Bombing of Dresden in World War II
The bombing of Dresden in World War II by the Allies remains controversial after more than 50 years. Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, was fire-bombed by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) over two days on February 14 and 15, 1945) three months before the end of World War II in Europe on May 8. The controversy is centred around the legal and moral justification for the raids.
More than 90% of the city centre was destroyed in a fire storm.
Reasons for the attack
In early 1945 the higher Allied Western politico-military leadership started to consider how they might aid the Soviets with the use of the strategic bomber force. The plan was to bomb Berlin and several other eastern cities in conjunction with the Soviet advance. The discussions were codenamed Thunderclap. Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, noted on January 26 1945, that "a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West." However he mentioned that aircraft diverted to do this task should not be taken away from the current primary tasks of destroying oil production facilities, jet aircraft factories and submarine yards. Sir Norman Bottomley, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff requested Arthur "Bomber" Harris C-in-C of RAF Bomber Command and ardent supporter of carpet bombing, to undertake attacks on Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz as soon as moon and weather conditions allowed, "with the particular object of exploiting the confused conditions which are likely to exist in the above mentioned cities during the successful Russian advance". On the same day, Winston Churchill pressed the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, "I asked [yesterday] whether Berlin, and no doubt other large cities in East Germany, should not now be considered especially attractive targets. Pray report to me tomorrow what is going to be done." On January 27 Sinclair replied "The Air Staff have now arranged that, subject to the overriding claims of attacks on enemy oil production and other approved target systems within the current directive, available effort should be directed against Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig or against other cities where severe bombing would not only destroy communications vital to the evacuation from the east, but would also hamper the movement of troops from the west."
view from the city hall tower which didn´t fall.
The Allied Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had come to the conclusion that the Germans could reinforce their Eastern front with up to 42 divisions (half a million men,) from other fronts and that if the Soviet advance could be helped by hindering that movement, it could help to shorten the war. They thought that the Germans could complete the reinforcement by March 1945. The JIC's analysis was backed up by Ultra Enigma-code intercepts which confirmed that the Germans had such plans. Their recommendation was "We consider, therefore, that the assistance which might be given to the Russians during the next few weeks by the British and American strategic bomber forces justifies an urgent review of their employment to this end."
The intention to use the strategic bomber forces in a tactical air support role was similar to that for which Eisenhower had employed them before the Normandy invasion in 1944. He was counting on strategic airpower in 1945 to "prevent the enemy from switching forces back and forth at will" from one front to the other. The Soviets had had several discussions with the Western Allies on how the Strategic Bomber force could help their ground offensives once the eastern front line approached Germany. The US ambassador to Russia, W. Averill Harriman, discussed it with Joseph Stalin as did Eisenhower's deputy, British Air Marshal Arthur W. Tedder in January 1945, when he explained how the strategic bomber could support the Soviet attack as Germany began to shuffle forces between the fronts.
At Yalta on February 4, General Antonov advocated air attacks along a strategic "bomb-line" running south through Stettin to Berlin to Dresden to Zagreb. Portal sent a message from Yalta to Bottomley in London saying that "To enable me to argue against this please send Most Immediate a few good objectives against which we desire to maintain our attacks until they become involved in tactical situation on land. Reply must reach me by 1000C tomorrow 6th February." Bottomley replied:
- First priority, 'A', were Oil targets like Pölitz, Ruhland, and seven oil refineries in the Vienna area;
- Second priority, 'B', were the only two transportation and industrial areas listed, which were Berlin and Dresden.
- 'C' and 'D' were factories making tanks and self-propelled guns, and jet engines.
The documents written by the RAF Air Staff state that it was their intention to use RAF bomber command to "destroy communications" to hinder the eastwards deployment of German troops and to hamper evacuation, not to kill the evacuees. The priority list drafted by Bottomley for Portal, so that he could discuss targets with the Soviets at Yalta, included only two eastern cities with a high enough priority to fit into the RAF targeting list as both transportation and industrial areas, these were Berlin and Dresden. Both were bombed after Yalta.
It has been claimed that the bombing was at the request of the Soviet Union, to attack a German armoured division in transit through the city. However, RAF briefing notes indicate that one of the motives was a demonstration of strength for the Soviets. The notes mention a desire to show "the Russians, when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do."
At s SHAEF press briefing two days later it was revealed in 'off the record' comments [by British Air Commodore Grierson], that the aims of 'Thunderclap' were to bomb large population centres and prevent relief supplies from getting through. An Associated Press war correspondant immediately filed a story that the Allies had resorted to terror bombing in order to seal Hitler's doom and this set in train a number of embarrassing questions on both sides of the Atlantic on the morality of this form of attack. Eventually, even Churchill, who had been a wholehearted supporter of 'Thunderclap', went so far as to comment to the British Chiefs of Staff that 'the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.' Harris, however, remained unrepentant, commenting on Churchill's objection that he did not regard 'the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier'. Even so, Dresden remains the prime example cited by those who condemn the morality of 'city busting' as practised by the Anglo-US bombing forces and was still a matter of contention in 1992 when a statue of Harris was unveiled in London.– The Oxford Companion to the Second World War
The railway yards, near the centre of Dresden, had been targeted and bombed twice before the night of February 13 by the USAAF Eighth Air Force in daytime raids. The first time was October 7 1944 with 70 tons of high-explosive bombs. The second with 133 bombers on January 16, 1945 which dropped 279 tons of high-explosives and 41 tons of incendiaries.
The campaign should have begun with an USAAF Eighth Air Force raid on Dresden on February 13 but bad weather over Europe prevented any American operations. So it fell to RAF Bomber Command to carry out the first raid. During the night of February 14 796 Avro Lancasters and 9 De Havilland Mosquitoes were dispatched in two separate raids and dropped 1,478 tons of high explosive and 1,182 tons of incendiary bombs. The first attack was carried out entirely by No. 5 Group, using their own low-level marking methods. A band of cloud still remained in the area and this raid, in which 244 Lancasters dropped more than 800 tons of bombs, was only moderately successful. The second raid, 3 hours later, was an all-Lancaster attack by aircraft of 1, 3, 6 and 8 Groups, with 8 Group providing standard Pathfinder marking. The weather was now clear and 529 Lancasters dropped more than 1,800 tons of bombs with great accuracy. The next day 311 American B-17s dropped 771 tons of bombs on Dresden, with the railway yards as their aiming point. "Part of the American Mustang-fighter escort was ordered to strafe traffic on the roads around Dresden to increase the chaos". There are eyewitness reports that civilians fleeing the firestorm engulfing Dresden in February 1945 were strafed by American aircraft, though it is doubted. The Americans bombed Dresden again on the February 15 and again on March 2.
The fire-bombing consisted of the by now standard methods, of dropping large amounts of high-explosive to blow off the roofs to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining 'fire storm' with temperatures peaking at over 1500 °C. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area became extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.
3,907 tons of bombs were dropped. Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometers was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings.
The former city plan of Dresden with the amounts of destruction
Black = total destruction; checkered = damages
Impact of the attack
There were 222,000 flats in total in the city. 75,000 of them were totally destroyed, 11,000 strongly hit, 7,000 hit, 81,000 slightly damaged. The precise number of dead is difficult to ascertain and is not known. Estimates vary from 25,000 to more than 150,000 dead although the official German report (TB47) at the time refers to 25,000 dead and most historians now view 30,000-50,000 as the likely range. The number of dead bodies between February 1945 and April 1945 was 25,000, no matter if war related or not. War-related dead bodies found in later years october 1945 till September 1957 are said to be counted as 2,000. There was no registration of buried people between May 1945 and September 1945. The number of missed people was 35,000, around 10,000 of those 35,000 missed ones were found alive. The estimated number of killed people for February 1945 is therefore 35,000-45,000. In the recent past the numbers became a little higher in Germany and lower in Great Britain, earlier the opposite could be said.
Such estimates are made very difficult by the fact that the city was crowded at that time by many unregistered refugees and wounded soldiers. The foreign forced labourers may represent a large number of dead, since they were usually employed in the squads to fight fire storms. There have been larger estimates for the number of dead, ranging as high as a quarter of a million, but they are from disputed sources, such as the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and controversial amateur historian and prominent Holocaust denier David Irving. The Nazis made use of Dresden in their propaganda and promised swift retaliation. (The Soviets later made propaganda use of the Dresden Bombing in the early years of the cold war to alienate the East Germans from the Americans and British).
The destruction of Dresden was comparable to that of many other German cities, with the tonnage of bombs dropped lower than in many other areas. However, ideal weather conditions at the target site, the wooden framed buildings, and "breakthroughs" linking the cellars of contiguous buildings conspired to make this attack particularly devastating. Although the main station was destroyed completely, the railway was working again within a few days.
Was the Dresden bombing justified?
View over the Altmarkt square (the old market)
Some have suggested that the bombing of Dresden may have been a war crime and that those allied commanders who ordered the action and the airmen who carried it out should be tried as war criminals. However as no Axis personnel were tried at the post-war Nuremberg Trials for participating in the decisions on, or execution of, assault by aerial bombardment on defended enemy territory, it is not possible to state categorically that that aerial bombardment on defended enemy territory during World War II was a war crime.
Dresden was widely considered by Germans to be a city of little war-related industrial or strategic importance. Dresden itself was mostly seen as a cultural centre, with noted architecture in the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House and its historic cathedral (the Frauenkirche) and other churches. It was also called "Elbflorenz", i.e. Florence of the Elbe, due to its stunning beauty. By February, the city was crammed with refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army. Dresden, having been spared from previous RAF night attacks, was considered to be relatively safe. However the United States Strategic Bombing Survey listed at least 110 factories and industries in Dresden. The city contained the Zeiss-Ikon optical factory and the Siemens glass factory (both of which were entirely devoted to manufacturing military gunsights). The immediate suburbs contained factories building components of radar and electronics, and fuses for anti-aircraft shells. Other factories produced gas masks, engines for Junkers aircraft and cockpit parts for Messerschmitt fighters. An official 1942 guide described the German city as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich".
Air Marshal Harris wrote to the Air Ministry on March 29 1945
- Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.
Churchill, who approved the targeting of Dresden and supported the bombing campaign prior to the event, in face of public disquiet at the results later distanced himself from the bombing of Dresden. On March 28 A few weeks before the end of World War II in Europe, Winston Churchill drafted a memorandum to the British Chiefs of Staff:
- 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, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed ... The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.
Allied experiences of the attack
There are anecdotes of the pilots and crew having problems years later. Some had nightmares, some thought they would go to hell as war criminals, some had unshakable visions of the fires and the burning cities. Other veterans, however, doubt these anecdotes, noting that their briefings included details on what they were hitting, and that no one in their recollection had any misgivings about the mission.
Author Kurt Vonnegut had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war near Dresden during the bombing. He later wrote about his experiences and feelings in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Post-war: reconstruction and reconciliation
After the war and especially after the German reunification, great efforts were made to rebuild some of Dresden's former landmarks, such as the Frauenkirche, the Semperoper or the Zwinger. A new synagogue was built. Despite its location in the Soviet occupation zone (subsequently the DDR), in 1956 Dresden entered a twinning relationship with Coventry, which had suffered the worst destruction of any English city at the hands of the Luftwaffe earlier in the war, including the destruction of its cathedral. Groups from both cities were involved in moving demonstrations of post-war reconciliation. During her visit to Germany in November 2004, Queen Elizabeth II hosted a concert in Berlin to raise money for the reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche. The visit was accompanied by speculations in the British and German press over a possible apology for the attacks, which did not occur. The speculation was mostly fueled by the tabloid press, exploiting anti-German resentiments, and had no factual basis.
- "Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945". By Frederick Taylor;
"The Destruction of Dresden".(correction) By David Irving a British Holocaust denier; Pub: William Kimber; London 1963.
US Strategic Bombing Survey Summary Report (European War) September 30, 1945
Official RAF site: Bomber Command: Dresden, February 1945
- US review, Pub: HarperCollins hardcover $26.95. ISBN 0060006765.
- UK review, Pub: Bloomsbury hardback RRP £20.00. ISBN 0747570787.
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