The Bombing of Dresden

The strategic Bombing of Dresden, a city of great beauty and the cultural centre of Eastern Germany known as the Jewel on the River Elbe famous for its libraries, its museums, its architecture, and its Baroque medieval town centre, the Altmarkt, remains one of the most controversial decisions of World War Two. That its industries had been utilised to assist the German war effort was no surprise but it was by no means a major centre of war production with only some 110 mostly small factories in its suburbs employing around 50,000 workers but it was an important rail terminus serving as a staging post for the retreating German Army and the many hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Russian advance in the East.

That it could be considered a legitimate military target seems reasonable but the timing of the attack, just six weeks before the end of the war and when German surrender was merely a matter of time, the massive nature of the assault and the fact that more strategically important targets lay elsewhere has led many to consider it a deliberate act of terror and thereby a war crime. This view is lent credence by the fact that the town centre was utterly destroyed whilst those factories that lay on the outskirts of the city remained relatively unscathed.

Dresden also lay directly in the path of the advancing Soviet army which has led some to conclude that the city’s was not designed to cow the German civilian population as much as it was to warn Soviet Russia of the capacity and the power of Allied Bomber Commander to destroy.

An internal Royal Air Force memo of January 1945, detailing the reasons for the forthcoming attack on Dresden ended with the words . . . and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.

Previously Dresden had been spared the worst of the bombing raids over Germany and the city had only been targeted twice in five years and both times by small-scale raids that were designed to disrupt rail traffic. The city’s death toll up to this point stood at only a little over 400 but this was soon to change.

At 17.20 hours on the 13 February 1945, a British Pathfinder force of 83 Squadron took off from airfields in England for the 700 mile flight to Dresden. It was their job to drop magnesium parachute flares, likened by the Germans to Christmas Trees, to light up the area targeted for the main Bomber force that was to follow.

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Before the Pathfinder force returned some 245 Lancaster Bombers carrying 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons on incendiaries had followed in their wake.

Dresden was largely undefended, anti-aircraft defences on the ground were light and there were only ten night fighters in the vicinity, and there was a reluctance to scramble these to oppose an overwhelming Bomber force with a heavy fighter escort. The Allied Bombers were in more danger from collision and engine failure than they were from enemy fire.

The silence of a still winter night in Dresden was broken by the sound of air-raid sirens at 21.51 hours just 20 minutes before the first bombs landed. It was not a city well-equipped to deal with a major bombing raid. It had only one public shelter of any size positioned under the main Railway Station with a maximum capacity of just 6,000 people in a city with a population of 500,000 and most people were reduced to sheltering in the cellars of their homes or simply fleeing for their lives.

The bombing raid that night was to be the heaviest the city had yet endured but it wasn’t to be the end of their suffering. An even heavier bombing raid consisting of 529 Lancaster Bombers carrying 1,800 tons of high explosives was already on its way, planned to arrive three hours after the first and as the clean-up operation in the city was already underway. They were carrying 500 pound bombs, the so-called “two-ton cookies” designed to cause the utmost destruction thereby creating the space for the air to flow and maximising the effects of the fire that would be caused by the incendiaries that would follow.

The first bombs fell at 01.21 by which time there was no electricity in the city and the only warning of the raid that could be given was by hand-held sirens the noise from which could barely be heard above the sound of falling buildings.

The city authorities had earlier ordered that the thick cellar walls that separated homes be knocked down and replaced by a thin partition that could easily be broken through in an emergency. In the firestorm that now engulfed the city this was to prove a tragic decision as families fleeing their blazing homes simply ran into the inferno next door.

People were trampled to death as they tried to force their way into the few available public air-raid shelters whilst many others were suffocated as the oxygen was sucked from the air; with no air to breathe people collapsed in the street as if struck down by an invisible force. The heat was so intense that the concrete roads melted and people could be seen running with their feet literally on fire. Some people jumped into the fountains and river to avoid the flames only to find them also ablaze and were burned or boiled to death. Others in their desperation dived into the reservoirs which with their high smooth provided no means of escape, they drowned.

Women fleeing with babies in their arms would quite literally see them incinerated before their eyes.

But this was not the end of the nightmare – the following day at 12.17, 316 Flying Fortresses of the United States 8th Air Force dropped their load of 771 tons of high explosives on the city, though some did miss their target mistaking the Czech capital Prague for Dresden. It provided little respite.

The planes that attacked Dresden were over the city for little more than an hour but the destruction they wrought was unprecedented even by the standards of the 1,000 Bomber Raids that had done so much to destroy the infrastructure of the country in the previous two years.

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The Germans were thorough in their estimation of the damage. The old town centre of the Altkmark had been utterly destroyed and few people resident there had survived, 78,000 residential properties in the city as a whole had been destroyed, as also were 640 shops, 64 warehouses, 63 Administrative Government Buildings, 39 schools, 31 Storage depots, 31 hotels, 24 banks, 19 hospitals, 17 churches, the Zoo, the waterworks, the railway, and 19 ships had been sunk on the River Elbe, and so on.

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The death toll at the time was put at 22,000 with a further 35,000 reported missing, 25,000 of who would never be satisfactorily accounted for. The many refugees, as many as 200,000, in the city at the time make any accurate assessment impossible. Also the remains of many of the dead had been reduced to little more than cinders.

The corpses of thousands of victims who had flocked together for safety as people do had quite literally been welded together by the intense heat. This has led some to assess the death toll at over 70,000, others much lower, and certainly the Germans later inflated the number of dead for propaganda purposes.

If the former figure is near accurate then more people died in two days in Dresden than had been killed in the entirety of the Blitz over Britain.

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The raid on Dresden was the culmination of Air-Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s strategy to destroy the German’s capacity and will to continue the war through bombing alone.

Harris, a grimly determined and essentially humourless man, had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942, a time when Britain had just come through the darkest period of the Blitz and appeared to have no effective means by which to hit back at Germany. He had however, studied closely the tactics of aerial bombardment and believed that he could bring Germany to its knees through intensive and relentless bombing. He had announced in an early radio broadcast that Germany – had sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.

It was he who initiated the thousand Bomber Raids on Germany the first of which took place over Cologne on the night of 31 May 1942. It became known as Strategic Bombing, though Harris knew full well that only one-in-three bombs ever fell within five miles of its intended target. In truth, he was an advocate of blanket bombing and was never shy in expressing its value as a terror tactic.

In the summer of 1942, Harris had been reinforced by the arrival of the U.S 8th Air Force which preferred the strategy of daylight precision bombing raids. It was now possible to bombard Germany day and night.

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Whereas Allied propaganda was quick to emphasise that the intention of the bombing raids was to destroy German munitions factories and disrupt production thereby curtailing its ability to sustain the war effort, Harris remained in no doubt as to its intention to spread terror and break the German will to fight:

“The destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale on both the home and battle front, by fear of extensive and intensified bombing, is my policy.”

He went onto to stress that such terror was no mere by-product of any intention to hit factories.

The British Prime Minister Winston Churchill frequently expressed moral scruples over the bombing campaign even declaring after reading the report of one such raid – “Are we beasts?”

But Harris acted with the full endorsement of the Prime Minister and the war-time Coalition Government.

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The bombing raids over Germany were to claim more than 600,000 civilian lives but the death toll amongst the Allied air crews was also high. In one raid alone over Nuremburg on 30 March 1944, 94 bombers were shot down and 71 seriously damaged.

In total 55,573 British and Commonwealth airmen were to die along with 26,000 Americans.

At the end of the war Arthur Harris was the only senior British Military Commander not to receive a peerage, though this was to be rectified in 1953.

It is unlikely that the bombing of Dresden and the firestorm that subsequently engulfed it altered the course or outcome of the war in any way at all. This must have been something that was apparent at the time, so whether or not it was a deliberate attempt to terrorise a current enemy and at the same time seek to intimidate a future one remains a matter of debate.

But it is a subject that continues to be controversial to this day.

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