The day Freiburg was destroyed

According to an eyewitness who survived the bombing, the residents of Freiburg never saw it coming.

They had every reason to think they’d be spared: Their small city in the foothills of Germany’s Black Forest had no military installations, and it was not on the Allies’ target list. Plus, they knew that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had studied there, and thought his sentimentality would protect their town.

Even on November 27, 1944 — as the drone of airplane engines echoed in the valley — the people of Freiburg took little notice.

Emil Philipp Rödelstab was one of those people. A minister and archiepiscopal advisor, he knew that the front had moved closer to Freiburg and every day he saw bombers flying over the city. Yet day after day, nothing happened. Even the destruction of Freiburg’s railway tracks and bridges a few days earlier had already been “almost forgotten,” he wrote.

That’s why when he and his colleagues heard the airplane engines early that afternoon, they sprinted to the window rather than take shelter.

“A magnificent spectacle!” he wrote. “The bombers looked to us like silvery birds, their contrails like long white tails. [They were like] flying Christmas stars in the clear, cold blue sky.” As the bombers flew off without incident, he wondered where they had carried out their deadly mission.

That evening he sat down to dinner at about 7:30 in the Sacred Heart Church in Stühlinger, and then retired to his room to pray. At about 7:45 he heard the familiar drone of the airplanes again. Then came the screams. “Flares in the sky! Everyone into the basement!”

He grabbed his coat and hat, but as he scrambled for the basement he could already hear the roar of the low-flying aircraft and the first explosions.

For 20 minutes we stood in the hallway in the basement, our hearts pounding, as the inferno around us shook the earth and made the walls of the basement tremble. We were silent and we prayed. After the first 10 minutes, the bomb strikes came closer to us. There was a huge blow and a gust of air that made the whole house shake. The windows shattered, the door to our cellar fell in, and a cloud of dust made breathing difficult. The electric light went out. We lit candles and looked for water in the laundry room to moisten the handkerchiefs and keep the dust out of our noses and mouths. I put on the gas mask. Then we began to pray. Had our last hour struck? … The faint light of the candle and the intermittent flashing of torches gave a ghostly light in the smoke and dust of the explosions. Minutes felt like an eternity, because outside, it was hell.”

Operation Tigerfish” was over in 23 minutes. But in those 23 minutes, 292 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers dropped 3,002 explosive and 11,523 incendiary bombs on Freiburg. When it was over, one-third of the city’s homes had been leveled, and the historic old town — as well as the suburbs of Neuburg, Betzenhausen, Mooswald, and Stühlinger — were engulfed in flames. 2,797 people died in those 23 minutes and almost 10,000 more were injured.

Freiburg rubble

The main shopping street of Kaiser-Joseph-Straße, above, is reduced to rubble; in the distance is the Martinstor, one of the two medieval city gates that still survive. Photo via Wikipedia.


Above and below: Only the spire of the Münster is recognizable after the bombing. Photos via Traces of Evil and Prospect Magazine.



I was utterly unaware of this history the first time I visited Freiburg. In fact, I was so charmed by the Altstadt that I mistakenly gushed about Freiburg’s “beautifully preserved medieval ‘old town.’”

Freiburg tor and bachle 1240918 BLOG

Freiburg altstadt 1040944 BLOG

Rathaus 1210347 BLOG

Freiburg muster and kaufhaus 1040483 BLOG

Freiburg Guiler haus 1240290 BLOG

It’s an easy mistake for the first-time visitor, because the city feels old, and some of the ancient buildings — including the Münster, the Schwabentor and the Martinstor — did survive. But the Freiburg we know today is actually a lovingly detailed reconstruction, built out of the rubble on the city’s original street plan.

Freiburg Schwabentor 1250028 BLOG
The Schwabentor, above, is one of two medieval gates that still exist, out of the original five.

Munsterplatz 1210555 BLOG

The Kornhaus, formerly a granary dating to the 1400s, was razed in the bombing. It was rebuilt in 1970 based on historical photos.

The illusion is wonderful, and I’ve fallen in love with it. But, curious to unveil the “real” face of Freiburg, I started researching and collecting some old postcards last year. That’s how I came across a 1933 issue of National Geographic magazine with a lengthy report on Germany’s “Gateway to the Black Forest.”

Nat Geo freiburg 1270214 BLOG

Yes, there were some charming anachronisms, like the subhead declaring that “DUELING AGAIN IS LEGAL.”

… in Germany a duel-scarred face is regarded as an asset,” wrote Alicia O’Reardon Overbeck. “My daughter was telling me about an Adonis who lives in the fraternity house opposite her school, ‘He’s so handsome, Muddy,’ she sighed. ‘So handsome! Why, his face is simply carved with dueling!’”

And yes, I was chilled by the eerie prescience of one photo caption, which declared that “… from the portico of a house in the row facing the right side of the Cathedral many Hitler mass meetings were held preceding the recent election.”

Freiburg nat geo munster 1270215

How ironic that a similar photo would be shot a few years later, after the bombing, as a record of Hitler’s senseless and destructive legacy.


But, in spite of Freiburg’s almost-total devastation — and subsequent reconstruction — I was awestruck by how familiar the photos and descriptions still rang.

The place is delightfully neat. I have lived here a year now and have never found even an approximate slum. The streets, down to the smallest, are immaculately clean, and during the warm weather flowers are everywhere …”

Konvictstrasse 1210818 BLOG

Konvictstrasse 1200909 BLOG

George and Theo 1190231 FB

Freiburg window 1040426 BLOG

On … market days, the cobbled square is covered with stalls protected by cotton umbrellas or makeshift awnings, on which are piled crisp, newly picked vegetables, delicious fresh fruit … poultry, rich, dark-brown Schwartzwald honey, and mountains of flowers.”

Munstermarkt 1310488 BLOG

Munstermarkt 1200057 BLOG

Market day 1250065 BLOG

Munstermarkt 1190959 BLOG

Freiburg market 1240370 BLOG

Close to Schwabentor is the Bear, generally conceded to be the oldest inn in Germany. … The Bear Inn appears on Freiburg’s town records as a going concern in 1390, and since that date the names of its proprietors are all on file. This is somewhat of a miracle when you consider that the poor old Bear … has survived … the onslaughts of Austrian, French, and Swedish armies …”

Hotelbaren 1310423 BLOG

Freiburg Roten Baren 1240436 BLOG

Roten Baren 1200770 BLOG

The most distinctive note of the Freiburg wine industry is that some of the vineyards are actually a part of the city. … A friend of mine, who lives not more than ten minutes’ walk from the Berthold Fountain, had last fall a wine harvest of more than 790 gallons from the grapes growing on the hillsides behind her house.”

Freiburg vineyard 1040911 BLOG

The surroundings of the city, too, are charming. Right to its stately medieval gate sweeps the Schwartzwald, mile upon mile of pine, spruce and fir … Between tall, clean-limbed trees, unimpeded by underbrush, paths branch out through this vast forest. At every cross-trail is a signpost carefully marked with directions and distances; and all the recognized hikes are designated by definite insignia, so that by following your red or blue diamond … you will be certain to arrive at your appointed destination.”

Freiburg path markers 1040239 BLOG

Freiburg path rustic 1040216 BLOG

Freiburg Schlossberg 1210842 BLOG

Freiburg forest1200620 BLOG

But most of all, I was thrilled to recognize some of my favorite haunts among the old photos.

Inspired by the Ghosts of History project, I set out to duplicate the images. I didn’t get very far, though: In every frame, there were flagpoles and nets and scaffolds and trees where none had existed before.

Schwabentor IMG_1332

Schwabentor 1200675 BLOG

If you look closely, you can still see the painting of St. George and the Dragon under the scaffolding, above.

Altes Kaufhaus IMG_1333

NATGEO Kaufhaus 1200970 BLOG

Virgins IMG_1334

Virgins 1210313 BW

Unterlinden IMG_1349

Unterlinden 1200758 BLOG

Martinstor IMG_1350

NATGEO Martinstor 1210510 BLOG

And try as I might — even with four lenses ranging from 7.5 to 400 millimeters — there was one image I could simply not duplicate. But at least I gave the locals a good laugh as I lay on the ground, straddled a bächle, and then squished myself into a doorway while trying to get the right angle.

Buttergasse IMG_1353

Buttergasse 1190264 BLOG

One of those locals later approached me, as I was photographing an unusually creepy fountain inside the Münster. (“Water of death, anyone?”)

Munster fountain 1190669 BLOG

My German is weak — and Hansjörg spoke only a few words of Spanish — but I was able to understand that he was five when Freiburg was bombed. He still remembers vividly.

“That one ran dry,” he said, gesturing toward my fountain. “All of the water dried up, except for one source.” He led me around the back of the nave to point out the single, precious font of clean drinking water. “This one still ran, because the water came down from the mountains.”

How fitting, I thought, that in 1944 the Münster had again become a place of shelter for the people of Freiburg, and a source of water, just as it had been centuries before.

Munster fountain 1190543 BLOG

Hansjörg then led me outside, where he showed me the carvings on the side of the old cathedral.

Munster and house 1190310 BLOG

I’d noticed the crowns and cannons on a previous visit, evidence that war had found Freiburg before.

Freibur munster graffitti 1050036 BLOG

But this was the first time I noticed the plaque on the front of the old minster.

Munster memorial 1210341 BLOG

My heart broke for the almost 3,000 people who died in the bombing. But I couldn’t help being in awe of the decades of work — and the love — the survivors put into painstakingly rebuilding their city. In doing so they not only preserved their history and their heritage, but they also recaptured the very spirit of what made Freiburg so special to that National Geographic correspondent all those decades ago … and to me, almost three quarters of a century later.

I won’t be in Freiburg this evening to hear the peals of the bell Hosanna echo through the narrow streets, as they have since 1258. But I’ll be there in spirit — and I’ll pray that Freiburg and her people will never again have to face war.

Munster sunrise 1200504 BLOG


    • Thank you so much! I must say that, even if I’m a bit disappointed in my results, this was one of the more fun and interesting travel-photo projects I’ve done in a while. I’m glad you enjoyed it — and thanks *very much* for taking the time to comment.

  1. I found your opening account quite chilling, H. And I think your reportage and photos are superb, regardless of your feelings of disappointment. But what causes me the greatest sadness is that the world does not appear to have learned the lessons from this. In war, the innocent also suffer. But war, it seems, is a moveable feast. Today, its table is laid in Syria and Iraq and Ukraine and all over Africa. Why?

    • Because I greatly admire your photography and writing, I am always honored when you compliment one of my posts, Xpat. Thank you.

      You are so right that war is a moveable feast — and an inescapable facet of being human, it would seem. I obviously don’t have any answers, save the profoundly simple words of another man whose words I also admire: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

      Peace to you and yours …

  2. What a moving piece. So well done. I loved seeing the then-and-now photos. I shed a tear when I read the plaque – after 25 years, my German is still surprisingly pretty good.

    • Your kind words made my day, Jim — und vielen, vielen Dank for having mentioned my post in your blog! As you can tell, this place and its people are close to my heart.

      As for your still having “surprisingly good German” after 25 years: Ich bin eifersüchtig! Even if I study for the *next* 25 years, I don’t think I will ever be able to say my German is “surprisingly good.” Lucky guy. 🙂

    • I hope you will have the opportunity to spend a weekend there sometime — I think you would love the vibe! And as an added incentive, there’s now a vegan option in the Münstermarkt (the daily open-air market in the shadow of the cathedral). Drop me a note if you go and I’ll recommend my favorite vendors. 🙂 Cheers to you, and thank you for your kind words!

    • That was one of the most heartbreaking things about researching and writing this post: To imagine that the devastation of Freiburg was visited on hundreds of other cities as well. (I’ll tell you sometime about my eerie experience in Köln …)

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s