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Life in Hamburg during WW2 - Chapter 4

by Mike Stickland

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Mike Stickland
People in story: 
Paula Alexander
Location of story: 
Hamburg
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6047778
Contributed on: 
07 October 2005

Paula’s Story - Chapter 4
When the end of the hostilities was imminent, tension was mounting high as the question arose, whether or not Hamburg should be defended. This uppermost important decision rested solely with the Buergermeister, (Lord Mayor). For days we waited with bated breath for this vital news, and the relief of the citizens was enormous when he proclaimed Hamburg "an open town" . This meant there would be no defensive fighting against the approaching conquerors. All the fears and agonies which we had born with fortitude for over five years were suddenly lifted from our hearts. With one stroke of a pen one could say, but with that, he also had signed his own death-certificate, as it turned out later. When the Lord Mayor made his announcement from the town-hall balcony, whoops of delight went up, we all thought he would be declared a hero and would go down in history for saving countless lives, both friends and foes, and the remains of the town. Instead he was later arrested and condemned, (I am not sure but I believe he was shot) because of his Nazi connections. So, down he went but in a different way.
When the enemy troops advanced nearer and nearer from all sides the race was on among the British, American and Russian forces, as to who would reach the capital city of Berlin first. As I mentioned earlier on, as far as the population of Hamburg was concerned, everybody wished and hoped that it would be either the British or American troops. We had heard so many diabolical stories how the Russians treated our women and we were petrified it might happen to us. We could only pray that we may be spared such fate. As it turned out, our prayers were answered and our luck was in the British army came marching into Hamburg.
Words are quite inadequate and I find it impossible to describe my emotions when I saw the first British tanks rolling into my battered town. It felt as if I would burst with all the happiness which flooded through. In my mind's eyes I see it still, so clearly as if it happened only yesterday.
It was a beautiful May morning, (the 5th in fact) and the Sun was shining in an azure-blue Sky. I was awakened about 6 a.m. by a strange rumbling noise which puzzled me. I jumped out of bed, thinking the bombers were coming back. I dashed out on to my balcony, and there it was, the most awe-inspiring sight, never to be forgotten. Rooted to the spot I just stood and stared, through the trees I saw the tanks, rolling slowly and peacefully by, about 150 feet from me, and the sun gleaming on them. I sighted the first English soldiers, looking out of the turrets, enemies no more and soon to become my friends.
Standing there, gazing at the never ending line of armoured vehicles, I hardly realized that tears were streaming down my face. Even now, after all these years, tears still spring to my eyes when I talk about it, in fact my eyes are wet while I am writing this down.
This is the gospel-truth, nothing is exaggerated. Thinking back, this was one of the most wonderful experiences I have had in my life. I really and truly wish I could have those moments all over again, they were so utterly beautiful. As I said, I only wish I could express myself much better, but it is very difficult to put ones innermost feelings into words. The realization that suddenly it was all over took some time to sink in, and one had to get used to the quiet, undisturbed days and nights. No more the recurrent moan of the air-raid sirens, the steady thump of the bombs, no more the recurrent relief of the all-clear.
For some the panic and fears of being consumed by the fires, destroyed by the nights, had ceased. For others the sorrowful pain for their lost loved ones continued. Tragically the war brought some kind of pain to everyone, it was unavoidable that anyone would be involved somehow or other. Now it was a matter of picking up the pieces and settling down again. The long years of strife and struggle must have left their marks on most people, and could not be wiped out in a hurry. It took a long time to forge" and forgive.
At this point I would like to stress that never, ever, at any time did I blame the enemies for all the havoc and destruction they had caused in my homeland. I held only Hitler responsible for all that, and for all the heartbreak which the population had to suffer. He was a man demented with power, which must have deranged his mind completely. Yet, there are some British people who have never been to Germany, have neither met or talked to any Germans, who are still full of hate and condemn the whole German race. I find that very sad indeed. If I had felt any hostility at all against the British, I could not have fallen in love with an Englishman whom I met in 1946, came to England with him in 1952 and married him. I was made very welcome by all his family.
This is now the year of 1977 and I am still here, alas my dear Husband died in July 1976, and left me alone with all my memories. With this I think it would be appropriate to conclude my war-time reminiscences. But if I may, I would like to add just a few more words about the aftermath, and I mean only a few.
When the occupation of Germany was completed, the territories sorted out and divided between the "Four-Powers", British, American, French and Russian. Although the war was over, an uneasy peace settled over the nation.
I personally had the notion, perhaps others felt it too, that our country did not belong to us anymore, that our "temporary visitors" were now the masters and we the slaves. Still, it was necessary to establish some sort of law and order after the prevailing chaos.
Our existence seemed to have changed entirely, it was like living in a new era. The hardships were not over by any means, provisions still scarce, money was valueless. On the black-market business was brisk and a new society appeared, the Spivs, who got rich very quick. Up to 1948, the shelves in the shops were devoid of any goods whatsoever, useful ones anyway, one could purchase some ashtrays and lighters made from cannon-shells, but of what use were they? Then the "Heichsmark" was devaluated, and "hey-presto", overnight, just like magic, luxuries we had not seen for years reappeared out of the blue. Everything was there, clothing, china, gold and silver etc. in abundance. Where it came from is anybody's guess, it was amazing.
The only trouble was we had no money to buy it. Everybody, rich and poor alike, received only 40 Marks of the lovely brand-new Deutschmark. For a short time there were neither rich nor poor people, the whole of Germany's population had just 40 Marks in their pockets, it was quite a sensational feeling being equal with the "upper-class". However, it did not take the clever "Business-Tycoons" very long to get on their feet again, but at least we all had some real money in our pockets now, could shop and save once more, and build up a new life.
It is apparent even to this day, that the temporary visitors were not so temporary after all, they are still keeping an eagle eye on things, Fortunately conditions and relationships are amicable, and that is all that matters.
__________________________________
It's difficult to find a title for my little story, but I think I call it "Divided Loyalties" - A Voice from the other Side, because my loyalties are always divided. It is not easy to have two nationalities and being torn "to and fro" between the two all the time. As can be seen from my notes, even during the war I never bore any grudge against the British. When I see a war film nowadays I am always on the British side, but when there are sporting events and a German team is taking part, I want them to win, because I know nobody gets hurt at games. I hope with all my heart that there will never be another serious conflict.
________________________________________
Appendix
I shall not dwell on my "amorous escapades", but some were quite amusing. My friends and I thought we ought to do our share to bolster up the moral of the "boys in the trenches" when they came home on leave. It was really all quite harmless fun, but I fell "in and out of love" like nobody's business. No acquaintance lasted very long, it was a case of "here today -gone tomorrow".
While I was still working at the Jewish shop I mentioned, four of us gir1s began to correspond with some pen-friends, in this case, unknown soldiers. One of the girls had a cousin in the army, who came to visit her one day. He mentioned that his comrades felt a little lonely and would like to exchange letters with someone. So, out of the goodness of our hearts and feeling sorry for the boys, also thinking it might be fun, we put our names on the list. Very soon letters started to arrive, and needed to be answered of course It was strange writing to a person one had never seen, but I did not find it too difficult. To my amazement words flowed easily from my pen to this mysterious soldier, and after a few letters had been posted to and fro I felt I had known this person for a long time. It helped a great deal though that he wrote very interesting letters, and as I had anticipated it was great fun. The opportunity arose that a meeting could be arranged, which meant that we had to travel to Bremen where our pen-pals were stationed. So, on a Saturday evening after closing time at the shop, armed with toothbrushes ½ lb. of butter and a bottle of wine, and a lot of bravado, we went on our week-end trip. The train journey took only just over 1 hour and on arrival, not being able to see very much in the black-out, we called along the platform “Where are our unknown soldiers"? Finally, we bumped into each other and we were not only greeted by the 4 boys, but also by the "melodious" air-raid sirens. Consequently, the first tentative ogling took place in the bunker, and to break the ice, so to speak, we opened the bottle of wine to toast our acquaintance. After the all-clear we proceeded to our lodgings,(a 4-bedded room had been secured for us). No sooner had we reached it and the sirens shrieked once more. The boys stayed with us for a short while to await the end of the raid, but it was getting on for 10 pm when their passes expired, so they had to make a dash for the barracks while the bombs were still falling.
We were quite worried, but all went well. They joined us next morning for a sumptuous breakfast with the extra butter ration. At last we could have a good look at our "partners" in day-light. Luckily we liked what we saw, and the liking was mutual, my blind-date turned out to be a tall, dark and handsome man, I was very pleased about it. The eight of us spent a very unusual, hilarious weekend. The writing continued for a while, but eventually we lost them somewhere in the trenches.
Although travelling by train was not entirely forbidden, it was curtailed to the most necessary journeys. Nevertheless, I went to Uelzen now and again for a weekend to visit my Sister. On one of those occasions we went to a pub for a drink on a Saturday night. A conversation ensued with some soldiers who were sitting at the same table with us. They were inmates at the military hospital, recovering from their wounds. We were invited to visit them at the hospital, which we did on the Sunday morning. For me it was "love at first sight" with one of them, and this time it had really hit me. Sunday afternoon we all went walking in the woods,(six of us), we were larking about like children, and while running around, to my chagrin I sprained my ankle. The pain was very uncomfortable and I could only hobble now, which made me feel rather foolish.
For the next few weekends I stayed again with my Sister, so that I could see my new found friend again. A very lovely and tender feeling developed between us and although 1 was 28 years old at the time, I felt like "sweet-seventeen" again. Then the day came when he was discharged from the hospital and was sent to a town near Dresden. This posting was prior to being transferred back to the front, and since Saxony is a very long way from Hamburg, we were naturally very unhappy about it. But resourceful as I was in those days, no amount of kilometres could stop me from seeing him again. Asking my "boss" and being granted a week's holiday, I undertook the very hazardous and dangerous journey, through air-raids as usual, travelling all night I reached my destination at 7 am. feeling pretty fatigued. However, nothing could mar our joy and we were very happy to see each other again. A room had been booked for me with some very nice people. While I had a rest and a nap he went back on duty at the barracks. After lunch we went sightseeing through the pretty town, it was all so wonderful.
But once again, it was too good to last, a terrible shock was in store for me. While we were having tea with my hosts, a telegram arrived for me from my Mother, which read as follows: "Fire-bomb in your bedroom, please come home at once". I was absolutely stupefied and just burst into tears! I could not believe that my lovely holiday should be over before it had even begun. I had no choice but to return, so I grabbed my suitcase which I had not as yet unpacked, started back on the same exhausting journey so soon after my arrival. It was a tearful parting for both of us, and on reaching home was completely shattered after this excursion and the shock I had sustained.
And yet, the few hours of happiness I had snatched were worth all the bother and harassment, and this again proves my points I made earlier on in my story, live, love and be happy while there is still a chance.
--- END ---

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Message 1 - Life in Hamburg during WW2

Posted on: 08 October 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mike

Please tell Paula that I have read all four parts of her tragic story with very great interest. It is hard to believe that she is now 92, she writes with such flair and zest.

Paula says regarding the mayor of Hamburg "With one stroke of a pen ... he also had signed his own death-certificate, as it turned out later. ... he was later arrested and condemned, (I am not sure but I believe he was shot) because of his Nazi connections".

I think she is here talking about either Carl Vincent Krogmann, the Nazi 'Regierender Bürgermeister' (Governing Mayor), from 18 May 1933, or Karl Otto Kurt Kaufmann, the Nazi 'First Mayor' from 30 July 1933. Both these two top Nazis were removed from office on 3 May 1945, but neither was shot - Kaufmann died in 1969 and Krogmann in 1978.

Kaufmann seems the most likely, judging from Paula's mention of his arrest. In addition to being First Mayor Kaufmann was also the Reichstathalter of Hamburg. He took an active part in the atrocities of Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp and in 1941 he was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer. It was Kaufmann, however, who dealt efficiently with the aftermath of the appalling raids on Hamburg in July 1943. After the war he quietly melted away and continued to live in Hamburg as a businessman until a belated investigation led to his arrest in 1948. Following a short trial he was sentenced to one year and two months in prison; mild as this sentence was, on 12 April 1949 he was released on health grounds. The Hamburg authorities arrested him again on 3 August 1950, but he was set free almost immediately. Arrested for the third time on 5 January 1953, he was finally released on 29 March 1953. He died in 1969 aged 69.

Kind regards,
Peter Ghiringhelli

Earlier sections of Paula's interesting story are here:

Chapter 1 A6047741

Chapter 2 A6047750

Chapter 3 A6047769

 

Message 2 - Life in Hamburg during WW2

Posted on: 08 October 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Mike

My apologies for the first paragraph of my comments, above. I completely missed that Mrs Paula Alexander died age 67 nearly twenty-five years ago.

Peter

 

Message 3 - Life in Hamburg during WW2

Posted on: 10 October 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

The importance of Mrs Paula Alexander's story is that she gives a rare first-hand account of the dreadful bombing of Hamburg on the night of 27/28 July 1943 in Chapter 2 (A6047750) and Chapter 3 (A6047769).

Just after the war and during the Cold War there was a lot of exaggerated reporting of the bombing of Dresden in April 1945, and criticism of the attack, partly because it happened so late in the war when Germany was quite obviously defeated. Figures of 140,000 and even 250,000 were bandied about with no denial or correction by the communist regime of East Germany. We now know that the figure was very much lower, about 25,000. High as that figure is, it was far less than those killed in Hamburg in July 1943.

On the night of Saturday, 24/25 July, 791 British aircraft bombed Hamburg. Severe damage was caused in the central and north-western districts; 2,290 tons of bombs were dropped and approximately 1,500 people were killed. The following day, 25 July, the Americans bombed Hamburg again with 127 aircraft. Two heavy raids in 24 hours was unprecedented for the city, but Hamburg's ordeal had just begun. The Americans returned again on Monday the 26th. But that was just the prelude.

On the night of Tuesday 27/28 July 787 RAF bombers returned to Hamburg when a further 2,326 tons of bombs were dropped, most of them being incendiaries. The horror of that night wasn't intended and the horrific fire-storm (the first ever) which developed (in the terse words of 'The Bomber Command Diaries') was "started through an unusual and unexpected chain of events. The temperature was particularly high (30° centigrade at 6 o'clock in the evening) and the humidity was only 30 per cent, compared with an average of 40-50 per cent for this time of the year. There had been no rain for some time and everything was very dry. The concentrated bombing caused a large number of fires in the densely built-up working-class districts of Hammerbrook, Hamm and Borgfeld. Most of Hamburg's fire vehicles had been in the western parts of the city, damping down the fires still smoldering there from the raid of 3 nights earlier [RAF Bomber Command Diaries make no mention of the two American raids], and only a few units were able to pass through roads which were blocked by rubble ..."

What happened next was totally unexpected. About half way through the raid the fires in Hammerbrook started joining up and competing with each other for oxygen from the surrounding air. Then suddenly it happened, there was a massive flash and the entire area became one big fire with air being drawn in at up to 200 mph, uprooting and sucking in trees and debris. Unaware of this, the bombing continued for another half hour spreading the fire ball eastwards.

Some people took refuge from the intense heat by jumping in the huge open water tanks meant for fire-fighting, but this proved to be a fatal mistake as the water boiled and evaporated in the intense heat, perhaps suffering a worse fate than those who simply burst into flame, their hair first. Those in the centre underground shelters died of asphyxiation as the oxygen was sucked out by the fire.

The firestorm raged for about three hours and only subsided when all combustible material, including aluminium, was consumed. More than thirty-five thousand residential buildings were destroyed, over sixteen thousand being multi-storeyed; in all, eight square miles of the city were burnt out. There were only a very few survivors from the firestorm area, most of them died from carbon monoxide poisoning when all the air was drawn out of basement shelters.

The historian Sir Martin Gilbert observes "By morning more than forty-two thousand* German civilians were dead. This was more than the total British civilian deaths for the whole of the Blitz". Gilbert quotes a German factory worker "Then a storm started, a shrill howling in the street. It grew into a hurricane so that we had to abandon all hope of fighting the fire. It was as though we were doing no more than throwing a drop of water on to a hot stone. The whole yard, the canal, in fact as far as we could see, was just a whole, great massive sea of fire".

The RAF crews were unaware of what was happening below them. Perhaps I can conclude with some of the words of two of the pilots:

"The burning of Hamburg that night was remarkable in that I saw not many fires but one. Set in the darkness was a turbulent dome of bright red fire lighted and ignited like the glowing heart of a vast brazier. I saw no flames, no outlines of buildings, only brighter fires which flared like yellow torches against a background of bright red ash. Above the city was a misty red haze. I looked down, fascinated but aghast, satisfied yet horrified. I had never seen a fire like that before and was never to see its like again" (A flight-Lieutenant quoted by Sir Martin Gilbert).

"That was the end of Hamburg for us, and indeed almost the end of Hamburg, although it was bombed again more than once before the end of the war. I saw the city again in July 1945, when on a tour of the Baltic ports. The desolation appeared complete - acre upon acre of lifeless ruins - and I was more than glad that no one could point the finger and say where my bombs had fallen. It was one thing to bomb in the heat of battle and another to see one's contribution against the background of a defeated enemy. There are those who contend that the unusual weather conditions whipped up the fires into an all-consuming firestorm that was a moral retribution on the Germans. Perhaps, but I can only reflect that it was activated by man." (Flight Lieutenant Jimmy Davidson of No 35 Squadron, quoted in "The Bomber War" by Robin Neillands).

I had seen many bombed cities during and immediately after the war: Milan, Genova, many French towns crossing France in 1946, and London. Then in late 1948 I arrived in Hamburg to join my unit on the Baltic coast. I stepped out of a practically empty train and nothing but desolation met my eyes in all directions. By then even the chimney stacks had been bulldozed down.

* Sir Martin Gilbert's figure was the best available at the time. A more accurate figure for the number killed, given in 2001, in the 'Oxford Companion to World War II' is 44,600 civilians and 800 servicemen.

Peter Ghiringhelli

Sources:

"The Bomber Command War Diaries - An operational reference book 1939-1945" by Middlebrook and Everitt (Midland Publishing).
"Second World War" by Martin Gilbert (Fontana, revised edition 1990).
"The Bomber War" by Robin Neillands (John Murray, 2001).
"The Oxford Companion to World War II" edited by I.C.B. Dear (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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