Saturday, April 30, 2016

Bunkering Down

When my family was here last month we went on a walking tour of the city. Near the end of the tour, a siren sounded. Someone joked about a really loud car alarm, but we were all frozen and looking at our tour guide with rising concern as the siren stopped, then began wailing again.

I heard a warning siren once as a kid, for an incoming tornado. Your reaction is instant, nearly animal, instinctive—a need to find someplace safe. For that tornado we sheltered with other people in the vault of a nearby bank.

Thankfully this alarm was “just” an accident at the harbor involving hazardous chemicals. But somewhere in the back of our minds I think we all felt some ghost of fear from Hamburg’s experience in the second world war.

Operation Gomorrah
Memorial statue in the remnants of 
St. Nikolai. The church's tower was used 
as an orienting point for pilots during 
Operation Gomorrah. Today, the church crypt 
is a war memorial museum.
For 8 days and 7 nights from late July to early August 1943, a joint bombing campaign by British and U.S. troops turned Hamburg into a flaming wasteland.

Hamburg was a logical target—a key transportation hub with many large shipyards producing submarines. The Nazis fought back with anti-aircraft weaponry, but the scope of the Allied assault and the resulting firestorm were too much.

The bombing super-heated the air, causing hurricane-like winds and a tornado of fire. There were reports of streets of boiling asphalt and the firestorm pulling oxygen from the air in surrounding areas. 

In the post-bombing chaos, people
relied on these "proof of life" 
cards to know if loved ones were alive.

[from the St. Nikolai museum]
The glow of the burning city could be seen from more than a 100 miles away. More than 40,000 people died and more than half of the city’s homes were destroyed.

"Air Raid Precautions Are Essential" -
board game to help Germans become used to the idea of air raids.
[from the St. Nikolai museum]

The Bunkers
Having made its own air raids, Germany knew it would suffer the same. The government tried to normalize defensive manuevers (e.g., mandatory blackouts at night to thwart air raid targeting), so citizens would feel safe.

As part of its preparation for war, Hamburg constructed 1,700 shelters for 230,000 people--about a quarter of the population. Of these shelters, few are still safely accessible, and one has been turned into a museum.

Bunker Museum entrance

The four-chambered structure includes photographs of bunker construction around the city, images of residents in bunkers during alerts, recordings of residents talking about the air raids and bombings, actual bunker items, and debris from Operation Gomorrah.*

One of the four bunker chambers

One display area included gas masks, suitcases, 
emergency kits, candles, and helmets. 
The Operation Gomorrah display included 
phosphorous bomb remnants, melted
glass bottles, and fused metal 
(temperatures in the firestorm reached
 1,500 °F/ 815 °C).

I could barely imagine being huddled down there, on those hard wooden benches under those low ceilings in the slightly damp chill, while fire devastated the city overhead. As it turns out, many of the underground bunkers collapsed or were blocked by rubble during Operation Gomorrah. 

There were also plans to create a triangle of large, above-ground bunkers to provide shelter and anti-aircraft defenses. Only two of the three were built.

Both of the above-ground bunkers required reservations, although overcrowding led to some ventilation issues. And Jewish residents and foreign nationals were denied entrance to any of the public bunkers.

Uebel & Gefährlich (“Evil and Dangerous”)
This bunker is one of the largest ever built, measuring 75 x 75 m / 246 x 246 ft.
at the base, 39 m / 128 ft. high, with walls that are 3.5 m / 11 ft. thick and
a ceiling that's 5 m / 16 ft. thick

Up to 25,000 people sought protection in this bunker during Operation Gomorrah. 

It sits just north of downtown, between the colorful St. Pauli and Sternschanze neighborhoods. 

Today it houses some businesses, a private school, a club, and is used for events.

The Energiebunker is 41.6 m / 136 ft. tall,
with walls that are 2 m / 6.5 ft. thick
and a ceiling that's 3.5 m/ 11 ft. thick.
The shadowed person at the base of the far column
gives you a sense of the bunker's scale

For 60 years, this bunker in the southern part of Hamburg stood empty. The British demolished the interior shortly after the war, and the building was deemed unsafe. 

Today, it provides energy through the massive solar panels that cover the roof and crawl down one side. There are tours of the plant available, and a panoramic view of Hamburg from the café at the top.

Even on a rainy day, the vista from Vju cafe at the Energiebunker is lovely

Hamburg has smaller structures (even submarine bunkers!) that have been re-purposed. In fact, all over Europe, bunkers like these have been turned into homes, hotels, and entertainment spots. I’m probably a little conflicted. I think it’s great for them to have a positive, new purpose, but I also think it’s important not to forget why they exist.

Looking at before and after pictures of Hamburg, hearing survivor voices, watching this sobering video about the bombing and aftermath, then walking among some of these places now—it all seems unbelievable and incredibly sad.

Unfortunately, Hamburg had been dealing its own hand of horrors during the war. But I’ll talk about that in my next post…

This is the second of three posts about world wars and Hamburg. If you missed the first post you can read it here.

*I haven't included many pictures from the Bunker Museum out of respect for their usage policy.

No comments :

Post a Comment