Heilbronn’s dose was 830,500 kg of high explosive bombs and 430,300 kg of incendiaries. When the first bomb fell, earthquake control in Stuttgart noted vibration in a seismograph. From a height up to 5,000 meters, 283 Lancasters with nine Mosquito escorts dropped their deadly loads while 150 tons of bombs were dropped on the railway connections at the same time. Hero and “Master bomber” Maurice A. Smith, who also would lead the attack on Dresden in February, 1945 flew in with his Mosquito DZ 518 between 300 and 600 meters over Heilbronn and directed the bombardment with technically precise markers. Within 37 minutes, the town center was at once a glowing hell producing gale force fire winds that raved for nearly four hours over the city.
The fire tower raced through the roads, seized humans and transformed them into living torches. Deadly carbon monoxide crept into the cellars and shelters. There was no escape. Almost all of the city center was gone, and survivors were homeless in a stinking, toxic atmosphere.
In larger air raid shelters everyone had instructions to keep the doors locked and there was terrible pandemonium as suffocating crowds frantically tried to breathe, to escape, willing to face a quicker death in the inferno outside. Later, many of the bodies were found with violent blows to the head, perhaps from fighting, maybe from mercy killing or suicide. In some cellars, clumps of 30 to 40 bodies were found welded together by heat, and in home cellars whole families were found huddled together, “glued” into a solid mass. Some were found as figures are seen in Pompei: sitting up at the table, children in the arms of their mothers, standing with a picture book in their hand, someone seizing an object or a pet. Hundreds burned to grey or paper-white ash. Others had shrunk together by the heat to half of their normal size, others were charred.
Rough estimates at the time were 18,000 dead, but this number has been typically downsized in recent times to 6,530. In any case, 1,000 children under 10 years old were documented. Hundreds more were hideously burned and wounded. When the bombed hospital buildings caught fire, 20 babies and four nurses burned to death.
5,000 humans had to be buried in mass graves, and the digging began immediately. Hundreds more were left in total devastation and grief bordering on insanity. Men in white smocks threw layers of lime in pits, and after each layer of human corpses covered it with another layer of lime... and another. There was no time to mourn. The war was not over, even for a destroyed Heilbronn. There were even more air raids on the rotting, dead town between December 27, 1944 and March 3, 1945.
On April 11, 1945 the Americans mauled through the ruins of Heilbronn, Germany, and engaged in a 10 day “battle.” Although the war was clearly lost by this stage, remnants of some German units together with a segment of devastated surviving citizens stubbornly defended the city. The “Battle of Heilbronn” was a reaction to the massive destruction caused by the violent bombing.