After August 25, 1940, when the British Royal Air Force dropped the first bombs on Berlin, the “Immediate Air Raid Protection Programme” was implemented. The program stated that all German cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants and sites of strategic importance should be equipped with sufficient air-raid bunkers for the population.

Although Karlsruhe did not meet these criteria, the “fan city”, as it is known due to its unique shape as a fan, was particularly endangered as it suffered several air raids in the First World War. Eleven air-raid bunkers were therefore constructed in the city from 1941, seven of which are still very visible today. There were also hundreds of air-raid shelters within the city.

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Overground bunker at Erzbergerstrasse in Karlsruhe (copyright Katherine Quinlan-Flatter)
Overground bunker at Erzbergerstrasse in Karlsruhe (copyright Katherine Quinlan-Flatter)

On April 23, 1942 in England, Prime Minister Churchill set up a list with 140 German cities which the Royal Air Force had to systematically destroy in Germany. Karlsruhe was at the 18th position. The list was later changed to include only 25 main targets, in which Karlsruhe was once again included. The Allies’ Bomber Command had a “Bomber’s Baedeker” for each city – a manual describing the economic significance of German cities. Karlsruhe was the province capital with traffic nodes and the Rhine Harbour, as well as a munitions factory.

However, Bomber Command’s directive of February 14, 1942 was very clear: “The main goal of operations is to break the morale of the civilian enemy population and in particular the industry workers”. And Charles Portal, Chief of Air Staff, underlines: “It is clear that the targets are residential areas and not the shipyards or plane factories”.

Apart from the bunkers, three decoy sites were erected by the Luftwaffe in 1940 in the forests around Karlsruhe, to fake the Allies’ targets and to ensure that the bombs did not fall on the city. The decoy sites all had South American code names.

Near the lake in Weingarten, the site “Columbia” simulated the Karlsruhe Rhine Port. The first flare bombs fell here on July 26, 1940 and it was bombed several times until May 1942. South of Karlsruhe near Ettlingen in the Hardt Forest, “Panama” was built to fake an industrial site, which was bombed six times between August 1941 and May 1942.

“Venezuela” was the largest site and represented the city centre. Trees were cut down to give the impression of the fan city from the air. Designed as a night-time decoy, various devices were used to fake the city in an intelligent manner. Mounts with lamps were constructed such that it looked from the air as if a light which had been forgotten was shining in a window.

Soldiers controlled the lamps from small bunkers. For the pilots, it appeared as if they were flying over a city where it was too dark to discern anything. Fog machines were also used to cause confusion and simultaneously the Germans shot with flak guns. Venezuela worked in around 10 air raids, until radar improved and the Allies realised that it was a decoy site.

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Remains of flak bunker in the Hardtwald Forest around Karlsruhe (copyright Katherine Quinlan-Flatter)
Remains of flak bunker in the Hardtwald Forest around Karlsruhe (copyright Katherine Quinlan-Flatter)

One of the heaviest air raids over Karlsruhe took place in the night of September 2, 1942. On the morning of September 3, Karlsruhe’s newspaper Badische Presse wrote: “On Wednesday night, the British Air Force carried out yet another terror attack on our Province’s capital city of Karlsruhe. Thanks to the exemplary response of the population, the number of fatalities was relatively low. According to preliminary reports, 52 citizens, including women and children, paid with their lives for this British crime. Unfortunately, the number of those whose homes were destroyed or devastated last night is considerably higher. A tour of the city shows that the enemy’s primary intention was to terrorise the inhabitants of the province’s capital”.

The paper went on to praise the defence action of the Party and the Wehrmacht, as well as the police organisations, the Safety and Emergency Services, and the air-raid protection units, who, together with the Party’s Shock Troops, were all mobilised to provide assistance. Men, women and young people strove to combat incendiary bombs and render them harmless as quickly as possible, before major fire sources could develop. They formed spontaneous bucket chains and extinguishing teams.

“If it has been the enemy’s goal to sap the morale of the people of Karlsruhe, we can justifiably claim on the morning after the terror attack that the hour of danger has only served to close the ranks of the people even more tightly”, continued the newspaper.

A lady from Karlsruhe described the raid of September 2: “The sirens started up at 2:15 am. I woke the children and brought them to the cellar, then filled the bath with water” (to later use this water to extinguish fire) “and then I turned off the main gas and water taps”.

“Outside, everything was as bright as day from the magnesium light, the sky was lit red and the detonations exploded from one second to the next”, she continued. “Suddenly the house just burst open – and the liquid iron dripped down, it was the swansong of the home we loved. Everywhere burned phosphorous, white-blue flames”.

The firebombs were like candles on a Christmas tree

Alfred Emig, a lecturer at the University of Karlsruhe wrote: “The university has been struck pretty hard. I was on duty and saw everything. In the forecourt, the firebombs were like candles on a Christmas tree”. The physics lecture hall burned down, as well as the engineering building. The roof structure and a part of the upper floor went from the Chemical Institute, as well as the auditorium.

The worst explosive bomb attack occurred on December 4, 1944. Karlsruhe was attacked by 513 planes, which in total dropped 186 heavy aerial mines, 3,677 explosive bombs and 134,114 incendiary bombs. The goal of the English bombers was the complete destruction of the fan city.

The last alarm was on Easter Sunday 1945 and lasted from 6:30am to 7:00pm. In total, Karlsruhe had 1,032 alarms and around 100 air raids, in which 1,754 people died and 3,508 were injured. Around 25% of all buildings were completely destroyed.

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Karlsruhe Main Cemetery, Memorial to Victims of Air-Raid Bombing in World War II, by Erich Lipp 1955.
Karlsruhe Main Cemetery, Memorial to Victims of Air-Raid Bombing in World War II, by Erich Lipp 1955.

 Read Linda Parker's accompanying blog post here.