Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, Keith Lowe

Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943, Keith Lowe

This is without doubt the best book I have yet read on the Allied bombing campaign against Germany during the Second World War. It concentrates on one incident in that campaign, the "battle of Hamburg" of 24 July-3 August 1943. This saw the RAF and the USAAF cooperate in an attempt to wipe the key German port city of Hamburg off the map, or at least knock it out of the war. In the process they carried out six major raids, killing 45,000 people and for a short period caused a major panic in most of the German high command.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One looks at the history of Hamburg and the rise of the Nazis, and provides us with some interesting background material.

Part Two looks at the actual bombing itself, beginning with a look at the wider bombing campaign, then the planning for the attack on Hamburg and then moves on to look at each of the raids in turn. Here Lowe follows the same order of events as the raids themselves, starting with the bomber crews on their bases in England, following them to Hamburg and back, and then taking us down into the streets of the city.

Part Three looks at the aftermath of the bombing, from the immediate aftermath of the raids to the post-war memorials and the debates that followed

Inevitably this is a somber book. Every heavy air raid caused casualties, often in particularly gruesome ways, but the bombing of Hamburg triggered the largest firestorm yet seen, which resulted in scenes of a truly horrific nature, which Lowe should not and does not avoid.

One of the great strengths of this book are the first hand accounts of the events it describes. Lowe includes eye witness accounts from Allied bomber pilots, German night fighter aces, the people of Hamburg and the slave labourers who were forced to work in the city.

I do have some minor niggles with this book - the author refers to "liberated" Germany on a few occasions, which I feel rather misrepresents the situation - "conquered" or "occupied" would rather better represent the situation at the end of the war. He also comments on the collapse of the German economy after the Allies arrived, especially on the food shortages, without remembering that the wartime German economy depended very largely on slave labour and supplies stolen from occupied Europe, but these are very minor issues.

The final chapter clinches this book's status as a masterpiece. After remaining scrupulously factual throughout the book, here Lowe gives his own conclusions on the Allied bombing campaign. Without this section the catastrophe that befell Hamburg would have entirely without context and the book might have left a rather different taste in the mouth, but Lowe's thoughtful comments on the motivation behind the bombing war and the attitude that he believes we should take to the victims of the bombing provide a brilliantly balanced ending to what deserves to become a classic work of history.

Author: Keith Lowe
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 512
Publisher: Penguin
Year: 2008

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