Bombing of Lübeck in World War II

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Lübeck Cathedral burning following the raids
Ruins of the merchants' quarter west of St. Mary's

During World War II, the city of Lübeck was the first German city to be attacked in substantial numbers by the Royal Air Force. The attack on the night of 28 March 1942 created a firestorm that caused severe damage to the historic centre, with bombs destroying three of the main churches and large parts of the built-up area. It led to the retaliatory "Baedeker" raids on historic British cities.

Although a port, and home to several shipyards, including the Lübecker Flender-Werke, Lübeck was also a cultural centre and only lightly defended. The bombing followed the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF on 14 February 1942 which authorised the targeting of civilian areas.

Main raid[edit]

Lübeck, a Hanseatic city and cultural centre on the shores of the Baltic Sea, was easy to find under the light of the full moon on the night of Saturday 28 March 1942 and the early hours of 29 March (Palm Sunday).[1] Because of the hoar frost there was clear visibility and the waters of the Trave, the Elbe-Lübeck Canal, Wakenitz and the Bay of Lübeck were reflecting the moonlight.[2] 234 Wellington and Stirling bombers dropped about 400 tons of bombs including 25,000 incendiary devices and a number of 1.8 tonne landmines. RAF Bomber Command lost twelve aircraft in the attack.[3]

There were few defences,[4] so some crews attacked as low as 600 metres (2,000 feet) although the average bombing height was just over 3000 metres (10,000 feet). The attack took place in three waves, the first, which arrived over Lübeck at 23:18, consisting of experienced crews in aircraft fitted with Gee electronic navigation systems (Lübeck was beyond the range of Gee but it helped with preliminary navigation). The raid finished at 02:58 on Sunday morning.[2] 191 crews claimed successful attacks.[3]

Blockbuster bombs in the first wave of the raid opened the brick and copper roofs of the buildings and the following incendiaries set them afire.[2] 1,468 (or 7.1%) of the buildings in Lübeck were destroyed, 2,180 (10.6%) were seriously damaged and 9,103 (44.3%) were lightly damaged; these represented 62% of all buildings in Lübeck.[3] The bombing of Lübeck struck a corridor about 300 metres (330 yards) wide from Lübeck Cathedral to St. Peter's Church, the town hall and St. Mary's Church. There was another minor area of damage north of the Aegidienkirche. St. Lorenz, a residential suburb in the west of the Holstentor, was severely damaged. The German police reported 301 people dead, three people missing, and 783 injured. More than 15,000 people lost their homes.[2][5]

Arthur Harris, Air Officer Commanding Bomber Command, described Lübeck as "built more like a fire-lighter than a human habitation".[6] He wrote of the raid that "[Lübeck] went up in flames" because "it was a city of moderate size of some importance as a port, and with some submarine building yards of moderate size not far from it. It was not a vital target, but it seemed to me better to destroy an industrial town of moderate importance than to fail to destroy a large industrial city". He goes on to describe that the loss of 5.5% of the attacking force was no more than to be expected on a clear moonlit night, but if that loss rate was to continue for any length of time RAF Bomber Command would not be able to "operate at the fullest intensity of which it were capable".[7]

Bernt Notke's painting Totentanz (Danse macabre)

Aftermath and retaliation[edit]

The melted bells of St. Mary's Church, Lübeck.

A. C. Grayling in his book, Among the Dead Cities, makes the point that as the Area Bombing Directive issued to the RAF on 14 February 1942 focused on undermining the "morale of the enemy civil population", Lübeck – with its many timbered medieval buildings – was chosen because the RAF "Air Staff were eager to experiment with a bombing technique using a high proportion of incendiaries" to help them carry out the directive. The RAF was well aware that the technique of using a high proportion of incendiaries during bombing raids was effective because cities such as Coventry had been subject to such attacks by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz.[8]: 50–51  Winston Churchill wrote to the US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to inform him that similar "Coventry-scale" attacks would be mounted throughout the summer. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin congratulated Churchill on the outcome, expressing his satisfaction at the "merciless bombing" and expressing the hope that such attacks would cause severe damage to German public morale – a key objective for Churchill. A series of follow-up attacks, taking much the same pattern, was mounted against Rostock between 24 and 27 April 1942.[9]

The German authorities mounted a prompt relief operation for the city's dispossessed. 25,000 people had been left homeless by the raid. The local branch of the National Socialist People's Welfare (NSV) organisation opened food stores and distributed 1.8 million oranges, 10 tonnes of apples, 40,000 loaves of bread, 16,000 eggs, 5,000 pounds of butter, 3,500 cans of food, 2,800 boxes of smoked herring and 50 barrels of Bismarck herring. However, substantial amounts of luxury goods such as champagne, spirits, chocolates, clothing and shoes were pilfered by NSV officials. A number of them were arrested and in August 1942 three were sentenced to death for embezzlement with a further eleven jailed. The incident harmed the NSV's image, which had been positive up to that point.[10]

The Nazi leadership was alarmed at the possible impact of the raid on civilian morale. In the opinion of Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister, the raid fulfilled the RAF's directive, as he wrote in his diary: "The damage is really enormous, I have been shown a newsreel of the destruction. It is horrible. One can well imagine how such a bombardment affects the population."[8]: 101  He commented: "Thank God, it is a North German population, which on the whole is much tougher than the Germans in the south or south-east. We can't get away from the fact that the English air-raids have increased in scope and importance; if they can be continued on these lines, they might conceivably have a demoralising effect on the population."[11] Despite Goebbels' fears, civilian morale in Lübeck held up and the effect of the bombing on the city's economic life was soon overcome.[9] To help offset the damage the raid had on German morale, the German hierarchy launched a well publicized raid on Exeter on 23 April 1942, which was the first of the "Baedeker raids".[8]

Red Cross port[edit]

In 1944 Eric Warburg, liaison officer between US Army Air Forces and RAF, and Swiss diplomat Carl Jacob Burckhardt, as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, declared the Lübeck port a Red Cross port to supply (under the Geneva Convention) allied prisoners of war in German custody with ships under Swedish flag from Gothenburg, which protected the city from further Allied air strikes. The mail and the food was brought to the POW camps all over Germany by truck under supervision of the Swedish Red Cross and its vice president Folke Bernadotte, who was in charge of the White Buses too. (Bernadotte met Heinrich Himmler in Lübeck in spring 1945, when Himmler made his offer of surrender to the allies.)

Lübeck martyrs[edit]

A group of three Catholic clergymen, Johannes Prassek, Eduard Müller and Hermann Lange, and an Evangelical Lutheran pastor, Karl Friedrich Stellbrink, were arrested following the raid, tried by the People's Court in 1943 and sentenced to death by decapitation; all were beheaded on 10 November 1943, in the Hamburg prison at Holstenglacis. Stellbrink had explained the raid next morning in his Palm Sunday sermon as a "trial by ordeal", which the Nazi authorities interpreted to be an attack on their system of government and as such undermined morale and aided the enemy.[12][13]


The bombing of the city served as the climax of the 1944 German film The Degenhardts directed by Werner Klingler. The film, featuring the home front activities of a family in Lübeck, attempted to use the raid as moral justification for continued resistance against the Allies.

Reconstruction and memorial[edit]

Joseph Krautwald's The Mother

Under wartime and postwar conditions it took until 1948 to remove most of the construction waste and demolition rubble.[14] The remaining and the rebuilt parts of the old town are now part of the World Heritage Site. The bells that fell from the burning tower of St. Mary's church in a partly melted state have been left in the south tower as a memorial to the event. (See above) Since the reconstruction of St. Mary had priority, the reconstruction of the cathedral was not finished before 1982, the reconstruction of St. Peter not before 1986.

Another memorial to the people who were killed or displaced by the bombing is found in the Lübeck Ehrenfriedhof (cemetery) where there is a cenotaph and memorials to both wars. The memorial of the bombing of Lübeck is a statue by the sculptor Joseph Krautwald, who was commissioned in the 1960s to produce a work that reflected the experience of the victims. The statue, named Die Mutter (the mother), was carved from local coquina and shows a mourning woman with two little children. It is placed in the center of the circle surrounded by the tombstones of those who died that night.[15]

Chronology of air raids on Lübeck[edit]

  • 28/29 March 1942: first and main RAF raid, followed by some minor raids in connection with the bombing of other north German cities as targets.[16]
  • 16 July 1942: 21 Stirlings in an RAF raid. Only 8 aircraft reported bombing the main target; 2 Stirlings were lost.[17]
  • 24/25 July 1943: first raid of the Battle of Hamburg, 13 RAF Mosquitos carried out diversionary and nuisance raids to Bremen, Kiel, Lübeck and Duisburg.[17]
  • 25 August 1944 (Eighth Air Force Mission 570): 81 B-24s bombed aircraft component plants, a rifle factory and steel fabrication plant[18] in Lübeck[19] – local sources reported 110 dead including 39 Zwangsarbeiter (forced (slave) laborers).[20]
  • 15/16 September 1944: diversionary raid by 9 RAF Mosquitoes. The main raid was on Kiel with other cities hit by diversionary raids.[21]
  • 2/3 April 1945: training raid by one RAF aircraft.[22]
  • 3 May 1945 in a tactical operation the USAAF Ninth Air Force flew armed reconnaissance around Kiel and Lübeck, and A-26 Invaders of the XXIX Tactical Air Command (Provisional) hit shipping in the Kiel-Lübeck area.[23]

See also[edit]


  • Graßmann, Antjekathrin (1989). Lübeckische Geschichte. (Lübeck's history). 934 p., Lübeck. ISBN 3-7950-3203-2
  • Grayling, A. C. (2006). Among the dead cities; Bloomsbury (2006); ISBN 0-7475-7671-8. Pages 50–51
  • Harris, Arthur (1947). Bomber Offensive, Pen & Swords, (Paperback 2005), ISBN 1-84415-210-3; page 105
  • Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary: Bomber Command Campaign Diary


  1. ^ The raid is locally commemorated on Palm Sunday, not on the exact calendar day of the raid. Palm Sunday is traditionally the day of confirmation, the most important day in the life of young Christians and their families
  2. ^ a b c d Graßmann, Antjekathrin (1989), Lübeckische Geschichte (in German) (2nd. ed.), Lübeck, pp. 723–8{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  3. ^ a b c "Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary", Royal Air Force, UK: MoD, March 1942, archived from the original on 11 June 2007
  4. ^ Five heavy anti aircraft batteries and four light ones.
  5. ^ "Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary", Royal Air Force, UK: MoD, March 1942, archived from the original on 11 June 2007, 312 or 320 people killed (accounts conflict), 136 seriously and 648 slightly injured.
  6. ^ Boog, Horst (2001), The Global War, Germany and the Second World War, vol. VI, Oxford University Press, p. 565, ISBN 978-0-19-822888-2
  7. ^ Harris, Arthur (1947); Bomber Offensive, Pen & Swords, (Paperback 2005), ISBN 1-84415-210-3; p. 105
  8. ^ a b c Grayling, A. C. (2006), Among the dead cities, Bloomsbury, ISBN 0-7475-7671-8.
  9. ^ a b Boog, p. 566
  10. ^ Nolzen, Armin (2008), "Part 1", Germany and the Second World War, vol. 9, Oxford University Press, p. 168, ISBN 978-0-19-928277-7.
  11. ^ Balfour, Michael Leonard Graham (1979), Propaganda in war, 1939–1945: organisations, policies, and publics, in Britain and Germany, Taylor & Francis, p. 264
  12. ^ "Ihr Blut floss ineinander" (in German)
  13. ^ James Sheard: Must. Resist. Historical. Themes. Archived 28 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine "There is a small memorial stone in Lübeck to the Lübeck Church-Martyrs ... The stone is in German and English. It commemorates the arrest and execution of three Catholic churchmen and one Evangelical pastor – ostensibly for breaking the wireless laws and undermining morale. They had been active in exchanging information and ideas on the progress and morality of the war with other churches and individuals and had formed some sort of an anti-war movement. Interestingly, the Palm Sunday 1942 destruction of Lübeck – and their churches – had given their thinking a powerful and somewhat primitive religious impetus (of the 'sign from God' type)".
  14. ^ estimated total 700,000 m³; by the end of 1948 there were still 100,000 m³ left
  15. ^ Brochure of Lübeck, Department: Planning and Building, No. 103, p 36, January 2010
  16. ^ Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary: March 1942 Archived 11 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ a b "Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary: July 1942". Archived from the original on 11 June 2007. Retrieved 13 October 2008.
  18. ^ Angriffsschlußbericht über den Luftangriff auf Lübeck am 25.08.1944 ("Final battle report regarding the air attack over Lübeck on 25 August 1944" retrieved 4 February 2013
  19. ^ Combat Chronology of the US Army Air Forces:August 1944, Jack McKillop's Combat Chronology of World War II. Retrieved 15 February 2009
  20. ^ Helmut von der Lippe:1939-1949 Zeitzeugen berichten: so haben wir es erlebt. Lübecker Nachrichten, Lübeck 1989, p.24.
  21. ^ Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary: September 1944 Archived 29 September 2004 at the Wayback Machine
  22. ^ Royal Air Force Bomber Command 60th Anniversary Campaign Diary: April and May 1945 Archived 18 January 2012 at the Wayback Machine
  23. ^ U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II: Combat Chronology May 1945 Archived 14 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Air Force History Office Archived 15 September 2008 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved 8 September 2008