Four of the attacks were mounted at night by the Royal Air Force (RAF), and two in daylight by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force. The initial British operation, which began the night of 24 July, featured the first use of chaff, code-named window, in combat. The cloud of metallic strips blotted out large segments of enemy radar screens and provided cover for aircraft that stayed within the pattern, cloaking the bomber stream. This helped keep losses relatively low during RAF operations; only 87 British bombers were lost out of more than 3,000 sorties.
The USAAF sent 252 B-17 Flying Fortresses over Hamburg on 25 and 26 July but lost 17 aircraft. In addition, the American bombing accuracy was poor, since primary targets were often obscured by smoke from the earlier RAF raid. The Americans dropped only about 300 tons of bombs on the city, whereas RAF bombers delivered more than 8,000 tons.
The second British attack combined concentrated bombing with ideal weather conditions of high temperature and low humidity to produce an unexpected firestorm, which was further helped along because most of Hamburg's firefighters were in distant sectors of the city dealing with the results of the earlier attacks. Most of the dead had heeded the advice of local authorities to stay in basement shelters, where they were asphyxiated by carbon monoxide or crushed by collapsing buildings. However, taking to the streets was no guarantee of safety. Those who fled the shelters sometimes met even more horrible deaths, sucked into fires by high winds or caught in molten asphalt.
German armaments minister Albert Speer feared that if the Allies could quickly follow up with six similar devastating firestorms, the German economy might collapse. However, although RAF Bomber Command tried, it could not achieve the same result until its February 1945 assault on Dresden. Hamburg itself recovered surprisingly quickly, and the Luftwaffe changed its defensive tactics to counter the RAF night-bombing campaign. Scholarship conducted 50 years after the bombing of Dresden has considerably lowered the casualty figures from that bombing; it appears that the 27 July attack on Hamburg, not the Dresden bombing, was the deadliest air raid in the European Theater. The raids on Hamburg set a standard that RAF Bomber Command found difficult to duplicate and still provide a vivid symbol of the horrors of the bombing of cities and of total war. Conrad C. Crane
Brunswig, Hans. Feuersturm über Hamburg. Stuttgart: Motorbuch Verlag, 1978.; Middlebrook, Martin. The Battle of Hamburg. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1981.; Webster, Charles, and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany. 4 vols. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1961.
Conrad C. Crane