part did the Berlin raids play in the defeat of Hitler?

A combination of size, geography and an extensive system of active and passive defences made Berlin the most dangerous target in Germany. With an area of more than 2,300 square kilometres and a population of more than four million, Berlin was Germany’s largest city and among the largest in the world. Its air defences stretched across more than 60 kilometres of searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, decoy fires, decoy marker flares and target indicators. Geographically, Berlin was outside the range of the more reliable Oboe radar network. Instead, crews relied on onboard H2S radar, which, without a strong geographic feature such as a body of water, revealed only a very limited picture of the target area. The confusion of woodlands, lakes and smaller satellite towns around Berlin added to the difficulty of discerning the target areas. When aircrew finally arrived over Berlin, they were stunned by the magnitude of the city itself and resistance offered by her defenders. Sergeant Hannah of 9 Squadron described the sight as awesome, struck most of all by the “immensity of the city” and his “excruciatingly slow progress across it”. For another, flying through the formidable flak defence it was as though a “giant hand” took hold of the aircraft and shook it, like a huge dog shaking a rat.

The devastation of Hamburg in July 1943 meant that Luftwaffe chiefs were able to convince Hitler that fighter strength and all forms of air defence needed to be greatly enhanced. The symbols of German resistance were the flak towers upon which the antiaircraft guns were mounted. In one particular tower and U-Bahn (underground) station about 40,000 people could take refuge. With their thick concrete walls, steel windows, kitchens, a hospital, air-conditioning and independent power and water supply, some residents claimed it was difficult even to hear the bombs during a raid – save for a direct hit. The only sign that a raid was in progress was that the ground shook slightly. One tower even housed Berlin’s art treasures. More than mere defensive structures, these were built to demonstrate German defiance and technological superiority. Indeed, these towers and air raid shelters were so sturdy that after the war many either had to be buried, or built around.

The heart of Berlin in ruins. This is an area between Friedrich Hain and Lichtenberg. The photograph was taken from a lowflying RAF Mosquito aircraft.  

When cloud cover was heavy, rendering searchlights useless, the Germans released lanes of “fighter flares” above the bomber stream, to illuminate them for incoming defenders. Some airmen claimed they could read newspapers by them. Another cheekily said flying through them was “like running naked through a busy railway station”, hoping no one would notice.

The Germans countered “window” (a process where Allied bombers scattered thousands of strips of tinfoil in the air to break up radar echo) with a new system for their night-fighters – Wilde Sau (wild boar). Instead of being confined to predetermined “boxes”, “wild boar” night-fighters patrolled above the target areas and waited for the attackers to come. It was a system which gave greater freedom and responsibility to some of the Luftwaffe’s most ambitious pilots: “I have been training for three years to shoot at bombers – that’s all. I have no ambition to sleep with girls or get drunk, just to shoot at RAF bombers.”

On the opening raid of the campaign, on 24 August, Bomber Command lost 56 bombers, eight per cent of dispatched aircraft, the heaviest loss of the war so far – grim testimony to the effectiveness of “wild boar” tactics. Another tactic that tipped the balance in favour of the defenders was the introduction of the Zahme Sau (tame boar) fighters. Using the “window-proof” SN-2 radar, night-fighters searched for bombers on the way to, or returning from, their targets. Bombers were forced to take longer, more complex routes to the target, all the while increasing the changes of being found by the night-fighters.

The first two raids in November gave Harris and bomber crews a false sense of what future raids held for them, with loss rates of just 2.0 and 3.4 per cent. But in December, when the weather worsened and fighter intensity increased, loss rates were consistently above 6.2 per cent, peaking at 8.7 per cent. Still Harris made the remarkable claim that if production levels could be maintained, navigational aids improved and if loss rates did not exceed 171 bombers (or 4 per cent) a month, the Lancasters would win the war by themselves. Surrender, he claimed, would be inevitable by 1 April 1944! One reason for persisting with the campaign in the face of such heavy losses was that no one really knew how effective the bombing had been, owing to the heavy cloud cover and the poor quality of reconnaissance photographs.

However, no one could deny that the raids on Berlin had a deep impact on Berliners and the German leadership. After the first of the November raids, the German Minister for Propaganda and Gauleiter of Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, ordered the evacuation of all women and children, almost a quarter of the city’s population. The move was prudent, for the raid on 22 November was arguably the most successful of the entire campaign. Berlin reeled with 175,000 made homeless and about 2,000 killed, and much of city was left without basic amenities. Goebbels wrote in his diary: “I just can’t understand how the English are able to do so much damage to the Reich capital in one air raid. The picture that greeted my eyes in Wilhelmsplatz was one of utter devastation … Blazing fires everywhere … Hell itself seems to have broken loose over us.”

But German morale did not collapse under bombing. In fact, a persistent problem for the German authorities was stopping citizens trying to return to their homes. And the very design of Berlin also helped minimise the effect of bombing on the civilians. Unlike Hamburg and London, Berlin seemed almost to have been designed to resist incendiary attack. It was a modern city with wide avenues which fire was unable to cross. Wreckage was also less likely to block firefighters. The diffuse nature of the bombing also had the effect of creating firebreaks across the city, which helped localise the effects of the burning. Buildings were more soundly constructed and their steeper pitched roofs saw some incendiary bombs slide harmlessly into the streets. Another lesson learned from Hamburg had been to clear attics of possessions in order to minimise fuel loads. Partitioned walls were also removed to allow easier access for fire control. But the key advantage was the large basements below most urban flats. Holes were knocked through the walls separating each basement, allowing people to move between flats below ground in order to find safe exit after a raid.

Berliners also saw that leading Nazi Party figures, like Goebbels, did not desert the city. Goebbels was often seen out on foot in bombed-out areas, talking to locals, with only a few soldiers as escort. German authorities took firefighting and the restoration of basic services very seriously, rushing in 50,000 troops to clear the rubble after the November raids. The safety of Berlin’s citizens was also taken seriously, as demonstrated by the resources allocated to air-raid shelters and warning systems. On 1 January 1944, 21 people were trampled to death as the air raid signal sounded late and bombs began falling on people still waiting to file into the narrow passageways of the U-Bahn network. The officers responsible were very publicly demoted and transferred – to the Eastern front.

Joseph Goebbels, German Minister for Propaganda, surveys bomb damage from a ruined building in Berlin.  

Berliners also gained something of a reputation for a wry sense of humour. One popular joke was to make a sweeping gesture at streets reduced to rubble and repeat one of Hitler’s aphorisms: “Give me four years and I promise you, you won’t recognize your towns.” Of course, such jokes were shared quietly and served as a muted form of subversion. Like most civilians living under bombardment, Berliners developed a great capacity to endure. Bombing produced apathy and resignation rather than rebelliousness. In any case, civilians had limited ability to affect the Nazi machine and its leadership’s commitment to victory at all costs.

A German propaganda photograph taken in about 1944. It was captioned: “They won’t let themselves be beaten by Anglo- American terror plots. Berlin housewives put up temporary cooking facilities in front of their homes, on which they prepare meals for their families.”

What about the effectiveness of the bombing itself? Six of the 16 raids undertaken between November and March were confined to the central areas and caused considerable destruction. In at least eight of these raids, target-marking was so poor that bombs were scattered, with most not even hitting the city proper. More than 10,000 civilians died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless, but Bomber Command simply could not get Berlin to burn like other German cities.

Another, less obvious factor that reduced the impact of the raids was the decision to increase bombloads and reduce the time over the target area. Heavier loads meant that aircraft flew lower and with reduced manoeuvrability. Some crews, unwilling to accept the added risk, responded by ditching bombs over the North Sea. Also, the urge to release bombs before the target area simply to get out of the most dangerous air space, a phenomena known as “creep back”, was particularly common over heavily defended cities like Berlin. Furthermore, as crew losses mounted, the level of experience of each replacement crew fell. This in turn reduced the efficiency of bombing. Air Vice Marshal Bennett, looking back in 1945, observed, “The net result was a state of mind amongst crews which automatically reduced the chances of success to negligible proportions. Crews openly admitted that it was useless throwing away crews when there was little chance of success.” More poignantly, a Canadian wireless operator reflected, “in attacking Berlin we paid dearly for a morsel”.

Could a longer, heavier bombardment have achieved a more definitive result? Dan Conway, who took part in seven attacks on Berlin, has claimed that despite the heavy loses, the attrition rate was tolerable, and that Harris merely underestimated the time needed to wreck Berlin. Conway’s argument is unconvincing. Bomber Command lost 2,690 men over Berlin, and nearly 1,000 more became prisoners of war. Of Bomber Command’s total losses for the war around seven per cent were incurred during the Berlin raids. In December 1943, for example, 11 crews from 460 Squadron RAAF alone were lost in operations against Berlin; and in January and February, another 14 crews were killed. Having 25 aircraft destroyed meant that the fighting force of the squadron had to be replaced in three months. At these rates Bomber Command would have been wiped out before Berlin.

The British official historians claim that “in an operational sense the Battle of Berlin was more than a failure, it was a defeat”. This was unequivocally true of Harris’s dream of bombing the German leadership into submission, but it would be wrong to say that it was, in a strategic sense, a wasted effort. Bombing brought the war to Germany at a time when it was difficult to apply pressure anywhere else. The threat of a sustained air campaign that might destroy production and transport infrastructure forced Nazi leaders to adopt a defensive posture and divert huge resources and manpower to the relocation of industry. The construction of underground factories was one example of the vastly expensive solutions forced upon the Germans. Also, active and static defences, such as night-fighters, anti-aircraft guns, airraid shelters, flak towers, radar, searchlights – and the personnel required to produce and operate them – drew important resources from the front line, where they were desperately needed. German defences were so geared to the protection of Berlin and other important towns in Germany that the bombers sent in advance of the D-Day landings conducted some of the most successful raids of the war.

Harris’s strategy of bombing to win, so doggedly pursued over Berlin, did eventually receive a partial vindication – but not in Europe. The sustained bombing of Japan, culminating in the destruction of Hiroshima, brought Japan to the negotiating table. But in Berlin, in 1943, the bombing campaign, though important, failed to play the decisive role in the defeat of the Third Reich its proponents had hoped for.

Alan Moore, Bombers’ moon (1962, oil on canvas, 152.2 cm x 274 cm)


Dr Daniel Oakman is a freelance researcher and Visiting Fellow with the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the Australian National University. He works for the Australia–Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. His book on the history of the Colombo Plan and Australian relations with Asia since 1945 will be published in 2004.