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That time when the Nazis accidentally bombed the German city of Freiburg

Sam Dickson

Imagine there is no radar. No navigation systems whatsoever. Still, planes are cruising the skies. And not just ordinary aircraft, but fighters and bombers. That was the state of affairs when WWII broke out. You’d go airborne, and the rest was up to your abilities, instincts, and a pinch of luck. Mistakes will happen. Well, in 1940 the infamous Luftwaffe made the gravest of them all – bombing their own population in Freiburg.

It was 10th of May 1940, the day the German invasion of France began. Lieutenant Paul Seidel was preparing to take off from the Landsberg-Lech Air Base with his Luftwaffe squadron. Their mission was to conduct a bombing raid over the French city of Dijon. In case something went wrong, they had a backup target: the Dole–Jura Airport.

 

But, back in the day, navigation was rather unreliable, and stage fright could prove enough to completely ruin a mission. But in this case, the pilots had a clear mark – they were supposed to notice flying over the river Rhine. That was the surest way of knowing they’d entered France.

The airmen from Seidel’s 8th Season of Fighter Squadron 51 managed to mess this up. Lost among the clouds hovering over the German city of Freiburg, they were 100% positive they had their target in sight. At 3:59 PM, the Heinkel He 111 planes started dropping the total of 69 bombs.

The city’s anti-aircraft defenses were caught totally unprepared. They had clearly seen the German planes flying over their heads and probably assumed they were en route to France. The load fell near a train station, killing a total of 57 people. Once the damage was done, the air raid alarm absorbed the horror in the streets.

Freiburg photographed in November 1944. Ruins are mostly due to Allied raids towards the end of WWII. Source: Wikipedia / Public Domain

Freiburg photographed in November 1944. Ruins are mostly due to Allied raids towards the end of WWII.

Unwilling to climb down – let alone to publicly admit they had started the Battle of France with such a disaster – the Nazi command made a swift attempt at presenting this error as an enemy attack. And not just any kind of attack, but a brutal violence intended to hurt unarmed civilians. The press claimed the retaliation would be five-fold.

The next day, the Freiburger Zeitung wrote of a “sneaky, cowardly air raid against all laws of humanity and international law.” Seven months later, the Fuhrer himself accused Winston Churchill of terrorist attacks against civilians in Freiburg.

Even though top German military officials maintained that the raid on Freiburg must have been an Allied mission, the truth eventually surfaced. Important work carried out by several historians finally broke through the officers’ denialism. Thus in August 1980, even the famous Colonel Josef Kammhuber stated that it was “evident” that “the attack on Freiburg was conducted mistakenly by a chain of III/KG51.”

Forty-five years after the disaster, city’s mayor Rolf Böhme uncovered a memorial stone dedicated to unlikely victims of the Battle of France. It lays near the Hilda Playground, next to which 20 children were killed in the attack.