The Battle of Berlin: 70 Years Ago This Month

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Despite the lack of a world war since and the Nuremberg Trials, which sent the message that war criminals would be held accountable by a world body in the future, it’s debatable whether the lessons of World War II have been fully learned. By that point, of course, the Western world just wanted to put all the death and devastation behind it and rebuild. But, the speed with which the United States pivoted to the USSR as an enemy and were back on war footing, where we remain as if terrorism and China were threats equal to Germany and Japan, suggests we still haven’t digested World War II. In fact, it should be central to our daily discourse on a daily basis.

It might seem obscure to some, but November 17 and 18 mark the seventieth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Berlin. If you haven’t heard of or forgot it, the Battle of Berlin was to Germany as the Blitz was to England, only more so. The following passage is from World War II (Penguin, 1989) by the great British military historian John Keegan, who died last year.

Berlin had been one of [RAF ] Bomber Command’s first targets when it assumed a retaliatory role during the Luftwaffe’s ‘blitz’ on London. In November 1943 [Air Marshal Arthur Harris, chief of the Bomber Command] decided to make it his crews’ main target during the coming season of long nights, which were their best protection against German fighter attack. It had last been attacked in January 1942 but was thereafter left off the targeting list because of its long distance from Bomber Command’s bases and its strong defences, which combined to make the ‘attrition rate’ on Berlin raids exceptionally high. Probing attacks mounted in August and September suggested, however, that the German capital had become a softer target than hitherto to Harris’s greatly strengthened bombing force, and on the night of 18-19 November 1943 it committed itself to the ‘Battle of Berlin’.

Between that night and 2 March 1944 it mounted sixteen major raids on the city.

You may not have been aware that

No more than 200 acres of [Berlin’s] built-up area had been damaged in all the raids mounted by the RAF since August 1940, and it continued to function normally as the capital not only of the Reich but of Hitler’s Europe. It remained a major industrial, administrative and cultural centre: its great hotels, restaurants and theatres flourished; so too, did life in its elegant residential districts.

But “the clouds of war drew in fast.”

Goebbels, as Gauleiter of Berlin, persuaded one million of its four and a half million inhabitants to leave before Bomber Command’s main attacks began. Those who remained then began to undergo the most sustained experience of air attack undergone by any city population throughout the Second War World War. Berlin did not suffer firestorm [like Hamburg and Dreseden]; having been built largely in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with wide streets and many open spaces, it resisted conflagration. Nevertheless its relentless drenching with high explosives and incendiaries, six times in January alone, resulted in devastation. Although only [sic] 6000 Berliners were killed in the battle, thanks to the solid construction of shelters in eleven enormous concrete ‘flak towers’, 1.5 million were made homeless and 2000 acres of the city were ruined by the end of March 1944. [Emphasis added.]

Insensitive to celebrate this ruthless attack by “Bomber” Harris if you’re British or American; painful to remember if you’re German.