Thursday, 28 February 2013

A step back in time: The Hamburg Air Raid Shelter Museum


(Stadtteilarchiv Hamm, Germany)
As regular readers know by now, this writer tries to be objective and does not write in terms of "them" and "us" when recounting tales from the Second World War. Although this blog regularly commemorates major events from the war as well as acts of great courage, it remains generally anti-war in it's outlook. A recent visit to Hamburg's only Air Raid Shelter Museum reinforced this view and demonstrated once again that area bombing does not respect national boundaries and merely spreads the horrors of modern warfare amongst the civilian populations of all of the combatant nations.

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the war will be aware that between 24th July and 2nd August 1943, Hamburg was laid waste by a series of  RAF and American air raids with the macabre codename Operation Gomorrah, that peaked, if that is the correct word, on 27th July with a vast firestorm that devastated the districts of Hamm, Hammerbrook and Borgfelde causing casualty figures that are difficult to comprehend even today and which left a generation of survivors scarred with mental images of the hellish scenes that they had witnessed. 

We have already covered the raid in the February 2011 edition of this blog but before one of my regular visits to Hamburg, I recently learned of the Air Raid Shelter Museum located on the Wichernsweg in the Hamm district, one of the hardest hit areas of the 1943 raids. The opportunity to visit such an important piece of wartime history was too good to miss and after a brief exchange of emails, a guided tour was arranged for myself and the group of friends who were visiting with me.

The route to safety (author's photo)
We arrived at the entrance to the Shelter promptly at 11:00 and were greeted by Gunnar Wulf, our friendly and knowledgeable guide for the tour. A brisk descent down in excess of twenty steps took us out of the chilly Hamburg weather down into a subterranean world, which in the summer of 1943 would have represented the best hope of surviving the horrors about to rain down on the city. The shelter was built between April 1940 and April 1941 as part of a country wide scheme of shelter construction in anticipation of British air raids following the outbreak of war in September 1939. The shelter was built approximately five metres underground from reinforced concrete with walls one metre thick. This substantial construction provided protection from everything except a direct hit. 

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered a chamber, which during the war would have acted as a gas-proofed airlock area, from which we saw four parallel tunnel like chambers, which formed the actual shelter part of the bunker. Each tunnel is 17 metres long and has a headroom of 2.25 metres, which allows even the tallest amongst us to stand upright, which as Gunnar explained later was very important in 1943. Each chamber had bench type seating for 50 people as well as shelves for personal belongings. Each tunnel is interlinked with a small passageway into the adjoining chamber as well as being served by an emergency exit at the opposite end to the main stairs so as to allow speedy evacuation in case of a bomb breaching the shelter or blocking the entrance.

The entrance chamber or Gasschleuse (author's photo)

We were then led into one of the tunnel-like chambers, now in use as a small lecture theatre where after sitting down, Gunnar formally greeted us and introduced us to Timothy Hulme, a post-graduate military history student from Wales who had been enlisted to assist with translating any technical terms. The introduction started by explaining the different types of shelter used in Germany during the wartime years. In Hamburg, there were two types of above ground shelter as well as the underground type that we were visiting. The above ground shelters consisted of the brick clad shelters, looking rather like overgrown pepperpots, which were often located close to main railway stations and of which several still survive in Hamburg. The other type of above ground shelter were the Flakturm or Flak Towers, which doubled as anti-aircraft gun emplacements and fortresses as well as shelters. These huge reinforced concrete structures have often proved impossible to destroy and one of these towers survives in the St Pauli area of the city, close to the Millerntor Stadion home of St Pauli FC.

Wichernsweg in 1940 - the shelter would be located to the left of the Church
(Stadtteilarchiv Hamm, Germany)


Going back to 'our' shelter, we then moved to an explanation as to who was allowed to use the shelter and Gunnar described how local residents were registered with the Shelter Warden as being permitted to use this particular shelter. Residents were expected to make their whereabouts known and if a person was travelling and unable to use a shelter for a particular length of time, he or she was under instructions to inform the Warden of their non-attendance; failure to do this and not to attend for three consecutive nights, meant that permission to use a particular shelter could be withdrawn. Most of the shelter residents were the very young and the elderly; the majority of the younger men were in the fighting services and many of the younger women by 1943, were involved in some form of war work. The unpalatable truth concerning the fate of Jewish would be shelterers was also touched upon and Gunnar explained that the Nazis simply would not permit people of that faith to use the public shelters. Jews who by 1943 had not been shipped off to one of the death camps were expected to remain in their homes, not to take shelter and basically take their chances. The Allied bombers could do the Nazis' job for them without the expense of shipping these people away.

Elderly shelterers passing the time
(Stadtteilarchiv Hamm, Germany)

We then moved to what for me was the most striking part of the entire tour. We were played a recording, some of which was taken during an actual raid. For this recording, the lighting in the shelter was extinguished and we listened in complete darkness, in much the same way as if a nearby bomb falling had extinguished the lighting, as happened frequently. The recording started with a radio broadcast; the ticking metronome sound being interrupted by a voice telling us that enemy raiders were approaching and instructing the listeners to take shelter, followed by the haunting sound of the air raid sirens. We then heard the sound of approaching bombers and the steady drone of the engines of 800 plus Lancasters and Halifaxes. Up until now, I have always considered the noise of the Merlin engine to be a friendly, reassuring sound but sitting in the total darkness waiting for the bombs to start falling, even in a simulation like this, it was anything but friendly and oozed menace. Next we heard the sound of bombs falling, including one or two that must have been very close to the person making the original recording and finally we heard the somewhat distressing sound of people screaming and crying; quite possibly the sound of people being killed.

At this point, the recording finished, the lights were raised and we moved to the next stage of our tour. On the way out of this chamber, we examined the many photographs, taken unofficially at the time of various groups of shelterers; many were elderly and they made poignant viewing of people playing cards, knitting, chatting or just trying to get some sleep. These were ordinary people and looked no different to shelterers in London, Coventry or any other city under fire.

The Shelter Warden's area
(author’s photo)

In the next chamber, we visited the area which would have been used by the Shelter Warden and saw some artefacts from the shelter's wartime past, including a noticeboard, a shelter telephone and an air raid siren, which obviously was not originally located in the shelter but was there for display purposes. We were also showed the location of the emergency exit at the other end of the tunnel, which could be reached from the other three by means of connecting passageways between the four chambers. Also included in this area were a series of photographs from the Holborn area of London following damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe in the Blitz of 1940-41, as well as several personal accounts of Londoners during this time. Gunnar explained that he always went to great lengths to explain to visiting school groups that London was bombed first, in 1940 and that what subsequently happened to Hamburg and other German cities was a direct result of this. He also mentioned that he frequently showed school groups the Holborn photographs without captions and that the children often confuse them with photos of Hamburg. As Gunnar pointed out, one bombed city looks much like another.

Luggage Racks in one of the shelter chambers (author's photo)

We then moved into the third chamber, the layout of which has been recreated as the shelter would originally have been in 1943. This included bench type seating on one side, with wooden luggage racks on the opposite side. Today, these racks were filled with suitcases and luggage of the period, including some donated by Gunnar's Mother. He explained that each shelterer was issued with a list of what they should bring with them. This included a change of clothing, washing things, knives and forks - basically what one would take on an overnight stay or a short camping trip. This part of the shelter also contained the toilet - a dry chemical type - and the First Aid area, which contained the only beds to be found - a bunk bed arrangement for anyone who was taken ill during the night, or who was unable to sit or stand. We also saw the air filter, designed to provide a source of 'fresh' air into the shelter and which in theory could help filter out poison gas. The outside chamber leading into the main entrance stairs was also used as a Gasschleuse or airlock, where poison gas, being heavier than air would roll down the stairs and dissipate on the floor, with the main shelter chambers being sealed by large blast and gas proof steel doors. Mercifully, neither side used poison gas during the Second World War, so this was never put to the test. However, the filter could not keep out smoke and during the raids of 1943, when fires were burning out of control up on the surface, the filter had to be switched off in the hope that the shelterers would have enough air to see the raid out.

The Air Filter with the only two bunk beds visible in the background and the toilet behind them. The emergency exit is at the far end of this area (author's photo)

Gunnar described how, although the shelter was designed for 200 people, during the great raids of 1943 anyone and everyone was allowed in. He related one story told to him by a shelterer of the time that during the firestorm raid of 27th July 1943, so many people were crammed into the shelter that it was impossible to move from one end of the tunnel to the other and consequently toilet visits were impossible. Combined with being in near darkness, the sound of bombs falling and the air fetid with smoke and unwashed bodies, the conditions do not bear thinking about. Despite this, everyone who sheltered here during the raids of 1943 survived to tell the tale; many others elsewhere were not so lucky. 

Bottles twisted into fantastic shapes by the intense heat of the Firestorm (author's photo)

This room also contained many other artefacts of the wartime years, including a misshapen bottle found buried outside the shelter. The bottle was intact but had assumed a very peculiar shape. Hamm was in the centre of the firestorm and this bottle had been partially melted and it was explained to us that the temperature required to achieve this was between 800 - 1200 degrees Celsius. Obviously people could not survive outside in these conditions and eye witness accounts tell us of people seeing what they thought were 'tailors dummies' lying around on the streets, including the nearby main thoroughfare, the Hammer Landstrasse. These 'tailors dummies' were human bodies, charred often beyond recognition. Usually though, there was even less left to find - the official death toll is usually shown in the region of 42,000 to 45,000 but the true human cost of these terrible nights will probably never be known.

Knives and Forks suffered the same fate in the heat (author's photo)

For the final part of our tour, Gunnar took us to a part of the bunker that is not usually open to the public but which is used for storing artefacts not normally on display. These included more partially melted bottles which had assumed crazy shapes, knives and forks also twisted in the firestorm as well as many items of wartime ephemera unearthed from the ground around the area. In the main entrance hall as we gathered to leave the shelter was a large piece of shrapnel from a British 500 lb bomb, also discovered close by.

A large piece of shrapnel from a British bomb (author's photo)

After bidding our farewells, it was a somewhat more reflective group which climbed the stairs back to the surface and as we crossed the Hammer Landstrasse on our way back to the U-Bahn Station, it was hard to imagine that this was the same road, that almost seventy years ago was strewn with 'tailors dummies' and a scene of unimaginable hell on Earth.

Thanks are again due to Gunnar and Timothy for guiding us so expertly around the shelter and for making us so welcome. A short article of this nature cannot possibly compare with making a personal visit and if visiting the city of Hamburg, this is to be recommended. The museum is open to the public on Thursdays but private visits for groups of upto thirty in number can be arranged by prior appointment and this can be arranged via the museum's website.

Finally, apart from the February 2011 blog post linked earlier, for further in depth reading of the 'Operation Gomorrah' raids, I can thoroughly recommend 'Inferno - The Devastation of Hamburg 1943' by Keith Lowe, published in 2007 by Penguin Viking, which is a superbly written study of the raids dealing with the background, the planning, the raids themselves both from the viewpoint of the airmen and those on the ground and also dealing with the aftermath.

Lest we forget.


Published Sources:

Bomber Boys: Fighting Back 1940-1945 - Patrick Bishop, HarperPress 2007
Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg 1943 - Keith Lowe, Penguin Viking 2007