My first visit to Berlin was encouraged and arranged by a former RAF Bomber Command pilot, Pathfinder and Master Bomber who flew more than 100 operational missions over Germany in World War II. Group Captain Peter Cribb, CBE, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar was Commanding Officer of RAF Gutersloh in the B Zone of West Germany when we met, in Italy, and he invited us to visit the air base. Gutersloh, a RAF fighter and photo reconnaissance base near Hanover, was the nearest air base to the “wire” between West and East Germany. It was a Luftwaffe fighter base in World War II and the RAF’s peacetime role was to patrol the border and test the response time of the Russian fighters located in East Germany. Peter was adamant that we visit Berlin and arranged accommodation at the RAF Gatow base in the western part of the city. He had only seen the city at night from the air.
In 1959 there were no tourists visiting Berlin, no travel guides and no Trip Advisor or other online sites to advise where to go and stay, and what to see. We relied on advice from the British military personnel at Gatow and our own sense of adventure on where to go. Military personnel from the Western Allies were forbidden from traveling to East Berlin, although some did make the short trip, out of uniform, by U-Bahn, usually at night because the beer was cheaper in East Berlin. Most of the people traffic was from East Berlin to West Berlin on a one-way ticket. What we saw in Berlin was a sad reminder of the horrors of war and the impact of an evil regime on its own people, innocent people of other countries and people of the Jewish faith. What we didn’t see was the magnificent iconic buildings of a once great city, only the ruins that remained. In some places the rubble had been removed, leaving only empty lots in an attempt to deny the existence of the former places of torture, imprisonment and murder. What we saw was a city trying to survive under the control of four countries located inside the Russian sector of East Germany. What we didn’t see was the once great city that had been so badly damaged by Allied bombing raids and the Russian army. The people in West Berlin were optimistic about the future and the people in East Berlin had a dream to live in the west.
It was many years later before I was able to answer some of the questions in my own mind. Of the many books I read about the air raids over Berlin there were a few that stood out. In his book, Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45 (The Bodley Head, London – 2010) Roger Moorhouse wrote:
Berlin is a city that positively reeks of history….(it) was one of the very few European capitals to experience the horror of the Second World War at first hand. Not only was the city subjected to the full wrath of the Soviet ground offensive and siege in 1945, but it also found itself in the very front rank of the air war…. As the most important Allied target, Berlin attracted more air raids, more aircraft and more bombs than any other German city. It was the most aggressively defended target, employing the largest number of personnel in the most elaborate network of defences and costing the largest number of Allied airmen’s lives. It also outstripped its rivals in its civilian death toll: with an estimated 200,000 casualties it suffered the largest non-military loss of life of any city of Western and Central Europe.
The first air raid on Berlin was in August 1940 when a small squadron of RAF aircraft dropped bombs on the densely populated Kreuzberg area. Several more small air raids followed in September, October and November. In 1941, the raids resumed in March but were sporadic with little damage done to the city. In the second half of the year RAF activity over Berlin dwindled to almost nothing. As a result of the air raids three enormous flak towers were built in Berlin (in the Zoo, at Humboldthain to the north and at Friedrichshain to the east) to shelter up to 8,000 civilians and provide a much strengthened air defence system. Berlin would emerge as the best-defended and best-protected city of the war. Never, in the field of human conflict, would so much concrete be poured in response to so few incendiaries. But the RAF bombers caused little damage to Berlin – due to the efficiency of the city’s air defence system and the small number of aircraft involved in the raids with limited payloads. This changed in 1942 when the Lancaster bomber became available.
After the first spate of bombings through late 1940 into the spring of 1941, there had followed a period of almost two years in which RAF raids on the capital became fewer and farther between….when the RAF reappeared in the skies over Berlin on the night of 1 March (1943) it came as a shock….What surprised Berliners….was the sheer intensity of the raid. Kreuzberg suffered considerable damage….the Catholic cathedral of St Hedwig – on the Opernplatz, in the very heart of the capital – was severely hit, with the large, domed roof collapsing into the building’s interior, which subsequently burnt out. Nearby Unter den Linden suffered a number of hits, as did the prestigious Wilhelmstrasse and Friedrichstrasse…. The former American Embassy building – the Blucher Palais – on Pariser Platz was also damaged, as was Goring’s Air Ministry building…. after the shock of the raid on 1 March, the air war once again settled down into something like the routine of the earlier phase of the conflict….Berlin saw only a couple of major raids that spring and summer.
Martin Middlebrook (The Berlin Raids: RAF Bomber Command Winter 1943-44, Cassell Military Paperbacks, London 1988) described the bombing raids from late 1943. He said that on 23 August 1943 seven hundred and nineteen RAF bombers, carrying 1,800 tons of bombs, carried out a raid on Berlin. Seven months later, on 25 March 1944, 811 aircraft carried out another attack on Berlin. Between these two raids seventeen other air raids were made on Berlin. More than 10,000 aircraft carried out raids on Berlin and more than 30,000 tons of bombs were dropped in or near the city. The city was badly damaged and many civilians were killed during the frequent night air raids by the RAF, and daylight raids by the USAF, but Berlin was a difficult target due to its distance from England, its effective air defence system and the design of the city.
A major challenge for RAF Bomber Command was finding the precise location of its industrial and transportation targets in Berlin. Forced to fly on dark nights with no moon, to improve its defence against the deadly German night fighters, Bomber Command changed its tactics to the highly criticized “area bombing” in the hope of hitting its primary targets and demoralizing the population. Even then the bombers were heavily reliant on target illumination by the Pathfinder aircraft. Berlin was the largest city in Germany in 1943 and the third largest city in the world covering nearly 900 square miles. It had a population of four million people and its huge factories manufacturing weapons, locomotives, engines, automobiles, aircraft, ball bearings and cameras made it a priority target. Berlin was a relatively new city of apartment buildings with large interconnected basements, wide streets, parks and open spaces. Incendiary bombs were less effective than in older German cities, and there was reduced chance of rubble blocking the streets or fire leaping from one side of the streets to the other. Extensive flak towers, anti-aircraft guns and searchlights guarded the city, backing up the night fighters that harassed the RAF aircraft as they approached the city. The U-Bahn network provided an extensive system of air raid shelters for the population. In the Spring of 1944 the US Air Force began its daylight raids over Berlin, adding to the massive destruction of the city. The raids continued until early 1945 when the Russian Army entered the city. The Russian tanks, artillery and rockets destroyed what little was left.
Christabel Bielenberg (The Past is Myself: An Englishwoman’s life in Berlin under the Nazis, Chatto & Windus Ltd. 1968) described the air raids:
There was no moon, and there were three air-raids in the three nights I was in Berlin. The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and works of art, on dogs and pet canaries. New and more ravaging bombs –blockbusters and incendiaries, and phosphorous bombs which burst and glowed green and emptied themselves down the walls and along the streets in flaming rivers of unquenchable flame, seeping down cellar stairs. And sealing the exits to the air-raid shelters….
I learned when I was in Berlin that those wanton, quite impersonal killings, that barrage from the air which mutilated, suffocated, burned and destroyed, did not so much breed fear and a desire to bow before the storm, but rather a certain fatalistic cussedness, a dogged determination to survive and, if possible, to help others to survive, whatever their politics, whatever their creed.
In the winter of 1944, Bielenberg described the damage around the Gedachtnisplatz and Kurfurstendamm:
When I reached the Gedactnisplatz and passed the truncated Gedachtniskirche, I was surrounded by a frozen sea of shattered ruins. I had never seen bombing like it before. In the Budapesterstrasse house after house was an empty shell, not one single building had survived. The rubble had been neatly stacked to the gaping windows of the first floors….The centre of Berlin, Capital of Hitler’s mighty empire which, he had boasted, would last a thousand years, and I was alone in a silent ghost town.
This was the Berlin we saw in 1959. We also saw the nightclubs, cabarets and bars along the Ku’Damm that were popular with the American, French and British military. We had not seen cabaret clubs anywhere else in Europe so enjoyed the raucous entertainment. The nightclubs, typical of Berlin in the early 1930s, provided loud entertainment, often with performers dancing amongst the audience and drunken patrons lurching around on the stage. The next time I saw anything like this was the 1972 film of the Broadway musical Cabaret with an outrageously entertaining Master of Ceremonies “Willkommen” customers to the sleazy Kit Kat Club. Cabaret, based on the play I am a Camera (John Van Druten) and Berlin Stories (Christopher Isherwood) was about people in the changing Berlin on the eve of the Nazi’s rise to power in 1931. One of the songwriters for the Broadway musical, Fred Ebb, described the Berlin society depicted in Cabaret as dancing on the edge of a cliff and not quite falling over. There was a noticeable similarity between the Berlin portrayed in Caberet and the West Berlin we saw in 1959. The people had an attitude of “let’s live for today because the future is too uncertain” as they lead a life at twice the speed of their “cousins” in East Berlin.
The difference between East and West Berlin was stark. The people in the western sectors were cautious and unsure about their future but trying to enjoy life, protected by the three Allied Powers. The East Germans were poor, seriously unhappy, closely watched by the Stasi and envious of their fellow Berliners who lived more comfortably in the western sectors. There was obvious tension between Russia and the three western Allies controlling Berlin, especially at the Brandenburg Gate where the Allies allowed free movement from East to West. Berlin was a city caught in the middle of a giant political struggle between the Western Allies and the USSR, trying to recover from one war and avoid another.
We were young and adventurous, trying to understand the cause and effect of World War II and explore a war-torn city. All of the monuments had not been built or the books written about Berlin after the war. The ruins and the cemeteries were there for everyone to see but the museums were still closed. It would be many years before they would admit to the world that the atrocities the survivors talked about were real.
In 1959, the differences between East and West Berlin were enormous even though the East German authorities tried to disguise them. On our ventures into East Berlin in an old Kombi Van we were followed by an unmarked car with two stern-looking men in leather overcoats. They picked us up as we passed through the Brandenburg Gate and stayed behind us until we left East Berlin. Their message was clear, go to the places we want you to see – Stalinallee, East Berlin’s showpiece boulevard, and the Russian cemetery in Treptow Park. Don’t stray off the main roads and do not go into the streets where the ruined buildings were visible. Photograph the buildings on Stalinallee but not the ones behind it. One incident that caused our leather-coated friends to get excited occurred when the Kombi was parked on Stalinallee while we photographed some buildings. We were only 100 yards or so from the van when an ambulance raced by with its siren wailing and lights flashing, only to come to a sudden stop near the Kombi. A uniformed nurse jumped out of the ambulance and ran to the van pointing to the back luggage area shouting excitedly. We ran back to the Kombi to see why she was so animated and what was in the van that caught her attention. It wasn’t on fire, there only were some oranges we had bought in West Berlin. The nurse calmed down so we could understand her German English. She said there was a little girl in the ambulance being rushed to hospital when they saw the oranges in the Kombi and as oranges weren’t available in East Berlin she asked if we could give her one. We gave her all of the oranges and the ambulance sped away before our leather-coated friends could intervene. We then decided it was time to return to West Berlin.