The most criticised Allied air raid occurred at Dresden near the end if the War. The Americans and British conducted incendiary raids on Dreden February 13-14, creating a firestorm killing thousands of civilian. The raid was ordered hurriedly after a request by Stalin who believed that reenforcements were being rushed through Dresden to counter a Soviet offensive. At the time the city was full of refugees fleeing west from the Red Army. The raid has been criticized not only because of the casualties, but because Dresden was not a city with industries supporting the War. The number of casualties is a question still debated by historians. The raid was ordered hurriedly after a request by Stalin who believed that reenforcements were being rushed through Dresden to counter a Soviet offensive. Ironically, the Soviets used the raid as anti-American propaganda after the War. After Dresden, Prime Minister Churchill ordered Air Marsahll Harris to end area bombing. Churchill explained: "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." There are to today annual memorial services in Germany to remember the dead. The neo-NAZIs in recent years have made Dresden a major issue and make appearances at the annual memorial services. After Dresden, Prime Minister Churchill ordered Air Marsahll Harris to end to area bombing.
The Britis as World War II approached were most concerned about German bombing raids, especiallly given the fact that the Luftwaffe was the strongest air force in the world. The Germans in World War I had demonstrated their willingness to attack civilian targets (long-range artillery fired on Paris and the Zephelins were used to bomb British cities). The British especially feared poison gas attacks. As a result, an elborate plan was prepared to evacuate the children from London and other cities if war broke out. The British evacuation was caried out in only a few days when the NAZIs attacked Poland (September 1939). When the NAZIs launched World war II, the Allies refrained from air attacks on Germany. The NAZIs heavily bombed Warsaw and other Polish targets, but did not bomb France and England. After the fall of France (June 1940), large-scale British air attacks on Germany were no longer feasible, but the NAZIs launched the Battle of Britain which evolved into nightly attacks on civilian targets, London and other British cities--the Blitz.
It was the Germans who began bombing civilian populations rather than military targets as a terror tactic calculated to destroy civilian morale. Visionary German military planners in the 1930s built the world's most advanced air force at the time--the Luftwaffe. [Corum] Germany was the first World War II combatant to use bombers to terrorize urban populations. This began even before World War II during the Spanish Civil War. The Luftwaffe experimented with the bombing of Guernica in 1937 and other Spanish cities. The tactic was used extensively used by the Germans when the War was launched beginning with the invasion of Poland. One historian writes, "The bombing of Warsaw early in the war made it clear to the Allies how Hitler intended to fight his war. It was to be Schrecklichkeit ('frightfulness') with no regard for the civilian population." [Snyder]
Britain did not have planes in Bomber Command during 1940-41 that could respond to the British Blitz, but began to build the long-range Avro-Lancaster that could be used as the backbone for a trategic bombing campaign. Given the strength of German air defenses, only night-time raids were possible. This meant that pin-point attacks on German targets were not feasible.
Charles Portal, the head of Bomber Command, and Arthur Harris, who replaced him developed the strategy of area bombing. Bomber Command estimated that destroying civilian housing would dislocate the German war economy. That was the strategy. It is difficult to asssess just how much revenge was a factor, but it must have been after the Blitz something on the minds of the British. The Germans called area bombing terror bombing. It was essentially the same tactic that the Germans had used on the British in the Blitz. The difference was that the British and Americans built a much larger long-range bombing force than the Germans and thus developed the capability to employ strategic bomvbing on a much larger scale than the Germans. British area bombing targeted cities. Only large targets like cities could be found in night raids with World war II technology. Portal and Harris theorized that area bombing of German cities would destroy the morale of the civilian population. One of the most spectacular British attacks was the raid on Hamburg, a major German port and industrial city. Luftwaffe use of incendiaries (bombs with combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus or other materials rather than high expolsives) on London, Coventry, and other British cities introduced Bomber Command to what occurred if fire storms were created. Clusters of incendiaries dropped on a city created fire storms. When a large area was set ablaze, the tempertures got incrasingly hot, the heat caused the air to rise at a rapid rate, sucking in air from around the blaze. The speed of the winds of hot air and gases inspired the term fire storms. Not only did people die from the heat and fire, but many suffocated because the oxygen was depleted from the air. The American 8th Air Force joined the strategic bombing campaign (1943). The Americans strategy was to bomb specific targets in day-light raids. This proved extememly costly to air crews. The American soon found that pin-poibt bombing with the conditions over northern Europe was less effective than theu imagined. With the available technology, America raids were often little different than the British area bombing.
The raid has been criticized not only because of the casualties, but because Dresden was not a city with industries supporting the War. This is largely true, but it did have industries, especually machine tools and optics. The population of the city was normally about 650,000 people. It was a beautiful medieval city, in some ways similar to Coventry. Dresden is located in Saxony, an important medieval kingdom. The city was founded by Germans about abour 1200 AD. It became in the 17th and 18th century renowned fot culture and the arts and was known as Florence on the Elbe. In addition to medieval buildings therewee important baroque and rococo buildings. Some of the most important buildimgs were the Zwinger palace and museum, Hofkirche (court chapel), and cathedral. There were important museums. (After the War many of the most important artifacts in those museums were seized by the Soviets as war booty.)
At the time the city was full of refugees fleeing west from the Red Army. NAZI propaganda had inspired fear in Germans living in the East. Here there was consifderable reason to fear the Russians. The Soviets has suffered terribly at the hands of the Germans and many sought revenge when they got hold of Germans, both military and civilian. In addition, the civilians in occupied countries who had also sufferec at the hands of the Germans proceeded to attack German civilians as soon as the opportunity presented itself. As a result as the Red Armu moved west, millions of ethnic Germans as well as collaborators flowed into the Reich from the East. As Dresden was located in eastern German and had not been targeted in strategic bombing campaign many refugees made their way there.
I am not sure yet about the planning for the Dresden raid. One source suggests that Harris and other RAF planners wanted to target Dresden, becuse it was one of the few important German cities that remained untouched by the bombing campaign and it was only lightly defended. One report suggests that the raid was ordered hurriedly after a request by Stalin who believed that reenforcements were being rushed through Dresden to counter a Soviet offensive. Ironically, the Soviets used the raid as anti-American propaganda after the War. East German schools for years taught for years that Dresden was targeted as part of an Allied plot to destroy the economy of areas that were to be part of the Soviet occupation sector. I know of no evidence to substantiate this charge. It appears to be, however, a cimmonly held view in eastern Germany. [Reinhard]
The most criticised Allied air raid occurred at Dresden near the end if the War. The Americans and British conducted incendiary raids on Dreden February 13-14. The RAF launched 773 Avro Lancasters bombers to attack Dresden (February 13). The Americans followed this up with a day time raid using 527 bombers (February 14).
The Allied raids virtually destroyed Dresden. The firestorm created by ncebndiaries was desestating. The devestation was so total that it was impossible to count the bodies, in part because many wre totally cinsumed in the fire. Some sources estimate that 35,000-40,000 people were killed. Some German sources suggest that casualties were much higher and may have totaled over 100,000. The number of casualties is a question still debated by historians. A major problem in estimting the dead is that the city was filled with refugees. Authorities could assess the locals killed because people would be missung. Refugees were a different matter. The municipal government has appointed a commision to try to determine the actual number.
After Dresden, Prime Minister Churchill ordered Air Marsahll Harris to end area bombing. Churchill explained: "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."
There are to today annual memorial services in Germany to remember the dead. The official commemoration is a suitably ballance memorial event which seeks to put the Dresden raid in historical context. Chancellor Schroeder in Berlin stated, "Today we grieve for the victims of war and the NAZI reign of terror in Dresden, in Germany, and in Europe." The ceremobies not only remembered those killed during the bombing, but acknowledge Germany's responsibility for unleasing World War II and the horrendous NAZI attrocities carried out during the War. The services center on the Church of Our Lady. It is the largest Protestant Church in Germany and for teo centuries dominated the largely medieval sky scape of Dresden. After the raid it was left a pile of ruble. It has since been painstakingly restored. The memorial services at Dresden contrast to those held at Hiroshima in Japan. The services held there are without any historical context, leaving many younger Japanese to see their country as a victim in World War II rather than an agressor nation.
The neo-NAZIs in recent years have made Dresden a major issue and make appearances at the annual memorial services. Right-wing political parties have been receiving increasing numbers of votes in German elections. The principal right-wing party is the National Democrats. The National Democrats argued that German suffering during the War has been ignored or minimized. The growing right wing support has been variously attributed to unemployment, objection to foreigners in Germany, falling social benefits, and other factors. This is especially the case from districts in easern Germany (the old Communist GDR) where Dresden is located. The Neo-NAZIs and right-wing parties maintain that Germany was an equal victim in World War II. (This is their stated position, their true beliefs are pribably more sinister.) About 5,000 neo-NAZIs marched dressed in black and carrying black baloons and banners, along with loud speakers blaring out somber classical music (February 13, 2005). Right-wing politician and former SS-officer spoke, saying "Hre in Dresden, genocide took place in 1945, just like it did in Hiroshima. We're not afraid to call them war crimes." These extreme right-wing views are shared by only a small minority of Germans. A HBC reader tells us that about 90,000 people marched to protest the neo-NAZIs.
The Dresden raid is a matter of considerable political controversy. Some arguments can be easily addressed. The raid was not genocide. Neither the Western Allies or the Soviets practiced genocide in Germany as can be seen in the occupation. Genocide was the official policy of the NAZI state which it executed against the Jews and Gypseys and were prepared to pursue against the Slavs. Other issues are more complicated. More difficult is the charge that Dresden was Allied terror bombing. NAZI Propganda Minister first used this term in connectiion with Dresden, but then again both he and Hitler used the term early in the war to threaten other countries. (It seems heighth of callouness to threaten and carry out terror bombings and then complain when your own cities are bombed.) Just because evil people make a charge, however, does not mean that it is incorrect. There seems little difference between NAZI terror bombing and British area bombing. That sad the question arises, was it a war crime? Before the War began, bombing civilian populations was looked on as a war crime. But then the question arises if your enemy bombs your cities can you then bomb his cities with no moral aporbrium. It seems unrealistic to argue that the Allies should not have bombed German cities after the NAZis initiated the practice. Then the question becomes is the fact that the War was winding down and because Dresden which was not involved in major weapons manufacturing programs that it should not have been targeted. This seems a more reasonable question and one which we cannot yet address with any authority without further information. Some right-wing elements decry the deaths of thousands of innocent women and children. Sadness over these deaths has to affect anyone looking at the Dresden raid. It is notable, however, that many of the right-wing writers who make this argument often when confronted about NAZI attrocities turn to the explanation that terrible things always occur in war. Others ask just what innocent meant and point to the fact that Dresden and Saxony were an area of strong NAZI support. But did that justify the bombing of the city? Another issue concerning Dresden is the issue of German suffering in the War, not only the bombing but also the refugees driven out of Eastern Europe. We would say that this topic has not received the due historical assessment. We note that German authors have begun to give this subject more attention. We also note that we have not yet seen in that assessment a detailed treatment of the degree to which erhnic German populations in occupied countries cooperated with NAZI officials in the perpetration of attrocties and war crimes.
The bombing of Dresden was shocking because the city was considered of no military significance. The firestorm produced by that raid destroyed an exquisitely baroque city. The film, "Slaughterhouse Five", based on the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same
title, in part is about the bombing of Dresden. HBC has an entry for this film, but there is no mention of Dresden. The film's hero, Billy Pilgrim, was captured at the Battle of the Bulge, also part of the film's setting, and is sent to a POW camp in Dresden. The
guards at the camp are Volksturm, the mix of older and younger German males who were Hitler's last line of defense for the Fatherland. One of the young guards lost his sweetheart, a girl who waves to him in one scene of the film. The Volksturm members appear in uniform, though, if I remember correctly, they appear somewhat ill-fitting and improvised in the film, which was an accurate depiction.
A British reader attending a German-language Swiss boarding school remembers "the story we were told one day by our class teacher Herr Piseck about his experience as a boy in the war, nor the story of our Mutti (dormitory matron). For some reason, I think we were playing war games and glamorising war, they sat us down and told us their traumatic stories. T hey remain seared on my mind. There was not one boy who did not cry then, and off and on for several days afterwards. I have tears in my eyes just remembering, but I will try to write them down in more detail some time soon. Herr Piseck lost both his parents in the fire storm bombing of Dresden by the RAF. This was the single biggest atrocity carried out by the British in World War II. His mother and father lay down on top of him in the bomb shelter and, basically, were roasted to death, but their action saved his life.
Reinhard, Olivar. The Red Glow.
Snyder, Louis L. Historical Guide to World War II (1982).
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