World War II and Europe’s Capitals of Ruin

The destroyed train station at Saint-Lô. Photo from Wiki Commons.

In summer 1944, Saint-Lô was doomed. It sat smack in the middle of the American invasion route off the beaches of Normandy. After the war, the city gained the sobriquet “capital of ruins” after the phrase appeared in a poem by Irish novelist Samuel Beckett. It’s all the more tragic because much of Saint-Lô was demolished not by defending Germans, but by American bombers targeting vital infrastructure. When the two armies clashed there in July in some of the worst fighting for the Americans on the continent, bombs and artillery decimated most of what remained of the city.

Caen in ruins, 10 July 1944. Photo from Wiki Commons.

The fate of Saint-Lô left me wondering about other cities destroyed during the war. British bombers and warships leveled Caen, 40 miles east of Saint-Lô, during the same period and for the same reason–it lay astride important road and railway junctions that both sides wanted to keep from the other. What other European cities did the war ruin?

Germany launched the war on September 1, 1939, with a blitzkrieg attack on Poland, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure like hospitals. Within days, Luftwaffe planes battered Warsaw, then the seventh biggest city in Europe with 1.3 million residents. Warsaw surrendered within a month with at least 10,000 dead. But the city’s sorrow was only beginning. By 1945, systematic razing had destroyed 85% of the city and wiped out 700,000 residents. More than half the victims were Jews, first crammed into the blocked-off slum known as the Warsaw Ghetto, then deported to extermination camps at Treblinka and Majdanek.

The Old Town section of Warsaw, Poland, from Wiki Commons.

Despite the Germans’ behavior in Poland, the British at first avoided attacking predominantly civilian targets. They abandoned the stricture after the Luftwaffe again deliberately bombed noncombatants during an attack on Rotterdam, Netherlands, in May 1940. Violence from the air quickly escalated.

The city center of Rotterdam, cleared of the rubble from the German bombing of 14 May 1940. Photo from Wiki Commons.

Royal Air Force bombers reached Berlin in August 1940, prompting Hitler to retaliate with air strikes against London, Coventry, and other English cities. Forty thousand civilians died during the eight-month campaign that followed–the so-called “Blitz”. Berlin suffered even worse over the next five years, if not in deaths, which were about as numerous, then in the duration of the raids and the extent of their destruction. British and American planes assailed the German capital from the west, while Soviet air forces struck from the east. The misery increased toward the end of the war as refugees, desperate to flee the advancing Soviet wave, flooded the city.

The crumbling Berlin Reichstag, 3 June 1945. Photo from Wiki Commons.
A British soldier ponders graffiti left by Soviet troops in the bombed out Reichstag in Berlin. Photo from Wiki Commons.

As early as Warsaw, Luftwaffe aircrews incorporated incendiary bombs with their payloads. Incendiary materials release their energy slowly, the idea being to ignite rampant fires without blowing everything up. (A few decades later during the Vietnam War, the world would learn about incendiaries all over again by watching pyrotechnic displays of Napalm, made from jellied petroleum, splash across their televisions.) In July 1943, the Allies embraced incendiary bombing with might and main.

Operation Gomorrah, as the air campaign against Hamburg is known, produced one of the worst firestorms of the war. Hamburg was Germany’s second most-populous city after Berlin and its largest port. Its shipyard built u-boats and the battleship Bismarck, Germany’s biggest warship. Another factory churned out aircraft engines. By all counts, Hamburg presented a legitimate military target. But the fire visited upon Hamburg targeted more than the city’s industry; the Allies intended to terrorize the city’s residents and shatter their morale. To take advantage of unusually warm and dry conditions, flight crews included incendiaries to ignite crowded and combustible housing. Alongside the firebombs, they loaded high explosive bombs to crater roads, shatter windows, and destroy water mains, thus ensuring both the fire’s spread and lack of water to fight the flames.

The Allied measures worked to brutal perfection. Forty thousand civilians died over the course of 10 days of bombing. During the worst night of July 27, the fires reached temperature of 1400 degrees fahrenheit and fleeing residents stuck in melted asphalt like doomed mammoths in tar.

An aerial shot of some of the 16,000 apartment buildings ravaged in the Hamburg firebombing. Photo from Wiki Commons.
Hamburg in ruins. Photo from Wiki Commons.

The Allies targeted Nuremberg, in southern Germany, throughout the war for economic and symbolic reasons. It figured strongly in the manufacture of armaments and military hardware and had hosted the massive Nazi Party rallies in the preceding decades. The worst bombing occurred on January 2, 1945, when the British hammered what rubble remained with 6,000 high-explosive bombs and one million incendiaries. Nuremberg’s historic old town was completely destroyed.

A stature of Kaiser Wilhelm I on horseback, grandfather of the WWI leader, surveys the destruction of Nuremberg. Photo from Wiki Commons.

The following month, the bombers swarmed Dresden, capital of the German state of Saxony. The horror approached Hamburg’s level of destruction. Again, a judicious mix of high explosives and incendiaries achieved almost absolute devastation. In four nights of bombing from February 13 to 15, 1945, about 25,000 civilians perished. Like Hamburg, Dresden offered the Allies a genuine military target. It housed over 100 factories and possessed important rail facilities, roads, and bridges.

Allied bombs falling on Dresden on February 15, 1945. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian NASM.

Beyond the military, there were emotional reasons for the Allies to strike hard. As their forces advanced toward Berlin, they liberated Nazi death camps. In late January 1945, the Soviets uncovered the Jewish genocide at Auschwitz. In Europe, tens of millions had died in a war Germany started and still refused to end. The Allies, desperate to break the Germans’ will to fight, adopted the psychological tactic of terror bombing.

Were they justified?

The spires of Cologne Cathedral (left) stand over bombed-out city on April 24, 1945. Britain’s Royal Air Force had launched its first “thousand bomber raid” against the city on May 30, 1942. Photo from Wiki Commons.

Works Cited

“Battle of Britain.” Wikipedia.

“Battle for Caen.” Wikipedia.

“Bombing of Dresden in World War II.” Wikipedia.

“Bombing of Nuremberg in World War II.” Wikipedia.

“Destruction of Warsaw.” Wikipedia.

“Firebombing Germany and Japan (Dresden and Tokyo).” PBS.

“German Bombing of Rotterdam.” Wikipedia.

“Incendiary Device.” Wikipedia.

Lichfield, John. “When Britain bombed France.” Tortoise Media. 2 June 2019.

Neill, Ted. “The Capital of Ruins–Nine Facts About the Battle for Saint-Lô.” MilitaryHistoryNow. 12 Mar 2019.

“Operation Cobra (the U.S. Army’s Normandy campaign).” Wikipedia.

Philpot, Robert. “Children of Gomorrah.” The Spectator. 9 May 2015.

Pitogo, Heziel. “10 of the Most Devastating Bombing Campaigns of WWII.” War History Online. 7 May 2015.

“Saint-Lô.” Wikipedia.

“Strategic Bombing During World War II.” Wikipedia.

Turner, Lauren. “Bomber Command Maps Reveal Extent of German Destruction.” BBC News. 8 Oct 2015.

Utracka, Katarzyna. “Warsaw–the City that is No More.” The Warsaw Institute Review. 2 Jan 2019.

“Warsaw Ghetto.” Wikipedia.

Watson, Greig. “Operation Gomorrah: Firestorm Created ‘Germany’s Nagasaki.'” BBC News. 2 Aug 2018.

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