The Bombing of Würzburg

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In my life I have lived in many cities and villages, but the cities I consider “home” are the twin towns of Dundee and Würzburg. I was born and brought up in Dundee, and have recently returned to bring up my children here.

I moved to Würzburg in Germany when I was 19 years old, to work as an au-pair for a year. On the day of my arrival, I met the man who I would later marry, but that is a story for another day. Today, I am thinking of the upcoming 70th anniversary of an event that almost destroyed the city, but instead led to its re-birth.

While the destruction of Dresden is common knowledge, many people don’t know that other German cities were targeted for destruction in the closing months of the war. One of these cities was Würzburg.

When I think of Würzburg on 16th March 1945, I think of women. By this point in the soon-to-be-ended war, most of the men were at the front. The women whose stories I tell today stood on opposite sides of that terrible conflict.

The 1943 Casablanca Directive set out a series of priorities for the strategic bombing of Germany by UK and US airforces. The aim was clearly defined:

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This should have meant a reprieve for Würzburg as the city didn’t fall into any of the criteria for attack

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Würzburg had no heavy industries, or ammunition factories. The transportation links had been badly damaged in earlier attacks on the railway station and tracks. The city was known as a “Lazarettestadt”, a city of hospitals, and was temporary home to many refugees from other areas of the country.

Despite this, in the bomber command of High Wycombe, England, Würzburg was chosen as a “filler target”, for carpet bombing. It was seen as a desirable target, due to the narrow streets,  and the timber-framed houses, which would enable fire to spread rapidly. No.5 Bomber Group had experience with this tactic, in Dresden just weeks before.

The German Woman – Brigitte

Stadtmauer, Fladungen Germany

Photo of the city walls of Fladungen

Brigitte was the grandmother of my husband, and Uroma to my children. She lived for most of her life in a village called Fladungen. My father-in-law would correct me at this point, to remind me that Fladungen is actually a town, as it has ‘Stadtrechte’. Whatever we call it, the place is around 100km from my husband’s hometown of Würzburg, right on the border of what would later become East Germany.

Before she met her husband, Brigitte had lived in Würzburg, and worked as a maid for a Jewish family, so she had ties to the city.  I never asked why she left the city, and moved further south to work on the border to Austria, but this is where she met her husband. He was Austrian, and after they married, they returned to her hometown of Fladungen to bring up their children.

Hans was called up late in the war. He wouldn’t return until many years after the war ended, having walked home from a camp in Russia, where he had been a prisoner. His children did not recognise him when he returned, a skeleton of his former self. He never spoke of his time in Russia.

Brigitte rarely spoke of the war. She mentioned the shoe-maker in the village, who was shunned after the Americans came, when the local folk realised that he did indeed still have stocks of leather in his cellar. They’d never forget that their children went to school barefoot, when he complained of having run out of supplies.

With Hans still in Russia, Brigitte lived with her four children, in a crooked timber-framed house, close to the mill where my father in law later learned his trade. They survived on the produce that she grew in the garden outside the medieval city walls. Her eldest son was left to care for the younger children when she worked the fields.

She told us once about the 16th March 1945, when from her rural home, she watched Würzburg burn. Back then there was no rolling news coverage on TV, no Twitter, no breaking news, but the townsfolk knew that the orange glow in the sky could only mean one thing. The city of Würzburg had been attacked by allied bombers.

The English Woman – Phoebe

The Blitz, London

Photo of Aldwych Tube Station, being used as a bomb shelter during the Blitz

In a conversation on Mumsnet many years ago, I mentioned my links to Würzburg, and the night the bombers came. A Mumsnet user told me about her great-aunt Phoebe.

Phoebe lived in Henley during the Blitz. This period of heavy bombardment of a number of English cities from September 1940 to May 1941, was designed to break the British spirit, in the same way that the later attacks on German cities were. At times the bombers would overshoot London, and drop their load on Henley. The Blitzkrieg was not as destructive as the later bombings of Dresden, Pforzheim, Hamburg, Kassel and other German cities.

Phoebe was an active member of the WRENS, and received an OBE for her services to her country. Despite her patriotism, one of Phoebes worst memories of the war was watching the massed allied bombers fly over, near the end of the war. Alongside the worry and fear for the allied pilots and crew, there was a knowledge and a sorrow of the death and destruction that they would bring to women and children in Germany. Phoebe later told her great-niece, that the women would weep as they watched the planes fly south, thinking of the lives that would soon be changed forever.

 

The German Child – Herta

Herta Cleve

 

At 5pm on 16th March, 500 bombers took off from Reading, near London. It was a sunny and mild day in Würzburg that day, as the then 8 year old Herta Cleve remembered,

“It was a beautiful day, sunshine, wonderful. We hadn’t been to school for a long time, or only just a few times”

Herta lived in Semmelstrasse, and was due to take her first communion in the coming month. The first warning was given in Würzburg at 7pm, and a more urgent alarm sounded at 9pm.  When the alarm sounded, her mother ushered her down into the cellar of their apartment.

“I was wearing knee-length socks, but I didn’t forget my white fur coat and muff, or the little suitcase with the things for communion: a little crown, material for a dress, the nice underwear, the book of prayers, and the silver case with the rosary”.

At 21.28 flares fell on the grass of the playing fields of the leafy suburb of Heidingsfeld. Each bomber would fly over these fields, then follow a predetermined course, to drop their load on a different area of the city.

256 high explosive bombs were dropped, to destroy the roofs, windows and doors of the buildings. This was necessary, so that the following 300,000 fire bombs would be most effective. The cellar of the house, in Semmelstrasse, where Herta and her mother were sheltering, was in chaos.

“We had beds set up in the cellar for the children, for us to sleep on. But suddenly we were all lying in the corner, on top of each other. Dust, noise, roaring, then it was quiet again. 

We didn’t know what was happening. There were openings from one cellar to the next, and we heard them break through from the neighbouring house, no. 50. A fire had broken out, and the people were almost suffocating on the smoke. My mother dipped sheets and blankets in water-filled bathtubs, and hung them in front of the opening, but it didn’t help for long. We almost suffocated”. 

After some time, Herta and her mother attempted to leave the cellar. She looked up at her house,

“The curtain fluttered out of the destroyed window, and in that moment caught fire. We couldn’t leave the street. It was a sea of flames. We went back to the cellar”.

The firestorm raged at temperatures up to 2000°C, and destroyed 90% of the city centre. 21,062 homes, 35 churches and countless buildings of historical importance were destroyed. It is estimated that in the 25 minutes of the attack, around 5,000 lives were lost.  Many of them suffocated in the provisory air-raid shelters of their cellars.

It wasn’t until the next morning that Herta and her mother were able to leave the cellar.

“My mother had toiled without pause until then, and she comforted me, draped a wet blanket over my head, and said, ‘We will go to Aunt Dora in Mainviertel, where we can sleep and rest'”. 

The area where her aunt lived, Mainviertel, was still in flames. Herta and her mother were evacuated from Würzburg that day. She didn’t let go of her little suitcase, and in April she celebrated her first communion in a neighbouring village.

 

The Trümmerfrauen

 

US tanks in Würzburg

 

Just a few weeks after the bombing of the city, American troops arrived in Würzburg. On 1st April 1945, tanks arrived on the Nikolausberg and the next day the troops were on the river banks, underneath the Festung. The city centre was on the opposite side of the river Main, but the bridges had all been destroyed. The resistance of the Germans was short-lived and by 6th April, the US troops had taken the city, and installed an interim Bürgermeister (Mayor), who declared,

“Würzburg ist nicht tot, Würzburg muss leben, Würzburg muss neu erstehen!”

“Würzburg is not dead, Würzburg must live, Würzburg must rise again!”

While the swift intervention by US Monument Officer John D. Skilton saved the famous frescos of the Residenz, it was down to the inhabitants of the city to clear the rubble and rebuild. With so many men still not returned from the front, the women of Würzburg were recruited to assist with this work.

In July 1945, 36,845 people were still registered in the city of Würzburg: 22,407 women und 14,438 men. The German word for ‘rubble’ is ‘Trümmer’, and this was the name given to the men and women who helped to clear the rubble and start the rebuilding process. At first this was done on a voluntary basis, later it became compulsory, as only those who assisted were given food rations.

In time, the Trümmerfrauen would return to their traditional roles, as private companies took over the huge task. It wasn’t until 1964 that the last of the 2.5 million cubic meters of rubble was cleared. It would take until the 1990s until the last ruin was replaced.

 

Würzburg Today

The Bombing of Würzburg

Photo Credits: Würzburg, before 1945, after 16th March, now 

When strolling the streets of the city, there are very few signs of the devastation of the 16th March 1945. Occasionally, one might come across  a tumbledown wall, but most of the buildings were rebuilt, albeit not always historically reconstructed.

In the same way, lives were rebuilt, but they were never the same as before the war. My husband told me recently, that many felt that the night that turned Würzburg into the ‘Grab am Main’, the Grave on the River Main, was a just punishment for the sins of their country. Whether we can honestly say that the killing of innocents is ever truly justified, the guilt and shame of the Germans was, and is, deeply felt.

The church bells will sound in Würzburg, on the 16th March this year, as they always do, between 9.20 to 9.40pm, the duration of the air raid.

This blog post does not attempt to justify, or lessen the horrific crimes that went before. Sadly, there exists a minority of right-wing activists, who attempt to use the deaths of innocents to rewrite history, both within and outwith Germany, but these must be firmly rebutted.

There can be no drawing up of a balance sheet, with the lives of the victims of the Nazis on one side, and the lives of the victims of the strategic bombings on the other. There is no room for blame or pointing of fingers.

This year, on the 70th anniversary of the Dresden bombings, a delegation from the city of Coventry travelled to Germany. These two cities are twinned, and have worked tirelessly in the past decades to encourage peace and reconciliation. Like the twinning between Dundee and Würzburg, the friendships forged over the past 70 years between Dresden and Coventry have healed wounds. 

We have no way of altering what is past. We can only move forward together.


The story of Herta was taken from the book  „Zukunft, die aus Trümmern wuchs. 1944 bis 1960: Würzburger erleben Krieg, Zerstörung und Wiederaufbau“ by Dr Roland Flade, winner of the Carl-Gottfried-Scharold Prize.

See also Dr Flade’s YouTube videos

One Comment on “The Bombing of Würzburg

  1. Thank you for writing this. It is so important that we resist any and all attempts to dehumanise the casualties of war. There is no such thing as goodies and baddies, especially when we try to apply the title to an entire nation or ethnic group.

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