When British troops arrived in Hamburg at the end of the war, they were shocked by the extent of the damage inflicted by Allied bombers in the summer of 1943. Many of them thought the Germans had had it even worse than London with the Blitz. As well as the devastation, they were shocked by the stench, for not only was there no sanitation, but decomposing body parts were still scattered throughout the ruins.
I had decided to set the The Woman Outside the Walls in Hamburg to suit my plot, in which my German girl has to meet a British soldier and escape to England, but as I delved into books recording the inferno and its aftermath, I became fascinated by horrific eye witness reports, which I knew would add depth to my story. Some of them I used as the basis for incidents in the novel, including the woman with no feet and the dead baby in a suitcase. The real horror of course was far worse than anything I have described.
To avoid falling into the trap of a ‘spoiler’, I am going to restrict myself to explaining how Hamburg provided a rich background for my dual time line novel. My main character, Anna, was raised in the city, but left just after Easter 1943. As she says, if she had still been there in July 1943, when Allied forces unleashed a incendiary attack on Germany’s second-largest city, she too might have been ‘roasted like a chicken in the oven’. That bombardment devastated the city, killing thousands and making many more homeless. There were reports of balls of fire exploding in the streets and people running for their lives to the relative safety of the parks and waterways. Tar melted on the roads and flames raced along the streets.
In the months immediately after the bombing, Hamburg was described as ‘a city of rats and flies’ because of the numbers of dead. Prisoners from nearby Neuengamme concentration camp were sent out to remove bodies and help clear the streets. Later on, flamethrowers had to be employed to clear the buildings of decaying corpses, because the ruins were filled with maggots and stinking slime.
Although many of the surviving population decided to leave the city and were rehoused, I thought it would be interesting to investigate how others continued to live in the ruins, making homes in cellars and makeshift hovels. My girl returns just as the war is about to end and although she has heard about the bombing of her home city, she is shocked at how badly damaged it is. She teams up with youngsters living in a cellar, calling themselves the Ausgebombten – the bombed out ones.
The arrival of the British in May 1945 was initially greeted with relief that it wasn’t the Russians, but when the victor’s administration dismissed the German authorities who had managed to keep supplies flowing throughout the war, residents realised that their lives were going to get even harder. The British also ordered the scuppering of local fishing boats, so that source of food also disappeared. Not surprisingly, a thriving black market developed and residents often ventured out into the countryside to barter with farmers for food, an activity known as ‘Hamstering’. But as prices rose dramatically, citizens joked that by the winter the farmers would have acquired fur coats for their wives and Turkish rugs for their pigsties.
My research also made it clear that many women had to resort to selling themselves on the street for cash or cigarettes to survive. I felt this was a legitimate development for the narrative of the novel and my girl Anna has to prostitute herself to help her friends buy food. But this also gave me the opportunity to cover the arrest of Ribbentrop, who was arrested in the company of a young woman in a rooming house near Hamburg’s main station.
And yet within this devastated landscape there was always hope. Messages chalked on walls soon after the inferno had subsided were still evident when the British arrived. All around Hamburg, on the remnants of once loved homes, survivors wrote ‘Wir leben’ to indicate that they were still alive somewhere in this rubble-filled city. My research threw up reports of optimistic messages at nearly every turn in the ruined streets; pleas for loved ones to return, to find their families, words of hope that they would be reunited. ‘Tante Hilde has taken the children to Blankenese’ and ‘Where are you Ingrid? We are in Flottbek’. I hope they found each other again.