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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Hamburg Air Offensive

24 July to 2 August 1943

Theatre: Western Europe
Location: Hamburg, central Germany
Players: Allies: Air Marshal Arthur Harris's RAF Bomber Command; Major-General Carl Spaatz's 8th US Army Air Force (USAAF).
Outcome: The devastation of the German port city of Hamburg.

'I informed Hitler that armaments production was collapsing and threw in the further warning that a series of attacks of this sort, extended to six more major cities, would bring Germany's armaments production to a total halt.' - Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich

A Wellington bomber
A Wellington bomber©
In February 1943 a directive issued by the Allied Chiefs of Staff in Casablanca set out the objectives for both Bomber Command and the USAAF: 'The progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system and the undermining of morale of the German people.'

Arthur Harris personally amended the directive, replacing the word 'and' with 'aimed at' - German morale was the sole objective, to be attacked by any means necessary.

The destruction of Hamburg exemplified Harris's approach. On 24 July, 791 bombers dropped 2,000 tons of bombs on the centre of Hamburg, with the loss of only 12 aircraft.

The 8th US Army Air Force, which had been established in January 1942, by contrast prioritised precision bombing as far as possible. They mounted a follow-up raid soon after the Hamburg raid, flying by day and relying on the aircraft's own firepower for self-defence, causing limited damage and with the loss of 19 out of 114 aircraft.

Bomber Command returned on 27 July, dropping another 2,000 tons of explosives and incendiaries. A firestorm swept through the city, with winds of up to 160km per hour and temperatures of 1,000 degrees C.

Nearly a million people were made homeless; the death toll from fire and suffocation has been estimated at 46,000, including 5,000 children. Bomber Command returned to finish the job on 29 July and 2 August, but caused little further loss of life.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.


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