SHAEF HQ, Reims, France February 21, 1945

On this date in 1945 U.S. fighter-bombers attacked the Berg­hof, Adolf Hitler’s three-story Alpine retreat on the 6,700‑ft Ober­salz­berg near Berchtes­gaden on the Bava­rian-Aus­trian bor­der. The Berg­hof, bought and devel­oped with royal­ties from the sale of Hitler’s crack­pot poli­ti­cal testi­mony, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), served as an out­post of the chan­cel­lery in Berlin—the govern­ment’s home away from home. During the war, Hitler spent more time at his quiet moun­tain villa than any other place except Wolfs­schanze (Wolf’s Lair), Hitler’s Eastern Front head­quarters near Rasten­burg in East Prussia (now Kętrzyn in present-day Poland). That fact made the Berg­hof an obvi­ous target for U.S. and British war­planes, not­with­standing that the Fuehrer him­self had vacated his lux­u­rious pre­mises for the last time on July 14, 1944, choosing to live in a suc­ces­sion of spartan bunkers as his Thou­sand Year Reich collapsed on top of him. In Hitler’s absence camou­flage nets now hung over the Berg­hof’s colossal 344‑square foot pano­ramic window, and the huge villa itself was pro­tected by a giant arti­fi­cial fog device that dis­charged a white gas that threw an opaque veil over the moun­tain side. By the time Amer­i­can soldiers managed to set foot in the aban­doned Alpine redoubt in May 1945, it had been gutted by inces­sant aerial bom­bard­ment (the last time on April 25, 1945, by the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command) and torched in a fire set by SS guards.

Further north on this date, in a less sym­bolic move, more than 1,200 U.S. bombers returned to the skies over Nurem­berg for the second time in two days. The medi­e­val city on the northern edge of the Bavar­ian Alps—the shrine of National Socialism—was an im­por­tant air­craft, sub­marine, and tank en­gine manu­fac­turing site and, from 1943 on­ward, was severely pum­meled in Allied stra­te­gic bombing raids. Just the month before, on Janu­ary 2, 1945, the RAF had sys­tem­at­ically bombed Nurem­berg. With­in an hour 90 per­cent of the city cen­ter was destroyed, dis­placing roughly 100,000 resi­dents, wounding 5,000, and leaving 1,800 dead. In the Febru­ary 20–21 raids, over 1,300 more residents were killed and a further 70,000 rendered homeless.

The next next day, February 23, 1945, and the day after that the Allies launched Opera­tion Cla­rion, a mas­sive day­time bombing attack by 10,000 air­craft based in Britain, Italy, France, Holland, and Belgium to cut trans­por­tation lines in Central Germany and para­lyze the enemy’s capa­bility to con­tinue the war. The Allies’ over­all sense was that Nazi Ger­many was on the ropes, and this only made the appa­rent vic­tors more ruth­less in their resolve to utterly destroy Hitler’s war machine and finish off his regime. The hellish fire­bombing of Dresden a week ear­lier, the fire­bombing of Pforz­heim near Stutt­gart two days after Nurem­berg, which killed a quarter of that city’s 79,000 in­habi­tants, and a raid on the Nazi capital itself in broad day­light that killed 3,000 Ber­liners and left 100,000 home­less were making clear the price of on­going resistance to the inevitable capitulation of Germany.

Unbelievably, the fanatical determination of the Third Reich’s leaders to hang in there as the coun­try’s mili­tary situ­a­tion grew progres­sively more hope­less played out in sur­real scenes as ordi­nary Ger­mans tried to main­tain a sem­blance of normal­cy: on April 12, 1945, the Berlin Phil­har­monic per­formed a con­cert, filmed by crews from Joseph Goebbels’ pro­pa­ganda minis­try, less than three weeks before Hitler’s and Goebbels’ suicides and the uncon­di­tional German surrender by Hitler’s suc­cessor, Reich President and Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, on May 7 and 8, 1945.

Nuremberg Before and After the War

Nuremberg’s Altstadt at end 19th centuryNuremberg bombing: Nuremberg in ruins, St. Lorenz Church in distance, 1945

Left: View of Nuremberg’s Altstadt (Old Town) at the end of the 19th century. In the middle ground is the twin-spired St. Lorenz Church (Lorenz­kirche). During the 1930s Nurem­berg earned the moni­ker “City of the Party Rallies” (“Stadt der Reichs­partei­tage”), for it was here that the Nazis held their annual party extrav­a­gan­zas cele­brating the achieve­ments of National Socialism. The city was also home to over 120 arma­ment firms. From Septem­ber 1942 on, the U.S. Army Air Forces employed a team of civil­ian econo­mists to assist with tar­get selec­tion that aligned with mili­tary and politi­cal aims of the war. The goal of the Enemy Objec­tives Unit was straight­forward: maxi­mize the effi­ciency and effec­tive­ness of U.S. air power to produce the greatest effects on Germany’s war economy.

Right: Nuremberg in the summer of 1945, weeks after its cap­ture by the U.S. Seventh Army on April 20, iron­i­cally, on Hitler’s 56th birth­day. In the distance, St. Lorenz Church. The city, parti­cu­larly the Altstadt with its narrow, crooked streets, had a large pro­por­tion of half-tim­bered houses with high wood con­tent, making the close-in buildings highly com­bus­tible and attrac­tive to an air attack by Allied bombers using a com­bi­na­tion of high explo­sives and incen­di­ary bombs. Because cloud cover over the target on Febru­ary 20–21, 1945, prevented pre­ci­sion bombing of mili­tary tar­gets, the bom­bardiers dropped their bombs blind over the whole of Nuremberg, rendering 70,000 residents homeless.

Nuremberg bombing: Nurembergin ruins, St. Mary’s Church in distance, 1945Nuremberg Altstadt after restoration, 1969

Left: Nuremberg in the summer of 1945. In the dis­tance is St. Mary’s Church (Frau­en­kirche). Behind the destroyed buildings is the Haupt­markt, the main market. After Cologne, Dort­mund, and Kassel, Nurem­berg had the largest amount of rubble per capita: half of all resi­dences in the city were destroyed and those that remained for the popu­lation of 195,000 were mostly damaged. One U.S. offi­cial his­torian of the Nurem­berg cam­paign wrote that it took U.S. ground troops three grueling days to reach the ancient walls around the heart of the old town. “[T]he fight devel­oped into the slow and often costly busi­ness of clearing one crum­bling building after another, one more heap of rubble, one more cellar, defeating one more futile though danger­ous counter attack launched by a few men, a squad, a pla­toon.” All the while American fighter bombers and artillery kept pounding the wrecked city.

Right: View of Nuremberg’s Altstadt in 1969 after its restoration.

Operation Clarion: Largest, Most-Expansive Air Assault of the War on Germany’s Transportation Network

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