The city of Hamburg – Germany’s second largest – stands on the River Elbe at the base of the Jutland Peninsula. The North Sea lies to the west and the Baltic to the east, but the city is 100 km (60 mi) from either coast. In February 1962 it therefore came as an unpleasant surprise when a severe storm in the North Sea led to extensive flooding in Hamburg.
The culprit was a European wind storm of the kind that initiated inundation of the Netherlands and eastern England a decade before, but this time the action was in the German Bight. Northwestern Germany took the full force of 200 kph (120 mph) winds that caused a powerful storm surge that rose to a height of 3 m (10 ft) above the highest tide. It was too much for sea defenses. Late on the evening of February 16 the first dykes were overwhelmed and a domino effect swiftly allowed advancing waters to engulf large areas along the Rivers Elbe and Weser.
Because of the late hour and the fact that telephone and power lines were brought down by the sudden flood, Hamburg’s population was not alerted to the onrushing threat. Before an effective civil defense response could be organized, a sixth of the city was flooded. Over 6,000 buildings were destroyed or damaged beyond repair and hundreds died. Hamburg was cut off as roads were impassable and the railway system became inoperable.
The local police commissioner took charge, calling in the German Army and requesting help from
Germany’s NATO allies. They responded by sending helicopters that made a significant contribution to rescue operations. The displaced and stranded people of Hamburg – especially in the hard- hit residential district of Wilhelmsburg – swiftly christened these saviors from the sky Fliegende Engel (Flying Angels).
When: February 16-17 1962
Where: Hamburg, Germany
Death toll: 315 deaths were recorded in Hamburg as a direct result of the North Sea flood.
You should know: It was terrifying for those who experienced it, but the North Sea flood was nothing compared to the Grote Mandrenke (Great Drowner of Men) that happened in 1362, exactly 600 years before. This hit England, the Netherlands and northern Germany and resulted in at least 25,000 deaths, with some casualty estimates going as high as 100,000.