Wednesday, 24 February 2010

153 Sqn. Feb 23rd 1945 - Pforzheim

These posts follow 153 Sqn operations from Jan '45 to the end of hostilities in real time.

Unfortunately for Pforzheim, a town on the northern edge of the Black Forest, the 23rd February was a clear night when it received its sole Bomber Command raid. Despite some nightfighter activity, the attack went in at 8,000 feet, resulting in devastatingly accurate bombing; the rail yard was totally destroyed, as was some 80% of the town's built-up area.

The paragraph above is how 153 Sqn records the raid on Pforzheim.

The following paragraph is how Bomber command recorded it.

The total raid was conducted by 367 Lancasters and 13 Mosquitos of Nos 1, 6 and 8 Groups and a Film Unit Lancaster carried out the first, and only, area-bombing raid of the war on Pforzheim. 10 Lancasters were lost and 2 more crashed in France. The marking and bombing, from only 8,000 ft, were particularly accurate and damage of a most severe nature was inflicted on Pforzheim. 1,825 tons of bombs were it dropped in 22 minutes. The post-war British Bombing Survey Unit estimated that 83 per cent of the town's built-up area was destroyed, probably the greatest proportion in one raid during the war.


A report compiled for RAF Bomber Command dated 28 June 1944, stated that Pforzheim was "one of the centres of the German jewellery and watch making trade and is therefore likely to have become of considerable importance to the production of precision instruments [of use in the war effort]." An Allied report issued in August 1944 stated that "almost every house in this town centre is a small workshop" and that there were a few larger factories in the south and one in the north of the city centre. An attack on the city would destroy the "built-up area, the associated industries and rail facilities". There were no war-crucial targets only war-relevant ones.

In November 1944, Pforzheim was placed for the first time on a target list of the Allied Forces, but with the lowest priority of category five. In that report the city was described as being very suitable for a raid, because the road and rail communications through the old city was known to be very flammable. Pforzheim was used in the transfer of troops.

Detlef Siebert wrote for the BBC History website "Some of them, like Würzburg or Pforzheim, were selected primarily because they were easy for the bombers to find and destroy. Because they had a medieval centre, they were expected to be particularly vulnerable to fire attack."


There is always a human cost to war and perhaps this is as good a time as any to recount some of the impact on the ground as felt by the population of this small and relatively unimportant town on the edge of the black forest.

The large raid that almost completely destroyed the inner city district occurred on the evening of February 23, 1945. The first bombs were dropped at 19:50 and the last one at 20:12. The attack on "Yellowfin", the code name for Pforzheim, included 379 aircraft. It dropped almost half a million bombs with a total weight of 1,825 tonnes. The bombs were a by now standard mix of high explosive and phosphorus incendiary bombs. The core area of the town suffered immediate destruction and a firestorm broke out, reaching its most devastating phase about 10 minutes from the start of the raid. The smoke over the town rose to about 3,000 meters, and the returning bomber crews could still see the glare of the fire up to 160 kilometers away.

In an area about 3 kilometers long and 1.5 kilometers wide, all buildings were reduced to rubble. 17,600 citizens were officially counted as dead and thousands were injured. People died from the immediate impact of explosions, from burns due to burning phosphorus materials that seeped through basement windows into the cellars of houses where they hid, from lack of oxygen and poisonous gases, and from collapsing walls of houses. Some of them drowned in the Enz or Nagold rivers into which they had jumped while trying to escape from the burning phosphorus materials in the streets, but even the rivers were burning as the phosphorus floated on the water.

After the attack, about 30,000 people had to be fed by makeshift public kitchens because their housing had been destroyed. Almost 90% of the buildings in the core city area had been destroyed. Many Pforzheim citizens were buried in common graves at Pforzheim's main cemetery because they could not be identified. There are many graves of complete families.

The inner city districts were almost totally depopulated. According to the State Statistics Bureau (Statistisches Landesamt), in the Market Square area (Marktplatzviertel) in 1939 there were 4,112 registered inhabitants, in 1945 none (0). In the Old Town area (Altstadtviertel) in 1939 there were 5,109 inhabitants, in 1945 only 2 persons were still living there. In the Leopold Square area, in 1939 there were 4,416 inhabitants, in 1945 only 13.


Some surviving allied aircrew were killed when they fell into the hands of German civilians. Four weeks after the Pforzheim main raid, the British crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress bailed out near Pforzheim where they were captured, and six of them were shot at the nearby village of Huchenfeld. One member managed to escape but was later recaptured and taken to a POW camp.

Follow up - info via the forgiveness project.

Tom Tate (England)

In March 1945, airman Tom Tate was on special duties over Germany when his B17 Flying Fortress was hit by fire. The crew bailed out. Seven of them were captured a few hours later near the village of Huchenfeld, close to the town of Pforzheim. A month earlier Pforzheim had been destroyed in a massive RAF bombing raid killing 18,000 people. Revenge was in the air. The British airmen were dragged to a nearby cemetery to be executed by a Hitler Youth lynch mob. Only Tom and one other crewmember escaped.

They wanted to kill us in the school, but the mayor of the village refused, saying that blood would be on the heads of the children for all time. So we were dragged outside and down the hill. When I realised we were about to be killed, a sudden burst of energy overcame me and I ran for it. I was barefoot and exhausted, but somehow I got away. The next day I was recaptured by the German army and taken to a POW camp by two Luftwaffe escorts. I was treated according to the Geneva Convention and assured that my comrades were safe. One of my escorts even handed me a pair of boots. He explained that a woman in Huchenfeld, hearing of my plight, had sent them to me.

After the war, back in England, the RAF asked me to return to Pforzheim to find out what had happened to the missing crew. So back I went, and turning into the cemetery in Huchenfeld I knew instantly what had happened, for there in front of me were five wooden crosses.

The perpetrators of the crime were brought to justice at the War Crimes trials in Essen the following year, and the ringleaders were sentenced to death. I had no compassion. I despised them and said to my wife that I was never going back to Germany.

But then, 50 years later, a fellow golf player mentioned a possible holiday to the Rhine. It was a SAGA holiday, and with their brochure came a magazine. For weeks it lay unopened by my fireplace, until I finally took it out of its plastic cover. It fell open at a double-page spread, which read: “The Village that asked Forgiveness.” I couldn’t believe it – it was all about Huchenfeld and the executions.

I read how Pastor Heinemann-Grüder had arranged a memorial plaque to the five British airmen murdered in his church. On the plaque was written “Vater Vergib” (father forgive). Many people still had that terrible event on their conscience. Only the widow of one of the murdered airmen had been traced, but press interest meant that the pilot, John Wynne, eventually contacted the village too. He had taken a rocking horse and presented it to the new kindergarten in Huchenfeld as a gesture of reconciliation. It was called Hoffnung – the rocking horse of hope.

I contacted John Wynne through the magazine. He couldn’t believe we’d found each other after so many years. “You have to go to Pforzheim,” he urged me. “For years people have longed to meet a survivor to express their shame and horror. They want forgiveness.”

A short while later I received a letter from a couple, Renate and Gotthilf Beck-Ehninger, who were very involved in the reconciliation process but hadn’t known I was still alive. They were so thrilled to find me, and invited me to the commemoration ceremony in 1995. Renate wrote: “I was only nine when Pforzheim was raided, and you were in your youth when you saw the abyss, the darkest depth of human nature.”

I didn’t attend the actual ceremony because I still felt in danger, imagining someone might want to finish the job off. But when I arrived the following week I was given such an enthusiastic welcome. It was clear I had become a symbol of reconciliation. I was greeted by so many people, all of whom wanted to shake my hand. I’ve never been hugged by so many ladies in all my life! I also met Emilie, the woman who in 1945 had sent me the boots.

Guilt had hung over the village for years, but by going there it somehow changed things for them. I was so welcomed, and so well looked after, that suddenly I realised I’d made a mistake. I wish that I’d gone to Germany earlier to relieve these people of their guilt.


Ed Halifax said...

I found your entry about the Pforzheim raid most interesting. 40 years ago I lived in Pforzheim and, of course, heard a number of eye-witness accounts. None ever mentioned the Huchenfeld massacre. Thanks for that. I must say however that I loved the town and its people. Even 26 years after the raid however there were many victims still alive. I particularly recall the horror of seeing a lady whose face and throat had been burnt and the flesh hung as big as a grocery bag from under her nose and swayed from side to side as she walked. That bag of flesh that hung from her face was blue. Amazingly, I met only one man who resented my being English but that wasn't because of the raid but because a Tommy had hit him with a rifle but after he had surrendered. Have you been to Pforzheim?

Alistair said...

Hullo Ed,

Welcome to the blog and many thanks for your comment.

My father was stationed in Germany after the end of hostilities, working in ground based roles and was billeted with a German family who looked after him well and taught him to speak the language. He came home with a life long appreciation of the ordinary German people and what they had gone through during the war - I believe he carried quite a burden of guilt too.

I have never been to Pforzheim, although I married a Swiss-German girl who's family comes from Schaffhausen, near the German border and close to the Black Forest.

Anonymous said...

This story made me weep; I was moved by the miraculous power of forgiveness and how fate has a way of choosing things to happen. In wars there is never no winners only recovery.

Alistair said...

Hullo Anon,

Welcome to the blog. I think forgiveness is an important aspect of war and it's aftermath. Thanks for pointing it out in relation to this.

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