The bombing of Kassel 22/23 October 1943

By 21 March 1945, Kassel had been the target of 40 air raids. A model, commissioned just after the end of the war and exhibited in Kassel’s Stadtmuseum, shows what the city centre looked like in May 1945:


The Royal Air Force had already targeted Kassel for a massive attack on 3/4 October 1943 but the target indicators had been set wrongly so that the bombs mostly missed Kassel but destroyed a number of villages to the east, Sanderhausen among them. On the second attempt, on 22/23 October, over 500 aircraft did not miss and created a firestorm which destroyed most of the old town which consisted mainly of half-timbered houses (the area in the foreground of the picture). The old town was densely populated and had narrow thoroughfares in which fire could spread easily. There were some public air raid shelters but mostly people had sought protection from the bombs in the cellars of the buildings where they lived.

The experiences of people who survived that attack were collected between 3 February 1944 and 21 July 1944 by Dr Paetow, Director of Office for Missing Persons in the City of Kassel. (The last record is dated 22 October 1944 but a note by the editor suggests that this is a typing error.) It is not clear what motivated Dr Paetow or how he selected his eyewitnesses but their addresses suggest that they lived mainly in the old town and the city centre or that they were at work there during the attack. These statements have been translated from the German for the IBCC with the help of Tricia Coverdale-Jones.

The format of the statement seems to have been modelled on witness statements given to the police although it is not clear how they were recorded originally. They give the name or names of the witnesses, usually their date of birth and occupation or rank (in civil service or occupational terms). Their value lies in the fact that these statements are fairly immediate to the events although it would seem to me that the later ones are more fluent than the earlier ones and also more elaborate.

Record 70, for example, tells the same story twice, once without date, fairly short and sparse, whereas the second version is much longer, more detailed and also much smoother and fluent in its description. The later records also tend to take more account of the aftermath of the raid and record 75 seems to imply a number of criticisms to the effect that overlapping jurisdictions led to disorganisation and hindered the burial of the casualties of the raid.

Record 75 also mentions the mistreatment of Italian military internees by the SS but during the raid, differences of nationality seem not to have made much of a difference. Record 20 is the statement of a Dutchman who lived through the event but records 31 and 89 also refer to Dutch workers. French workers and prisoners of war are mentioned too a number of times and record 36 is in fact an account by a Frenchman; the content of the statement would suggest that the person listed as the witness functioned rather as an interpreter.

The accounts are mostly sober and emotions are implied rather than openly addressed. Little is said about the pilots and bombers (“Churchill got everything, the bastard!” (record 70) is a rare exception) but even the loss of close relatives is stated plainly. This seems to have been an expectation at least of the person recording the interviews as a note has been added to record 35. Mr Mootz gives the impression that he cannot let go of the pain of having lost his happiness. At every sentence, he bursts into tears. His arm is also still paralysed in part. I therefore had to get his wallet out of his pocket as he wanted to show me pictures, the last remnants of his lost happiness. He obviously needs to talk about his misfortune and although he bursts into tears, this seems to give him relief. I think he’ll be well again in a few months. Physically, he appears to be quite sturdy. It is therefore even more surprising that he is so depressed.

This is a statement about a man who had just reported the loss of his wife, his daughter, his daughter-in-law and several grandchildren. He had also stated that he had lost one son in the war and two more were seriously ill as a result of the war.

Together, the records show that it was the fire which killed the majority of people. Shelters and some cellars had been equipped with ventilation pumps but their purpose was to suck in fresh air from the outside. As the fires raged, however, the pumps were sucking in smoke and fumes. A number of survivors state that they fell asleep in these cellars (meaning, I think, that they lost consciousness) and people were then killed either by suffocation or by the heat. Record 88 states that people going through cellars after the raid thought that they had found kohlrabi under rags but it turned out to be the browned skulls of the people who had been incinerated there.

In some places, the heat must have been so intense that crystal glasses had melted into blobs (record 70); according to The Sunday Express of 24 October 1943, “the flames rose up 4,000 ft.” People did, nevertheless, feel safer in the cellars rather than braving the firestorm and collapsing buildings outside.


Kassel in 1945

The collection of statements includes testimony from people of various ages and backgrounds and of both sexes. Compared to more recent attempts at collecting evidence regarding this event and similar ones in other towns and cities, they have the advantage that also the voices of those can be heard who were already older at the time. Despite the use of terms such as ‘night of terror’ and ‘terror attack’, these accounts can be assumed to be less mediated and coloured by later accounts as there seems to be little that is formulaic in them or that suggests an emerging shared narrative. They therefore complement the interviews of bomber crews and are made available by the IBCC.

Harry Ziegler


Come uccelli d’argento [Like silvery birds] – Review  

The docufilm explores the difficult legacy of the United States Army Air Forces bombing of Sant Ilario (13 September 1944), in which 18 inhabitants of a small community in the Trento province lost their lives. Numbers may pale in comparison to other strategic bombings on the European theatre but the aim is rather to explore the impact of a dramatic event on small, close-knit community which was largely unprepared to cope with it, and to explore its difficult memorialisation.


Sant Ilario bombing victims. Photo courtesy of Maurizio Panizza

Researched and presented by Maurizio Panizza and filmed by Federico Maraner, the documentary brings together an orchestra of voices with different perspectives on the event. Commentary is minimal, mostly intended to provided background; the documentary avoids facile effects and the overall tone remains sombre and pensive throughout. No overt judgements are given and those who were at the receiving ends of the bombing war speak as eyewitnesses, not as judges; they remember, not accuse.

The script uses plain language without indulging in aerial warfare technicalities: the life histories of the informants are thrown in sharp relief without rhetoric. Minor details are used to convey a potent sense of reality, for example the overwhelming smell of dust and explosives, or the eerie silence after the bombs went off. Both are recurring elements in the stories of bombing survivors.

bombardamento 7

Sant Ilario bombing public funeral service. Photo: courtesy of Maurizio Panizza


One of the most striking aspects of the event is that the Sant Ilario bombing was not even a bombing in the first place. Bombload was randomly jettisoned, the bombs fell on that specific spot by pure chance, and the casualties were mostly peasants who had little or no connection to the war effort. A provincial backwater removed from the main targets, the village was considered a safe heaven, its local population on the increase owing to an influx of evacuees. Destruction and death – admonishes the documentary – are not only blind but pointless: suffering had no apparent meaning. In this vein, even describing aircraft as “silvery birds” has a subtle logic. It captures its beauty and grace, but also stresses an inhuman, purely mechanical destructive power. It conveys a sense of wonder reported by quite a few witnesses of aerial warfare, but on the other hand suggesting an overwhelming force which leaves people on the ground defenceless. The random nature of suffering and death is made explicit by one poignant passage: evacuees who had having prior knowledge of bombings and try to warn others are killed; those who ignored their advice are spared.

Brione- Luogo in cui cadde la bomba

Brione, the very spot where the bombs fell. Photo: courtesy of Maurizio Panizza

This unresolved duality is emphasised by a shrewd use of present-day footage, especially when the camera lingers on the gentle slopes of nearby hills, sleepy villages, and lush vegetation. Camera movements subtly suggest a sense of time, passage, and transformation but there’s a rather disturbing undercurrent. Has suffering been properly elaborated or is it still present? Did the passing of time heal the wounds or the events have merely fallen into oblivion, replaced my more pressing issues? Have we learned from the event? Those questions remain on the background when the documentary describes the difficult memorialisation of the bombing. Lacking recognition from authorities, local people took ownership of their own heritage by erecting a small memorial funded by subscriptions. It still stands, recognised as a focal point of the local community.

Come uccelli d’argento [like silvery birds]

by Maurizio Panizza and Federico Maraner

Italy, 2017, 30’

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer

Italian toponymy and the difficult legacy of the Second World War.

Even a desultory walk in the most inconspicuous Italian town shows a clear imbalance in the memorialisation of the Second World War. Leading resistance figures, victims of reprisals, and key events of the partisan struggle are widely represented: piazza resistenza partigiana, via martiri della Resistenza, corso XXV aprile and piazza Sandro Pertini are recurring features of any urban landscape from Sicily to the Alps. On the other hand, the bombing war left fainter and less obvious marks on Italian toponymy. Traces are few and far between.

This bias is even more evident when figures are taken into account. The killing of all the Cervi brothers – seven communist activists who took active part in the Resistance – is remembered by street names all around Italy. Conversely, even bombings which caused a death toll in the region of hundreds of civilians have rarely memorialised in this way (if memorialised at all). Some notable exceptions are Piazza dei piccoli Martiri and Piazza Caduti sei luglio 1944, both in Milan. The former also stands out for the almost unique word choice of “martyrs” as a synonym for bombing victims.

Another way the Second World War has been remembered is by small monuments and memorial plaques sponsored by local administrations or groups. They come in every shape and size, but a recurring feature is the elusiveness of the inscriptions: expressions such as “victims of enemy aircraft” or “killed by enemy action” are commonplace. Others resort to even more nebulous and essentially tautological expressions such as “victims chosen by Death”. In this case, invoking an impersonal force also resonates with style conventions of memorials erected to victims of natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes, landslides etc. Not surprisingly, some local authorities took a step further and sanitised text completely by omitting any reference to human agency. The following example (viale Monza 233, Milan) is illuminating:

WP_20171211_004 WP_20171211_003

Sign translates as follows: “On 20 October 1944 an aerial bombing hit this building, which at that time housed the “Antonio Rosmini” primary school. All children trapped inside the underground shelter were rescued just before the collapse by vicar Claudio Porro, recipient of the civic merit medal awarded by the Milan City Council. The citizens of Precotto.”

The sign has all the hallmarks of a compelling story. The initial order is threatened by an evil power; innocents are defenceless. The hero steps in, leads the forces of good, saves the day and obtains his well-earned reward. The most interesting bit is the information omitted: who dropped the bombs on a Milan residential neighbourhood (the United States Army Air Force); why (a controversial navigation blunder) and finally the context, as this rescue is just an episode of the highly contentious 20th October 1944 Milan bombing. That day, a direct hit on the nearby “Francesco Crispi” primary school caused the death of 184 children wiping out an entire generation. The Piccoli Martiri mentioned above.

The International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive managed to interview Paolo Bottani, one of the very survivors rescued by Carlo Porro.


Paolo Bottani

The interview was conducted by Erica Picco (Laboratorio Lapsus) on 2 December 2016.

“The moment the siren went off, we children were rounded up and our teachers hastily shepherded us down into the shelter. We were in high spirits, none of us realised that we were about to be bombed. We cheered because our class had been disrupted. Yeah, that’s true happiness! In the shelter we had good time: horseplay, you know, what children do. After a while, point black, the lights went out. Gosh! What’s going on? Then a terrible rumble came, the building shook and trembled, and rubble fell on me. Smell of dust and sulphur. Some children were crying, others moaning, one was covered in blood. At that point we realised how serious the situation was. I retained my composure nonetheless. I’m honest in saying that: I was fairly calm. Oh, yes, afraid but calm. After about ten minutes Father Carlo Porro assembled a rescue party of three or four volunteers, realised that we were trapped below and opened a small passage through which we were rescued. I was the penultimate to leave. The teachers remained calm and collected and managed to keep us in control. They formed a queue, pushed us up through a slope of rubble, so we reached the ceiling and someone from outside pulled us up, as if we were salamis [cured sausages were traditionally stored hanged]. The familiar urban landscape had changed beyond recognition. […] No living souls around, only deserted streets covered with rubble. I was walking alone covered in dust when I saw a derailed tram out of the tracks, and a bleeding horse without a hoof, moaning pitifully.”

Paolo was later celebrated as a star:

“I went back to Crema. The headmaster, the teachers, all Fascist propaganda so to speak, welcomed me almost as a war hero. I was held up as an exemplar figure, someone who did something praiseworthy, a deed inspired by a noble sense of duty. “The Allied bombings”, “American killers” they said – the usual propaganda. I was turned into a star and never had the opportunity to speak with my friends.”
In reflecting on his experience, Paolo Bottani makes his stance clear in no uncertain terms:

“I loathe war, any kind of war. I simply cannot grasp the sense of waging war. Since then I’ve come to understand that war is useless, really useless. How many friends of mine died while still in their childhood? How many fathers died on the front? How many mothers died among hunger and sufferings? What has war left? War is pointless […] All these events are etched in my memory – I’ve always been an avowed pacifist.”

A snippet of the interview with him has been translated in English and featured at the International Bomber Command Centre in Lincoln. Paolo Bottani passed away in Spring 2018, only a couple of months before his interview went live.

Alessandro Pesaro, Digital Archive Developer

I’d like to record my indebtedness to Sara Zanisi, research officer, Fondazione ISEC, Milan for revising the first draft of this post.

Capturing the memories

One of the fascinating parts of The International Bomber Command Centre Digital Archive is its Oral Histories Project.

Here you will find a large collection of interviews with those involved in the Bombing War, on all sides of the conflict. Those who served on the ground and in the air. The people who live near the airfields, also those working in the factories feeding the war machine, and those whose homes were in the target cities.

In their own words you will hear the men and women relate their memories of a difficult and contentious period of their lives. Their stories are told with great pride and often a wonderful sense of humour, tinged with sadness and loss.

The interviews usually take place in the comfort of the interviewees own home, with a third party present. The aim is for a relaxed, stress free interview, where the subject takes the lead. The interviewees are free to say as little or as much as they are willing.

Howard, Irene

Irene Howard

ARP Warden Irene Howard was interviewed in 2017. She told the story of the night she, aged 19, was off duty at home when Salford was bombed. Everyone was still in their homes, as the air raid siren had not been sounded. Whilst she described the destruction, horror, and loss, she also tells the hilarious tale of what happened to three Christmas puddings during the bombing.

Woolgar, Reginald (Pesaro)

Flight Lieutenant Reg Woolgar DFC

49 Squadron air gunner Reg Woolgar DFC was interviewed in 2016 when he paid a visit to the archive team. He spoke at length and in detail about his service with Bomber Command, and the experience of ditching in a Handley Page Hampden in 1942.


Jones, Sue   RIP Jones, S1  RIP

The interview with, aircraft factory worker, Susan Jones is a great testament to the role of many women in during the war. She relates her story with great wit and frank honesty.


Ball,Freddie    RIP

Annie Moody interviewing Freddie Ball

When the archive team was formed in 2015 the goal was to conduct 100 interviews a year. Thanks to the dedication and determination of the archive’s volunteer interviewers around the world, we have conducted over 1000 interviews to date. More than half of these have been transcribed and over 300 are available on-line. The work continues.

Many of the people interviewed are sadly no longer with us, but their voices and stories are preserved for generations to come.

Peter Jones, Archive Assistant

The IBCC Digital Archive

Handwritten transcriptions

The IBCC Digital Archive is unusual in that its collections are described at item level and sometimes page level, and many are fully transcribed.

It is our aim to transcribe all our oral history interviews and written documents, and so far around one third of the items published in by the IBCC Digital Archive that contain text or spoken word include transcriptions.

This enables users of the archive to use ‘keyword’ or ‘exact match’ searches to find people, places, events, and all manner of things of historical interest far beyond what the cataloguer may have deemed worthy of including in a brief abstract or description of a document.

For example, where names have been written on the reverse of a photograph these will be discoverable through a transcription.

PDawsonSR1629.2 PDawsonSR1628.2

Each of the 81 aircrew in the photograph will now appear in searches of the IBCC Digital Archive.

Letters and telegrams have also been transcribed.

E[Author]BeltonSLS400731-010001 E[Author]BeltonSLS400731-010002 E[Author]BeltonSLS400731-010003

Sergeant Spencer Lewis Belton flew as an observer/ bomb aimer with 144 Squadron from RAF Hemswell. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal after an operation to Wilhelmshaven in July 1940. In this letter to his father, he discusses his radio interview with the BBC about his award.

Memoirs have been transcribed.


Betty Bascombe’s memoir includes information about her first husband, Ron Jones, who was killed in action 25 April 1944. Betty met her second husband, Bert Bascombe, when she was serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Hamburg.

Betty Bascombe’s memoir includes information about her first husband, Ron Jones, who was killed in action 25 April 1944. Betty met her second husband, Bert Bascombe, when she was serving with the Auxiliary Territorial Service in Hamburg.

Some service documents have been transcribed.


This page from 44 Squadron’s Operations Order Book lists the duty personnel and crews and aircraft for operations and training for 2/3 June 1944.


As well as military and aviation historians, these transcriptions should make the IBCC Digital Archive of interest for people researching family history, and for social and cultural historians.

This level of detail would not be possible without our teams of dedicated volunteers. All have attended training sessions as it is important that different documents transcribed by different people are transcribed consistently. Training covers how to deal with spelling mistakes, insertions, underlining’s and the like. Some historical knowledge is required to recognise cultural references to people, equipment and events, and faded handwritten documents in 1940s cursive script can be hard to read until you learn to recognise the writer’s individual style. Transcribers can spend a long time trying to decipher a particular word, and they are among the first people to read these documents since the 1940s. Thanks should go to all our transcribers, but particularly to Tricia Marshall who recently transcribed 110 items in one month, and to Anne-Marie Watson who transcribed over 10,000 words over a single weekend.


Log books

Log books record aircrew flying hours, and during the war the RAF produced different types of log books for pilots, for navigators, air bombers and air gunners, and for observers and air gunners. They contain a record of every flight a single person undertook including training and operational flights. Day time flights were usually written in green ink and night time flights in red. Many aircrew numbered their operational flights to keep count of their tour of 30 operations. Although they were an official document, they are frequently annotated with comments such as ‘good prang’ or ‘attacked by night fighter’, and some also now contain photographs and newspaper cuttings.

Dorricott log book page

A page from Leonard Dorricott’s Royal Canadian Air Force observer’s and air gunner’s flying log book from 27 November 1942 to 21 January 1946. It details his training schedule, instructional duties and operations flown. Len Dorricott trained as a navigator in Miami, Florida and completed 32 operations on tours with 460 and 576 Squadrons.

Log books are valuable historical sources and sometime change hands for large sums. However, the content of log books in the IBCC Digital Archive is searchable and available to download for free under a CC BY-NC 4.0 International license (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0).

The IBCC Digital Archive has already published over 30 log books, including a South African Air Force log book and several Royal Canadian Air Force books.

We have taken a slightly different approach to how log books have been included in the archive. Rather than transcribing the whole document, which would be very time consuming, they have been ‘data-mined’ for their content. Log books in the archive can be searched for aircraft flown, stations served at, squadrons, targets and operations using tags, keywords, and geolocation.

Bellingham log book page

A page from Peter Bellingham’s log book. His log book covers his training and operational career as a of bomb aimer from 10 March 1943 to 21 February 1946. After training in South Africa he flew in Halifaxes and Stirlings with 138 Squadron, taking part in 30 night operations over Denmark, France, Germany, and Norway before becoming an instructor. As he flew operations with the Special Operations Executive, dropping supplies and agents into occupied Europe, his targets are unspecified. The outcomes are recorded as either as ‘Joy’ or ‘No joy’.

Unlike the majority of scans of historical documents available on the Internet, ours are published with an uninterrupted margin. This margin acts as an integrity check; users can verify for themselves that the scan has not been cropped, even if the original is no longer available for comparison.

Dan Ellin, Archive curator