Bombing of Dresden

In 1941 Charles Portal of the British Air Staff advocated that entire cities and towns should be bombed. Portal claimed that this would quickly bring about the collapse of civilian morale in Germany. Air Marshall Arthur Harris agreed and when he became head of RAF Bomber Command in February 1942, he introduced a policy of area bombing (known in Germany as terror bombing) where entire cities and towns were targeted.

One tactic used by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Force was the creation offirestorms. This was achieved by dropping incendiary bombs, filled with highly combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or petroleum jelly (napalm), in clusters over a specific target. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.

In 1945, Arthur Harris decided to create a firestorm in the medieval city of Dresden. He considered it a good target as it had not been attacked during the war and was virtually undefended by anti-aircraft guns. The population of the city was now far greater than the normal 650,000 due to the large numbers of refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army.

On the 13th February 1945, 773 Avro Lancasters bombed Dresden. During the next two days the USAAF sent over 527 heavy bombers to follow up the RAF attack. Dresden was nearly totally destroyed. As a result of the firestorm it was afterwards impossible to count the number of victims. Recent research suggest that 35,000 were killed but some German sources have argued that it was over 100,000.

Primary Sources

(1) Internal Royal Air Force memo (January, 1945)

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.

(2) After the Second World War Air Marshall Arthur Harris came under attack for the bombing raid on Dresden. In his autobiography he explained why he ordered the bombing of the city in February, 1945.

With the German army on the frontiers of Germany we quickly set up GH and Oboe ground stations close behind the front line and this ensured the success of attacks on many distant objectives when the weather would otherwise have prevented us from finding the target. At the same time the bombers could fly with comparative safety even to targets as distant as Dresden or Chemnitz, which I had not ventured to attack before, because the enemy had lost his early warning system and the whole fighter defence of Germany could therefore generally be out-manoeuvred.

In February of 1945, with the Russian army threatening the heart of Saxony, I was called upon to attack Dresden; this was considered a target of the first importance for the offensive on the Eastern front. Dresden had by this time become the main centre of communications for the defence of Germany on the southern half of the Eastern front and it was considered that a heavy air attack would disorganise these communications and also make Dresden useless as a controlling centre for the defence. It was also by far the largest city in Germany - the pre-war population was 630,000 - which had been left intact; it had never before been bombed. As a large centre of war industry it was also of the highest importance.

An attack on the night of February 13th-14th by just over 800 aircraft, bombing in two sections in order to get the night fighters dispersed and grounded before the second attack, was almost as overwhelming in its effect as the Battle of Hamburg, though the area of devastation -1600 acres - was considerably less; there was, it appears, a fire-typhoon, and the effect on German morale, not only in Dresden but in far distant parts of the country, was extremely serious. The Americans carried out two light attacks in daylight on the next two days.

I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself, and that if their judgment was right the same arguments must apply that I have set out in an earlier chapter in which I said what I think about the ethics of bombing as a whole.

(3) Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: the Devil's Tinderbox (1982)

From a firestorm there is small chance of escape. Certain conditions had to be present, such as the concentration of high buildings and a concentration of bombers in time and space, which produced so many huge fires so rapidly and so close together that the air above them super-heated and drew the flames out explosively. On the enormous scale of a large city, the roaring rush of heated air upwards developed the characteristics and power of a tornado, strong enough to pick up people and such them into the flames.

(4) Margaret Freyer was living in Dresden during the firestorm created on 13th February, 1945.

The firestorm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno.

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.

Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then - to my utter horror and amazement - I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: "I don't want to burn to death". I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.

(5) Otto Sailer-Jackson was a keeper at Dresden Zoo on 13th February, 1945.

The elephants gave spine-chilling screams. The baby cow elephant was lying in the narrow barrier-moat on her back, her legs up in the sky. She had suffered severe stomach injuries and could not move. A 90 cwt. cow elephant had been flung clear across the barrier moat and the fence by some terrific blast wave, and stood there trembling. I had no choice but to leave these animals to their fate.

I had known for one hour now that the most difficult task could ever bring was facing me. "Lehmann, we must get to the carnivores," I called. We did what we had to do, but it broke my heart.

(6) Lothar Metzger was a child living in Dresden during the war. He wrote about his experiences of the raid in May, 1999.

About 9:30 pm the alarm was given. We children knew that sound and got up and dressed quickly, to hurry downstairs into our cellar which we used as an air raid shelter. My older sister and I carried my baby twin sisters, my mother carried a little suitcase and the bottles with milk for our babies. On the radio we heard with great horror the news: "Attention, a great air raid will corne over our town!" This news I will never forget.

Some minutes later we heard a horrible noise - the bombers. There were nonstop explosions. Our cellar was filled with fire and smoke and was damaged, the lights went out and wounded people shouted dreadfully. In great fear we struggled to leave this cellar. My mother and my older sister carried the big basket in which the twins were lain. With one hand I grasped my younger sister and with the other I grasped the coat of my mother.

We did not recognize our street any more. Fire, only fire wherever we looked. Our 4th floor did not exist anymore. The broken remains of our house were burning. On the streets there were burning vehicles and carts with refugees, people, horses, all of them screaming and shouting in fear of death. I saw hurt women, children, old people searching a way through ruins and flames.

We fled into another cellar overcrowded with injured and distraught men women and children shouting, crying and praying. No light except some electric torches. And then suddenly the second raid began. This shelter was hit too, and so we fled through cellar after cellar. Many, so many, desperate people came in from the streets. lt is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. lt became more and more difficult to breathe. lt was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mothers hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

(7) Members of the RAF bombing crews became increasingly concerned about the morality of creating firestorms. Roy Akehurst was a wireless operator who took part in the raid on Dresden.

It struck me at the time, the thought of the women and children down there. We seemed to fly for hours over a sheet of fire - a terrific red glow with thin haze over it. I found myself making comments to the crew: "Oh God, those poor people." It was completely uncalled for. You can't justify it.

(8) After the war Robert Saunby, Deputy Air Marshal at Bomber Command, commented on the bombing of Dresden.

That the bombing of Dresden was a great tragedy none can deny. It is not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself. Once full-scale war has broken out it can never be humanized or civilized, and if one side attempted to do so it would be most likely to be defeated. That to me is the lesson of Dresden.

(9) Winston Churchill, memorandum to Air Marshall Arthur Harris (28th March 1945)

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing material out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.

(10) John Black, The Truth about the 1945 Bombing of Dresden (23rd February 1995)

Dresden was a center of cultural and architectural wonders, including the famous Zwinger Museum and Palace and the cathedral, the Frauenkirche. There were no military objectives of any consequence in the city - its destruction could do nothing to weaken the Nazi war machine. U.S. and British air warfare had left Dresden intact until that point.

By February 1945, refugees fleeing westward before the onrushing Red Army had doubled Dresden's population. The Soviet military forces were poised to seize the city from the Nazis. It was at that moment that the military and political strategists of Britain and the United States decided to launch a terror bombing attack.

Winston Churchill was Britain's prime minister then. He was also responsible for war strategy, especially regarding its political aims. Churchill's goal in Europe was not only to destroy the military machine of Britain's imperialist rival - Germany - but to stop the advance of the Soviet Union. With the latter in mind, he decided to bomb Dresden...

Official figures issued by the new city government of Dresden, set up in the wake of the city's surrender to the Red Army, indicate that 35,000 people - mostly women, children and older people - suffocated in the firestorm or burned to death. Other studies give a much higher casualty figure for the attack. The presence of so many refugees made accurate counts difficult.

Apologists for the bombing point to Nazi Germany's own crimes. Following the war's end, however, the U.S. and Britain occupiers were quick to allow all but the top Nazi leaders to play a role in western Germany - to gain these criminals as allies against the USSR. To reach the same political goal, the U.S. and British rulers could easily sacrifice more than 35,000 non-combatants with the bombing of Dresden.

(11) Michael Burleigh, review of Frederick Taylor's book, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945, The Guardian (7th February, 2004)

Attempts to treat the bombing of Dresden as a war crime perpetrated against the innocent inhabitants of a historical cultural centre of no industrial or military significance began two days after the attack. This was the handiwork of the Nazi propaganda supremo Goebbels, whose "spin doctors" exaggerated the city's population by a factor of four to support the wild claim that two million refugees from the east had been caught by the raids, and who doctored the number of corpses publicly burned (with the help of the SS who had some experience of these tasks) by adding an extra nought to the actual figure of 6,856....

Frederick Taylor's well-researched and unpretentious book is a robust defence of the Dresden raids that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war's principal victims, attempts that stretch back to the time of Goebbels. They continue in the form of criminalizing RAF Bomber Command's supremo Bert "Bomber" Harris for a high-level strategy that was largely designed to show Stalin that his western allies were actually fighting if not in, then at least above, Nazi Germany...

Taylor skilfully interweaves various personal accounts of the impact of the raids on the permanent or temporary population of Dresden, including its slave-labour force. But the main thrust of his book is to defend a mission that was merely successful rather than exceptional. It came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalizing and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.

(12) David Pedlow, letter to The Guardian (14th February, 2004)

My father was one of the "anonymous RAF meteorological officers (who) finally sealed Dresden's fate". A chronically short-sighted school teacher, he went into the Meteorological Office at the beginning of a war that he had hoped would not happen, but that he felt was utterly necessary. He knew he would be part of a process that sent young men out to risk their lives, and that inevitably - given the inadequacies of bomb-aiming and weather-forecasting techniques - would lead to a considerable number of civilian casualties.

The Dresden briefing was only one of many that he routinely attended, and even before the crews left the ground he was troubled because of one notable omission from the routine.

Normally, crews were given a strategic aiming point - anything from a major factory in the middle of nowhere to a small but significant railway junction within a built-up area. The smaller the aiming point and the heavier the concentration of housing around it, the greater would be the civilian casualties - but given that the strike was at a strategic aiming point those casualties could be justified.

Only at the Dresden briefing, my father told me, were the crews given no strategic aiming point. They were simply told that anywhere within the built-up area of the city would serve.

He felt that Dresden and its civilian population had been the prime target of the raid and that its destruction and their deaths served no strategic purpose, even in the widest terms; that this was a significant departure from accepting civilian deaths as a regrettable but inevitable consequence of the bomber war; and that he had been complicit in what was, at best, a very dubious operation.

(13) Paul Oestreicher, The Guardian (3rd March, 2004)

The RAF quickly learnt what the German air force had not: to create a firestorm that would destroy city centres and kill all who lived there. In Hamburg, two years before Dresden, at least 40,000 died.

Britain was fighting for its very existence. Nevertheless, George Bell, the most astute and morally courageous of the English bishops, rose in the House of Lords to brand the mass killing of civilians a war crime. A lonely voice, yes, but not the only voice. The debate has gone on ever since.

City by city, Germany was laid waste. The cost to bomber command was high. Many crews felt they were on suicide missions. Taylor destroys the myth that Dresden was a special case; it was simply the last major city left intact. Yes, this "Florence of the north" was a cultural gem, but so were Würzburg and Nuremberg. Dresden had its war factories, too, and its railyards. Why spare architectural treasures, why be deterred by refugees fleeing the Red Army, when the whole point was to kill and create chaos? With victory just weeks away, an even worse fate befell the small city of Pforzheim, famous only for its jewellery; a third of its people were killed.

In Coventry, on the 50th anniversary of the attack, the German president Richard von Weizsäcker spoke of his nation's guilt; but when the Queen visited Dresden, she failed to lay a wreath at the cathedral ruins. Her advisers feared tabloid headlines. And, who knows, someone might throw an egg. It was a sad failure of diplomacy. Yet maybe a few have accepted that in war, however just the cause, no one emerges with clean hands. Saying sorry is not a sign of weakness.

As early as the 60s a group of young people went from Coventry to help to rebuild a Dresden hospital destroyed by British bombs; and when, on June 22, a golden cross tops out the rebuilt cathedral - the famous Frauenkirche - it will be a gift of the people of Britain, including, personally, the Queen. The British Dresden Trust commissioned a London goldsmith whose father had flown that terrible night over Dresden.