“Every bomb, every shot that one actually heard would not hit you. But that was no reassurance, because we also knew that the bomb you didn’t hear could be the one that got you.”
As a civilian living in Berlin, Horst Sinske endured air raids day and night. Read his description of life on the ground, his thoughts of the British and American bombers, and his harrowing tale of surviving a direct hit.
This interview has been translated from its original German.
Q: I’d like to ask you about your experiences with the night attacks. What is your memory of the big British night attacks? How should one imagine that, if one doesn’t already have an image of it?
We experienced the day and night attacks very differently. At night it was more or less difficult because we were all so tired. We were overtired, exhausted. We were startled up by the sirens and ran down the stairs into the cellar — there, where the family stayed in the house in Kreuzberg — and spent almost all of the night attacks down there. It was usually the case that the air-raid protection attendant (and my father was one such attendant) went through the streets and checked the houses and then waited for a direct bombing attack. And at first one was just so surprised at how quiet the city became. One can hardly imagine it. It was an absolute stillness. One had the impression that not even a bird was flying.
One whispered, “Quiet! Be quiet, be quiet!” One was already imagining the sounds of motors, though they weren’t even there to be heard yet. But the first thing that one did eventually hear was in fact the sound of the motor, and then the sound of the defense fire from the German flak [aircraft defense cannon] set in. And then one immediately went into the cellar, since at night you couldn’t be sure about the direction from which the planes were flying. And then below, the anxious questions, “will they bomb us?” Again one couldn’t answer that. At most you could only know you were the target area if one saw three of these target indicator lights, these “Christmas trees.” And it wasn’t possible in the narrow street. Everyone expected bombs to fall.
And then this peculiar noise: every bomb made a different noise as it fell. You have to imagine that some were like the rushing of water, while others had the tone of rolling peas. We all knew that every bomb, every shot that one actually heard would not hit you. But that was no reassurance, because we also knew that the bomb you didn’thear could be the one that got you.
So the beginning of the attack was always the most suspenseful, and it was usually the case that we ran below. Then we all heard the noises that came from the exploding bombs and the German flak, and the defense fire was just as loud [as the bombs]. We waited in our air-raid shelter, which didn’t yet have a steel door, that didn’t fit. And we always had the din of combat in our room.
Q: Can you describe more specifically the noises? How should one imagine that?
When these hard attacks came, which were in the area, then one couldn’t even hear oneself speak. And strangely we always bent over — that didn’t actually make sense, but nonetheless we did that. And the really, especially unpleasant thing was that the hard attacks caused the ground to vibrate, and when you stood up, you immediately moved for the handlebar, and strangely one had the impression of getting smaller. So you’d always try to sit down, but if at all possible then on a wooden chair and not a metal one, which would have passed on the vibrations. We took wood and nailed it as boards to the walls so that we could put our feet up during these hard attacks. That part was scary.
Q. Were there things that weren’t said — such as, “Is this our last day today?” Was it already basically normal? How can one live with it, especially at the age that you were?
When we ran down [into the cellar], then we already started wondering about what would happen then, will we survive?… When one walked down those stairs with the air-raid protection suitcase, and when one entered the cellar, which always had a slight moldy smell. Although at first, at the beginning of the attack, we always tried to settle in comfortably. To lie on the carpet… there was an oven down there, and radios that relayed the police- and wire-broadcasting. But later we were so irritated that we no longer turned on the radio. There was a plan, a map of city quadrants on which one could follow the attack. But it wasn’t useful to us. We were already in the cellar anyway, and it only made us more anxious. And anyway you could directly see that the march of bombs was coming upon you, or of course we were relieved when they had passed on. But this was always only the first wave, and as we said, where is the second wave? And then the third and the fourth waves…
Q. Were your nerves on edge?
Yes. At first one was exhausted, but then in the actual moment that the attack began, our nerves were on edge, most certainly. I didn’t know anyone who could endure that in absolute calm. And we were already agitated if the alarm hadn’t come yet. Normally at 8:00pm, or at 9:00pm, the English should already be overhead over Berlin with their Mosquitos, and when they weren’t there yet, then we had the impression that we had missed the alarm. “Why aren’t they here yet?”
Q. When you came out of your cellar, can you remember what the scenery looked like? How should one imagine that?
At first, one looked up. And looked at the roof, since some bombs were lighter and didn’t fall through deeply and instead remained hanging on the roof. It was possible to overlook them. The construction of the roof was also checked after every attack, sometimes even also before the all-clear sign came. And then: the next few corners to the left and to the right — it was mostly very dark, but for example my grandmother lived three blocks away, and so we went to go check on her, to see in the street whether everything was still standing. Sometimes one walked 3-4 kilometers, to relatives. Telephones like we have today were as good as not available. None of us had a land line. Mostly only [certain] workforces had one, for example someone in our circle was a taxi driver, and that business had a phone. But the individual person had no land line telephone.
Q. And was much destroyed? Did you see it?
We could, practically speaking, watch the fact that as of 1944, the city was getting smaller — one can actually say that. And of course these heavy bombs that the English dragged here, with their high-speed aircrafts, were very feared. When it was convenient, they could destroy 4, or I even knew of a case of 6 [buildings] in one hit, by sucking off the front of the building. The roofs of these buildings all fell on top of each other. And then of course one wondered whether there was anyone between these roofs? The furniture and everything else had been suctioned out. The roofs lay on top of each other. One of these heavy hits is still recognizable in outline in the [Büdeckerstraße].
Q. Did you see victims?
Yes, we looked into these [roofs] because we wondered. And because, at the time, we all still had the Hitler Youth uniform on, we were all immediately obligated to get involved. We could open the cellar doors, and could see that people sat on their chairs, but were dead from the suction.
Q. And you as a boy had to open the cover?
Yes, everyone who came by and who was in the condition to pick and to shovel — those were our tools, the pick and the shovel, not heavy — had to work for a few hours. And of course we thought about the fact that we could be the next ones bombed that very night.
Q. Earlier you said that the American and British attacks were very different. Could you describe the Americans? How should one imagine February 3rd?
The daytime attacks on the 3rd and the 26th of February were incomparable to the ones before. We didn’t know that 2,000 planes were underway. But we saw the first lines of attack and thought, this will have no end. Shortly after that we heard a noise. And in particular on the Frankfurterallee, with a surrounding area of maybe 500 meters radius — from there one could describe the attack. Nothing was standing there anymore. Not a single house. What exploded there sufficed to level a whole piece of the city. When we came out of the cellar, the houses lying against each other between the sidewalk and the road were indistinguishable, and in the middle there was a heap of stones, you can imagine it that way. A few places were burning, little fires, and everything else was just collapsed. One couldn’t see much farther because of the dust.
Q. And what did you do then? Did you walk through the area, or what should one imagine?
On February 3rd we tried immediately to run back home. To go over the various streets, and the bridge, and the Spree River is a march by foot of about 40 minutes. One always looked for a wide street under the assumption that parts of the ruins yet to fall could still hit you. And in this case that meant that we had to run through the [Gugenderstraße], but could already see that duds and timed detonators were lying there. And so we tried to take the [Roxannenstraße], but it was burning on both sides.
Then all of a sudden my father’s shoulder, his coat, started to burn. “Just take it off, take it off!” And it burned on the ground, so he trampled it with his feet, so that the coat was out but now his shoes were on fire, until we realized that we had to strip them off. The burning mass was otherwise inextinguishable. Thank God, though, they weren’t burned through. So then we went back to the [Gugenderstraße] and it was already organized such that duds or timed detonators were covered with paper or rags. Covered, that is, by concentration camp workers, in their uniform but also in plain clothes. One hoped that when a timed detonator exploded, these rags and piles of newspaper would mitigate the effect of the splinters. We went by one really closely, and I could have touched it. It was another one of those moments in which the sweat runs down your back. Many people didn’t admit that, but I can’t understand how one couldn’t be anxious to walk by such bombs. But nothing happened.
The Warschau Bridge was already very damaged, though not from February 3rd. We could cross the rails and reach the street level again at the train station building, and we could walk over the Spree — the Oberbaum Bridge is well known as the most beautiful bridge in Berlin, and at the time it wasn’t damaged yet. Then we reached our apartment and it wasn’t damaged. My mother and my brother were there.
But on this day, before noon, there was this very large attack, and now working from memory, shortly before 8:00pm the flyer alarm went out, again 11:00pm a flyer alarm, and then at 3:00am, the bombers. So we couldn’t sleep anymore.
Q. Is that more than one can bear? Or did you also get used to that?
One can’t think clearly anymore. And my father’s work was technically difficult and dangerous, and he was extremely exhausted. Being bombed out didn’t mean that one didn’t have to go work. For an adult that still mean a 12-hour shift. And for us, and 8-hour shift as apprentices.
Q. What did you make, what kind of work was it?
We made tools/instruments. I was an apprentice to a tool maker, and did, among other things, cutting and stamping, metal working, but also polishing, in order to finish tools on the lathe. So the company made precision stamping parts, from swivel plates to complete circuit breakers for the aviation industry. For the last production we worked with the U-Bahn from Warschau to Tempfelhof. But we didn’t know that.
Q. So it was all production crucial to war.
Yes, pure war production.
Q. What kind of workers were there? Were they forced laborers or other Hitler-Youths like yourself, or how should one imagine that? After all most men were at war.
Yes, most men were at war. There were also factories with women in particular. Where total war had been called for, other people were obligated to work. We had a Dutchman, a Ukrainian, a few Frenchmen, but no workers from the Eastern territories. Only the leadership positions were still held by Germans. Or the experts who maintained the machinery. The production itself was almost exclusively done by women.
Q. And they had the same rights in the bunker as you.
Yes. In this operation we all stayed at the same table. We ate in the same cafeteria, and also ate the same food. We didn’t think to create allotments of food. And on February 3rd we were all in the same room. The former cafeteria was our air-raid shelter. And it was a location that I didn’t think was very good. When airplanes attacked out of the west, they flew directly towards us. But one couldn’t change that. That’s how the operation was arranged in this cellar room, and somehow it was also logical that the cafeteria be the air-raid shelter.
Q. How was it on February 26th?
The 26th of February was for us the most eventful attack. And by “us” I mean my family. The 26th was a Monday, and I was at trade school in the Friedrichstraße 183. We ran into the school building through totally open doors. Every room had a radio so that one could follow whether an attack was looming for Berlin. The weather was appropriate for it, and from the radio report we heard that the planes were already in approach. But it was also the case that, when such a large group of airplanes came towards us from the north, an attack wouldn’t necessarily happen. They could fly over Berlin, but they could also come back again from the south. At any rate on the 26th it was clear. In 20 minutes the pre-alarm was sounded, and when a pre-alarm went off that meant we could leave the school. The teachers were relieved to have fewer people in the air-raid shelter, since they were responsible for it.
If I was a bit lucky, I could usually make it from the Friedrichsstraße to the Frankfurtallee in 20 minutes. That meant that one didn’t have to get into the U-Bahn at Friedrichstraße if the train were already gone, since the chance was already missed then. So I went along the Friedrichsstraße to the S-Bahn and drove until Alexanderplatz, where I learned from other people that it was now a full-alarm. But any students in the lower levels of the trains were supposed to leave the center of Berlin, since one had the impression that the outskirts of Berlin were probably not going to be destroyed, and so the train drove east.
I was in the last coach, and all seats were taken and people stood at the doors — like we see today. In a few minutes I could reach the Memlerstraße in what is today the Weberwiese station. That was my goal, but it was actually a coincidence that there was enough power to get there. At one stop we saw that the electricity for the opposite direction was already out. The emergency lights were on in the train station, and I immediately got out and ran east, since it was clear to me that this was no air-raid shelter — I knew how thin the ceiling was. Both trains remained full, and the other people naturally did not get out. And the station platform was also full of people with their little suitcases, their little chairs, so that I had to press myself through the crowd. Already on the eastern staircase I heard the defense fire of the German flak. And then the decision to run. Over the sidewalk I would come to my father and his air-raid shelter, or, I could stay inside. As I already said, it’s not easy to decide whether one really is the target of an attack. But I knew that whatever the German flak shot out would come back down, and so I ran slowly. It was generally understood that, once a direct attack really got going, the doors to the air-raid shelter would no longer be opened, and I knew that. And when I reached it, indeed the doors were shut. It was a moment that one never forgets.
But it so happened that below there was a group of people clearing away stones and rubble, since before as well as after attacks, houses would cave in. One of them opened the door for me and let me in, and then the door was shut — and now comes something that when I tell of it, people looked at me in astonishment. But it really did happen as I describe. I ran down the stairs, and my father was in the back, and we just nodded to each other and then happened to look at the ceiling. There were hanging these ball-shaped lamps (older people know of them — they were made of porcelain), and I could see that the ceiling was bent. But we didn’t hear anything. None of us heard anything.
One bomb exploded at a distance in the ruins, but as a result this porcelain was strewn like flour. Not in large pieces like one would usually imagine, but rather really like flour. And I could see the eye of the bulb, and the filament of the bulb, which in the dark room one could follow to the ground like a snake falling to the earth. Nobody could take the explosions in anymore. In a few seconds I heard my father call “light!” and he had a little map, but you could only see a meter with it. The room was so full of lime powder, which was coming off the ceiling and the walls, so that one could only see as far as a car’s headlights in thick fog, in other words not very far. And there was a deathly stillness. Even then, no panic. Then quite quietly one heard the women speaking, whispering, and I stood in front of a group of French prisoners of war, which wasn’t very pleasant for me, but they were also very still. They didn’t crow or triumph. They wanted to survive too.
But those were the first waves of the attack. Upon the second attack a firebomb broke right through the former glass roof in our room. By this time, they had refined them (80 million were produced and dropped on us), so that they already had a small explosive charge. And that meant that one didn’t trust oneself to got up to them and put them out, like one used to do, without problem, with sand. But our cook, our Italian cook, tipped a bucket of sand over on top of it and extinguished it in the room. There was a smell, but it did not go off.
We had light bulbs and wanted light; as an apprentice I was directly approached about it. Then, in this moment, a high-explosive bomb hit us directly outside, and we didn’t even see it coming. The room was illuminated for a moment as clear as day, and the air pressure suctioned only against the opposite wall. The light bulbs were still on a shelf and I could reach them to make light. The room was buried about a meter, and there, on top of this pile of rubble, there was a child’s change purse [cries], and a little piece of cloth, and we thought that someone must have been buried. The French also came and moved the rubble to the side, but we found no one. Apparently a child had run along after me when I ran from the U-Bahn to the air-raid shelter. And I didn’t see the child. But in this minute, in this decisive minute that I ran down the steps, the child didn’t make it. And that means that the child was gone forever, and that the parents would never know where their child was.
Q. And what happened next — did you leave soon?
It took a moment before the next attack. And then again, and again. When we came out, it looked outside like… well, it’s very hard to understand. One rarely saw pictures like it. A few buildings still stood. We thought that the ceiling had been loaded with rubble, and that’s why it was bent, but that was not actually the case. In fact the bombs in the first and second floors exploded, and only the air pressure had sufficed to pull the ceiling down. If it had caught fire seconds later, it would have fallen through.
Well then we had to make our way back home. But the destruction on the 26th of February was, in this part of the city, considerably worse than it was on the 3rd. As one went along by foot it became clear that Kreuzberg was still standing. That nothing happened was very relieving, and we met my mother and brother.
Q. But first you passed by the U-Bahn, or the station that you had arrived in.
Yes. We stood there for a while, and not a single person came out of the U-Bahn. Nobody really wanted to go in, but we had to check. When one looked over, you could see that three bombs had exploded in the hall at intervals of 57 and 70 meters. The fourth bomb on the steps was a timed detonator, where I had only shortly before exited the station. Of course there was no more light in the train station, but by these bombings there was light enough that one could see that both trains — their upright walls lay horizontally exactly at the height of the top edge of the platform. And in the middle of the middle-most hit, it had hit the platform, and under the platform there was a sewage pipe that ran to the east, and it was red with blood.
And it was very still in the city after these attacks. We listened, and it was absolutely still. In that case your help wasn’t really needed. So we trotted back, and reached the sidewalk, and the place where I had left the steps, and there was a fire truck and four men inside. They said, “you don’t have to go down, we were already down there and we can’t help anyway. No one is alive.” But I looked and saw a metal sheet and I said to them, “no look, someone could be under here, we can still help,” and they reacted very admirably to me — either their nerves were spent, or they simply thought, just let the poor boy howl.
At any rate it was the case that our workplace was not destroyed, and so the next morning we had to go back to work.
Q. How many people were there? Did you see? Were there dozens, hundreds?
In the train station? Well one could say that 80 to 100 people could fit in the U-Bahn, and there were eight coaches, and the platform was full of people, it’s hard to guess. We heard the call of an unknown woman, whose grandparents had died there, and she claimed that they took 200 dead from the platform, and those that were in the coaches, they couldn’t count.
Q. Did they bury it?
Yes, the next day the platform was not yet cleaned out, but two or three days later — the woman also confirmed this — the concentration camp inmates did it. Up above stood trucks on the Frankfurterallee, and they took the dead away. These people brought the corpses out quickly, the dead Berliners. And they threw them on the ruins, and the mountain got higher and higher, in the end it was two meters high. They were just thrown onto it.
Q. And how did you respond? Did you just bury your feelings? What does one do? You were 15 years old.
Normally one tried to remember that one could have been there oneself. At first, without end. Otherwise I think, we just didn’t stay outside very long, we had to go back down again and keep working.
Q. So you kept working.
Yes. Next morning. And we thought, we go up, there could be another.
Q. But the moment that it passed must have been deliverance?
Yes. Certainly there were also moments when one’s nerves were so spent one thought, 'we have to go to the bunkers.’ But at night we tried only twice, maybe three times to go to the East Train Station, that was the only bunker that we could reach, and there one felt safer. But the return trip was just as dangerous, or almost as dangerous, as the time during the bombing raid. Given that the way back through the dark city was only lit by bombs, i.e., the illuminated sky, you could walk in the wrong direction, and fall into bomb pits where a timed detonator was. And I heard about people who walked under the live power lines of the S-Bahn cables that were hanging there, and they were killed. Because they could see so little in the dark. And that’s all aside from the fact that my father was an air-raid protection attendant, and so he couldn’t come and stayed at home. We would be separated. One feels safer when with family, although maybe it’s not actually a help in an emergency situation, I don’t know.
Q. Were Americans different in your eyes after the attacks of the 3rd and 26th of February?
We were surprised. We thought that one couldn’t escalate things any further on the 3rd, but that they did actually escalate things as far as they did, and then gave the impression that they really were turning Berlin into a desert — we didn’t think that, before.
Q. Did it make a difference — Brits, Americans?
In their effect, no. We knew that the English did not count, as we said. That they simply dropped their bombs. But then as of 1945, we had that impression of the Americans, that they were the same way. Though one can perhaps imagine that one can’t fly above and hit a direct target from such a height. They were flying higher and higher, all the way to 8,000 meters. Can one hit targets from that height with the means available then? We didn’t think so.
Q. Which prospect was worse: that the Russians would take over Berlin, or that the Americans and Brits would continue air bombing it?
As far as nerves are concerned, probably the air bombings were harder to take. If the Red Army had taken over Berlin, then that would have to mean that it was all over. Although we didn’t know what was to come — aside from the fact that we knew Kreuzberg came away ok. We were probably taken over by Zhukov’s elite troops.
Q. Were Party organizations at all present after these attacks?
Surprisingly, yes. As an example, there was the train station, Osthafen, which doesn’t exist anymore. It was a complete train station. Because its feet, its supports had been suctioned away by an aerial mine, the entire train station fell down into the street. Then we thought — it’s war and we won’t be able to drive anywhere anymore, we’ll have to go by foot. Yet within a week it was erected again by hand. With press nips at every meter, and supported with wood. It was a damaged spot that attracted a lot of attention, because at the time (and today) it was next to the Kühlhaus, where American music was played.
Q. So the state was strongly engaged.
Yes, and German professionals who helped with the work.
Q. And as far as provisions are concerned?
We always received what was on the trolleys. All the way to the last day. I can remember that we had no problems. And I wanted to tell this story. This damaged spot near the Kühlhaus — the entire western façade, western gable had been sucked away by a bomb explosion, and fell over, and one meter away everyone stood before the provisions. The butter, geese, meat, egg cartons. All of it remained standing under this eight-story house. The façade was suctioned away, and then flung away, and everyone stood in front and stared at the groceries. And at that moment of course the Kühlhaus was out of operation, and there wasn’t any room elsewhere. So we thought, what are we going to do. But they pulled it all back and set up the wall again in a frenzied hurry. One can hardly imagine something being finished so quickly today.
Q. And did no one try to help himself to anything? It was guarded, right?
Yes. And nobody trusted himself to take something away or steal something. That didn’t even occur to people. Furniture stood for days on the street, and nobody went near it. I don’t know of it ever happening.
Q. How did you react, when you heard that Hitler died and the war was over?
At the time we were once again in the air-raid shelter, and heard the news through the “people’s receiver” radio: that Hitler had fallen during the defense of Berlin. But we didn’t exactly believe that, and especially the older people did not believe it. As a 15-year-old I couldn’t decide — maybe he fought, maybe not. But the older people did not accept it.
Q. And did that release any emotions?
No. We were all so apathetic. One had the impression that it would come to pass eventually — eventually, he had to die.
Q. But any other feelings?
Down in the air-raid shelter, no. In that moment one looked up yet again to the roof, and then thought: when does the Red Army come?
With the clock ticking and the city under fire how many could be saved?
With the clock ticking and the city under fire how many could be saved?
The stories of ordinary people in the tumultuous years after the Civil War, when America struggled to rebuild the Union.
American comandante William Morgan went to Cuba to help Fidel Castro return the country to a democracy. Instead, four years later, he was executed.
The story of a Russian immigrant and anarchist who is said to have inspired the assassination of President William McKinley.
Robert E. Lee, the leading Confederate general of the American Civil War, remains a source of fascination and, for some, veneration.
A peanut farmer who rose to become America's 39th president. Part of the award-winning Presidents Collection.
The story of a Vietnamese mother, the Amerasian daughter she sent away for adoption, and their reunion 22 years after the Vietnam War.