A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
A COLLECTION OF STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE AND LIFE EXPERIENCES
Once in a while, my children and grandchildren ask me about the day.
That terrible day – December 16, 1944 – when many bombs fell on Ludwigsburg, my home town in Germany.
Bombs dropped by American planes, leaving 68 people dead. And if the timing had varied by a mere fraction of a second, I probably would have died, too. So, although 76 years have passed, many of the awful sights and sounds on that frightful and sad day linger in my memory – and probably always will.
It began with startling air-alarm sirens around noon. Then there were the detonations from flak, followed by the loud howling and whistling of the falling bombs, and thunderclaps when the impact was close.
Imagine being in an air raid shelter -- filled with adults screaming and children crying. Then everyone suddenly very quiet, waiting in the basement for the building to collapse. After an eternity, the noises grew faint -- and a sense of certainty spread to us all.
It was finally over for that day for the people of Ludwigsburg – a community of less than 40,000 in an area of southern Germany known for lovely forests, fertile highlands, green meadows and lakes.
It happened when I was seven years old. Christmas was only nine days away, but there were still six months more to go before the end of World War II.
About two dozen giant B-17 bombers were involved in the attack. Each plane, known as a “Flying Fortress,” had a huge payload.
All told, the planes dropped 250 high explosive bombs, 10 aerial mines, 7,000 incendiary phosphorus bombs and 5 liquid incendiary phosphorus bombs
My father was on duty somewhere at the eastern front, with Flak Regiment 25. All the other members of my family were together at our house on Garden Street, where I huddled in a bomb shelter with my mother, brothers Heinz and Manfred, and sister Renate.
As soon as warning sirens went off, my mother hurried to get Renate, playing with friends at a nearby house. Heinz, a trained flak helper in the Hitler Youth, went on the roof to watch for approaching planes. When he saw the bombs falling from the sky, he scurried down to the shelter.
I’d never seen him so fearful.
All of us survived.
But our home was buried in debris. Rubble was piled up to the second floor,. We were struck there for 24 hours before we were freed.
As bad as that was, we were fortunate compared to neighbors.
Both of the houses next to ours were totally destroyed. One was hit directly by a high explosive bomb with a delay fuse. It penetrated all four stories and exploded below the street level, where the shelter was.
That bomb killed everybody there -- 18 adults and 7 children.
The other neighboring building, a 3-story house, was entirely destroyed by an air mine that exploded above ground. That whole structure collapsed, but all the people in the shelter survived.
Late into the night, I watched from mother’s bedroom window as soldiers, police and air raid wardens worked feverishly to try to rescue survivors and dig out the bodies of dead women and children.
Now, it’s hard to answer when my relatives ask me to tell them how it felt after that disaster.
There were numerous additional air raids, and endless fear that we would die, just like the people in our neighbors’ houses. We all knew that our house also would have been leveled in the December 16 raid if the bombardier’s timing had been only a slight bit different.
Just a stroke of luck for us!
After that disaster, the shelter at our home was no longer considered safe. From then on, we all had to run to the basement of the nearby school to seek protection during air raids. One time, my mother hit her head on an iron gate at the school entrance. She told us to go without her. We were so relieved later when an air-raid warden took her to us.
During daytime attacks, we could see white condensation stripes in the sky from hundreds of airplanes – on the way to a target elsewhere. We could see them flying through clouds of exploding flak grenades.
When attacks were at night, it was so dark that we couldn’t see our hands in front of us. After the first impacts, emergency lights flickered, then all the lights went out.
A glow from candles showed chalky faces distorted by fear.
But no matter what time the attacks took place, we could smell dust and smoke. Everyone looked for gas masks until we heard an all-clear signal.
What did I think? Thank God it didn't hit us.
As I tell this story, I’m confident of the accuracy. I not only rely on my memories, but on extensive research -- digging through U.S. and German official records, reading old newspapers and talking to “Zeitzeugen” (witnesses of those events).
Ironically, t turns out that Ludwigsburg was not supposed to be the target. Although a lot of military barracks were located there, I learned that the mission actually was aimed at two towns a couple of miles away. They were both important transportation centers that Germany needed to move supplies for the Battle of the Bulge, which it started that very day in a bid to split Allied forces.
In addition, official reports provide key facts about the mission. A total of 114 bombers took off from southern England, escorted by almost as many Mustang P-51 fighter planes. They were at an altitude of about 21,000 feet as they approached Ludwigsburg from the south.
When cirrus clouds limited their visibility significantly and the navigation systems failed to operate properly, pilots were told to drop their bombs “on sight” instead of relying on the instrument guidance and these bombs fell straight down more than usual.
In those days, bombing accuracy at that high altitude was poor. On average, less than 20 percent of the bombs fell within 1,000 feet of the target. Even with a last-minute visual correction, this bomb drop turned into a hit and miss situation.
According to German sources, the bombs:
-- Killed 47 civilians, 11 foreign workers, 9 soldiers, and 1 policeman.
-- Destroyed about 50 buildings ranging from military barracks and railroad installations to industrial plants and residential areas.
Overall, records indicate about 1,500 people lost their lives in Ludwigsburg during the war. But the city survived relatively well compared to others where carpet bombing was used including Dresden, Hamburg, Stuttgart and Hannover. That might have been the case because allied forces thought the many military barracks in Ludwigsburg might be used after the war to house occupation troops and prisoners.
When the war was over, there was a large displaced person’s camp which housed several thousand people -- mainly Polish displaced persons -- until about 1948.
In December, 1962 --- exactly 18 years after the worst bombing of Ludwigsburg -- I came to the United States and began a new life in Florida. I became an American citizen in 2000
Postscript: The war came to an end for my family in April 1945, when U.S. troops occupied my hometown. A few months later, one of those soldiers – his name was “Pat” -- was a welcome guest at our house and shared coffee with us. I knew him because I had collected his dirty laundry at the barracks where he was stationed and took it to my mother for cleaning.
Some 20 years later, while working as an aircraft instrument designer, I got to know Eddy Fernandez, a colleague of mine in the engineering department of the same company. We worked side by side for 10 years in Fort Lauderdale, becoming good friends, and he told me an extraordinary story.
Eddy said he had been a “ball turret gunner” on a B-17 bomber hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany. He was wounded so badly that the pilot, thinking Eddy probably would not survive the flight back to England, told him to jump with a parachute and take his chances with Germans below.
After he landed, Eddie said members of a Hitler Youth group took him to a field hospital near Ludwigsburg. One of his legs was amputated. He later was sent to a nearby prison camp.
Eddy was convinced he would have died if it hadn't been for the quick action of the German men on the ground.
Rolf Schneider is a retired engineer living in Florida.
"Late into the night, I watched from my mother’s bedroom as soldiers, police and air raid wardens worked feverishly to rescue survivors and dig out the bodies of dead women and children. Now, it’s hard to answer when my relatives ask me to tell them how it felt after that disaster. "