The night of the 31. May 1942 surpassed anything ever seen before: more than 1.000 planes had taken off from England the night before to drop 549 tons of high explosive bombs and 929 tons of incendiary bombs over old Cologne shortly after midnight. It was the biggest air raid of the Second World War so far. That night, Allied planes destroyed an area of 250 hectares, half of it in the city center and the historic Old Town.
"A great victory over a great city," reads the British bomber command report. The memory of Toni Maschner, a 14-year-old Cologne resident at the time who belonged to the "Edelweiss Pirates" resistance group, is different: "The whole city smelled sweet, really like human flesh." 486 dead and about 5.000 injured in the first attack of this dimension on a German city. 59.100 people were homeless.
The bombing war had already begun in Cologne in May 1940. The first sporadic hits still attracted onlookers. Targets at this time were industrial and military installations. In 1941 the attacks became more violent. And on 13. March 1942, 175 bombers dropped their deadly cargo on the city, destroying parts of the inner city.
Then came the 31. May 1942. With him, "a new dimension of the air war broke over Cologne," writes historian Gerhard Aders.
The morale of the population was to be decisively weakened by area bombardments. Legendary Air Force General Arthur T. Harris, called "Bomber Harris," was given a free hand to attack residential areas as well with orders for area bombing. It took a long time for the German leadership to realize the strategy. Initial estimates put the number of enemy planes at 80 because radar could not detect enough aircraft. Only from the extent of the damage did one realize what had really happened.
"Our beautiful old dear Cologne. Tears came to my eyes when I saw it," reports Anna Schmitz, a contemporary witness. Numerous historic buildings and the Romanesque churches lay in ruins. On this Trinity Sunday, one week after Pentecost, St. Apostle's on Neumarkt also burned to the ground. Sextons and Catholic youth tried to save paraments and other sacred valuables. Other churches such as Grob Sankt Martin, Sankt Maria im Capitol and Sankt Ursula also fell victim to the flames. "Get help from the Archbishop of Canterbury!", a priest had to listen to party officials when he asked for help in extinguishing the fire.
The cathedral unscathed
Only "the cathedral stood majestically, completely unscathed, surrounded by the burning cathedral hotel and various other sources of fire, in the midst of a ring of fire," reported Swiss Consul Franz Rudolph von Weiss to his government. In all, the cathedral took 70 bomb hits during the entire course of the war, the heaviest on the north tower on 3. November 1943. Only 2005 to the world youth day the "cathedral seal" from bricks set after the attack was blinded and thus the last traces of war at the building were made invisible.
Reactions to the bombing varied. For most of them, the dominant feeling was anger at "the Englishman" who bombed innocent civilians instead of the arms industry. "The safest place in Cologne is the Ford motor works," was a bitter popular statement, according to the writer Henry Beissel, who was born in Cologne and lives in Canada.
The recently deceased Cologne resistance fighter Fritz Theilen reported other experiences. With the words "Beware, the Fuhrer is coming!" people would have peppered Hitler pictures from smashed houses and trampled afterwards. Theilen: "The mood has been shaken by the attack."