- Historic Sites
After The Air Raids
An insider’s account of a startling— and still controversial—investigation of the Allied bombing of Germany
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Very soon George Ball’s investigations of the attacks on the cities would produce some equally disturbing conclusions. Thus, for example, on three summer nights at the end of July and the beginning of August 1943, the RAF came in from the North Sea and destroyed the center of Hamburg and adjacent Harburg. A terrible firestorm sweeping air and people into the maelstrom caused thousands of casualties. Destroyed also were restaurants, cabarets, specialty shops, department stores, banks, and other civilian enterprises. The factories and shipyards away from the center escaped. Before the holocaust these had been short of labor. Now waiters, bank clerks, shopkeepers, and entertainers forcibly unemployed by the bombers flocked to the war plants to find work and also to get the ration cards that the Nazis thoughtfully distributed to workers there. The bombers had eased the labor shortage.
In all respects, including the touch of humor, Speer was strikingly in contrast with the other Nazis, as he himself was fully aware.
We were beginning to see that we were encountering one of the greatest, perhaps the greatest, miscalculation of the war.
Albert Speer, forty years old in 1945, was tall, slender, with dark, slightly sparse hair and a mobile, sometimes amused face. In all respects, including the touch of humor, he was strikingly in contrast with the other Nazis, as he himself was fully aware. And it was evident by his behavior that he had every intention of putting the greatest additional distance between himself and the primitives, as he regarded them. Guessing rightly that, when faced with the Nazi abominations, they would plead ignorance, the guilt of others, their own inability to exercise corrective influence, or even their personal righteousness, he had decided that he would accept his share of the responsibility. That would accentuate the difference.
In earlier years, in contrast with that of Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, or even Julius Streicher, Speer’s name had attracted little public notice in the United States or Britain. However, in the intelligence agencies, notably in the OSS in the United States, he had become a major figure, the German miracle man. He had worked wonders with German war production. On the effect of the air attacks in particular, no one else would be his equal in authority so, as an intelligence target, a phrase then coming into use, he was at the top of the list.
In Germany in 1945 there was no civilian government, no newspaper apart from The Stars & Stripes , no trains, no post, no radio. Information came irregularly through Army communications or unreliably by word of mouth. On even the most important matters one stumbled in ignorance, and this included the movements of the high Nazis. In consequence of the talk of an Alpine redoubt, the first search for them was in Bavaria, and it was there that Goering was found. But the more important movement had been from Berlin to Flensburg on the Danish border, and this, initially, we did not know. However, shortly after the surrender two of our junior staff members, Wolfgang Sklarz, a second lieutenant, and Harold E. Fassberg, a technical sergeant, were poking through some office buildings in Flensburg, and they came upon Speer’s name on an office door. In his testament of April 29, specifying the succession and signed the day before his suicide, Hitler had excluded Albert Speer from office, but the F’fchrer’s authority, not surprisingly, had dwindled. Speer was now head of the theoretical Ministry of Economics and Production in the equally theoretical government of Admiral Doenitz.
It remains a mystery as to why this government was allowed to function, so to speak, through most of May, 1945. It had an army, one that was so packed into the city of Flensburg that there was, quite literally, almost no pedestrian space on the streets. German soldiers moved in one direction or the other all day in two dense field-gray waves. But the city and the army apart, the government had neither territory nor function. It was said at the time that SHAEF [Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces] had a conceptual problem: how did one take the surrender of a government that had ceased to exist in consequence of its unconditional surrender? Some Germans believed that the Americans and British were seeking to preserve a Nazi nucleus to keep the Soviets in line. Against this explanation, which was nonsense in any case, was the presence of a sizable Russian mission in Flensburg.
On May 19 I flew there in our survey C-47 to join the interrogation of Speer. We circled the airfield until we had assured ourselves that other Allied planes were on the ground and thus had survived the mines. Colonel D. E. Smith, who was with me and who was what the British in India once called a very pukka soldier, gave an arm-breaking salute to two uniformed officers who marched forward to greet us. They turned out to be of the Luftwaffe. We learned that we had billets on the Patria , a Hamburg-America Line vessel that had waited out the war in the harbor of the mostly undamaged city. The waiters, who also had been overlooked, served us breakfast and lunch in the sparkling spring sun on the veranda deck.