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   Vol. 69/No. 21           May 30, 2005  

There Is No Peace: 60 Years Since End of World War II   

1943 British bombing of Hamburg killed 45,000
We publish the article below, and an accompanying one on this page, as part of this column, which appears regularly this year—the 60th anniversary since the end of World War II—to tell the truth about the second worldwide interimperialist slaughter.

LONDON—During World War II the Allied powers fought their rivals in the Axis bloc over redivision and plunder of the world. In the course of the war, both competing groups of imperialists committed crimes against humanity. One of these was the 1943 firebombing of Hamburg by the British air force, through which London turned the mass murder of civilian populations in Germany into an “acceptable” and “legitimate” method of war.

U.S. and British bombers expanded these firebombings to Dresden and other German cities in 1945. That same year, the U.S. Army Air Force also unleashed firestorms over Tokyo and some 60 other Japanese cities, killing more Japanese civilians than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For the British rulers, the second worldwide interimperialist slaughter was a war to defend their colonial possessions in southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and to prevent their German rivals from establishing ascendancy in Europe.

Over several nights in late July 1943, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) carried out a series of bombardments of Hamburg, creating a firestorm that took the lives of about 45,000 people and destroyed 56 percent of the city’s homes and 436 public buildings. Hamburg was Germany’s second largest city. Those incinerated included Germans and workers from across Europe. These workers—from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia—were conscripted to work in Hamburg by the German armies occupying their countries.

This war of conquest was an extension of the British rulers’ assaults on working people at home. During the war, the government imposed a wage freeze and laws restricting strikes. Despite the support by union officials for these measures, the rulers were not able to keep a lid on workers’ resistance. By 1943 coal miners in the United Kingdom went on strike, and engineering workers walked out the next year.

British Air Field Marshall Arthur Harris planned the Hamburg raids. Also known since then as “Bomber Harris,” the general later boasted, “No air raid ever known before had been so terrible as that which Hamburg had endured. The second largest city in Germany, with a population of 2 million, had been wiped out in three nights.” Harris carried out directives from the Air Ministry, which had been approved by British prime minister Winston Churchill and by the wartime coalition cabinet, in which the Labour Party served.

Arthur Harris had sought his fortune in Rhodesia, then a colony of Britain, in gold mining and horse driving. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and in 1919 became a squadron leader in the RAF. In this capacity, he served throughout the British Empire (India, Iraq, Iran, and the Middle East) during the 1920s and the early ’30s.

During this time, the RAF used bombing raids against a rebellion in Iraq. “The truculent and warlike tribes,” Harris said, “had to be quelled.” Some of these raids included the use of poison gas and delayed action bombs. Some in the RAF were appalled by this practice. Air Commodore Lionel Charlton resigned his commission after the raids on Iraq. Harris said, however, that “the only thing the Arab understands is the heavy hand.”  
Particular target: industrial workers
On Feb. 14, 1942, the Air Ministry issued a new directive to the Bomber Command authorizing unrestricted bombing, aimed particularly at working-class neighborhoods. “It has been decided that the primary objective of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population and in particular of the industrial workers,” the order said. Lord Cherwell provided further rationalization for the campaign, claiming that the “dehousing” of the German workers and their families would doubtlessly “break the spirit of the people.”

“I suppose it is clear that the aiming-points are to be built-up areas, not…the dockyards or aircraft factories,” said Chief of Air Staff Charles Portal. “This must be made quite clear.”

In February 1942 Harris was appointed head of the Bomber Command. Now he could put into operation his belief that an enemy could be bombed into submission—which he called “area bombing.”

Harris developed the plan for maximum carnage: the first wave of bombers would drop high explosive bombs damaging the city’s infrastructure, preventing emergency services from using roads. A second wave of blast bombs would destroy roofs and blow out windows, creating optimum conditions for air drafts and spreading of fire. Then incendiary bombs would be dropped, starting a firestorm.

The operation was code-named Gomorrah, after the biblical city that was destroyed by fire. Citizens and historians in Hamburg refer to the assault as “The Catastrophe.” RAF planes bombed at night, while the U.S. 8th Air Force attacked during the day to create an around-the-clock bombing. The British bombs ranged from four-pound incendiary sticks to 8,000-pound high explosive devices. A total of 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped. These weapons were intended to “make the enemy burn and bleed in every way,” as Churchill had urged in 1941.

For the first time in the war, sustained aerial bombardment led to a firestorm. Great numbers of fires were started in a relatively small and densely built-up area, creating a tornado of fire, with winds up to 150 miles per hour and temperatures of 800 degrees Celsius (1,500 degrees Fahrenheit). Street asphalt burst into flames, pedestrians were sucked off pavements and incinerated, and people were cooked to death in air raid shelters. According to Hamburg’s police chief, “Children were torn away from their parents’ hands by the force of the hurricane and whirled into the fire.”

Chances of survival were greater for those with access to the purpose built bunkers, with gas- and smoke-tight doors. But in the area where the firestorm raged most had only basement shelters, where tens of thousands were asphyxiated. Following the first RAF raid, German authorities tried to prevent workers from escaping subsequent bombings, because they feared losing industrial output.

Only glimpses of what was done by the British imperialists found their way into the British press. The Aug. 6, 1943, Daily Telegraph, for example, quoted a RAF officer who had flown over Hamburg saying, “The term raid is no longer expressive enough for what is happening. From what I have seen in two of the six air attacks made within 71 hours, the destruction is truly devastating. In comparison the enemy raids on London were child’s play.”

The British government ensured that the actual scale of the destruction and loss of life were concealed. Air Ministry official communiqués issued after each raid selectively reported what occurred, referring to the tonnage of bombs dropped and the destruction of factories but not the residential areas hit. Labour Party leader Clement Attlee, then deputy prime minister in the coalition government, openly lied, telling the House of Commons, “There is no indiscriminate bombing.”  
British Communist Party aids gov’t
In rationalizing their acts, the British rulers were assisted by the Daily Worker, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Great Britain. An article in the July 27, 1943, issue of the paper described the raids on Hamburg as “terrific.” The front-page headline of the same paper two days later read, “Latest Smasher Makes Hamburg’s 72-hour total 5,500 tons.” “Now is the moment for the allies to strike with their full force on the continent of Europe, with deadly smashing blows which can bring the war to a speedy conclusion,” said a Daily Worker opinion column while the Hamburg bombing was going on. “Every man, every gun, every plane into action against the enemy.”

This was consistent with the Communist Party’s class-collaborationist stance inside Britain, which included active strike-breaking during the war. The CP backed the foreign policy course of the Soviet government headed by Joseph Stalin, subordinating the interests of the working classes to that policy and siding with the British imperialists during the war.

Between 1939 and 1945, the RAF Bomber Command attacked 61 German cities with a combined population of 25 million. The raids destroyed 3.6 million homes (20 percent of all homes in these cities), leaving 7.5 million people homeless. About 300,000 Germans were killed as a result of the raids, and 800,000 were wounded. The firebombings destroyed 70 percent of Berlin and 75 percent of Dresden.

In a post-war account, Harris alleged that the “area bombing” of German cities was “comparatively humane.”

As a part of the British rulers’ attempt to celebrate the imperialist slaughter and to build patriotic sentiment for wars they are carrying out today, along with Washington, as in Iraq, and future wars they are preparing, a statue to Harris was erected in 1992 in London. Within 24 hours it had been defaced.

German author Jörg Friedrich published a book recently, revealing the extent of the destruction of Hamburg. In response, an article in the British Daily Mail claimed that Friedrich’s book was a “historical travesty.”
Related articles:
While imperialists celebrate ‘V-E Day,’ Algiers blasts
1945 massacre of pro-independence forces by Paris

Previous article in the series:
Strengthening anti-imperialist character of Caracas world youth festival
Separating myth from reality about the causes and outcome of World War II  
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