Nazi Flak Towers

Many an Allied bomber was shot down in flames by anti-aircraft fire from one of the handful of Nazi Germany’s Flak Towers

(If you have forgotten: the technique of firebombing used so successfully against many German cities was developed by the German Luftwaffe for their long campaign or aerial firebombing of London in the early years of the war)

 

Reichsgebiet, Alarm auf Flakturm

Fliegeralarm! Running to their action posts on the Zoo Tower 1944.

Most of these young gunners were fifteen or sixteen and were known as the kinderflak

 

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This is one of the surviving towers in Vienna. You can clearly see how massive these buildings were.

The main function of the towers was less shooting down individual Allied bombers, although that was important, but more to put up such a mass of anti-aircraft fire as to hinder bombing attacks on the area immediately around them. Flak, a word used by both sides, is the abbreviation of the German word “Fliegerabwehrkanone,” which translates as “air defense cannon”.

The batteries fired pre-set “box barrages” to create a curtain of flak which British Royal Air Force or US Army Air Force bombers would have to fly through on their bomb run. Shells were set to explode at different heights usually above 20,000 feet. The strategy was to force the bombers higher since the higher they were when they dropped their bombs the less accurate the bombing. (Although under the best conditions bombing was rarely accurate).

Additionally, while these photographs were all taken in daylight, the British Royal Air Force bombed at night. So the other reason to force the bombers above 20,000 or so feet was to put them in the path of German night fighters. When a spotlight caught a bomber, the point was to illuminate the bomber for the night fighters. Nonetheless, various anti-aircraft batteries in Berlin, for example, would open up. This often led to German flak batteries shooting down their own night-fighters.

German Fighter Command made regular complaints to the anti-aircraft command to stop doing this and toward the end of the war demanded that the gun captain of any battery which fired above its mandated ceiling be tried and shot.

exterior-of-a-flak-tower-in-vienna-used-as-a-climbing-wall
Exterior of flak tower in Vienna now used as a climbing wall.

Three such towers were built in Berlin, three in Vienna, and two in Hamburg. Each tower actually consisted of two towers: the very large gun tower known as the ‘G-Tower’ and a smaller fire-control tower located nearby known as the ‘L Tower’. The fire control tower transmitted the targeting values to the gun tower by wire – that is telephone/telegraph wire – that was buried deep below ground in a concrete tunnel to protect the wires from being severed.

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Another of the surviving towers in Vienna.

In addition to serving as platforms for anti-aircraft guns, each G Tower had a large bomb shelter for civilians. These shelters were designed to accommodate thousands of civilians, a hospital, workshops of various sorts, and Wehrmacht command posts. Each tower had an independent supply of electricity and water as well as barracks and offices for the Luftwaffe personnel who operated the tower and the guns. In the Third Reich, all anti-aircraft defense was the responsibility of the Luftwaffe.

ADN-Zentralbild/Archiv II. Weltkrieg 1939-1945 Schwere Flak in Feurebereitschaft auf dem Flakturm des Berliner Zoo-Bunkers, eine der wenigen großen Schutzanlagen aus Eisenbeton. Aufnahme: Pilz April 1942

April 1942. One of the main gun platforms of the Zoo Tower, most famous of all the flak towers. Shells were kept in the heavy steel ready-use ammunition locker at right and carried to guns by a squad of men as seen above and right. Because the gunners were out in the open on the platforms without protection from bomb splinters or the shrapnel from their own anti-aircraft shells casualties were often heavy.

The Zoo Tower was the first one to be built and was located by the Berlin Zoo in the center of city and was meant to protect the key government buildings. The tower was destroyed by the British in 1946. It was located in what is now the aviary section of the Berlin Zoo.

Although the zoo was destroyed during the war with most of the animals being shipped to other cities or shot by the army, it was rebuilt in its original location which is very close to where the Kurfürstendamm ends at the Tiergarten.

(Photo from: German National Archive.  Schwere Flak in Feurebereitschaft auf dem Flakturm des Berliner Zoo-Bunkers, eine der wenigen großen Schutzanlagen aus Eisenbeton. Aufnahme: Pilz April 1942)

 

The towers were almost indestructible with the walls on each tower being 2.5 meters thick or 8 1/2 feet of solid concrete. The towers could – and often did – survive direct hits by Allied bombs. Because these were such massive structures, many of them remain since no one can figure out how to dismantle them without wrecking an entire neighborhood. I think the surviving towers are an important part of the history of WW Two and should be preserved.

flakbunker-heiligengeistfeld-hamburg

Flak tower in Hamburg

The best, and to my knowledge, the only book devoted to the towers is The Flak Towers: In Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna 1940-1950 by Michael Foedrowitz. The book was translated from the original German. The research is impeccable. The author worked almost exclusively from primary sources as well as interviewing the leading expert on the towers. Four stars.

The Bunker in the Famous Zoo Tower in Berlin (Part 2 of 2)

Part 1 

"Badeleben" in der Nachkriegszeit

A year after Germany surrendered, the British Army was still working diligently to demolish the Zoo Tower. This photo was taken in what appears to be the early summer of 1946 and you can see the British still had a way to go before the tower was completely destroyed.

It was located where the bird area is today in the Berlin Zoo which is off the Kurfürstendamm (which splits to go around the zoo. Photo courtesy of the German National Archive)

The Zoo bunker or air raid shelter was designed to hold 8,000 people although thousands more were crammed into the shelter during heavy raids. In the last week of the war, over 30,000 people were said to have taken refuge in the Zoo Tower. That figure comes from a Luftwaffe physician who was in tower during that time and is quoted in The Flak Towers. It is not footnoted so it is impossible to track this down for confirmation. However, the entire building could hold 15,000 or more people as designed so it is possible that 30,000 people did occupy the entire structure, not just the bunker, in the last week of the war.

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Whatever the exact number, the tower was so jammed that many people were unable to move. Hundreds of people in that mass of humanity died or committed suicide but that wasn’t discovered till the crowd finally left the tower because the bodies were being held upright by the crush of people. There was no food, limited water, and the limited sanitation facilities were overwhelmed. People simply evacuated themselves in place.

The anti-aircraft guns on the top of the tower fired on Soviet troops during the long days it took them to capture the city. The noise reverberated throughout the structure. As the Soviets closed on the tower, they took it under point blank fire from their tanks and artillery. Given the thickness of the walls and four inch steel shutters over the small casement windows, the entire structure proved impenetrable to Soviet fire.

You might imagine the stench, the terror, and the unbelievable din of the German guns combined with the noise of Soviet shells striking the building night and day; which had the effect of raining cement dust on people which only compounded the problem of the indoor air quality. Some people suffocated because they were unable to breathe or draw enough oxygen from the air around them. Others went mad because of the claustrophobia and the incessant pounding of the building by Soviet artillery and tanks. Both the electricity and water supply failed early on so in addition to the terror, noise, claustrophobia, and God knows what else, there was no light except for the small gleam given off by the fluorescent paint on the ceilings.

The building commander finally surrendered when informed of the surrender order signed by Helmuth Weidling, Kommandant of the Berlin Defense Zone. When the surrender to the Soviets became official, hundreds more people in the tower committed suicide.