About ten years ago I stayed at a hotel in Hamburg, within sight of the railway station. I knew Hamburg had been ‘badly bombed,’ in The War, ‘badly bombed’ being a polite, English way of saying it was almost removed from the map by the RAF and USAAF who dropped tens of thousands of tons of bombs on civilians.
Like you, I saw the film Memphis Belle. And the noble scene where the pilot refuses to just toggle the bombs away and go home but takes the airplane through the bomb run again, in case his bombs hit a school next to a factory. Because he was noble. Because he was American. Because it was a stupid film.
I had an American pilot from the war stay at my house for 10 days, a couple of times. By the end of the Swing music and recollections my significant other and I had the start of a drinking problem we had to deal with but we were pretty sure we’d qualify on the P51. Early one morning the pilot was describing a manoeuvre I couldn’t understand, something about how flying in flights of four aircraft and having to swing back and forth over the stream of bombers they were escorting, but having to fly much faster than the bombers because that was the way the planes were built, when they turned the inside plane would have to throttle right back and turn tight in, while the outside plane in the four would have to speed up in a much wider turn. Then a couple of minutes or so later they’d have to do it again, but the other way around. Then again a minute or so later again, back the way they’d started. For three or four hours. When I said I didn’t really know what he meant the first time around the old pilot was suddenly in my face, angry.
“What do you mean? You were there!”
It disturbed me. I didn’t know who he was remembering and confusing with me. I didn’t know and suddenly didn’t want to know what happened next.
The bombs went pretty much anywhere, most of the time. I don’t think anyone could tell where in a circle of 500 yards anything was going to go, assuming they could see anything in the first place. And in Hamburg, and Berlin and Hildesheim – at the end, pretty much anywhere, it didn’t matter. Nobody was really aiming at anything. They just wanted those places gone.
I used to use the stairs in the hotel. I didn’t understand then or now how the railway station looked the same as when it was built, except blacker. I thought that would have made a handy thing to aim at, but it was clearly very much still there. So was the hotel. It had a huge Hanseatic ship model hanging in reception.
At the top of the stairs there was a little window that looked wrong. When I had a good look at it I could see why. The glass was much thicker at the bottom of the pane than at the top.
I think the glass had started to melt when the firestorm came. My ancestors did that. My father was in the RAF. He wasn’t the pilot he lied and said he was; he didn’t fly the aircraft. But he helped.
And for all of that I am ashamed.