The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has remained one of the more controversial aspects of World War Two. Dresden, a city unaffected by bombing up to that point in the war, lost many thousands of civilians in the firestorm that was created by the Allies. As the Russians advanced to Berlin from the east and the Allies from the west, why was Dresden bombed when it did appear that the war would be ended in the near future?
Historically, Dresden had been northern Germany’s cultural centre – a city filled with museums and historic buildings. The Zwinger Museum and Palace and the Frauenkirche Cathedral were world famous buildings. From 1939 to the end of 1944, the city had been spared the bombing raids that the Allies had launched onNazi Germany. By February 1945, the city was filled with refugees – people moving from east to west in an attempt to escape the advancing Red Army. The Nazi propaganda machine had filled the minds of the Germans with horror stories of what to expect if the Red Army got to Germany. Thousands now fled from this army as it relentlessly advanced to Berlin. No-one knows how many people were in Dresden when the city was bombed. Officially, the city’s population was 350,000, but with the number of refugees there, it would have been a lot higher than this.
Between February 13th and February 14th 1945, between 35,000 and 135,000 people were killed by Allied bombing in Dresden. Historians still argue over the number of deaths. However, there were so many refugees in the city at the time that the real figure will almost certainly never be known.
So why was Dresden chosen as a target? Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, had always held the view that any city that had anything to do with the Nazi war effort was a target. A number of theories do exist as to why Dresden was chosen so late in the war.
1) The city was in Nazi Germany and for this reason was a legitimate target for attack as the Allies were at war with Nazi Germany.
2) The city was not simply a cultural centre – there were factories there producing weapons and equipment for the Nazi war effort. Therefore, the city was a legitimate target. It was also a rail base to send troops to the war front with the Russians.
3) Though the Russians were allies, Churchill and Roosevelt had already decided that Stalin would be a major problem after the end of the war. Therefore, as the Red Army advanced against an army that was effectively defeated, it had no idea as to what an equal and possibly superior military force could do. Therefore, Dresden was bombed to show the Russians the awesome power of the Allies and to act as a warning to them not to stray from the agreements they had made at the warconferences.
An internal RAF memo spreads some light on the reason for the bombing:
|“Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest unbombed built-up the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”|
RAF January 1945
The Allied air superiority meant that many of the 1,300 bombers got through to their target. The RAF spearheaded their attack with Lancaster bombers while the USAAF used their B-17 Flying Fortresses.
In all, over three waves of attacks, 3,300 tons of bombs were dropped on the city. Many of the bombs that were dropped were incendiary bombs. These created so much fire that a firestorm developed. The more the city burned, the more oxygen was sucked in – and the greater the firestorm became. It is thought that the temperature peaked at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of roads melted and fleeing people found that their feet were burned as they ran. Some jumped into reservoirs built in the city centre to assist firefighters. However, these were ten feet deep, smooth-sided and had no ladders – many drowned. Very few of those in the city centre survived – those that did provided a vivid picture of what it was like to be in a firestorm.
|“There were no warning sirens. We were completely surprised and rushed back down to the cellars of the hospital. But these quickly became hopelessly overcrowded with people who could no longer find shelter in their own burning buildings. The crush was unbearable, we were so tight you could not fall over.”“Apart from the fire risk, it was becoming increasingly impossible to breath in the cellar because the air was being pulled out by the increasing strength of the blaze.”|
“We could not stand up, we were on all fours, crawling. the wind was full of sparks and carrying bits of blazing furniture, debris and burning bits of bodies.”
“There were charred bodies everywhere.”
“The experience of the bombing was far worse than being on the Russian front, where I was a front-line machine gunner.”
After the raid had finished, SS guards brought in from a nearby camp, burnt the bodies in the city’s Old Square (the Altmarkt). There were so many bodies that this took two weeks to complete.
A vast amount of the city was destroyed and when the Red Army took it over, the city had all but ceased to exist. Much of the city centre remained rubble into the 1950’s, when the Russians who remained in the city during the Cold War, put their effort into rebuilding destroyed cities in Russia itself, rather than rebuild eastern Germany.
I wasn't new to murder and bloodletting. I had enlisted two years prior to the outbreak of the second world war and by the time I was 21 I had taken part in one major battle and various smaller ones. I had been in fights where the ground in front of me was littered with the remains of young men who had once been full of the joy of living, laughing and joking with their mates. As each year of the war went by, the fighting got more ferocious, new weapons were introduced and fresh young men became the targets. How I remained a sane person through all this I don't know.
Then came the evening of the 13 February, 1945 – 68 years ago this week. I was a prisoner of war held in Dresden. At about 10.30pm that night, the air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The people of Dresden believed that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford, Dresden would be spared. The sirens stopped and after a short period of silence the first wave of pathfinders were over the city dropping their target flares.
As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defences, no anti-aircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing.
My account of this tragedy, Dresden: A Survivor's Story, was published on the day of the anniversary this week. I gave a number of interviews around the publication, in which I insisted that the affair was a war crime at the highest level, a stain upon the name Englishman that only an apology made in full public view would suffice to obliterate.
Many – including some writing comments underneath articles on this site – have criticised me for this. Reading through the criticisms I have to admit that some of the things I have written have caused many people some hurt, but to these people I would say that as a person I still suffer at times the memories of those terrible events.
From being regarded as some form of hero on the one hand, to a Nazi supporter on the other, has taught me that there are so many sides to any question. I have learned to try to understand those who disagree with my outlook. Like Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five, I wrote as I witnessed. I have no axe to grind. I just sat down and tried to empty my mind and clear away the residues of the nightmares that I still occasionally suffered from.
My justification for still harbouring these attitudes is the events in European history since the ending of the second world war. The massacres in Bosnia at Srebrenica, the hurling of Tomahawk missiles by British naval cruisers into the centre of an inhabited Benghazi, the manner in which as a nation we still tend to be sympathetic to the use of superior aircraft strength to bomb overcrowded refugee centres. These are the reasons my anger has refused to subside.
Perhaps I should be more realistic and knuckle down to the concept of the brutality of the human race, but I have always been a stubborn individual. I am not a diplomat. I just happen to have witnessed the worst that man has to offer and I like it not one bit. Bearing in mind that I care deeply about the future of all my children and grandchildren, please allow me to express my anger.