On the night of August 26th 1940, 29 bombers from the Royal Air Force launched an attack on Berlin, in response to a Luftwaffe attack on London three days earlier, marking the first offensive against the German capital during World War II.
Another attack would follow on August 28th and from September 6th the Royal Air Force would begin to carry out regular nighttime attacks on Berlin – resulting in air war casualties among the civilian population in the Nazi capital for the first time.
In response to this new threat Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, demanded the widespread construction of air raid shelters and appointed his chief architect and general building inspector for the Reich capital, Albert Speer, responsible for the implementation of what would become known as the Führer-Sofortprogramm or Luftschutz-Sofortprogramm in Berlin.
Three sets of Flak Towers would be constructed to protect the city. One built near the Berlin Zoo in the west, another in Friedrichshain to the east, and the third in Humboldthain to the north. The triangulation of fire from these three installations would mean that the sky above Berlin’s central Mitte district would become the most dangerous area in the Nazi capital for enemy bombers to fly through.
Apart from these three Flak Towers, other anti-aircraft defences would be scattered throughout Berlin. Smaller calibre guns installed on factory rooftops and wooden towers constructed in parks and open areas. The Flak Towers, along with other bunkers, would additionally provide shelter for thousands of civilians, housed hospitals, military command posts, and safeguarded valuable art and artefacts within their thick concrete walls.
When in October 1941, Flakturm II, located in Volkspark Friedrichshain, was completed, it featured a dual-turreted design – with the commanding G-Turm, equipped with heavy anti-aircraft guns, and the L-Turm, a guiding tower of lesser stature but equal importance designed as a command centre with the personnel there tasked with detecting incoming enemy aircraft.
The massive undertaking of constructing the Flak Towers involved extensive use of forced labourers and prisoners of war. Records indicate that over 1,600 tons of construction material were delivered daily by train, truck, and barge to build the Zoo tower, which was completed in April 1941 as the first of the trio.
Throughout the Second World War, the Allied forces dropped over 68,000 tonnes of bombs on Berlin in more than 360 attacks. By April 1945, the once-great city of Berlin lay in ruins, with over 35,000 civilian casualties.
Of the three Flak Towers built during the Nazi period, the Zoo Bunker was the only one to be totally destroyed. The land now used to house the park's extensive hippo enclosure.
During the Battle of Berlin (April 16th-May 2nd), the towers played a critical role in the city’s defence, with their heavy artillery lending support to the ground forces. At that time the towers were primarily controlled by youths aged 16 to 18, who served as Luftwaffe auxiliaries. They were accompanied by women and prisoners of war, all united in their efforts to protect the Nazi capital.
Fighting around the Volkspark Friedrichshain Flak Tower would take place between April 25th and May 2nd 1945, as the Soviet 7th Rifle Corps found their advance hindered by the defenders they would invest in the structure and bypass it – eventually forcing the inhabitants to surrender.
Sadly, just days after the Berlin garrison’s surrender, on May 6th 1945, the L-Turm was set ablaze, resulting in the loss of approximately 434 irreplaceable paintings from the Berlin Picture Gallery that had been stored in the cavernous 700 square metre interior.
Some 59 statues from Berlin’s Bode Museum that had also been housed here eventually resurfaced in Moscow in 2016, discovered in the Pushkin Museum, offering a final glimmer of hope following the devastation inflicted on the city and bunker at the end of the war.
In May 1946, the Soviet Red Army attempted to blow up the towers, but only partially succeeded. The damaged bunkers were subsequently filled with rubble and covered with earth – made possible due to an elaborate rail system built in the park and the labour of hundreds of ‘Rubble Women’, who worked here until 1950.
The resulting hills, known as the large and small bunker hills (the 78m high Großer Bunkerberg and the 48m high Kleiner Bunkerberg), now characterise the park landscape as heaps of rubble. The bigger of these hills, dubbed Mont Klamott or ‘rubble mountain’ by locals, would later serve as inspiration for a number of songs by East German musicians, including Wolf Biermann.
A viewing platform was eventually built on the crest of the Großer Bunkerberg, atop the visible remnants of the turret. However, due to the surrounding trees that have grown over time, the view is now largely dependent on the season.
Today the area has been well integrated into the park and on a stroll to the top of the Großer Bunkerburg you are just as likely to encounter dog walkers, children playing and parents relaxing as you are hardcore history aficionados looking to find traces of the darkest aspects of the area’s past. Like many things reappropriated and transformed from Berlin’s Nazi era, it is possible to find yourself standing right on top of a literal treasure chamber and gazing out across the city without realising the significance of the land. Unless you know where to look to find the traces.
Learn more about the history of Nazi Germany and life in Hitler’s Third Reich with our Capital Of Tyranny tours.
Learn more about the Battle of Berlin and explore this urban battlefield with our Battle of Berlin tours.
Learn more about the history of East German and life behind the Iron Curtain with our Republic Of Fear tours.
Learn more about the history of Prussia and the life of Frederick the Great with our Glory Of Prussia tours.
Learn more about the Nazi Concentration Camp industry and visit Sachsenhausen on our Invention of Hell tours.