The bombing of Dresden


Jon Lamb

Sixty years ago, on the evening of February 13, 1945, 234 British bombers set off for the German city of Dresden. They were followed a few hours later by an additional 538 and the next day by a wave of 311 US bombers. Laden with high explosives and some 700,000 phosphorous incendiary bombs, the 14-hour long bombing operation laid waste to Dresden, killing tens of thousands of people and devastating one of Europe's finest centres of culture and art.

Dresden was of no military significance in World War II and had few, if any, strategic targets of importance to the war effort. In the briefings before the mission, bomber crews were not given any specific details on bombing runs or targets. The whole city of at least 1.2 million people — including non-combatants, refugees, the wounded and prisoners of war — was the target.

G.C. Gifford, a Canadian navigator who flew in the raid (and later formed a veterans peace group) told Peace magazine in 1985: "The Dresden bombing was the only raid we went on where we didn't like what we were going to do before we started. The Squadron Commander had said, 'Well, we've got a juicy one tonight. It's full of refugees.' We knew it hadn't been seriously bombed in the war so we knew it was not an important military target, and we knew that the Russians were only 30 kilometres on the other side of it and moving fairly fast, and the Americans were 70 kilometres on this side. So we didn't feel good about that one."

The carnage that resulted from what survivors described as a firestorm is chilling. Temperatures reached in excess of 1500 degrees centigrade, causing gusts of hot air to literally fling people into flames or incinerate them on the spot within seconds. Others died from asphyxiation as the oxygen was sucked from their lungs.

Those who survived the ferocious night attack by British bombers had to endure the second raid by US bombers on the morning of February 14. Though not as intense, it was equally as callous. The banks of the Elbe River — where refugees and hospital patients had fled — were repeatedly strafed by US fighter planes accompanying the bombers.

The raids flattened around 15 square kilometres of the city. Fires burned across Dresden for seven days (the smoke could be seen as far away as London) and the city continued to smoulder for weeks.

Most estimates put the death toll at around 35,000, but some claim it was three or four times this figure. According to the acclaimed US writer Kurt Vonnegut jr. the figure was much higher. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the bombing. He and fellow prisoners survived because they were housed in an underground abattoir (hence the title for his famous anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse 5). In an interview with the London Independent in December 2001, Vonnegut stated: "More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined".

Speaking on US National Public Radio in 2003, Vonnegut said he believed the attack on Dresden was part of an experiment to test new weapons and strategy. "They set the whole place on fire with a new kind of incendiary bomb, so that everything organic except my little POW group was consumed by fire ... it was a military experiment to find out if you can burn a whole city down by scattering incendiaries all over it."

Gifford B. Doxsee was a prisoner with Vonnegut and later became a professor of history at Ohio University. Recounting the bombing of Dresden, he wrote: "The destruction far exceeded that wrought at either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, though the American people did not learn this until nearly two decades after the war had ended.

"The magnitude of the destruction of Dresden was one of the best-kept secrets by the American government not only for the duration of the war but for many years afterward. Eventually the truth came out. Virtually all of the centre of Dresden was pulverised, with not a single building left intact over an area covering dozens of square miles. More than 130,000 inhabitants of the city lost their lives in the bombing that night and the following day."

The destruction of Dresden was not necessary for the allied forces to achieve any military advantage. By February 1945, the German army had been decimated, facing continuous defeats on both the western and eastern front. Within 12 weeks, Germany was to surrender.

The fire bombing was motivated by one primary goal: as a warning to Russia and the fast advancing Red Army of the armed might of the US and British imperialist war machine. It was a graphic example of the destructive power that they were prepared to use against the civilians and the defenceless of those nations that crossed their path.

An internal Royal Air Force memo from January 1945 describes the intention to destroy Dresden as a means 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".

The bombing of Dresden was part of a broader plan supported by British PM Winston Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt titled Operation Thunderclap. This plan had as its focus intense bombing raids on Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and other German cities to cause "confusion in the evacuation from the east" and "hamper troop movements from the west".

Causing "confusion in the east" referred to the large numbers of refugees on the move. Writer and film-maker Detlef Siebert notes on the BBC website's historical page titled British Bombing Strategy in World War Two that: "Although these refugees clearly did not contribute to the German war effort, they were considered legitimate targets simply because the chaos caused by attacks on them might obstruct German troop reinforcements to the Eastern Front."

When the extent of the horror in Dresden filtered out in the weeks after the raid, Churchill attempted to distance himself. "The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of allied bombing", he commented in late March to the British Chiefs of Staff. The head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, replied that he did not regard "the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier".

Another ominous "warning" followed the bombing of Dresden when six months later the US firebombed Tokyo and other Japanese cities with similar devastating impact. The pinnacle of this terror campaign was the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No-one has ever been brought to account for these war crimes and use of weapons of mass destruction.

The inheritors of this terror tactic of mass slaughter of civilians are active today in the Pentagon and the US Strategic Air Command. They are the ones who approved and orchestrated the bombing of the defeated and retreating Iraqi army in 1991, resulting in a trail of smouldering trucks, tanks and human remains. They are the ones today who continue to lay siege to Iraqi cities and towns, obliterating apartment blocks, public amenities and places of worship.

From Green Left Weekly, February 9, 2005.
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