2/6/13 - the roasted corpse of a child

In today's selection -- During World War II, the British spearheaded bombing raids on the German people that leveled all or part of 131 towns and cities, killed 600,000 civilians, destroyed 3.5 million homes, and left 7.5 million people homeless. Led by Sir Arthur Harris, this was done so "that those who have loosed ... horrors upon mankind will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution." It was done even though the alternative of selective attacks on targets like factories would have paralyzed German production, even though the British military was split over the strategy, even though Lord Salisbury, Bishop George Bell and others decried it as immoral, and even though it swallowed up one-third of the entire British production of war material. After the war, it was a chapter that neither the Allies nor the Germans were eager to examine or discuss:

"In the summer of 1943, during a long heatwave, the RAF, supported by the US Eighth Army Air Force, flew a series of raids on Hamburg. The aim of Op­eration Gomorrah, as it was called, was to destroy the city and reduce it as completely as possible to ashes. In a raid early in the morning of 27 July, be­ginning at 1 a.m., 10,000 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs were dropped on the densely populated residential area east of the Elbe. ... A now familiar sequence of events occurred: first all the doors and windows were torn from their frames and smashed by high-explosive bombs weighing 4,000 pounds, then the attic floors of the buildings were ignited by lightweight incendiary mixtures, and at the same time fire-bombs weighing up to 15 kilo­grams fell into the lower storeys. Within a few min­utes huge fires were burning all over the target area, which covered some 20 square kilometres, and they merged so rapidly that only quarter of an hour after the first bombs had dropped the whole airspace was a sea of flames as far as the eye could see. Another five minutes later, at 1.20 a.m., a firestorm of an intensity that no one would ever before have thought possible arose. The fire, now rising 2,000 metres into the sky, snatched oxygen to itself so violently that the air currents reached hurricane force, reso­nating like mighty organs with all their stops pulled out at once.

"The fire burned like this for three hours. At its height the storm lifted gables and roofs from buildings, flung rafters and entire advertising hoard­ings through the air, tore trees from the ground and drove human beings before it like living torches. Behind collapsing facades the flames shot up as high as houses, rolled like a tidal wave through the streets at a speed of over 150 kilometres an hour, spun across open squares in strange rhythms like rolling cylinders of fire. The water in some of the canals was ablaze. The glass in the tramcar windows melted; stocks of sugar boiled in the bakery cellars. Those who had fled from their air-raid shelters sank, with grotesque contortions, in the thick bubbles thrown up by the melting asphalt. No one knows for certain how many lost their lives that night, or how many went mad before they died. When day broke, the summer dawn could not penetrate the leaden gloom above the city. The smoke had risen to a height of 8,000 metres, where it spread like a vast, anvil-shaped cumulonimbus cloud. A wavering heat, which the bomber pilots said they had felt through the sides of their planes, continued to rise from the smoking, glowing mounds of stone.

"Residential districts with a street length of 200 kilometres in all were utterly destroyed. Horribly disfigured corpses lay everywhere. Bluish little phosphorus flames still flickered around many of them; others had been roasted brown or purple and reduced to a third of their normal size. They lay doubled up in pools of their own melted fat, which had sometimes already congealed. In the next few days, the central death zone was declared a no-go area. When punishment labour gangs and camp inmates could begin clearing it in August, after the rubble had cooled down, they found people still sitting at tables or up against walls where they had been overcome by monoxide gas. Elsewhere, clumps of flesh and bone or whole heaps of bodies had cooked in the water gushing from bursting boilers. Other victims had been so badly charred and reduced to ashes by the heat, which had risen to 1,000 degrees or more, that the remains of families consisting of several people could be car­ried away in a single laundry basket.

"The exodus of survivors from Hamburg had be­gun on the night of the air raid itself. It started, as Nossack writes, with 'constant movement in all the neighbouring streets ... going no one knew where.' The refugees, numbering one and a quarter million, dispersed all over the Reich as far as its outer bor­ders. Under his diary entry for 20 August 1943, ... Friedrich Reck describes a group of forty to fifty such refugees try­ing to force their way into a train at a station in Up­per Bavaria. As they do so a cardboard suitcase 'falls on the platform, bursts open and spills its contents. Toys, a manicure case, singed underwear. And last of all, the roasted corpse of a child, shrunk like a mummy, which its half-deranged mother has been carrying about with her, the relic of a past that was still intact a few days ago.' "


W.G. Sebald


On the Natural History of Destruction


Notting Hill Editions


Copyright 2003 by the Estate of W.G. Sebald


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