Friday, November 27, 2015

Retribution: The Bombing of Freiburg - Postcard from Germany

In Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany

Staring out the bathroom window of the building where I first lived in Freiburg, Germany in the early 1970s, I could see the intricately ornate 380-foot spire of the city’s famous Minster.  Although this cathedral has been the seat of the Archdiocese of Freiburg since the early 19th century, it has always belonged to the people of Freiburg and they are rightfully proud of its beauty and significance.  Often called one of the most beautiful churches in the world, it was partly for this reason that I climbed up into the 700 year old spire on one of my first days after arriving in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971.  I did not realize at that time how privileged I was to have this opportunity.  But for the grace of God this magnificent structure almost perished from the face of the earth just 27 years earlier.  It had survived wars and catastrophes throughout its long history, a history that came close to its end on the night of November 27, 1944 when some 300 Royal Air Force bombers laid the city in ruins, killing almost 3000 civilians and injuring 10,000 more.

This was not the first raid on Freiburg during the war.  Ironically, the first bombs to fall on the city were German.  Writing in his Berlin Diary (1941), the Germany-based American correspondent William Shirer noted that "three Allied planes dropped bombs in the middle of Freiburg on May 10, 1940, killing 24 civilians" (German claims were nearly triple that number).  The Nazi propaganda machine quickly seized the attack for its own purposes, claiming first that the enemy aircraft were French before later blaming the RAF.  It also reported that over half of the victims were children.  It was not until 1956 when the German military historian Anton Hoch described how the bombs that fell on Freiburg in May 1940, killing nearly 60, actually came from German Luftwaffe bombers on a raid to Dijon, France.  Somehow they had lost their bearing in bad weather.

Freiburg never possessed significant strategic or military importance to the Reich during the early years of the war and the skies over Freiburg remained relatively quiet.
In fact, German refugees from other cities targeted by the Allies fled to the relative peace and quiet of southwestern Germany.  This tranquility lasted until early October 1943 when a few  American bombers attacked local rail facilities followed by some hit and run strafing attacks in September and October 1944.  There were also minor bombing runs on rail facilities and a nearby Luftwaffe base in early November 1944 prior to the catastrophic raid on the city later that month.

With the Allied armies advancing across France and drawing ever closer to the German frontier along the Rhine River only a few miles west of Freiburg, the city took on new importance to German military planning and future troop deployments to the approaching front lines.  These developments also made it a target for Allied strategic and saturation bombing operations against German cities.  The major raid on Freiburg - Operation Tigerfish - would not only target rail and industrial facilities, but also the Minster and civilian areas as a means for breaking the German morale and as retribution for German raids on British cities during the Blitz four years earlier.  This included the devastating attack on Coventry during the evening of November 14, 1940 carried out by over 500 Luftwaffe bombers which virtually leveled that city’s storied cathedral.

Without any warning issued by air raid sirens the attack commenced shortly before 8pm and continued for just over an hour as the RAF bombers dropped thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs on central Freiburg.  The casualty count would have been much higher had there not been a most unusual warning of the impending onslaught.  A drake living in the municipal park in the center of the city raised such a ruckus that many residents headed to the air raid shelters just before the raid commenced.  The duck did not survive the raid, but its clarion call saved the lives of countless Freiburgers. 

The fires burned throughout the night, and when dawn broke the following day a thick pall of smoke blanketed the city and the surrounding hills.  Much of the Old City surrounding the Minster had been leveled and numerous historic buildings dating back to as early as the 15th century had been partially or completely destroyed.  By some miracle of chance (or perhaps something more than that?), the Minster remained standing among the ruins (see the above photo) having sustained only minor cosmetic damage.  The building two blocks away where I would later live also remained standing.  The thousands who perished lay buried in the rubble.

The air raid also disturbed the sleep of Freiburg’s dead, including those interred in five separate burial grounds situated near the Minster.  The bomb damage would necessitate the removal of these burial vaults to the city’s main cemetery where they were place around the Einsegnungshalle [consecration hall].   A wooden cross was erected on the site on the first anniversary of the raid.

By the time I arrived in Freiburg in the autumn of 1971 the city had been rebuilt.  The Old City appeared much as it did before the bombs destroyed it.   Reconstruction included several memorials to those who had perished.  Today, in the middle of the main cemetery, there is a granite cross inaugurated in 1951 along with a female figure, Die Trauernde [The Mourners] by Richard Engelmann (1868-1966).  Before the consecration hall there is a  monument to the victims of the November 1944 air raid interred nearby.  On the keystone of the west tower of the Minster, near the entrance, there is now a plaque dedicated in 1994 - the fiftieth anniversary of the raid - commemorating the victims of each of the air raids on Freiburg, including the victims of the mistaken bombing by German aircraft in May 1940.  Ironically the plaque’s poem by the Freiburg poet Reinhold Schneider (1903-1958) was written ten months before the November 1944 air raid.  The city did not forget the heroic drake who warned of the impending attack, erecting a small statue created by Richard Bampi in the nearby municipal park on the anniversary of the raid in 1953.  A footbridge connecting the park with the prominent Schlossberg overlooking the city now includes several concrete reliefs completed by the artist Emil Wachter (1921-2012) in 1979 and representing the destruction of the city.  One of these motifs make reference to the German bombing of Coventry.

During my early months in Freiburg I heard a number of stories about the November 27, 1944 air raid on Freiburg.  Walking through the Old City at night I would occasionally look up into the sky and try to imagine what it must have been like . . . and shudder at the thought.   I read in the Badische Zeitung that there would be a wreath laying ceremony in front of the Minster on that anniversary of the raid.  I attended and it was a sobering experience as I listen to the prayers offered as the Minster’s bells peeled in memory of those lost.  The crowd included many who were fortunate to have survived.  I could always hear the bells from my nearby room, but that night their tone and spectral quality took on a new meaning.  As chance would have it, the following day I joined several other Americans studying in Freiburg for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.   There was much indeed to be thankful for.  We were joined by several of our German colleagues, no longer sworn enemies but the best of friends.

I visited Freiburg again in November 1984, and one again I attended the wreath-laying commemorating the 40th anniversary of the air raid.  And once again I listened to the tolling of the Minster bells and gave thanks.   Last month I returned to Freiburg, now almost 71 years after that fateful night.   There are few alive today who remember the air raid.  The stories have now become distant history.   There is a lesson in all of this . . . we should never forget the horrors of war. 

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