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

 

augarten_flakturm_wien2008a

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.

vienna_flak_tower_dsc01594
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.

NYT Op-Ed: If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived

 

franz ferdinand

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Assassinated 28 June 1914, age 50.

 

 

Outstanding op-ed in the New York Times posing what may have happened had Franz Ferdinand not been assassinated. While appearing in photographs as a thick-headed reactionary, he was a man of very liberal views for the era. It is a tragedy beyond measure that he was assassinated at a critical turning point in the history of the West.

Instead of working out their differences at the diplomatic table, something the Archduke was in favor of, in fact he was opposed to war of any sort, the nations of Europe tore into each other. World War One descended into a hell of savagery and left the victors and the vanquished in political shell-shock and economic ruin.

 

From the New York Times of 27 June 2014

If Franz Ferdinand Had Lived

 

“There were many reasons Franz Ferdinand was the perfect target for the Serbian-sponsored terrorists of 1914. They knew that his plans for reform within the empire were a profound threat to them. And in symbolic terms, he was ideal.

But what they could not have known was that Franz Ferdinand was probably the most senior antiwar figure in Central Europe, a man acutely aware of Hapsburg weakness, scathing about the delusions of his generals…”

The above is an outtake from the middle of the piece. For the entire article, go here:

 

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/28/opinion/if-franz-ferdinand-had-lived.html?emc=edit_tnt_20140628&nlid=46563708&tntemail0=y&_r=0

 

The author of the piece is historian Simon Winder. His most recent book is “Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe.”

New Use For An Old Tower

Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea) is an World War Two era flak fire control tower that has been converted to use as an aquarium and zoo. This angle shows the tropical house. The rooftop billboard is from an anti-war/fascism art installation and reads “Smashed to Pieces … In the Still of the Night.”

I have written about Germany’s Flak Towers previously and yesterday I wrote about the new role the city of Hamburg is planning for one of their flak towers. In a similar vein, Tad reminded me that the city of Vienna has put one of their flak towers to an unconventional use for over 50 years as an aquarium and zoo.

After the war, the fire control flak tower was initially used as hotel and then was converted to a fire station. Starting in 1957 with just a single floor, volunteers slowly took over the tower, expanding floor by floor removing debris and creating aquariums. Originally, the aquarium shared the tower with the firefighters but they vacated the same year the aquarium finished their sixth floor of exhibits. Now, the Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea) includes ten habitable above-ground floors full of exhibits and an open-air sightseeing roof deck with the space devoted to both terrariums and aquariums. The tenth floor is a special exhibit devoted to World War Two topics and a re-creation of the original flak tower control vault.

The Haus des Meeres website sports a variety of webcams including one from the roof showing the view overlooking Vienna. I encourage you to check them out.

[Image courtesy of Haus des Meeres.]

Interesting Excerpts from: Five Years, Four Fronts: the War Years of Georg Grossjohann

Now this is the type of no nonsense attitude one expects to hear from a German officer:

In a ‘man on man’ battle, (that is one without tanks or artillery or airpower on either side), one senses absolutely no fear, presumably because one finds oneself in a situation absolutely without mental distraction. I was not especially afraid of fire from infantry weapons, because in my experience, if one is hit, chances are that one will either recover or will die quickly.

During a hospital stay in Vienna where he had been sent from the Russian front to have one his mangled hands tended to, he became enamoured of a young seventeen year old girl whom he met at a public swimming pool. Since he was a wounded soldier, she invited him to her home on several occasions for tea and cake with her and her mother.

The seventeen year old was a little beauty….her mother was obviously very concerned about her purity, which, as far as I was concerned, was sacrosanct…

While traveling through Vienna on several occasions in the not distant future, the author would call on the woman and her beautiful daughter. The last time he called upon them, the girl’s mother told him:

…almost triumphantly, that another man had taken that which I, during my time with her, had disdained! This proved, she said, that I was a real gentleman. This was indeed honorable, but only a small consolation, considering what I had missed.

After capturing a Russian village and driving out a regimental or divisional headquarters:

…our only booty was an American Willys jeep that stood with running engine in front of a cottage. Maybe some high ranking Russian officer intended to use it to escape; instead, I used it for many weeks as my staff car.

There are many explanations for our loss in the East. To those of us at the front, it seemed as if the decision makers in the higher command had lost their senses.

In early November of 1944, Major Grossjohann, now commanding a regiment, was defending an important road junction SW of the French town of St. Die, near the Vosges Mountains.

…there was very heavy fighting with Japanese, who tenaciously attacked over and over again. Our landsers (slang for soldiers) were rather shocked and bitter. “The Japanese are our allies, aren’t they?” they asked. “Are they, too, fighting us now?”

This regiment of Germans discovered they were the fighting the Hawaiian-Japanese of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. All Japanese-American combat units were assigned to the European theater of operations and all of them fought with gallantry which surpassed almost all other American units.