In July of 1943, British and American bombers launched an attack on the German city of Hamburg that was unlike anything the world had ever seen. For ten days they drenched the city with over 9,000 tons of bombs, with the intention of erasing it entirely from the map. The fires they created were so huge they burned for a month, and were visible for 200 miles. As those who survived emerged from their ruined cellars and air-raid shelters they were confronted with a unique vision of hell: a sea of flame that stretched to the horizon, the burnt-out husks of fire engines that had tried to rescue them, charcoaled corpses and roads that had become flaming rivers of melted tarmac.
Using many new first-hand accounts and other material, Keith Lowe gives the human side of an inhuman story, and the result is an epic story of devastation and survival, and a much-needed reminder of the human face of war.
Freelance author Lowe presents the 1943 Hamburg firestorm raids as a case study in WWII's defining characteristic: the tension between desire to destroy at random and will to restrain that desire. Historically inclined to the liberal and socialist Left, Hamburg complied with the Nazi New Order, but didn't celebrate it. The city was also a major industrial center and legitimate target especially given the Allied belief that air attacks could make war shorter and less destructive. Lowe vividly describes the death, destruction and accompanying horrors, such as blocks of people being sucked into the firestorms. He's at pains to show the airmen's lack of triumphalism, after suffering heavy losses in attacking the well-defended target. But when he says that Hamburg is regarded as a byword for horror, he seems to mean in Germany Europe has not developed much sympathy for the tribulations of the Third Reich. He's on even shakier ground arguing that Britons and Americans developed a "legacy of guilt" for the bombing, and positioning the later years of the combined bomber offensive on a continuum with the Holocaust, because neither distinguished between combatants and civilians. Nevertheless, this balanced and evocative analysis makes a provocative contribution to moral studies of the air war over Germany.