The Tragic Ordeal of the Berlin Zoo in World War II

Berlin Zoo elephants before the war. Elephant Gate

The Destruction Begins

The Berlin Zoo’s baptism of fire occurred during an RAF air raid on September 8th, 1941, when it was struck by about half a dozen 100 kilogram bombs. The stables in which the Heck cattle were housed caught fire from incendiaries, and a forest themed restaurant and the surrounding area sustained damage. All in all, however, the damage was relatively light – especially compared to what was to come a few years later. Repairs were completed within a few weeks, and the zoo was soon back in business, as if nothing had happened.

The zoo was not hit again during the next two years, other than for five 100 kilogram bombs that struck some empty space between the wolves’ enclosures’ and the cattle pastures. Then catastrophe struck in November of 1943, when Arthur Harris, the head of RAF Bomber Command, launched the “Battle of Berlin” – an attempt to win the war by reducing the German capital to rubble, and destroying the Luftwaffe in the process. The effort failed, but Berlin suffered heavy damage before Harris acknowledged that and the bombing tapered off. By then, the Berlin Zoo had been wrecked.

The worst damage was sustained on the nights of November 22nd and 23rd, 1943. On the 22nd, over 750 RAF heavy bombers struck western Berlin, including the Tiergarten district in which the zoo is located. During a fifteen minute stretch that night, starting at around 7:15 PM, numerous high explosive bombs, and more than 1000 incendiaries, rained on the Berlin Zoo, blasting and setting alight many animal enclosures, including those housing the elephants, monkeys, and predators. Firefighters were unable to contain the blazing infernos, as the city’s water mains had been broken by bombs.

Siam, the elephant. iHeart Berlin

Within a quarter of an hour, almost a third of the zoo’s animals had been killed. It was not over, however. The RAF returned the following night for another heavy raid, and around 8 PM on November 23rd, the zoo’s aquarium was completely demolished when a stick of bombs scored a direct hit, killing most of its inhabitants, blasting and scattering them far and wide. The following morning, pedestrians making their way along the nearby Budapeststrasse were greeted by the startling sight of crocodile bodies on the street, their carcasses having been flung there by the blast.

Such episodes gave rise to frightful rumors that some dangerous animals had escaped the zoo, alive, and were prowling Berlin’s streets in a maddened state. Stampeding elephants were said to be running amok amidst the city’s rubble, while tigers were supposedly stalking the streets, slaughtering and mauling all they came across. As with most rumors, the stories were greatly exaggerated: some potentially dangerous animals did escape their enclosures, but almost all were chased down and killed within the zoo’s confines. The only animals that made it out of the zoo were a dingo – that was recaptured – plus some monkeys and birds.