“With tremendous power and force”

Miraculously, the Great Flood of 1962 only brought the Port of Hamburg to a temporary halt. However, things did not bode so well for islands such as Waltershof – the future location of Hamburg’s first container terminal – which sustained major damage.

Prior to the flood, tides that could be considered high had flowed up the Elbe towards Hamburg without causing any major damage for 107 years. The last truly destructive flood occurred in 1855, long forgotten by the residents of Hamburg in 1962. Warnings issued for low-pressure system Vincinette (“the victorious”) were not initially taken overly seriously, with Hamburg residents going to bed feeling safe and sound on the night of 17 February.

The dyke construction authorities also said there was virtually no chance the hurricane would lead to a catastrophe. Due to a malfunction of the critical observation point for the course of the flood, the Cuxhaven gauge, Hamburg stuck to its standard plan of action. As a result, the fact that the storm was pushing across the receding tide from the north-west creating a formidable wind remained unnoticed until it was too late. The incoming flood, strengthened by enormous distant waves from the Atlantic, was able to reach a colossal force.

60 times the amount of water in the Inner and Outer Alster Lakes

Flooded streets. Someone fighting their way through the water at the Wilhelmsburg marshalling yard

Eleven minutes after midnight, the icy tide broke the first dyke at Neuenfelde, followed by 59 more. Almost a fifth of Hamburg’s urban area was flooded by an amount of water equivalent to 60 times that of the Inner and Outer Alster Lakes. The island of Wilhelmsburg, protected by a flood defence ring of dykes, was completely flooded with water along with Waltershof, Altenwerder and Moorburg. 20,000 people were evacuated over the course of the next few days, with 2,000 people rescued from imminent death.  A total of 315 fatalities were eventually recorded.          

Many Hamburg residents safely located on the higher ground of the Elbe’s north bank were unaware of the previous night’s flood. By Saturday morning, swathes of the city’s population were yet to hear that entire districts south of the Elbe were submerged in water. An almost unimaginable scenario in the modern-day world where we have constant, real-time updates on the TV, internet and social media.

Waltershof transformed into a death trap

Waltershof, the location of what would become the Burchardkai container terminal a few years later, was one of the worst-hit areas. An unfinished expansion project meant the island had only one low-lying road to the city and turned it into a death trap for dozens of people.

Construction of a dock solely protected by quay walls and temporary dykes began before the start of the Second World War. In spite of the dock being unnecessary after the war, the island helped to combat the high demand for housing and food. Many Hamburg residents bombed out of their homes relocated to Waltershof, where they owned allotments.

The allotment owners transformed the garden settlement into a district with buildings consisting primarily of makeshift wooden and tin structures inhabited all year round, even during the winter. Unfortunately, this sparked disaster for the unknowing sleeping residents who received no warning of the flood. When the dyke to the Parkhafen basin situated at the site of the present-day Berth 7 broke, the makeshift homes were simply washed away along with the people and small animals who called them home. 

“The water rushed in with tremendous power and force,” recollects Johannes Tönnies, former resident of Waltershof island. “I will never be able to forget the cries for help and screams of the people drowned out by the wailing winds and terrifying roaring of the water.”

An aerial photograph taken after the flood shows the widespread destruction of the allotments on Waltershof island. The area has since been re-planned and elevated to construct the present-day Burchardkai.

Only the power was out in the port

Meanwhile, Günther Acke was hardly able to grasp the extent of damage caused by the catastrophe, which he had only heard about on the radio. “I drove to work at Shed 55 just like any other day,” recalls the HHLA port worker, who was 27 years old at the time. “We were all sent home by the shift manager as soon as we arrived and told to phone in later.”

The tide, which had risen to approximately 5.70 metres, had only left big puddles, silt and rubbish in the port areas, most of which were elevated 5.65 metres above sea level. Nevertheless, the port was brought to a standstill by the widespread loss of power. The report on the flood catastrophe issued by the Hamburg Senate noted that the port facilities were almost entirely intact. Only some of the railway tracks and the southern port railway station were under water for an extended period, but they would be back in operation in the near future.

The allotments were not rebuilt

All roads heading south were closed. The Elbe islands could only be reached with a long diversion through Lauenburg. On Monday, when HHLA ordered its employees back to the port to help with cleanup efforts, many colleagues from the southern parts of the city failed to show up.

One such employee was Gerhard Graf, an electrician from Wilhelmsburg. He peered out of his window on Saturday morning to discover the devastation caused by the flood. Water as far as the eye could see The Graf family was cut off from the outside world for two days, with other flood victims remaining isolated for up to ten days. The Grafs took in neighbours from downstairs who were unaware that their bedrooms had already been submerged.

Storm surge in 1976 resulted in more devastation

Despite the fact that the dykes surrounding the inhabited areas were reinforced several times after the catastrophe to ensure adequate protection, the port facilities remained vulnerable. In 1976, a storm surge reached 6.45 metres above sea level, far above the maximum height of 5.78 metres reached during flood of 1962. The surge caused in the region of 750 million marks worth of damage.

On the Burchardkai in 1976, the storm surge moved entire freight trains.

Major changes and improvements have since been made to the alarm and polder system for flood protection. As a result, high tides exceeding six metres in 1994 and 1995 did not cause any damage.