Monday 29 August 2011

Koenigsberg Burning

On the nights of August 26 and 27 and August 29 and 30, 1944, Elfriede Neumann sat in her Taplacken farmhouse and listened to the drone of the planes as the British dropped 480 tons of bombs on the nearby city of Koenigsberg, the beautiful capital of East Prussia, Germany.  Churchill had called Koenigsberg a "modernized heavily defended fortress" and targeted it for attack.  The initial raid resulted in minimal damage; however, the second raid inflicted sheer terror in the hearts of the Koenigsberg residents.  Only nine months had elapsed since the Neumann family had sat for their family portrait at a studio in the city, the last time that Elfriede saw her husband alive; now he was missing in action on the Eastern front and his home province was under siege.

The bombing destroyed all seven bridges in the city.  The university was obliterated.  Many churches were targetted inlcuding the centuries-old Koenigsberg Cathedral, on an island in the Pregel River, which took a direct hit.  One hundred Koenigsbergers, including many children, were hiding beneath the church's large spire and were killed instantly.  This was not just a regular bombing, but a fire bombing.  Thousands of civilians drowned themselves in the Pregel River, their clothes burning as they ran into its waters.  Even the magnificent King's Castle was bombed (see my post "The Amber Room") and damaged, although its frame remained intact.  Statues were smashed and landmarks demolished.  Ninety percent of the 700-year-old city was destroyed.  Koenigsberg burned for an entire week and smouldered for several more weeks.  People were forbidden to enter the city.    The British had sent 800 bombers to fly over the city and drop incendiary bombs, tracking a path from the North train station to the Main train station.  Almost all of the cultural buildings, like the university, cathedral, and castle, were hit by the raids.  One hundred and fifty thousand citizens were made homeless as a result of the bombings.

Elfriede's sister, Doris, saw it all happen from her parents' farm in Nautzwinkel, a village only a few kilometres from the East Prussian capital.  She was called in by the Red Cross to help the victims of the bombings.   The fire departments and air defence were rendered helpless.  A makeshift hospital set up at the outskirts of the city was where Doris and other volunteers tended the wounded.  In the centre of the city, even those who took cover in basements were incinerated due to the intense heat of the incendiary bombs, including napalm.  The bombing of Koenigsberg was like a prelude to the attack on Dresden six months later.  When the smoke cleared, all that was left was a charred ruins.  Incandescent traces of red and orange lingered above the city for days.  Koenigsberg, the bustling metropolis where Elfriede had once shopped with her family, now resembled a ghost town. 

Dedicated to my husband Rob's Oma, Elfriede Neumann (1911-2007).

Portrait of Koenigsberg Castle courtesy

Photo of Koenigsberg Castle ruins courtesy

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