Bombings of Heilbronn in World War II

Bombings of Heilbronn in World War II

During World War II, the German city of Heilbronn was bombed many times by both the British and the Americans. The largest attack occurred on 4 December 1944, but there were many previous attacks targeted at Heilbronn that were almost as damaging.citeweb|url=||accessmonthday=8 May|accessyear=2007] These attacks continued until the end of World War II, and in 1944, Heilbronn was attacked to a point where alarms in the city were almost daily. However, the city of Heilbronn is now the sixth largest city in Baden-Württemberg.

Initial air raids

On 17 December 1940, the first raid occurred. Three high-explosive bombs and 20 incendiary bombs were released upon the city, resulting in the destruction of 20 houses and the damaging of 70 more. Three people were killed, and a further twelve were injured. Two days after the incident, heavy air defence was installed in the city, but was shortly replaced by light air defence, due to military regulations.

August 1941 - May 1942

Between August and November 1941 the city of Heilbronn was bombed four times. However, the resulting damage to the city was minimal. During the day of one of these bombings, individual fighter-bomber aircraft had been seen flying close to and around the city. However, on 7 May 1942, a bombing raid struck the city center, destroyed or damaged approximately 150 houses, and killed seven people.

Casablanca conference

s, and military ports, the British were successful in their endeavour to attack city centres, leaving many German cities in ruins. However, while many German cities and towns were destroyed in 1943, Heilbronn was not targeted for destruction.


While 1943 proved a good year for Heilbronn, 1944 saw one of the worst bombings ever to hit the city. In January and February, Heilbronn suffered a two-week-long air raid by the Royal Air Force. These attacks and Heilbronn's struggle continued into April, at which stage the city was utterly devastated, and air alarms sounded almost daily. By July, store opening times were extended to make up for lost shopping time.Later into the year, the attacks grew so bad that theatre in the city was abolished, and the local police decided to enforce a ban on any decorations on windows that could be potentially flammable. However, help eventually did come, when gau leader Wilhelm Murr arrived in the town on 5 August, supplied with air-defence devices and weaponry. By the beginning of September, the number of alarms sounded in the city had risen to a staggering 160.


By September 1944, the Allied forces were seriously considering a major assault on Heilbronn.

At this time, frequent and near-daily alarms were still occurring in the city, but on 8 September, four alarms were triggered due to bombers heading for Nuremberg. The alarms happened first from 1:45 am to 2:31 am, then 11:34 am to 12:42 pm, 2:38 to 3:48 pm and from 10:30 pm to 11:42 pm.

The following day, 9 September, only one alarm sounded. However, in the morning of the day after that, 10 September, approximately 100 airplanes of the 8th US Air Force went over Heilbronn. Even though this mission was centred on an aircraft plant in Günzburg, with a secondary target of a marshalling yard in Ulm, there was close-cloud cover that day, and Heilbronn was the secondary target. Over Heilbronn, the sky was cloudless, and the actual assault was visible to the populace. Soon after 11:30 that morning, Allied planes struck at Heilbronn's stations and ports and the marshalling yard. Then ensued a bombardment of the city that continued for several hours into the afternoon, and caused the loss of over 300 houses and the death of over 280 men and women, with an estimated further 400 in need of help due to injury. Almost 100 cars were heavily damaged or destroyed, and many other buildings and stations were rendered irreparable. The planners of this raid called these statistics "very good results" afterwards.

The ensuing fires were too much for the local brigade to handle, and help had to be called from places such as Gronau, Lauffen am Neckar, Untereisesheim, Schwaigern, Weinsberg, among others. Even with this aid, the extinguishing of the many fires, both in and around Heilbronn, took several days. The fire that had started after the city hall was destroyed took three days alone to put out. In addition to this, cattle from local and surrounding regions had in fact been harmed by raining bomb fragments, and many of these cattle had to be slaughtered. This slaughtering of cattle resulted in days of work for many veterinarians of the safety and emergency service.


In the late stage of summer, and in the early autumn of 1944, the Allied forces developed Oboe, a radio-beacon based navigational system. However, targets in southern Germany were about 500 to 600 km away from the transmitting plants, and because radio signals spread in a linear way and do not follow the Earth's curvature, airplanes had to be led over the target region at a height of approximately 10,000 metres, requiring the use of the light and almost completely wooden Mosquito airplanes.

With the establishment of Oboe, and in control of a fleet of six Mosquitoes (directed by Oboe), the Allies staged a strike on the city that commenced at 9:30 pm. The railway facilities were targeted by three of these planes, while the city centre was assaulted by two aircraft.

The next day, the 28th, the railway was hit again, this time under fire by five Mosquitoes. Two days later, six aircraft again attacked the railway, and the city centre. After this, several more attacks caused intense fire. During these raids, at least half a dozen bomb raids had hit the city, all in the month of October. Despite this, the city remained a target.

December Raid

On the evening of 4 December 1944, 282 Lancaster bombers of 627 Squadron and ten escort fighters flew over the city in loose formation. The night was thickly clouded, and this factor altered the approach height for the planes.At 7:18 the first plane flew over, but it was the second plane that dropped 10 bombs with long-term fuses onto the city about one minute later. Immediately after dropping the bombs, this plane began its return flight. At 7:20, flare markers were dropped on the city in order to allow accurate bombing by the rest of the squadron. A flashlight bomb was dropped, and exploded at 600 feet. After all the flares were released, the area was illuminated as bright as day. This light was obviously distinguishable to the bomber pilots, and they were subsequently ordered to go in and assault.

After the flare markers, the flashlight bombs, and other such devices used for targeting were released and were functioning effectively, Lancaster PB 251's dropped the first load of high explosive bombs. Approximately 5,800 bombs, dropped from a height of 3,800 metres, hitting the city at 7:29. The attack continued until 9:38, with a further 1,200 tonnes of bombs released upon the city, and 380 devastating the marshalling yard.

Within a period of half an hour, over 6,500 people, including 1,000 children under 10 years of age, lost their lives. However, the exact number of victims is impossible to determine because many corpses were burned beyond recognition or were unrecognisable. Due to the number of incendiary bombs that fell on the city, and the number and impact of the bombs, fires started up the entire night, and entrance to the city was impossible for days.


Although 62% of the city was destroyed, the damage in relation to the number of bombs and the force of the attack is remarkable for several reasons. Many German cities and towns were already in ruins, or were burnt-out by prior bombardments, and the British would have preferred to attack with high explosive bombs in order to maximise the damage caused. Heilbronn, while assaulted heavily by powerful bombs, was only partially destroyed and still exists today. The entire old section of the town was destroyed. Donations to the city were instrumental to the city's repairs and victim aid.

During the actual attack, German defence could do little. Two anti-aircraft positions at the Neckar and 14 German Junkers Ju 88 night fighters fought against the British bombers. The RAF lost eleven of its 282 airplanes.Since the bombing was conducted on a Monday evening, much of the population of Heilbronn was positioned in or around the city centre, but at the first signs of attack, many fled to a high bomb shelter (General Wever tower) and two other low shelters (in the industrial area and at Emperor Friedrich place). Many also fled to an air raid shelter nearby. However, by 8:00 pm the city centre was engulfed in flames, and anyone inside these buildings either burned to death or asphyxiated. Many people who attempted to leave the city were also burnt on the roads. In the end, the air raid shelter collapsed, and anyone left inside was killed.

To make matters worse, the urban hospital was left in ruins, so it was nearly impossible to treat the wounded. A great many people were able to take refuge in the emergency military hospital, or a converted mental hospital located in nearby Weinsberg.

After the fires were under control, rescue work and clearing up of the town began and help was sought from surrounding areas. On the night of 5 December the number of dead was announced to be approximately 4,000, with another 3,000 hurt.


A task force was chosen to find the dead and to rescue any bodies. The dead that were found were brought to the city cemetery. Even then, there were not enough coffins for all the dead, but Ulm and other cities supplied a total of 1,000 coffins. When it was found that the cemetery, as well as other places, would not provide enough space to adequately lay to rest the deceased, the resolution was that an honour cemetery be built at the edge of the forest near the valley of the Köpfer Creek. The work on this project began on 6 December, while the dead were brought on carriages to the Köpfer Valley.On 8 December, the burnt-out city centre and the collapsed air raid shelter were accessed by salvage teams, and more dead were returned to the families for burial. The salvage work continued for over three weeks, into the Christmas of 1944. Many dead could not be retrieved, particularly in heavily damaged road courses. Many would simply have been impossible to locate or bring out, whether from the air shelter, or the ruins of the city centre, and it is still assumed that there are many human remains still in the soil.

Attacks until the end of the war

Up to the end of the war, several raids, while much less powerful or as damaging as the December 1944 bombings, were centred on Heilbronn. These attacks were relatively minor and were more focused on other parts of southern Germany, with Heilbronn receiving much less attention than before.

However, on 12 April 1945, US forces occupied the city, after a ten day battle over the Neckar crossings. At the war's start, had almost 14,500 buildings. During the war 5,100 buildings were destroyed and another 3,800 heavily damaged. Heilbronn's population shrank to 46,350.

Reconstruction and recovery

After the war had ended, Emil Beutinger, a former, pre-Nazi era, mayor, re-entered office and took responsibility for the enormous task of reconstruction and repairing of the destroyed city. This task was continued and completed by his successors in office, Paul Metz and Paul Meyle. Reconstruction milestones included the rededication of the historic city hall in 1953 and the reopening of the community centre.

Starting in 1951, US forces were permanently stationed in the city. The Americans added several of their own buildings. They also used barracks built before World War II.

Present day Heilbronn

Today, the city of Heilbronn thrives, but while the city itself has all but recovered, the memory of the attacks and all who died as a result still lives on. It now has approximately 120,000 residents, and is currently the 6th largest city in Baden-Württemberg, at almost 100 square kilometres in area. Heilbronn is also known as the "major economic centre" of the Heilbronn-Franken region, an area that encompasses almost all of the Northeast section of Baden-Württemberg.


The first memorial celebration of those who died took place on 26 August 1945. Since then, an annual memorial service has been held, and on 4 December, many people come to the honour cemetery to reflect on the dead. The destruction and following reconstruction has reshaped the landscape, and its effects are still visible today. The unsalvageable rubble from the attacks has been released into River Neckar and Böckinger Lake.

Context and background information

Prior to the Allied bombing campaign against German cities, German aggression, apart from starting World War II, was expressed in many bombing attacks against other countries, both neutral and Allied. Unprovoked German bombings of Rotterdam, Warsaw, London, Coventry, Belgrade and many others throughout Europe occurred before Allied retaliation against German cities and military targets, and many nations suffered. The war was not a one sided conflict, and it is important to note that while Germany was the instigator of the war, many civilians were killed on both sides. The casualties of the Second World War total approximately 62 million killed (50 million Allied and neutral, 12 million Axis).

See also

*Axis History
*Terror bombing



* Hubert Bläsi und Christhard Schrenk: "Heilbronn 1944/45. Leben und Sterben einer Stadt". Stadtarchiv Heilbronn, Heilbronn 1995 (Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte der Stadt Heilbronn, 6), ISBN 3928990535
* Erwin Bosler: "Aus den Schreckenstagen Heilbronns". Verlag Ernst Frantz, Metzingen 1950
* Robert Bauer: "Heilbronner Tagebuchblätter". Giehrl & Co., Heilbronn 1949
* Wilhelm Steinhilber: "Heilbronn – Die schwersten Stunden der Stadt". Stadtarchiv Heilbronn, Heilbronn 1961 (Veröffentlichungen des Archivs der Stadt Heilbronn, 7)
* [ Additional information on attacks]
* [] :"This article is based on a translation of the corresponding article in the German Wikipedia.

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