From about 10 pm on the night of 13 February 1945 until noon the following day, the East German city of Dresden was the subject of one the most intense bombing raids of the Second World War. Several German cities were targeted but it is the bombing of Dresden, and its utter destruction, that came to symbolise the work of the RAF’s Bomber Command and its commander, Sir Arthur Harris.
Florence of the Elbe
Germany’s seventh largest city, 100 miles southeast of Berlin, Dresden was known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’, such was its architectural splendour, its large collections of art and quaint timbered buildings. In February 1945, the city’s population had temporarily been inflated by a huge influx of German refugees, perhaps up to 350,000, fleeing the Soviet advance sixty miles away to the east.
With only minimal anti-aircraft guns, few German troops, and limited war-related industry, Dresden was still deemed a legitimate target – for Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s intention was not so much military but ‘moral bombing’, to demoralise the civilian population and thereby shorten the war (despite evidence during the Blitz that instead of demoralising civilians, bombing only hardened resolve). The strategic objective of bombing Dresden and other cities in eastern Germany was, as agreed at the Anglo-American Yalta Conference, to help alleviate the pressures on Soviet forces advancing into Germany on the Eastern Front.
The Allied commanders studied aerial photographs of German cities and specifically targeted areas of heavy residential populations. His aim, said Harris, was to make the ‘rubble bounce’ not just in Dresden but in every German city.
Thus, on Tuesday, 13 February 1945, two waves of RAF Lancaster bombers, numbering 796 in total, attacked Dresden. The following morning, 529 bombers of the USAAF (US air force) attacked with the objective of hitting the fire fighters tackling the inferno caused by the RAF the previous evening and causing even greater chaos. Of all these aircraft, only eight were shot down.
2,640 tons of bombs were dropped on Dresden, two thirds of which were incendiary bombs. A firestorm erupted in an area eight miles square reaching temperatures of 1,500 degrees centigrade engulfing the narrow, medieval streets. Ninety per cent of buildings within the city centre were destroyed, including over twenty hospitals. Smoke rose up to 15,000 feet.
Dresden had been obliterated.
The Allies knew that a bomb shelter or a cellar would only provide protection for about three hours before becoming unbearably hot and so forcing the civilians back outside. Thus a second wave of bombs was dropped precisely three hours after the first batch – again to maximise the number of casualties. Many bombs were adapted so that they would explode hours after falling – the idea to cause maximum casualties against civilians who were trying to remove the devices. Air bombs were dropped with the intention of blowing off roof tiles, allowing incendiary bombs to fall unimpeded into the interior of buildings, and to blow out windows to allow greater ventilation to stoke the flames.
People died from the lack of oxygen as the firestorm sucked the air out of the atmosphere. One witness described seeing people suddenly falling dead as if shot but, as she found later, they were dropping dead from the lack of oxygen. Many unfortunates jumped into a huge water tank hoping to escape the suffocating heat, only to find the water inside was boiling.
One witness described the city as a ‘sea of flames’. Another described ‘the hot wind of the firestorm (which) threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.’ But not all witnesses were horrified: one Jewish inmate of a German labour camp watched the sky burn bright over the city of Dresden: ‘We were in heaven,’ he wrote later. ‘To all of us, it was absolute salvation. This was how we knew that the end (of the war) was near.’
The American novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who died in 2007, was a prisoner-of-war near Dresden when the city was attacked having been captured in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. In the days following the raid on Dresden, Vonnegut and his fellow PoWs were put to work in the city, collecting bodies for burial while German civilians swore and threw stones at them. Eventually, wrote Vonnegut, ‘there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.’ Vonnegut’s experiences in Dresden formed the backdrop of much of his work, including his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five.
For the sake of increasing the terror
Estimates to how many died varied with the Nazis exaggerating the figure for propaganda purposes, but it is now accepted that some 25,000 lost their lives in this single raid.
During the blitz, Germany’s bombardment of the UK, some 60,000 civilians lost their lives. The Allied bombing of Germany caused eight times that number of deaths. For every ton of bombs dropped by the Germans during the war, the Allies dropped 300.
Although initially enthusiastic about the bombing raids, Churchill tried to distance himself and, following Dresden, questioned Harris’s methods of ‘bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives.’ Harris responded angrily that the attacks had been necessary in order to hasten the German surrender and diminish further allied casualties.
In 1956, Dresden was twinned with Coventry, a city that was heavily bombed several times during the early years of the war, most notably on 14 November 1940, at the height of the Blitz.
In his memoirs, Bomber Offensive, published 1947, Arthur Harris wrote, ‘the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself.’ In a televised interview from 1977, never broadcast and only rediscovered in 2013, Harris said: ‘If I had to have the same time again I would do the same again, but I hope I wouldn’t have to … The bombers kept over a million fit Germans out of the German army… Manning the anti-aircraft defences; making the ammunition, and doing urgent repairs, especially tradesmen.’
One story has it that one evening, during the war, Harris was driving home when he was pulled up by a policeman on a motorbike. ‘Sir, you’re driving much too fast, you might kill someone.’ To which, Harris replied, ‘It’s my business to kill people – Germans.’ On realising who he was talking to, the policeman apologised and gave Harris a fast escort home.
But whatever the morality of Bomber Command’s work, its pilots faced a dangerous task: 55,573 British, Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and other Commonwealth pilots and crewmen lost their lives and 8,403 were wounded, a sixty per cent causality rate, far higher than most other forms of armed service during the war.
Post-war, those who fought with Bomber Command and survived were dismayed and insulted to find that their efforts were not to be recognised with a campaign medal. In June 2012, seven decades on, a Bomber Command memorial was unveiled in London’s Green Park. Initially, Dresden objected to the memorial but an inscription commemorating all the lives lost during the bombing raids eased their concerns.
Moves are currently afoot to finally award the veterans the medals that were denied them all those years ago. In December 2012, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, acknowledged that the veterans of Bomber Command had ‘been treated inconsistently with those who served in Fighter Command.’