The ruins of Rotterdam

The shell of the Laurenskerk in Rotterdam is one of the few structures still standing after the devastating German bomb raid of 14 May 1940. The entire medieval city center of the old port city was wiped out in fires, and it was most likely due to a communications mishap which was to have far-reaching consequences.

The German army invaded the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and three days later troops stood outside Rotterdam, commanded by General Rudolf Schmidt. The Dutch garrison put up a spirited defense, and Schmidt planned a combined arms operation for the next day. He requested air support by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, but got Heinkel He 111 bombers instead, which were more suited for area bombing. In the negotiations with the defenders, the threat of destruction of the city was used to make the Dutch Colonel Pieter Scharroo surrender it. The negotiations were still underway when the bombers appeared in the sky. The Luftwaffe commander on the ground, General Kurt Student, tried to call off the attack, but the bombers were never reached by the order to abort the attack. Bombs began to rain down, and the crowded, cluttered medieval cityscape was soon ablaze. The fires continued well into the next days.

Some 900 people were killed, and the city surrendered. A result of the raid, where initial reports in Allied media claimed that 30,000 civilians had been killed, was that the Royal Air Force abandoned their policy to avoid civilian targets. The air war took a more brutal turn, with hundreds of thousands of victims to die around the world in the following five years. In an ironic twist of fate, US Army Air Force bombers mistakenly bombed a civilian neighborhood on 31 March 1943 while attacking German targets, killing up to 400 Dutch civilians. That raid was hushed down for 50 years, though.

The rebuilding of Rotterdam began during the war, and while a few official buildings were restored, including the Laurenskerk seen in the photo, no attempt was made to bring back the old city. Modern buildings now dominate central Rotterdam, but the memories of the fateful attack still remain.


The destruction of Dortmund

The Hansaplatz in Dortmund, 10 May, 1943. Some of the city’s more than 530,000 inhabitants walk past the ruins after the British bombing raid during the night of 4-5 May. The arcade with its shops and cafés lining one side of the square is in ruins, and the 14th century Probsteikirche behind it has met the same fate. Dortmund, an industrial and administrative center in the Ruhr area in western Germany, was a prime target for the Royal Air Force, beginning with a couple of raids in April, 1942. The attack in May 1943, coupled with another attack 19 nights later, claimed the lives of some 1,400 people and made more than a quarter of the population homeless. The final attack took place on 12 March 1945, when 1,108 RAF aircraft dropped 4,851 tons of bombs on Dortmund, the heaviest single bombing of any European city in WW2.

It was the RAF that flew most of the bombing missions against the about 260 German cities and towns that had been targeted for destruction. The British leadership under Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris (a man who would’ve ended up accused of war crimes if he had been in another uniform) thought, largely erroneously, that the war production would cease and the will of the German people would be broken by heavy area bombing of industrial and residential areas. Part of it was revenge for the Luftwaffe attacks on British cities, and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden alone were enough to get even when it came to the death count. Poor precision (in many cases, the raids completely failed to hit the intended targets) and the dehousing strategy called for area bombing, most of it conducted at night. One tactic deployed was to drop incendiary bombs mixed with high explosive bombs with time fuses. When the rescue workers and fire-fighters were out, trying to put out the fires and helping people trapped in the ruins, the HE bombs went off, killing the rescue personnel.

A Luftwaffe officer can be seen in the photo. His boss, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, claimed in a speech to his Luftwaffe in September 1939 that “No enemy bomber can reach the Ruhr. If one reaches the Ruhr, my name is not Göring. You can call me Meyer.” The Luftwaffe had a cap that the pilots and other personnel came to call the “Hermann Meyer cap” in a sarcastic nod to his boast…

When American troops captured Dortmund on 13 April 1945, 98 % of the city center was in ruins after 106 bomb raids, the final raid making Dortmund the most heavily bombed city in Germany. Few of Dortmund’s historical buildings were rebuilt, and the neo-gothic arcade in the photo was replaced with an ugly, functionalist counterpart. The Probsteikirche was restored, but the face of Dortmund had been changed forever. Thanks to extensive construction of air raid shelters, the number of killed was relatively low at 6,341 people in total. A further 15,520 Dortmund men who served in the Wehrmacht never returned home. About 5,000 Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables” had been deported to concentration camps in the east, and it can be surmised that very few of them survived.

Unexploded bombs are still found buried in the ground in German cities, and Dortmund is no exception. In November 2013, a 1.8 ton British bomb was found, and 20,000 people had to be evacuated while experts defused and removed it. The war is still present, and the last victims of the bombs haven’t been claimed yet.

Greece is the word

Hans, a young Gebirgsjäger, stands in front of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, after the German capture of the city on 27 April, 1941. He serves in the 6. Gebirgs-Division, one of the elite mountain ranger divisions that saw action on most fronts. It was established in June 1940, spent its first time on occupation duty in France. It was relocated to Poland and then got its baptism of fire in “Operation Marita”, which was the code name for the invasion of Greece. In September that year it was deployed to Finnish Lapland, where it remained until the Germans were forced out from Finland after the armistice between Finland and the USSR in September 1944. It surrendered to British forces in Norway in May 1945.

About twelve years later, my father visited Athens as a young sailor, and went sightseeing. He had a look at the Acropolis; he took a photo that still hangs in my childhood home. The Third Reich had been gone for almost as many years as it had existed. Athens and the Acropolis still stood, while Berlin slowly rose from the ashes. In the annals of history, both Athens and the Third Reich will stand out, but for different reasons.

Lost in France

Roubaix, France, late May or June, 1940. A knocked out Infantry Tank Mk.I rests in the ruins of a house, a German soldier taking a look at the wreck. The photo is captioned “Volltreffer in Roubaix” (“Direct hit in Roubaix”). The Infantry Tank Mk.I is often referred to in post-war literature as the “Matilda I”, even if there’s scant evidence that the name was used before 1941. The “Matilda II” was a quite different tank, and not an improved version of the Infantry Tank Mk.I.

The British developed the infantry tank concept after World War 1. “Cruiser” tanks were supposed to be fast and capable to take on similar enemy tanks, while infantry tanks were intended to move at a slow pace, providing machinegun support for advancing infantry. They had heavier armor, but were armed with machineguns. The Infantry Tank Mk.I was an 11-ton, 2-man light tank armed with a 7.7 or 12.7 mm machinegun, with a top speed of 13 km/h. By 1940, the concept proved to be flawed, and those of the 140 tanks produced that weren’t lost in France were withdrawn from frontline use and used for training instead.

The town of Roubaix lies in northern France on the border to Belgium, just north-east of Lille. In May 1940, the area was held by the British 4th Division, and protected by the so called “Gort Line”, a series of bunkers, pillboxes and anti-tank ditches built during the “Phoney War”. When the Germans attacked Belgium, the Netherlands and France on 10 May 1940, the rapid advance forced the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to retreat. On the night of 27/28 May, the 4th Division vacated Lille and withdrew towards Dunkirk, leaving the defense to French troops.

It’s hard to find details on the fighting in or around Roubaix, not even what unit which was there with the Matilda tanks, but they were probably from the Royal Tank Regiment. The 4th and 7th Battalion RTR formed the 1st Tank Brigade, which was equipped with Matilda tanks, and part of the BEF. There were also tanks assigned to the various infantry divisions, supposedly from the 1st Tank Brigade. Only two Matildas made it to Dunkirk, where they were blown up by their crews. The Germans, who often adopted captured enemy tanks, didn’t use the Matilda I. Just two complete tanks are what’s left of the 140 that were built.

Scorched earth, blown dam

August, 1941. An unknown German soldier takes a photo of the huge hydroelectric dam spanning the Dnieper river at Zaporizhia in Ukraine. It has been blown up by NKVD agents, acting on orders from Stalin. As the Red Army retreated, they practiced a scorched earth policy, leaving as little as possible for the advancing Germans to use. The middle of the more than 760 meters wide dam has been dynamited, disrupting power generation for years to come.

Construction of the dam began in 1927, taking five years to complete. It was one of the largest in the world, producing 560 megawatts and powering the industrial centers at Zaporizhia, Kryvy Rih and Dnipro (Russian: Zaporozhye, Krivoi Rog & Dniepropetrovsk), among them the electricity-consuming aluminium industry, which was vital for Soviet aviation. The dam was the pride of Soviet industrialization.

The destruction of the dam caused a catastrophe that was covered up by Soviet authorities. With no regard for the people living downstream, the demolition team destroyed the dam. The resulting tidal wave hit villages and settlements, killing many thousands of civilians. A low estimate is set at 20,000 victims, but some historians believe that as many as 100,000 could’ve been killed. The wave also killed a number of Red Army officers who were crossing the river as the wall of water surged forth.

When the Germans retreated in 1943, they destroyed parts of the dam and the powerhouses. Reconstruction began after the war ended, and the dam resumed the generation of electricity in 1950. There is no official monument over the victims of its destruction.

The conquering enemy

A street in ruins, possibly in Warsaw, German soldiers with time off looking at the devastated city. The poster on the left says “Do broni – Zwarci i zjednoczeni zwycięƶymy wroga!” (“To arms – Strong and united we’ll vanquish the enemy!”) Unfortunately, as bad as the war had started, even worse was to come. The Jewish population was herded into a ghetto, where the unbearable conditions eventually resulted in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, triggered by the order to annihilate the ghetto as part of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. On 19 April 1943, Jewish fighters launched the uprising. Despite being heavily outgunned and outnumbered, the Ghetto held out for almost a month. When the fighting ended, almost all survivors were massacred, with only a few managing to escape or hide.

A year later, as the Red Army was deep into Polish territory and pursuing the Germans toward Warsaw. The underground Home Army (AK) tried to seize control of Warsaw before the Red Army arrived. On 1 August 1944, as the Red Army was nearing the city, the Warsaw Uprising began. The armed struggle went on for 63 days. Eventually the Home Army fighters were forced to capitulate. They were transported to PoW camps in Germany, while the entire civilian population was expelled. Hitler, ignoring the agreed terms of the capitulation, ordered the entire city to be razed to the ground. About 85% of the city was destroyed, including the historic Old Town and the Royal Castle.

The city was rebuilt after the war, the Old Town reconstructed, and today Warsaw stands as one of the great capitals of Europe.


Thanks to Artur Szulc for the translation of the poster.

After the storm

Warsaw, October 1939. Four German soldiers walk along the rubble of a bombed-out street. A couple of Polish women walk past them, the shorter one carrying an armful of branches which will warm her home for another day and night.

The first air raid on Warsaw took place on 8 September, when Stukas and medium bombers attacked Polish army positions. Five days later the bombers returned, starting fires in several parts of the city. Then, on 25 September, the largest air raid by that time took place, Luftwaffe bombers dropping 560 tons of high explosive bombs and 72 tons of incendiary bombs. Compared to later raids later in the war, that was a small attack, but it still caused widespread destruction. Together with artillery shelling, some 6000-7000 civilians were killed in the September attacks.

By the end of the war, after German bombing, shelling, and demolitions in 1939 and during the 1943 and 1944 uprisings, 85 % of Warsaw lay in ruins. The Poles reconstructed the Old Town, which is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.