SHAEF HQ, Reims, France · February 21, 1945

On this date in 1945 U.S. fighter-bombers attacked the Berghof, Adolf Hitler’s Al­pine retreat on the Ober­salz­berg near Berchtes­gaden on the Bava­rian-Aus­trian bor­der. The Berg­hof served as an out­post of Hitler’s Ber­lin chan­cel­lery, making it an ob­vious tar­get.

Fur­ther north, 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 city was an im­por­tant air­craft, sub­marine, and tank en­gine manu­fac­turing site and, from 1943 on­wards, 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 medi­eval 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 day 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 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, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, on May 7 and 8, 1945.

Nuremberg Before and After the War

Nuremberg’s Altstadt at end 19th centuryNuremberg 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 nick­name “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. In the distance, St. Lorenz Church. The city, parti­cu­larly the Altstadt, had a large pro­por­tion of half-tim­bered houses with high wood con­tent, making the 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 in ruins, St. Mary’s Church in distance, 1945Nuremberg Altstadt, 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.

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