Königsberg, East Prussia


ArthurHarrisThe RAF Bombing of 1944

 " The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive...should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany."

"It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories."

RAF Air Chief Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris,  October, 1943 (see * note at bottom of page)

 

(NB: In describing the RAF bombing of Königsberg, I wish to make it absolutely clear that anyone who gave their life in WWII to eradicate the criminal Nazi regime deserves our deepest appreciation, and their acts of bravery and self-sacrifice should never be forgotten. And this includes the thousands of US and British airmen who were ordered to perform incredible feats of courage,  by flying nearly blind for hours and hours in the dark across hostile territory and aided by relatively limited navigational aids - at least by today’s standards). 

 

firestorm-victimsKönigsberg was just one of many German cities targeted by the RAF for indiscriminate firebombing of its civilian population. Many other German cities suffered similar fates in WWII, being nearly bombed into extinction and thousands of its citizens killed - Dresden and Hamburg come to mind – but the situation at Königsberg deserves special mention, for the following reasons: what happened to its people, and what happened to its bombed-out remains.

In 1944 Königsberg suffered heavy damage from British air attacks under the leadership of  Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Arthur Harris.  Bombed earlier by the Soviet Air Forces causing minor damage, No. 5 Group of the Royal Air Force first attacked the city on the night of 26/27 August 1944. The raid was in the extreme range for the 174 Avro Lancasters that flew 950 miles from their bases to bomb the city.  Fortunately for the Königsbergers, this first raid was not successful, most bombs falling on the eastern side of the town. (Four of the attacking aircraft were lost.)

Three nights later on the 29/30 August, a further 189 Lancasters of No 5 Group carried out one of the most devastating No 5 Group attacks of the war on Königsberg at extreme range. From the RAF's own War Campaign Diaries: "Only 480 tons of bombs could be carried because of the range of the target but severe damage was caused around the 4 separate aiming points selected. This success was achieved despite a 20 minute delay in opening the attack because of the presence of low cloud; the bombing force waited patiently, using up precious fuel, until the marker aircraft found a break in the clouds and the Master Bomber, Wing Commander J Woodroffe, probably No 5 Group's most skilled Master Bomber, allowed the attack to commence. Bomber Command estimated that 41 per cent of all the housing and 20 per cent of all the industry in Königsberg were destroyed. There was heavy fighter opposition over the target and 15 Lancasters, 7.9 per cent of the force, were lost."

Following this final air attack, the city burned for several days. The results were devastating, and in addition to the horrible death that befell thousands of its citizens primarily through incineration, the historic city center, consisting of the quarters Altstadt, Löbenicht and Kneiphof was in fact completely destroyed, among it the Dom cathedral, the castle, all churches of the city, the old and the new university and the entire warehouse district.

Subsequent to the aerial bombardment of Königsberg by the RAF in August of 1944 the city would become the target of the Soviet army,  when as many as 1,500,000 Soviet troops supported by several thousand tanks and aircraft entered East Prussia in early January of 1945.  But while they succeeded relatively quickly in isolating Königsberg and trapping the defending army and as many as 200,000 of its inhabitants inside, the main Soviet assault did not commence in full force until 6 April 1945. The assault included intense heavy artillery shelling and further aerial bombardments by several hundred Soviet air force bombers and Baltic fleet aviation, resulting in the inevitable surrender of the defending German forces under the command of General Otto Lasch on April 9, 1945. By this time as much as 80% of Konigsberg appeared to have been destroyed, the combined effect of the August 1944 RAF aerial bombardments and the final Soviet assault to bring the city’s defending army to its knees.

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(*) The seemingly indiscriminate large-scale bombing of civilian populations remained controversial throughout WWII. The issue was raised within the British House of Lords on Wednesday February 9th of 1944, when it was pointed out that this practice would have been contrary to International Law, as per the 1922 Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments proposed code for Aerial Warfare. While this code did not become an international convention, nevertheless great weight should be attached to article 22nd drawn up by a Commission of International Jurists: “Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging property not of military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited”. As well, Article 24 stated: Aerial bombardment is legitimate only when directed at a military objective …”