When Hurricane Xaver swept across northern Europe in December, it left behind a trail of destruction. It's also allowing beachside strollers near Hamburg to rediscover the fiery wrath of Operation Gomorrah.
From Hamburg, the mighty Elbe River flows northwest, towards the sea. A few kilometers (two miles) outside the city, the river would normally pass a five-kilometer-stretch of beach. Its sand almost completely disappeared in December 2013 thanks to Hurricane Xaver, which left behind only a thick layer of rubble and debris.
Between the tens of thousands of broken red bricks and glazed tiles are scattered forms of warped steel beams, rotting radiators and other items. They clearly once belonged to residential buildings.
"You could say that several streets of Hamburg have been dumped here in their entirety," says Dr. Daniel Nösler, an archaeologist with the nearby district of Stade. "Basically speaking, what we have here is a preserve of what everyday life looked like in Hamburg up until 1943," he told DW.
The debris is a grim leftover from World War II. In late July and early August of 1943 - the height of the conflict from Hamburg's point of view - the city became the target of an allied bombing campaign code named Operation Gomorrah. British and American planes dropped countless bombs on the city over several days, killing more than 40,000 and pulverizing entire boroughs. More than a quarter of a million apartments were destroyed as well as thousands of industrial and commercial buildings, schools and churches.
When the clean-up began after the war, ships took some of the resulting debris down the Elbe River. By dumping it on the beach near Stade, authorities killed two birds with one stone: It was a quick and easy way to free Hamburg of some of the thousands of cubic meters (tens of thousands of cubic feet) of rubble that were clogging up the city, and it was also an effective means of strengthening and reinforcing the riverbank. For years the debris remained buried underneath the beach. In December, Hurricane Xaver turned the beach upside down.
For archaeologists like Nösler, it's created an opportunity to go on a treasure hunt. Ceramic bottle caps and pieces of porcelain bearing the inscriptions of their manufacturer provide a hint at what a dinner table in Hamburg might have looked like in 1943. The larger items include a cast-iron hatch door that could once have been part of a cellar or bunker. Two gas-fired streetlights would once have lit a nightly street in Hamburg. One of them has been overgrown almost completely by the roots of a tree, illustrating how long it's been here. A few steps further, a massive block of granite has come to rest. Probingly, Nösler kicks it with the tip of his boot.
"It probably weighs around a ton," he says. "It looks like a fragment that could once have decorated a building."
Also among the rubble are countless pieces of warped glass. They too provide chilling insight into wartime devastation.
"The bombing caused a firestorm in central Hamburg. Glass only begins to melt at around one thousand degrees Celsius, so these pieces illustrate how incredibly hot the fire must have burned." The archaeologist said the glass was likely to have once been windows, bottles or glasses.
One specific fragment serves as an especially impressive reminder of the civilian suffering caused by Operation Gomorrah. It's between four and five centimeters long (two inches) and is blue, red and white.
"It could once have been a piece of jewellery made from glass pearls," Nösler says. "Now it has melted completely."
Each item has the potential to tell a fascinating story. Archeologically, the beach reveals little that is new. The1940s, after all, are well documented.
Still, Hurricane Xaver has helped solve what was once something of a mystery to Nösler.
In 2011 the lower half of a headstone from a Jewish cemetery was discovered near the beach. Initially, Nösler and his colleagues had no idea how it had ended up there.
When Hurricane Xaver swept the beach, it unearthed stone fragments bearing Hebrew lettering or the Star of David. Knowing where the rubble on the beach had come from, Nösler contacted some colleagues at the Jewish cemetery in the Altona district of Hamburg.
"Using historical pictures, we were able to establish that this headstone belonged to one Schimon ben Izek Gowe, who died in 1745," Nösler says. "And we were able to determine that it once stood in the Jewish cemetery in Hamburg."
What's more, the upper half of the headstone still exists. It has been preserved as part of a project to reconstruct the Jewish cemetery in Altona, one of the most significant Jewish gravesites in the world. Now that its origin has been established, Nösler's half of the headstone will go back to Hamburg, where it'll be reunited with its other half.