Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943

ISBN: 978-0-141-02018-1
Review Date:

The concept of "total war" was still a relatively new concept as the European War began. Throughout history, although civilians were always caught up in the horrors of war, military campaigns had generally attempted to be restricted, successful or not, to military targets only. Total war, on the other hand, stressed the importance of destroying a country's ability to conduct war, hence civilians working at munitions factories, among others, became vulnerable. The citizens of Hamburg, Germany, however, did not believe the Western Allies would conduct such a campaign against them. Hamburg had always been among the most important trading partners of the United Kingdom and the United States; Hamburgers had always thought that their city would be spared, because of the close-knit pre-war partnership and the post-war trading potentials.

They were wrong.

Between 24 Jul and 2 Aug, British and American raids utterly devastated Hamburg. The destruction was so complete that Allied officials thought it would take 50, 60, or even 70 years to rebuild the city. During the course of the 10 days, over 250,000 buildings were destroyed or seriously damaged, displacing over 1,000,000 people. The devastation was so immense that no one knew for sure how many perished, but the estimates generally hovered anywhere between 40,000 and 60,000 deaths.

In the book Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, author Keith Lowe used survivor accounts extensively, from both sides of the English Channel. Royal Air Force veterans recalled their fears while flying through flak-filled skies, while German survivors recounted the firestorms so intense that even streets melted. Narratives like the following were so powerfully graphic that they might be extremely difficult for many readers.

All around us were the crashes of bombs striking with appalling explosions - ear-shattering explosions that seemed to be right next to us, over us. You could even hear the crash as they burst. It must have been hell outside!

Fredy Borck, who was 11 years old at the time, was absolutely right. It was indeed hell outside. An anonymous man who was in his 40s at the time recalled:

I saw many women with their children held in their arms running, burning and then falling and not getting back up. We passed masses of people made up of four or five corpses, each probably a family, visible only as a pile of burned substance no larger than a small child. Many men and women fell over suddenly without having caught fire.... Silently and with the last of their force, women tried to save their children. They carried them pressed close. Many of these children were already dead, without their mothers knowing.

The technical aspects of the book were strong as well. Descriptions of the design and performance of various British and American bombers gave insight to the bombings from the attackers' point of view. Discussions on "window", designed to disrupt German radar, were also helpful in the understanding of the success of the raids.

Near the end of the book, Lowe brought up several topics designed to engage the readers, covering everything from American/British guilt to German shame, and from the justification (or the lack of) of dropping over 9,000 tons of bombs on Hamburg to modern political implications of the raids.

Lowe had done an excellent job with Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 in bringing the horrors of war to the readers through careful research and extensive interviews. The book not only presented an event that rarely appear in English language literatures, but it also truthfully told the human suffering resulting from a total war campaign. This book is definitely a must-have.

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