Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe

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Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Conor Murphy
Reviewed by Conor Murphy
Summary: Much more than a military history, this is an accessible, clear-sighted and riveting account of the devastation of Hamburg by the Allied Forces in 1943. The sensitive unravelling of the ethical issues mark it many more than several cuts above the rest.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: February 2007
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0670915576

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As a German city, port and industrial centre, Hamburg was very heavily bombed many times by the RAF and USAAF over the course of World War II. During the main series of raids in July 1943, a firestorm was created that killed about thirty thousand people. In that dreadful week in July, probably forty-five thousand Hamburgers died, although we shall probably never know the full tally. The series of raids was codenamed Operation Gomorrah and its architect was the RAF's Air Chief Marshall, Arthur "Bomber" Harris. It was the biggest assault in aerial warfare that had ever been attempted. Over 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped, many of them incendiaries rather than high explosives, and with the weather conditions on the night of the firestorm, they created a furnace in which temperatures reached over 800 degrees centigrade. People were literally cooked inside air raid shelters and even the roads burst into flame.

Hindsight has not been kind to Arthur Harris, known to many as "butcher" rather than "bomber". Harris believed that the war could be won from the air alone, but only if German morale was sufficiently crushed. Crushing morale included the targeting of civilians on a previously unimagined scale.

When I think about what happened in Hamburg, I think How could we have done it? Don't you? Industrial workers vital to the German war effort died, but so did women and children. And so did many slave-workers, otherwise destined for the concentration camp ovens. No matter, we burned them anyway. How can one think otherwise? However, as Keith Lowe, author of Inferno points out, even today many people shrug and say It was necessary. They started it.

Inferno does a lot more than give a military account of Operation Gomorrah, though it does that with a wonderful clarity. It also does a lot more than provide us with oral testimonies, though it does that thoughtfully and heartbreakingly. What Keith Lowe manages to do with this brilliant book is to pick through the complicated ethical issues surrounding the horrific events of that week in July 1943 with an unparalleled sensitivity. The writing is crisp, clean and clear and I didn't need to turn back and check my facts even once while reading. If Inferno had only this level of understanding to recommend it to the reader, it would probably be enough. But it also has compassion and honesty and an ability to eschew hindsight in favour of a patient unravelling of why people acted as they did, what they were prepared to sacrifice for what they were hoping to achieve, and finally, the lessons and understandings we could - should - take for the future.

Sadly, given many current events around the world, it seems to me as though the victors in any war don't see the need to take lessons or understandings. Only the losers heed them.

I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Those interested in first person accounts of the horrors of warfare might be interested in Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell.

My thanks to the nice people at Viking for sending the book.

Booklists.jpg Inferno: The Devastation of Hamburg, 1943 by Keith Lowe is in the Top Ten Non-Fiction Books To Make You Think.

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Magda said:

'Slaughterhouse 5', born of similar but even more morally dubious experience of Dresden firestorm used to be my most favourite novel of all time at the age of about 16. I might re-read it one day though it's always scary to go back to youthful book loves.

I am very tempted by this, though 512 pages scare me.

Jill replied:

Oh, the narrative is about 300 pages. The rest are notations and various explanatory appendices, which are more for the serious student than the interested lay reader.

Colin Bruce said:

Excellent work. Mr Lowe deserves great success with this fine book. My cousin F/O Machin 103 Sqd was lost July 25 on first raid .I clearly remember the family anguish at this time and for years afterwards although of course no details were fully known until much later.(Panel 125 Runneymede Memorial) Yours Colin Bruce Wallington Surrey.

Jill replied:

It's good that he's remembered.

Magda said:

I have just read it (in one evening, because I skipped the airmen recollections and generally most of the British side part apart from the overall thinking behind the operation) and I completely agree with your review. It's an excellent book from all sides, and the last chapter picking the ethics issues is particularly good.