Seventy years on, a first-hand account of “the greatest tragedy Denmark has ever known”

This morning, 70 years ago, Copenhageners were waking up to the aftermath of Shellhusbombardementet, a RAF raid that claimed 125 lives

Copenhageners are waking up this Sunday morning to a familiar scene on their streets: discarded kebab wrappers, a smashed beer bottle or two, some vomit. The rain will wash it away.

But 70 years ago, the scene was very different. World War II was still raging, and in the aftermath of a raid by the British RAF, the scene was very different: smouldering buildings, endless rubble, dismembered body parts. No amount of rain could wash it away. 

Jørgen Rossen attended the local middle school when the bombs fell over Frederiksberg exactly 70 years ago yesterday during Operation Carthage – a RAF mission targeting the Danish Gestapo high-command at Shellhuset that went horribly wrong.

This is his testimony – told by a father, written by his son: 

It started as a normal day for Class 4 mellum
We will never forget Operation Carthage.

Or as it is known today: Shellhusbombardementet. 

But sometimes labels seem so futile, and in this case no collection of words can serve the events of 21 March 1945 justice. It was a day on which Frederiksberg paid the highest possible price.

I was on my way to Frederiksberg Gymnasium, which at the time was located on Hollændervej in the Amicisvej/Maglekildevej neighbourhood, where we would meet each morning at 8am. I was 15 years old at the time.

At 11am we had German lessons with 'The Horse'. I don't remember the guy's real name, but Class 4 Mellem never called him anything else; he would constantly gape and was in general a nervous type, so he resembled in so many ways a horse.

We were in class on the fourth floor. We had this giant map of Europe on which each day we would mark the German army's retreat on the eastern front with small pins and colours. Those that had followed the news via the underground radio would always have something new to contribute, and we would all share our thoughts and excitement as the war was gradually coming to an end.

A humming in the distance
I was sitting on the first row over by the window listening to The Horse whinnying on, when suddenly we heard a distant, intensifying humming. We all looked to the left, where we began to see planes on the horizon. Was it Germans or Brits? We didn't know, but they began multiplying on the horizon and came closer.

It was the first plane that really caught our attention: hanging low and dangling on one wing, a thick cloud of black smoke followed its descent, like a winged pheasant heading towards its end. We later learned that the plane was the lead-bomber and supposed to indicate to the rest of the squadron where to drop their load on Shellhuset. Flying too low, it had hit a pole by the railway yard over by Hovedbanegården and was now wrestling to keep itself in the air.

But it failed, and with a thunderous roar, it came crashing down into a garage on Frederiksberg Allé, bursting into flames, just a few hundred yards from our school.

Running for their lives
We all now realised that something was terribly wrong. Not so much because of the impact; it was The Horse panicking by the teacher’s desk that really shook us up. "Out, out, out!" he screamed, and boy, were we terrified.

Storming into the corridor, where other classes were rushing towards the stairs, my ever-prevailing curiosity made me stop again by the stairwell window; I needed to see what was going on.

And then I saw the second wave coming. Straight for us: a big, British, bombing bird dropping black eggs from its belly – so close that you could see the RAF paint and the pilot peering from his cockpit.

How strange I must have looked: a little boy, just standing there, looking at death as it approaches, feeling neither fear nor dismay, only adrenaline and fascination – right up until the point when he realised the bombs were steering straight towards him.

As I sprinted down the stairs, a bomb struck: there was a deafening roar as glass shattered and dust kicked up from out of nowhere – but it wasn’t our building. The bomb had struck our gym hall in the school yard, which at the time was rented to the municipality as a distribution centre for ration coupons, and the entire complex shook as if in an earthquake.

Among friends on a cold stone floor
We quickly got onto our feet again and ran down to the main hall where we each morning would listen to fædrelandssange. Now instead, I got down on the floor again with my classmates, covering our heads, listening for indications of the next impact. I looked to my right, where our mathematics teacher, Mr Madsen, had accompanied me. He was whimpering, scared to death, and I'll never forget what he told us there on the cold stone floor.

"At least it is good to know that we die amongst friends."

It made such an impression on me, as this was the first time I realised just how much I might have underestimated the whole situation: Was I about to die now? World War II had suddenly moved from the radio to something within an uncomfortably close reach.

The 'thunders' continued rapidly, but luckily we weren’t struck again, and then our teachers told us to get onto our feet and seek shelter in the basement. There, 100 boys and teachers sat in the dark, listening to the bombing raid, praying and waiting. And waiting and waiting. And I tell you, it felt like an eternity before the doors were opened, and we ran out and dispersed as fast as we could.

Back into the fray once more
I went home to our villa on Stæger’s Allé. My father was at his factory and my mother didn’t really know what was happening. Before I knew what was happening, I ran to my room, grabbed an armband from Civilforsvaret, which I had come into possession of, and – against all logic – headed back to the school. I wanted to help, but most of all, I just wanted to be back there.

On the adjourning Amicisvej and Maglekildevej, the firefighters and the HIPO were sealing-off the impact zone – wearing my armband, I pretended I was a young man from Civilforsvaret and they let me in.

And boy, was there havoc: several residential building had been struck, blazing so intensely that you needed to cover your whole face to protect from the heat. Buildings started collapsing in the fire, rubble everywhere – our gym hall was virtually gone and a thick cloud of smoke and dust covered the entire area. I felt helpless, not knowing where to begin or start. Should I start looking for survivors, or should I just get lost?

A face among the rubble
That was when I looked down and saw the face. But the face didn’t have a body. Not even a head. It was just a face. Half of it: a facial muzzle with the nose intact, just lying there without a wearer. A body part in all its carnality without a trace of its owner, who just hours ago would have worn it and probably smiled with it as it was a beautiful day. I picked it up, looking at it wonderingly, and then looked at a rescue worker who looked back at me.

"Toss it in the trash, son," he said to me, looking down, indulgently squeezing his lips together.

It came down to luck
As we roamed around the neighbourhood, I came to the ironic realisation of just how 'lucky' we had been: I was safe, my friends were safe and, despite the havoc, only a few people lost their lives in the Frederiksberg Gymnasium neighbourhood.

Around the corner on Frederiksberg Allé, at the French girls school, Institut Jean d’Arc, things were horribly different: The poor girls had burnt to death here. The 'lucky' ones were crushed instantly under the rubble of the impact, whereas the less fortunate were either burnt to death or drowned – the latter explained by bursting water pipes that had quickly filled the basement, killing the ones who had sought shelter in the darkness of Jean d’Arc’s cellars.

Besides those killed in the blast at Shellhuset, on that day, 125 civilians gave their lives to Operation Carthage on Frederiksberg, including 86 school girls at Institut Jean d’Arc and the 18 nuns who guarded them. Some 900 people lost their homes.

Not mentioned, never forgotten
But we were never to talk about it, said many parents to their children. We should keep silent about it, and so for many, it sank deep into the subconscious and drowned their soul – that they were there and witnessed the greatest tragedy Denmark has ever known.

But we should never forget it. It is a vital part of our generation to this day: that we were that close to death. A tenth of a second before or after on the trigger, and we too would have been struck face first at Frederiksberg Gymnasium and even more people would have died.

We were close. We were so – incredibly – close. And so we too will never forget Operation Carthage.

  • How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    Being part of a trade union is a long-established norm for Danes. But many internationals do not join unions – instead enduring workers’ rights violations. Find out how joining a union could benefit you, and how to go about it.

  • Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals are overrepresented in the lowest-paid fields of agriculture, transport, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and construction – industries that classically lack collective agreements. A new analysis from the Workers’ Union’s Business Council suggests that internationals rarely join trade unions – but if they did, it would generate better industry standards.

  • Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    The numbers are especially striking amongst the 3,477 business and economics students polled, of whom 31 percent elected Novo Nordisk as their favorite, compared with 20 percent last year.