Bombers over Berlin!

Bombers over Berlin, London…

while Hitler’s bombers were making another raid on the London area early today, R.A.F. bombs shook Berlin.’ 
– Daily Mirror, Tuesday, August 26, 1940 –

Photo: Scherl/Süddeutsche Zeitung (00011855).

So far in the war, Berlin has not been attacked; there have been some air alarms (the first one on the day the war started, 1 September 1939) but not actual raids, apart from a sole French bomber that made an isolate bombing run on the capital on 7th of June, 1940.[1] Fear of being bombed by the enemy was there nevertheless. This calm was to change on the night of Sunday, August 25, when, shortly after midnight, the capital’s air-raid sirens blazed again, alerting the population from the danger coming from above. It was the sixth air-raid alarm on Berlin since the war outbreak, but this time it wouldn’t be a false alarm.

As we have seen on the previous post, 86 British bombing aircraft took off for Berlin on that evening. So, just 35 of those claimed to have attacked their assigned target or an alternative in the Groß Berlin area, the rest failing to locate their objectives due to the heavy overcast. The weather conditions made the attack almost fruitless and most of the crews reported heavy flak and searchlights. RAF targets were the Siemensstadt works complex in the northwestern area, the Klingenberg power station in Rummelsburg and the main airport, Tempelhof.[2]

The official OKW report summed up the events on the next day listing every bomb hit or damage taken by all the city quarters and suburbs: ‘…for the first time since the beginning of the war, several enemy planes flew over Berlin and threw several incendiary bombs on the outskirts… Neither here nor in Berlin was damage done. One of the planes flying over Berlin was shot down by flak on the way back.’ [3]

The Abschlußmeldung des Kommandos der Schutzpolizei from that night recorded that main Fliegeralarm sounded in Berlin from 0.19 hours and bomb danger lasted until 03.24 hrs, when the all-clear alarm (‘Entwarnung’) finally sounded, three hours later.[4]

[Artist Paul Nash made in 1941 this watercolour and chalk drawing of Berlin’s RAF first attack. It shows an aerial view of four Whitley bombers in flight over a target area of Berlin.]

Photo: © IWM Art. LD 827.

[“Berlin Raided by British Planes” reads the frontpage headline of the American The New York Times newspaper the following morning of the first RAF bombing of Berlin, 26 August 1940.]  

Photo: The New York Times, Monday, August 26, 1940.

First agency report cables of the night were very plain and confusing, reporting that the raid consisted in three waves of bombers (others say four), and that a high number of them was overflying the city’s northern and western suburbs during the three-hour attack. Some witnesses stated that ten heavy explosions were “heard to the North-West of Berlin in the first ten minutes after the air raid alarm was sounded”[5] meanwhile others reported that “just one incendiary bomb [was] dropped and some leaflets”, the bomb was said to have landed on a nursery, where it caused a fire that was quickly extinguished by a gardener.[6] Further strikes were listed on the industrial northern suburbs and first testimonies even talk about raiders overflying the centric Wilhelmstraße.[7]

…but, did RAF bombers actually hit their assigned targets?

[Tuesday August 27th, 1940, Daily Mirror frontpage after the British raided Berlin and Luftwaffe bombings on London the South East, the first air bombings on both cities.]

Photo: John Frost newspapers/ Alamy.

“First hand taste of aerial warfare”
The British were very optimistic about the bombing raid but Berlin suffered minor damage actually, no bombs were dropped or hit on the capital itself apart from some on the outskirts. The number of weapons dropped was virtually insufficient: Prof Demps resumes in 18,6t of explosives and about a hundred 4-lbs fire-bombs the amount of bombs dropped[8] with most of them targeting open fields in the north and south of Berlin. Some of these fell into several farms -known as ‘Stadtgüter’- owned by the city; quickly the famous Berlin sense of humor came to the rescue: ‘Now they are trying to starve us out’.[9] 

Thanks to the German official report, we can be able to list every bomb that hit Berlin on that very first night. In Rosenthal, within Berlin-Pankow district, several incendiary bombs hit the area, falling on some arbors (one of them burned down); they caused some fires too on two residential buildings with minor damage. Also in Pankow, further north in Stadtgut Blankenfelde, some 40 incendiaries were reported with no damage.[10] In the Weißensee district, Stadtgut Malchow was hit by 7 incendiary artifacts. More explosives fell on Wartenberg, causing minor property damage there. 

Beyond Berlin city limits, a explosive bomb landed at Selchow and another one in Waßmannsdorf, both located south of the capital near Schönefeld, with no damage. A little bit far from there, four high-explosive bomb were dropped on Deutschwusterhause (sic) in Königs Wusterhausen, Brandenburg state.[11] 

Ironically, part of the damage taken by the city’s districts was caused by the local heavy anti-aircraft guns defending the capital. Minor damage to property from Flak shells splinters –Flakgranate– fired against enemy raiders was reported in Dragonerstraße (today’s Max-Beer-Str) in Mitte destroying some windows of the closer buildings and Tiergarten (which shattered the window panes of the Rathaus) too. Further damage by shrapnel was reported at Neue Hochstraße Ecke Schulzendorferstr. in the Wedding district, damaging several roofs of residential buildings there.[12]  

[This is an overall view of the locations where British bombs fell on that night superimposed to a 1940-map of Berlin. In this case each circle refers to the number of bombs (HE– black colour; incendiaries– red; flak splinters– orange) reported by German authorities on every district.]

Source: LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f. Map design by Pablo Minuti.

According to a Swedish correspondent the Berliners “took it calmly” and most of the citizens were at home when the warning was given, as the weather had been dull and rainy.[13]

Even so, a total of 11 people resulted injured during the air strike, not from RAF bombs but from splinters from the shells fired by the city anti-aircraft defences during that night, seven of them (one seriously) at Neue Hochstrasse in Wedding and another four in the Mitte district.[14] Finally, some sources stated that one of the bombs killed the only elephant in the Berlin Zoo during this first raid, an unconfirmed loss.[15] 

[This first raid was so important in the morale aspect to London that was widely shared all across the British Empire on the next days, in this case the frontpage of the Hindustan Times, New Delhi newspaper in India.]

Photo: Hindustan Times. HT This Day: August 27, 1940.

Broadcasting the raid
At this early time of the war Berlin was still an open city, and several international correspondents reported every day’s life at the Third Reich’s capital. The Berlin correspondent of the Stockholm-based Dagens Nyheter covered the raid on Sunday night reporting that heavy explosions were heard in the German capital and that Unter den Linden was plunged into dead silence when Berlin people took shelter at the warning. Berliners had only taken the raid seriously when anti-aircraft batteries fired back, and went to the shelters, as many had believed the official Nazi-propaganda that no enemy plane would overfly and attack the mighty capital.[16]

The most widely known report from that night is from American journalist William L. Shirer (1904-1993), who was at the time of the raid broadcasting from Berlin on the CBS radio network. Shirer wrote in his diary:
‘We had our first big air-raid of the war last night. The sirens sounded at twelve twenty a.m. and the all-clear came at three twenty-three a.m. For the first time British bombers came directly over the city, and they dropped bombs. The concentration of anti-aircraft fire was the greatest I’ve ever witnessed. It provided a magnificent, a terrible sight. And it was strangely ineffective. Not a plane was brought down; not one was even picked up by the searchlights, which flashed back and forth frantically across the skies throughout the night. 
The Berliners are stunned. They did not think it could happen. When this war began, Göring assured them it couldn’t. He boasted that no enemy planes could ever break through the outer and inner rings of the capital’s anti-aircraft defence. The Berliners are a naive and simple people. They believed him. Their disillusionment today therefore is all the greater. You have to see their faces to measure it
.’ [17]

[American William L. Shirer from CBS radio, at left, seen at the broadcasting center in Berlin in 1939.] 

Photo: Don Congdon Associates.

The raiders dropped more than explosives and incendiaries on Berlin: hundreds of ‘Nickels’ —the British codename for leaflets— fell on the city during the attack. On it, the population of Berlin was requested to realize the futility of the Nazi cause with propaganda messages in German text like “the war which Hitler started will go on, and it will last as long as Hitler does” a straight proclamation headed by “Berliners, Do You Comprehend Now?”. A list of targets in Germany bombed by the RAF in the previous weeks was listed too and also some statistics of the war progress comparing British resources to those of Germany and proclaiming the overwhelming power of the British Empire.[18]

Percival Knauth, the NYT correspondent, described on his cable that [leaflets] were covered with fine print on each side’ and were gathered up by souvenir hunters as rare prizes.’ [19] Shirer added on his diary too: This was good propaganda but the thud of exploding bombs was better…It was an early sign to those in the regime that the war might be longer and more bitter than many had expected. [20]

[Some of the air leaflets, known as ‘Flugblätterabwurf’ by the Germans, dropped by RAF fliers over Berlin during the first air raids on the German capital.]

Photo: TNA AIR-27-1005.

Photo: TNA AIR-27-1005.

There are no known pictures of this first air-raid on Berlin or the bomb damage taken by the city’s buildings and streets, something that gonna radically change after the next bombing (Aug 28th) when Joseph Goebbels rushed press journalist into a tour to see the bomb craters and shattered windows in the Kreuzberg district (see our post Bomben auf die Kottbusser Straße). This first air attack had an official German reaction surprisingly muted, the event warranted only a few lines in the local newspapers the next morning after the DNB, the official press agency, released a modest six-line communiqué.[21]

International observers were aware of this correction picture painted by the regime and the press: ‘Today the bombing is the one topic conversation among Berliners. It’s specially amusing therefore to see that Goebbels has permitted the local newspapers to publish only a six-line communiqué about it (…) There is not a line about the explosive bombs which we all plainly heard. Nor is there a word about the three streets in Berlin which have been roped off all day to prevent the curious from seeing what a bomb can do to a house.’ wrote Shirer about the Germans reaction following the bombing.[22]

[This is the front page of the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party newspaper, on 27 August 1940, accusing the British of using the  previous attack on London —intentionally or not— as an excuse to bomb Berlin. Note that this first bombing of the capital was overshadowed by other news of the day.]

Photo: Zeitungsauschnitte zur Berliner Kriegschronik/ A Rep. 021-02 Nr. 123.

[Calm reigns in this Agfacolor colour picture taken in 1940 which shows the Reich government buildings at Berlin-Wilhelmstraße. ‘Ten Heavy Explosions: Raiders above Hitler’s Chancellery’ was one of the optimistic headlines that can be read in some British newspapers on the next day of the raid.]

Photo by Sobotta. Berlin in frühen Farbdias 1936 bis 1943. Sutton Verlag, 2013.

London turns attack on Berlin into retaliation
Following the raid, the RAF admitted to the press on the following days that the attack was not so successful as planned but attributed this to bad weather encountered by attacking crews after poor bombing pattern was evident.[23] Both the Air Ministry and the international press announced that this raid was a reprisal for the German bombing of London on Saturday night and that all the RAF targets were selected military objectives as well as anti-aircraft batteries and searchlight concentrations,[24] meanwhile German authorities said that the heavy explosions heard on downtown Berlin were detonations of anti-aircraft shells and minimized the attack rating it as ‘extremely small.’[25] Enemy aircraft over Berlin. Several hours of air-raid alarm’ wrote Goebbels in his diary, who on the next day found the mood of its citizens as all of Berlin up in arms.’  The Nazi minister of Propaganda quickly tried to put the attack on behalf of the German cause: Now Berlin too is in the midst of war, and that’s a good thing.’ [26] 

[The Grosskraftwerk Klingenberg in Rummelsburg seen at night some time before the war. Located in the eastern part of Berlin and one of the RAF main targets of that night, not a single bomb hit the power plant or the nearby area. Brightly illuminated on the image, RAF crews found the area on that night in a completely darkened condition due to German blackout regulations to protect the city.]

Photo: © Bildarchiv Foto Marburg (Nr. 822.953).

This first raid left no great damage on Hitler’s capital but the real impact of the attack was the profound moral effect, a serious warning to Berliners of what will comes, a population that as Prof Overy noted had been told repeatedly that German air defences would keep British bombers at bay’ [27] although Jörg Friedrich, author of bestseller Der Brand (‘The fire’) defined the attack as ‘Churchill’s unsuccessful reprisal.[28] 

Two days later, RAF bombers appeared over the capital once again. The German indiscriminate bombings had turned back against the Nazi’s heartland, Berlin. 

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Notes and Citations:

[1] DEMPS, Laurenz (Ed). Luftangriffe auf Berlin. Die Berichte der Hauptluftschutzstelle. Ch. Links Verlag, 2014. pp 33-34.
[2] Berlin Luftterror. The first one: August 25th, 1940; The National Archives of the UK (TNA): Operations Record BooksAIR 27.
[3] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f.
[4] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f; DEMPSop. cit. p 238.
[5] The Evening News, Monday, August 26, 1940; ‘most of the noise came from the north, where the armament factories are’: SHIRER, William. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941. Taylor & Francis, 2002. p 489.
[6] C. Brooks Peters wireless to the New York Times, August 26, 1940, page 1.
[7] Daily Mirror, Tuesday, August 27, 1940; The Evening News, Monday, August 26, 1940; BRITISH BOMBERS FLY OVER BERLIN by C. Brooks Peters wireless to the New York Times, August 26, 1940, page 2.
[8] DEMPSop. cit. p 285.
[9] MIDDLEBROOK, Martin and EVERETT, Chris. The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book. Pen & Sword Aviation, 1985 (2014 Ed), pp 76-77. MOORHOUSE, Roger. Berlin at war. Life and death in Hitler’s capital, 1939-45. Vintage Books, 2011. p 137.
[10] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f; MOORHOUSEop. cit. p 136; SHIRER: op. cit. p 489; AP report quoted in New York Times, August 26, 1940, page 1.
[11] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f.
[12] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f; Daily Mirror, Tuesday, August 27, 1940.
[13] Daily Mirror, Tuesday, August 27, 1940; Berlin arms factories bombed in three-hour raid,The Guardian, Tuesday, August 27, 1940.
[14] see LAB, A Rep. 001-02, Nr. 700, Bl. 2 f; MOORHOUSEop. cit. p 136. Still today several authors and historians mislead the number of victims, overlapping the casualties and damage of the second raid to this one.
[15] Sweeting, C G. Target Berlin: The First Air-Raid on the German Capital <https://www.historynet.com/target-berlin-the-first-air-raid-on-the-german-capital.htm>
[16] The Evening News, Monday, August 26, 1940, page 1; MOORHOUSEop. cit. p 137.
[17] Shirer continues the narrative: ‘I was at the Rundfunk writing my broadcast when the sirens sounded, and almost immediately the bark of the flak began. Oddly enough, a few minutes before, I had had an argument with the censor from the Propaganda Ministry as to whether it was possible to bomb Berlin. London had just been bombed. It was natural, I said, that the British should try to retaliate. He laughed. It was impossible, he said. There were too many anti-aircraft guns around Berlin.’ SHIRER: op. cit. p 416; MOORHOUSEop. cit. p 142.
[18] SHIRER, William. Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Simon and Schuster, 1990. p 778; Nazi Air Blockade is a Failure, Berlin Reads in R.A.F.’s Leaflets, The New York Times, August 28, 1940, page 5.
[19] Percival Knauth wireless to The New York Times, August 27, 1940, page 3.
[20] Quoted in TWEDDLE, Paul. The Other Battle of Britain: 1940: Bomber Command’s Forgotten Summer. The History Press, 2018. p 165.
[21] OVERY, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe, 1939-1945. Penguin, 2014.
[22] SHIRER (2002): op. cit. p 489.
[23] “Listeners in the centre of the city estimated that the bombs were falling about twenty miles away” said the NYT chronicle. Weather Hindered Attack on Berlin,The New York Times, August 27, 1940, page 3; Daily Mirror, August 26th, 1940. 
[24] The Guardian, Tuesday, August 27, 1940; The Times’s aeronautical correspondent cautions that: ‘It should not be imagined for a moment that Sunday night’s raids on the outskirts of Berlin were intended as a “tit-for-tat” reprisal for the indiscriminate bombing of London during the week-end. Whereas the German aircraft jettisoned their bombs with little or no regard for direction or what they were going to hit, the R.A.F. raids were directed against definite military objectives, which had been singled out for attack some time before.’  Tuesday, 27 August 1940. Airminded <https://airminded.org/2010/08/27/tuesday-27-august-1940/>; The Hindustian Times, Tuesday, August 27, 1940.
[25] C. Brooks Peters wireless to The New York Times, August 26, 1940, page 1; Völkischer Beobachter, 27. Aug. 1940, Nr. 240; MOORHOUSEop. cit. p 137.
[26] Quoted in FRIEDRICH, Jörg. Deutschland im Bombenkrieg 1940-1945. Ullstein Heyne List, 2002. pp 52-55; OVERYop. cit.; FRÖHLICH, Elke. Die Tagebücher von Joseph Goebbels. Sämtliche Fragmente. Teil 1. Band. 4: 1940-1941. Saur, 1987 p 296.
[27] OVERYop. cit.
[28] FRIEDRICHop. cit. p 55. 

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Bibliography:

  • Bowman, Martin. (2015). Voices in flight: The Heavy Bomber Offensive of WWII. Pen & Sword Aviation.
  • BRITISH BOMBING SURVEY UNIT (1998).The Strategic Air War Against Germany 1939 - 1945 - The Official Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit. Frank Cass.
  • Davis, Richard G. (2006). Bombing the European Axis Powers A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive 1939–1945. Air University Press. Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama.
  • Frankland, Noble. (1970). Bomber Offensive: The Devastation of Europe, Ballantine Books.
  • Tress HB. Churchill, the First Berlin Raids, and the Blitz: A New Interpretation. Militaergeschichtliche Zeitschrift, Volume 32, Issue 2, pp 65–78. 1982.
  • Wildt, Michael and Kreutzmueller, Christoph. (2013). Berlin 1933-1945 - Stadt und Gesellschaft im Nationalsozialismus. Siedler Verlag.

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