This is a 1988 interview done with Karl Fuchs, German WWII firefighter in Hamburg

Thanks for meeting with me; I would like to understand what it was like being in the fire service during the Third Reich. How did you come to the fire service?

Karl: My family history had something to do with it, my elders served the Kaiser in the fire protection brigades, and I chose to follow the same path. I did my civil service exam, and applied as a fire cadet, I was accepted in 1932. The training was done with veteran fire fighters, under strict training. I remember everyone was excited that Adolf Hitler had been elected; many felt he would right the wrongs that were going on in Germany, like foreign influence, crime, and the shame of Versailles.

Local communists set fires in Hamburg to protest his becoming chancellor, and the police had to go out with us to protect us from their bottles and bricks. I remember a store they set fire to, which was owned by a Jewish family, which was ironic. These people were not very smart and lashed out blindly to vent their frustration. Later, we were given police powers to stop acts like this from happening. That was my first fire, but certainly not my last. Therefore, that is how I came to be a firefighter.

Did you have many fires to fight before the war?

Karl: There was always the careless person who would set curtains or the stove on fire, sure. Hamburg was a large city, and we were stationed so that we had a broad area to cover, but could also be downtown quickly. We received new engines that had better pumps than before, under Hitler technology exploded for the fire service. We had breathing apparatus, better towers, and hoses that could hold greater pressure. I felt we became fully modernized from 1933 to 1937, and into the war.

We also had to undergo intensive training early on; we had to learn to fight shipboard fires, high-rise fires, and chemical fires. The latter required special suits that became available, and for the first time we had to practice protection from terror attacks. Germany was on a heightened state since the communists were thrown out, and the world Jewish congress had declared a war on the Reich. That may not seem like anything, but acts of sabotage at the docks happened.

This was one reason Himmler took over the police and fire service. He merged our powers, to give us the ability to detect and act upon sabotage and arson. Since we lived by water, we had a special unit that could deploy to help fight ship fires, and people drowning. This was a problem during the summer months, and winter, when fisherman would go out on ice. When this happened, we had to call an ambulance from the nearest hospital to come and assist the person after rescue.

What do you mean Jews declared war on the Reich?

Karl: See, I am not against Jews; this is something that happened that shaped German attitudes towards them. It is no secret that Jews were successful in Germany, although they were less than one percent of the population; in some fields, they were way over represented. In the press for example, in Hamburg close to forty percent of the editors and publishers were Jews. Same for lawyers and financiers, some made no effort to hide it, others did. This is no exaggeration, and was a big reason Germans voted for Hitler, something was not right with them doing so well. The wealthiest families in Hamburg were all Jewish.

One of the first acts that the NS did was remove Jews from high positions that they did not earn. To give an example of what I mean: one swindle that was easy to see was once one got into a high position; they would then only hire family or fellow Jews. It became an uneven playing field where the best candidate did not always get the job. It was quite a racket they legally ran, and it was like this all over Germany.

Jews gained the most power and influence right after the first war; they did not even bother to hide it that much. They opened businesses all over, bought with the money they made from forcing war widows to give up homes, or family businesses. By 1933, every major store in Germany was Jewish owned, every one. Wertheim was the largest.

This is what Hitler pointed out, that it was by fraud that so many Jews had risen to power, and they openly supported the communist revolution. The first thing the NS government did was remove most Jews from any powerful position in the government. Because of this first step, the Jewish World Congress declared a war on Germany in 1933, which was supposed to be a boycott. Now this may not seem like a big deal, and at first, it was not treated as such in Germany. Soon after Jews started acts of sabotage and assassinations. This is why the SA launched the one-day boycott of Jewish businesses, where the signs would say: “Germans, protect yourselves, do not buy from Jews”. It was only allowed to last a day, the state wanted peace, and did want to target innocent Jews.

I was never a party man, nor in the SA, but I understood what was happening. The Jews were angry that Hitler was elected and destroying their power, and they decided to turn on Germany to try to remove him. This is why when the war started so many Jews left Germany, and some were interred in camps. Just like the Germans, Japanese, and Italians in the Allied nations. We viewed them as foreigners who had to be watched. The victors try to make us feel ashamed, and sorry for the treatment of the Jews, but they brought this on by trying to hurt German businesses, killing our diplomats, and their leaders pushing for war. Jews who were loyal to Germany were left alone, some evening serving the Reich.

You were in Hamburg during the bombing raids, and firebombing?

Karl: Yes, I was in the city when war was announced, which was very somber for all, as we knew what war meant. It was good that Himmler put good leaders in place that had us prepared as best as we could be. The British came over the city early, I think it was on 10 September and dropped anti-Hitler leaflets that we all laughed at. We found one canister that failed to explode, all the children gathered around while we set it off, and everyone cheered as the pamphlets went flying. This was the forewarning to us that worse would come, Wilhelmshaven was bombed on the third day of war. We spent the rest of 1939, and early 1940 training for mass causalities, and large block fires, party officials also joined in to learn to help treat, and meet the needs of wounded and displaced. The Red Cross was used as well to coordinate relocation services, and emergency food. Our Gauleiter came out several times to watch drills, and attend meetings for civil defense training. I met him personally, and received a medal.

Since we had been given some powers as the police, it made it easier for us to recruit women for crowd control, translators, radio service, and other roles women could help with. Later in the war, some even became firefighters and helped battle some of the worst bombing fires. We were kept very busy, and sometimes had to live at the fire station. It helped that I was single still, so had no one who depended on me to be home.

The British hit Hamburg again in May 1940, targeting the oil areas, they did more damage to civilian areas however. We had to fight these and one thing that became a concern was the bombs breaking water lines. We needed above ground lines that could be moved in case this happened. These early attacks were small and did some damage, but the terror they created was criminal. The enemy went out of their way to target cities and civilians for the first time.

These raids were nothing compared to the July 1943 raid. Early on I read about what our Luftwaffe did to London, in retaliation for raids on Reich cities, I thought this would stop the bombings of cities. The Allies had other plans, with the goal to terrify and kill as many civilians as possible. That summer it was very dry, I remember we had go around and warn people not to have fires in their yards, and to watch camping fires as well. We were having a drought period with no rain and the enemy knew this.

It was on the 24th and very late, that sirens went off, many went to their shelters, some thought it too late for a raid. I was on duty and assigned to a new ladder truck as the leader, I had a German crew, but we also had a Dutchmen helping. When the sirens sounded, we deployed to our staging areas. I could then hear the drones of the engines, they were massive, I had not heard this many before. We could actually hear the bombs fall, and then hear the explosions; it was a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs with phosphorous fuel that that intensified the flames.

We were immediately sent in after this raid, which lasted not long. We were not prepared for the death we encountered. We stayed on scene fighting fire after fire, then in daylight, more bombers came and we had to seek shelter. This played out all over again, masses of bombers using a mixed payload, setting old victories back alight. We struggled with staying awake and finding energy to keep going. Red Cross workers gave us caffeine pills. Some water lines broke, so we had to use canal water in some areas.

The wounded were everywhere dazed and confused, but we could do nothing. All area resources were called in to give aid; fresh reserves were even sent from Denmark. They said they could see the smoke a hundred km away. The next day another attack hit us; this kept going for ten days. We thought how evil the enemy was to target such a defenseless civilian population. They tried to kill as many people as they could, this was clear. They targeted the city center, and harbor areas with the most civilians living nearby. In the city center, they broke the water lines, and when we brought out the above ground lines, the other raids destroyed them as well.

In some cases firemen had no way to put water on the flames, which finally got so violent and hot we were called to retreat from several areas, and keep a defensive area to contain the spread. I would see dead laying in the streets; some were burned beyond any recognition.

These attacks all culminated in the largest raid to date, when they bombed the city center again, this time causing a firestorm that took the lives of many of my comrades and others who were in the city to help find survivors. The Allies used delayed action bombs, and phosphor bombs that we could not put out. Again, we had to retreat away from the center. Another tragedy to fall on us was that many firefighters came from Hanover to help, and then the Allies attacked that city, which had to be left to burn as most of the men where in Hamburg.

I told you we had to face the enemies worst for ten straight days, we held on, without hardly any sleep or food. I must say that the services all worked together to fight the fires, and to help the people of the city. Our gauleiter ordered truck after truck, and train after train with supplies, and workers to recover the victims and get a semblance of order back. The Allies made it as hard as they could by the delayed action bombs, many rescuers were killed when they would explode, sometimes days later.

By the time the raids were all over, which lasted a full week, we could count our losses and bury the dead. I was there when our leaders came to comfort the people, and on Dr. Goebbels, orders all resources diverted to help were given extra pay, time off, and a vacation. There was a miracle baby found in a cellar in the harbor area, it was in an infant gasbag, still in the mothers arms, who died. All of the people in the cellar suffocated, but somehow the infant lived.

I later learned that since the family all died the child was placed with a family who lost a son in Africa for adoption. That gave all of us a sense of victory and satisfaction, but there were many such stories of survival. Our city was never the same after this raid, the people had to move elsewhere for the most part, and any rebuilding was destroyed with further raids. Our losses where near 45 thousand killed, and many more wounded. We were thanked by our gauleiter later, who said the losses could have been much worse and that our determination and quick action saved many.

The cleanup and rebuilding went well into the late 1950’s, and we always would find unexploded bombs, a special unit had to be called to remove them. The old city was never the same after this.

What happened to you after the firebombing?

Karl: We had lost much of our men and equipment, so the weeks after were spent regrouping, and refitting. We received donated vehicles from Spain, and Holland to replenish. The city was mostly destroyed but the docks, and the refineries still had to be protected. The Allies started to attack France during this time; a few comrades and I were sent to France to help boost their reserves. I was surprised to see the Allies bombing their supposed friends so recklessly. I was sent to Paris, and was involved in the fire defense of Le Portel later that year. Many innocent Frenchmen died at the hands of the Allies.

We ended up not staying very long in France, as the attacks on Reich territory where getting worse. We moved back to Hamburg, to a new base, and kept on alert to move to any city needing our help. We received better equipment, allowing us to breathe inside a building while wearing a mask, and better helmets for protection. More women came to us as well, now fully trained to fight fires alongside the men. Many were not happy with this, as this had been a man’s job, but we also were secretly glad for the extra help, it meant more even workloads. One woman was from Norway, and very pretty.

Some comrades were sent to Warsaw in 1944, to help stop fires from the battle that ensued with the home army terrorists. One comrade, I was told, was killed when the terrorist captured a panzer and turned it on German positions, shelling indiscriminately, hitting the fire base. Another was killed after it was over by a nest of them that refused to give up, it was said they opened fire when rescuers opened a collapsed cellar looking for survivors. It was madness asking men to fight fires while a battle was still going on.

What was the German people’s feelings about Hitler after the bombings?

Karl: It is interesting, after the firebombing, the Allies dropped leaflets asking if we saw Hitler in our bombed cities. They of course were mocking him for not coming to visit his people after the raid. Most Germans understood the cruel nature of the Allies, just as they named the raid Gomorrah, after a city of sin. We knew our nation had done nothing wrong, this war was forced on Germany, declared by the Allies, and they caused it to escalate. The Führer did visit areas, but we also knew that it pained him to see what suffering the people were going through, it had to be hard for him to watch.

The party did an excellent job of representing the Führer, and after every raid, the leaders were out, rolling up their sleeves, and helping the survivors. I saw this every time, they put themselves at risk, due to the sneaky delayed bombs, and unexploded bombs in the rubble. Of course, there were the few who could be heard murmuring that the Führer had turned his back on us, or we should surrender before it gets worse. These people were not many, and no one listened to them.

Most all Germans were very loyal to the nation, and saw in the Allies an evil force that had unleashed itself on us due to hatred and jealousy. Back in those days, a phrase was popular called the balance of power, Britain did not want to share power in Europe, they wanted to be the king, when Germany challenged this, and war was the only way Britain knew how to deal with it. We understood this well, so their propaganda was more laughed at than taken seriously.

These bombing raids also hardened the people more, making us want to dig in and tough it out, because we saw the worst in the enemy, and determined to withstand it. A slogan went up all over Germany; our walls are broken but not our hearts. The Allies were wrong in attacking our civilians, and in some cases, the people struck back at Allied aircrews, hitting them with bricks, and fists when they were brought through towns. The military had to intervene many times to stop the people from attacking; I saw this in France as well, where one Frenchman shot a captured American from a downed bomber.

It saddens me that today our leaders cry that we brought this on ourselves, they cry Guernica, Warsaw, London, Rotterdam, and of course the Jews. A mayor, Max Brauer, went on to blame us for the bombings, saying we deserved it. What nonsense and ignorance. Time will show it was the Allies who started, and delighted in the bombings of civilians and cities. Warsaw was a military target, Rotterdam an accident, London was retaliation, and we never targeted civilians specifically, unlike the Allies. Communists in our mists, empowered by the victors, constantly tell us how bad we were for the war. They are too stupid, or too misled to see it was the allies, not Germany who bears the guilt.

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