RAF INITIATES AIR “BATTLE OF BERLIN”

London, England November 18, 1943

On this date in 1943 the Royal Air Force Bomber Command under Arthur “Bomber” Harris launched the air­borne Battle of Berlin, which lasted through March 1944. Harris believed the aerial assault on Berlin—if it came any­where close to Ham­burg’s ter­ri­fying destruc­tion the previous July (Oper­a­tion Gomor­rah)—could be the blow that broke German resis­tance. “It will cost us between 400 and 500 air­craft. It will cost Germany the war,” he pre­dicted. The cam­paign period was not limited to air attacks solely on the nerve center of the Nazi regime, which endured 16 mas­sive attacks. Other major German cities were attacked, too, to prevent the concentration of defenses in Berlin.

The November 18/19 nighttime raid by 444 RAF heavy bombers did little damage to the German capi­tal due to restricting cloud cover over the city, but the second major raid on the night of Novem­ber 22/23 proved to be the most effec­tive raid on Berlin in the war. Hun­dreds of British and Cana­dian Avro Lan­casters, Stir­lings, and Hali­faxes dropped 2,300 tons of bombs in 30 minutes, killing 2,000 Berliners and ren­dering 175,000 home­less. It was during this raid that the land­mark Kai­ser Wil­helm Memo­rial Church was destroyed. The following night’s raid killed 1,000 and rendered 100,000 home­less. Regular raids in Decem­ber 1943 and Janu­ary 1944 destroyed hundreds of lives each night, leaving 20,000 to 80,000 home­less each time.

That said, reducing Germany’s largest city to a pile of rubble from the air never delivered the war’s knock­out blow that RAF Bomber Com­mand pre­dicted it would. After a cumu­lative loss of nearly eleven hun­dred air­craft, almost all of them four-engine bombers (5.1 per­cent of the sorties dis­patched), with a further 1,682 bombers damaged, Harris called off his air offen­sive. In words of the offi­cial RAF his­tory, “In an opera­tional sense the Battle of Berlin was more than a failure, it was a defeat.”

U.S. Eighth Air Force bombers picked up the slack by making hours-long day­light raids on Berlin in the face of weak Luft­waffe defenses. Day­time raids espe­cially frightened adult Ber­liners because most were at work and thus some dis­tance from their usual cellars and their loved ones. Civil­ians liter­ally ran for their lives to escape destruc­tion as bombs col­lapsed build­ings around them. On Febru­ary 3, 1945, nearly 1,000 Eighth Air Force B‑17 Flying Fortresses sub­jected the center of Berlin to a day­light drub­bing of unpre­ce­dented fury. Less than two weeks later the RAF unleashed its largest raid yet on Berlin. Through March 1945 Berlin was attacked 314 times from the air. By then half the city’s resi­dences had been damaged and a third made unin­hab­it­able. But reducing the capi­tal of Hitler’s Thou­sand-Year Reich to utter rubble was left to the Red Army and its remorseless heavy artillery shelling in April 1945.


There are literally dozens of books that vividly recreate the extraor­di­narily bleak atmo­sphere of Berlin in the run-up to Adolf Hitler’s sui­cide at the end of April 1945 and in the imme­diate after­math of Soviet occu­pation. One of the best I’ve read is Roger Moor­house’s Berlin at War. His book bril­liantly recounts the tragedy of every­day citizens of the historic city, who typi­cally were no admirers of the Nazis, yet because they lived in the epi­center of Nazism suffered every sort of priva­tion and even death, all for the self-delusion of glory and power that char­ac­terized a thoroughly despicable regime.—Norm Haskett




Scenes of Devastation from the Nazis’ Reich Capital, Berlin

Reichstag building 1945 Berlin Opera House on Unter den Linden

Left: The German Reichstag shows the scars of battle in mid-1945. The parlia­ment building had not been restored by the Nazis since the 1933 fire that gutted the inte­rior. The Red Army con­sidered it a prime tar­get in the April 16 to May 2, 1945, Battle of Berlin (aka the Berlin Stra­tegic Offen­sive Opera­tion as the Soviets called the final assault on Berlin), and artillery and tank fire each took its toll on the building.

Right: The Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera) was bombed in early 1941 but reopened in mid-Decem­ber, only to close again in August 1944 when the Gau­leiter of Berlin, Joseph Goeb­bels (also Propa­ganda Minis­ter), closed down Berlin and the rest of Germany in the name of “Total War.” The Staats­oper was once again destroyed on Febru­ary 3, 1945, in a fero­cious day­light raid that left much of Berlin’s city center a mass of rubble.

Berlin moonscape Berlin streetscape

Left: An aerial photo of Berlin shows the legacy of destruc­tion left by the war. By April 1945 Berlin had become a moon­scape of ruined buildings and cratered streets.

Right: Danish journalist Paul von Stemann remembered the end days of Berlin as a time of “dull­ness, anti­ci­pa­tion, fear and con­tinu­ous bombing. . . The war seemed per­pet­ual. . . The flowers had gone, the books had been burnt, the pic­tures had been removed, the trees had been broken, there were no birds singing, no dogs barking, no chil­dren shrieking . . . there was no laugh­ter and no giggling. . . [The sky] was often effaced by the stinking and greasy carpets of voluminous black smoke.” Quoted in Moorhouse, Berlin at War, pp. 346–47.

Unter den Linden, 1945 Clearing debris on a Berlin street

Left: Berlin’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden in 1945 pre­sented a grim con­trast with its pre­war splendor. The once tree-lined boule­vard stretched from the royal palace (now gone), through the Branden­burg Gate, to the Tier­garten, the 520-acre inner-city park. View is to the east, to the royal palace.

Right: Berliners had learned to clear streets following Allied bombing raids in the early days of the war. During the air Battle of Berlin, many streets and side­walks were turned into rubble-fields and thou­sands of citizens were conscripted afterwards to make them passable.

The Air Battle of Berlin, November 1943 to March 1944


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