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World Battlefronts: The Heart Still Beats

6 minute read

The sky of early night was carpeted with clouds. Beneath, within and over them, flak burst in fitful fire. It was bitter cold. The big, dark planes were sheathed in frost; the men inside them huddled freezing over instruments and guns. The sky was crowded with the ghostly bombers, growling toward Berlin.

On the Reich capital a drizzle was falling. Berlin was dark, but alive behind its blacked-out windows. A thousand factories were humming. In ten thousand offices men and women were ending their long day’s work with the minutiae of a government at war. In a million homes house wives were busy. In the dark streets, the subways and dimly lit elevated trains, people jostled one another on their way to and from work, to restaurants, theaters and movies.

At 8 o’clock the sirens sounded. Over the heart of Nazi Germany, the frost-sheathed bombers opened their bomb bays.

The Bone and Spirit. Berlin had felt the touch of total war before. Eighty-four raids and some 10,000 tons of bombs had left their mark on the city and its people.

The spirit of Berliners was not good: it was depressed, without much hope, and entirely dulled. But it was not yet broken.

Last week, as never before, the R.A.F.

hammered at the bone and spirit of Berlin with five raids in five successive nights.

In these five nights, Berlin became the most heavily bombed city in the world, taking three-fifths the tonnage dropped on London in nine months of 1940 and 1941.

Nights of Destruction. The human scene was much like London’s. In the factories, the offices, the homes, the streets the people heard the Lancasters, Stirlings and Halifaxes, the first grumble of the flak barrage, and hurried to the shelters.

There they sat quietly.

The bombs hit. The walls shook and groaned, glass tinkled in the stairways. In many shelters the temperature rose as the buildings overhead burned.

After something over an hour there was quiet. The all-clear sounded. People ran from the shelters. Then the sirens sounded again.

No one bothered to look at the sky.

The people ran for the shelters.

This time the attack was shorter but more intense. In shelters people bit their lips, held their heads in their hands. Into one, a woman in labor was brought moaning. Amid the dust of shuddering walls, the incessant beat of guns and bombs, she delivered her child, then shook her fist at the smoky ceiling and gasped: “God damn the English.” All night long, dull explosions continued as time bombs went off or workmen dynamited dangerously weakened walls. By morning most of the fires were out. Smoke hung over the town; everywhere brigades of the Organisation Todt, foreign workers, war prisoners, soldiers and civilians were clearing the streets. Past them the people trudged to work. Here and there field kitchens doled out emergency rations.

Queues before stores were longer than usual.

That night the bombs fell again, and again Berlin dug itself out of new ruins.

The next night, and the next, the sirens sounded for light, hit-& -run raids. On the fifth night the heavy bombers came once more in force, planted new fires beside the old. Berliners were wearier, dirtier, grimmer as they worked to clear up the damage. Men were unshaven for lack of water. Food stores were closing down.

There was no gas or electricity, no telephone communication. Subways, elevateds and trolleys were stopped. But the city lived on.

Days of Work. At week’s end Berlin could take stock of the damage; Stockholm and London in turn sifted the reports. In a great arc sweeping from the industrial electric city of Siemensstadt in the west through the heart of the city to the sprawling factories and workers’ dwellings of Pankow in the northeast, nearly a third of the city lay in ruins. Fire had accounted for 90% of the damage.

Worst hit was the center of town. The Potsdam, Stettin and Yorckstrasse railroad stations were destroyed. Traffic into the Anhalt station was stopped because the tracks on the approaches were ripped up. From great piles of coal stored at the damaged Lehrte station smoke mushroomed thickly.

On the west side of the Wilhelmstrasse only one building was undamaged : Hitler’s new Reich Chancellery. Next to it Hitler’s residence gaped to the sky, its roof burned.

The Foreign Office was burned, Propaganda Minister Paul Joseph Goebbels’ house gutted, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s house gone. Gone was the British Embassy, gone Reich Marshal Hermann Gb’ring’s proud, blocklike Air Ministry. Destroyed were the U.S. and French Embassies at the head of Unterden Linden; the famous boulevard itself was an avenue of rubble. In the Prinz Albrechtstrasse Gestapo headquarters were badly damaged. Professor Albert Speer’s Ministry of Armaments and Munitions was gutted at one end, badly burned throughout (see p. 32).

In the west and northeast, industrial centers had suffered heavily. Siemens stadt was aflame, the area from the center of town out toward Pankow leveled. Some 500,000 Berliners were homeless. No one was unemployed; those who found their places of work bombed out were put to work clearing the street and repairing the damage.

In a comparatively undamaged wing of the Foreign Office von Ribbentrop and his press chief, Dr. Paul Schmidt, held their conferences as usual. The Foreign Minister was grimy-faced; Schmidt had his arm in a sling. Both wore steel helmets pushed down over their heads. Glass crunched underfoot and the wind blew cold through the broken windows.

Food was seriously short. From some districts a mass exodus of the homeless and the frightened began. The long lines wound through the streets to the suburbs, where the trains functioned from undamaged stations.

In London R.A.F. leaders assessed the damage. Their job was to kill the city; they had begun it with 6,000 tons of bombs in less than a fortnight. Soberly, they estimated that another 44,000 tons would be needed, and in the immediate future, if Berlin was to be denied recovery.

The offensive was probably timed to coincide with an ultimatum to Germany’s people to overthrow their government and end the bombing (see p. 32). The morale of Berliners and Germans was as much the R.A.F.’s target as the sprawling fac tories, Government offices and railway communications of their capital. The Battle of Berlin will continue, said the R.A.F.’s Air Marshal Sir Arthur Travers Harris, “as opportunity serves and cir cumstances dictate until the heart of Nazi Germany ceases to beat.”

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