Left: 1944. Right, from top: The old Schloss; 1900; 1840

Other September Elevens, only Bigger

The indelible date of September 11 also has special meaning to the people of Darmstadt. One of the “lesser Dresdens” nobody hears much about, the beautiful 1,000 year-old city of Darmstadt was an innocuous forest-bound center of art and culture and once a hub of the Art Nouveau movement. She produced less than two-tenths of one percent of the total war production of Germany, yet she was senselessly and brutally destroyed by RAF bombers on that date in 1944 in a needlessly ferocious attack that created a firestorm which murdered at least ten percent of Darmstadt’s civilian population.

Indeed, Darmstadt was hit several times, in fact, there were over 35 air raids and 1,567 air alarms on the city between June 1940 and March 1945. Before the September 11 attack, Darmstadt was previously bombed on the night of September 23/24, 1943 by a relatively small force of RAF bombers in a “diversionary raid” to draw night fighters away from their intended target of Mannheim, causing the first extensive damage in the university town which had not been seriously bombed before and had little industry. On April 24/25, 1944, RAF planes again bombed Darmstadt and other towns simply because, due to low clouds, they failed to find Karlsruhe, their intended target on that night. Another night attack on August 25/26, 1944 by the RAF was a failure because the pathfinders’ flares were dropped too far to the west, only hitting 95 buildings in Darmstadt and killing only 8.

The September 11th destruction of Darmstadt, yet another ancient city, was achieved within one half hour when 234 bombers dropped 500,000 high-explosive bombs, over 300,000 incendiary bombs and 300 aerial mines in a so-called “fan attack” which intentionally created a firestorm. Darmstadt was targeted as the terrible “test run” for the pattern which later created the Dresden inferno.

Despite the total absence of any wartime industries, the consequence for Darmstadt was terrible: over 12,000 people died, hundreds were severely burned and wounded and a huge number were missing. 70,000 civilians were left homeless and 80 per cent of the population lost everything that they possessed. A Russian POW camp was also totally destroyed in the process.

Even after the hideous September 11 raid, there was yet a further “diversionary raid” on the night of February 23/24, 1945 to draw night fighters away from their main target, this time the town of Pforzheim. According to the RAF, the bombing of Darmstadt was “an outstandingly accurate and concentrated raid on an intact city of 120,000 people. A fierce fire area was created in the centre and in the districts immediately south and east of the centre. Property damage in this area was almost complete. Casualties were very heavy.”

Note: The Hessische Landesbibliothek was only one of the old cultural institutions destroyed in the firestorm in Darmstadt, and it lost about 760,000 volumes, many extremely rare. But then, almost every learning institution, library and bibliotech in all German towns suffered cataclysmic losses due to bombing. The bibliotechs in Magdeburg and Bremen lost 140,000 and 150,000 volumes respectively to bombing, Frankfurt’s losses in books from its main libraries were 550,000 volumes, 440,000 doctoral dissertations and 750,000 patent documents, the University of Munich lost 350,000 books, and a half a million books were lost in Leipzig’s ancient book district.