The encirclement of Berlin by the forces of Stalin’s Red Army, on April 25th 1945, was not the first time that war arrived to the streets of the Nazi capital.
Nor could it be said that the opening volleys of Soviet artillery hitting the city on April 20th were the start of Berlin’s physical ruin. The Battle of Berlin, in many ways, began much earlier. Capable of inflicting a measure of carnage unprecedented before the early 20th century, the air fleets of the British Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force had been repeatedly pounding the city since 1940. Five years before the arrival of Soviet ground forces. Gradually reducing the blackened heart of the Third Reich to smouldering rubble.
With geography and technology more often than not limiting conflict to the frontiers of any belligerent state – never before in human history had the capital of an enemy power been subjected to so much; and from such a distance. Over the course of these five years, Berliners would endure more than 350 independent air raids.
Some, like those on November 22nd 1943, carried out by the British, and February 3rd 1945, by the US forces – would remain etched into the minds of the city’s residents for their ferocity and randomness long after the final shots of the war had been fired. For as predictable as these raids would become in their regularity, they would remain distinctly inaccurate when measured by their capability of hitting valuable targets. In almost all instances it would be the everyday residents and infrastructure of the city, as much as the munitions factories, government buildings, and military fortifications, that would bear the brunt of the Allied bombardment.
The first British raid on Berlin took place in August 1940 – almost one year after the German invasion of Poland. Ninety five aircraft were dispatched to attack Tempelhof Airport and the Siemensstadt area of the city; of which eighty-one made it to Berlin- inflicting minor, but symbolic, damage on the city. A response to a German raid that had accidentally targeted London earlier in the month and would precipitate the ‘Blitz’ attacks at the late stage of the Battle of Britain. Until this point, attacks of cities had been largely restricted to military targets and against infrastructure of direct military importance – such as ports and railways.
At the start of the Second World War, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt had implored the European powers to restrict their air attacks to military targets, to minimise civilian casualties. A warning that the German war machine had repeatedly chosen to ignore – targeting and terrorising civilian populations in cities across the continent. Following the Luftwaffe attack on Rotterdam in May 1940 – the Royal Air Force had begun gradually began to adopt a policy of ‘area bombing’ — large-scale bombing of German cities to destroy housing and civilian infrastructure. Increasing raids on Germany in the hope of crippling the country and forcing a German surrender.
Berlin would be just one of the many German cities targeted from 1940 until 1945, and by the end of the war the men of Royal Air Force Bomber Command had flown some 364,514 operational sorties, with 1,030,500 tons of bombs dropped and 8,325 aircraft lost in action.
The death rate stood at 44.4% – with 55,573 airmen killed out of a total of 125,000 in service.
The first allied bomber to raid Berlin was a French Farman F.220 named Jules Verne that dropped eight bombs on the German capital on the night of June 7th 1940.
Around 2,800 of the Royal Airforce Airmen shot down over Berlin and the surrounding areas of eastern Germany would end up buried in Berlin’s Commonwealth War Cemetery, now located in the district of Charlottenburg – a short walk from the Olympic Stadium. With airmen accounting for around 80% of the total 3,595 Commonwealth casualties from the Second World War in the cemetery, the remained being prisoners of war – 397 of these who remain unidentified.
Walking through the cemetery gates today, the visitor is greeted with a uniform layout typical of Commonwealth cemeteries – plain white grave steles made of English Portland sandstone, grouped together in a trapezoid shape, serve to commemorate the deceased. Listed as 2,676 British casualties, 527 Canadians, 223 Australians, 56 New Zealanders, 50 Indians, 31 South Africans, 5 Poles and 8 of unknown nationality. The whole area of the cemetery follows a basic pattern established by the English parliament for military cemeteries since 1918, which prescribes two main monuments: a ‘stone of remembrance’ with the inscription “Their name liveth for evermore” and one based on the Celtic cross and with an embedded bronze crusader sword marked “Cross of Sacrifice”.
As the main Commonwealth Cemetery in Berlin, established after the end of the Second World War, this location also serves as the final resting place for 265 men of the British Occupation Forces or their dependants, or of members of the Control Commission.
Although the vast majority remain as casualties of one of the most controversial operations carried out by the Allied forces during the war.
In first attacking Berlin, Great Britain was undoubtedly sending a strong message in 1940, that as the only major power then fighting Nazi Germany, that it was capable of bombing the heart of the Nazi Reich, even though it lay so far behind the front lines. An important accomplishment to acknowledge at the time. However, much debate has been undertaken as to whether it is possible to tally the Allied air raids against the tremendous loss of life that the RAF suffered – and inflicted – over the course of the war.
Despite the mass attacks of the Battle of Berlin in 1943 by RAF Bomber Command and the later raids carried out by the USAAF, Berlin was never overwhelmed or broken. RAF Bomber Command chief, Arthur Harris’ famous prediction that the bombing of the Nazi capital would cost Germany the war never materialised. While there were temporary breakdowns in the supply of power and water, the administration in the city acted swiftly to limit lasting damage. And even though nearly every factory in the city was at some point hit, none of the large factories were completely destroyed. Fire fighting and reconstruction of these factories – often utilising the vast swathes of slave labour and concentration camp prisoners that the Nazis lorded over – had the highest priority.
In turning Berlin into a frontline city though, the attacks on Berlin did manage to force upon Hitler’s regime another front to deal with – one in the sky. As every anti-aircraft gun or fighter aircraft kept back in the Nazi capital was one less that might be dispatched elsewhere.
The RAF attacks on Berlin have been, almost exclusively, deemed a failure in achieving their objective of exclusively forcing a German surrender by historians concerned with the subject. But for the 55,000 airmen who perish on these missions and majority of those buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Berlin who would not live to see the end of the war, their sacrifices would not prove to have been in vain, the memory of their contribution to the defeat of National Socialism lives on – preserved in this finely manicured cemetery. Prime real estate in what was previously the capital of Nazi Germany.