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Bomber Command and the controversial bombing of Dresden

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, World War 2 on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about World War Two originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 111 published on 29 February 1964.

Bombers over Germany, picture, image, illustration

The Luftwaffe attacks Allied  bombers during the night raid on Hamburg by Wilf Hardy

A firestorm is a man-made volcano of destruction, a forest of fire that blazes at 1,000 degrees Centigrade. Its characteristic is an inrush of air of hurricane force. Its result is certain death to anyone within its area.

It is caused by high-intensity accurate bombing over a concentrated area, which starts numbers of uncontrollable fires that finally merge with each other in one vast blaze.

In July, 1943, after an all-out air attack on the German port of Hamburg, the first firestorm of the Second World War broke out. Thousands died, but history has forgotten that raid.

The last firestorm of the war raged with unprecedented fury for seven days and eight nights in the city of Dresden, deep in the heart of Germany, after a great Allied air attack that began on the night of February 13, 1945.

The destruction of Dresden – for such it was – became a matter of propaganda, a subject of parliamentary debate, a question of morality.

Who ordered the attack and why? Was Dresden a military target? Was it contrary to the policy of Bomber Command? And what really happened on that night of fire and terror?

In February, 1945, the war was drawing to a close, the Nazis were in full retreat. In the East the Russian army was only eighteen miles from the ill-fated city of Dresden. Early in February Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt met at the historic Yalta conference. It has been suggested that the decision to launch a full-scale raid on Dresden was taken here.

Stalin was pressing the Allies to give him more support. Dresden might have been a demonstration of this.

Certainly it was a centre of German communications and troop movements.

The raid was planned by Bomber Command, and brilliantly. Over 1,400 aircraft took part, and it began at three minutes to eight on February 13 when the Mosquito aircraft KB401 rose into the sky from an English airfield.

This plane was the leader of the marker squadron which was to drop its sign-post red flares on to Dresden and so show the Lancaster bombers that were to follow just where to drop their bombs.

There were nearly a million people in Dresden that night, half of them refugees fleeing from the advancing Russian armies. At the railway station schoolboys had been recruited to help deal with goods and passengers.

Shortly after 10 p.m. the Mosquitoes were over Dresden. There was no anti-aircraft “flak,” no searchlights, no snarling Messerschmitts in the night sky. In their homes the citizens of Dresden listened uneasily to the English planes criss-crossing the city.

At 10.15 p.m. the first wave of bombers arrived. With dreadful accuracy they dropped their loads on to the marked-out target.

From the air the bomber crews of the Lancasters, and there were 244 Lancasters in this first attack, could see the explosions as they dropped their great 4,000 lb. and 8,000 lb. bombs. Here and there flames began to lick up into the sky, and a huge pall of smoke hung like a funeral shroud over the city.

On the ground there was chaos. The German air raid defences depended on their communication system. Without communications the fire fighters could not be directed; men and machines could not be organized to converge on the areas where their services were most needed.

But the ferocity of the initial attack and its unexpectedness – the Germans did not think Dresden would be the R.A.F.’s “target for tonight” as that gigantic armada winged its way over occupied Europe – had overwhelmed the civil defence forces and knocked out their communications.

The fires that quickly started were soon uncontrollable, and walls of flame sprang from building to building, from street to street, engulfing one block after another.

So began the firestorm. In its heart, where the temperature exceeded 1,000 degrees Centigrade, it melted the very bricks of buildings. A fearful wind swept the city, snapping trees and hurling people along the streets as it howled through Dresden.

The first wave of Lancasters, relieved of their deadly burden, were by now on their way back to England. The second wave of 529 Lancasters, which had left England some three hours after the first attackers, were half-way to Dresden.

When they were 200 miles away from the stricken city they were able to see the red glow of its burning fires in the sky.

At 1.30 a.m. the second wave of Lancasters reached Dresden. With planned precision they dropped their bombs on the city and turned for home. The crews did not know and would not even have been able to guess at the extent of the devastation they had caused below.

Even the Air Ministry was astonished at the massive scale of destruction. Sixteen hundred acres of the city of Dresden had been razed to the ground in one night. That much is fact. Six hundred and fifty thousand incendiaries were dropped. That much, too, is fact.

Within hours of the raid Dr. Goebbels’s propaganda machine was at work. The Nazi radio condemned the raid as “a crime against humanity.” (This was irony, indeed, coming from a regime which ran concentration camps in which millions of civilians were murdered.)

From the German point of view it was worth exaggerating the casualties. They claimed that the “bloodthirsty allies” had killed 250,000 people in the raid.

This of course was a vast exaggeration. The official British figure at the time was 35,000. The actual figure might well be 135,000.

This propaganda campaign had its effect. The raid and its results were widely reported throughout the world, and horror was expressed at the number of civilian casualties. The allies were accused of deliberately undertaking a campaign of terror against the civilian population of Germany.

It is hard to believe that Bomber Command planned this raid for the purpose, and the only purpose, of killing German civilians. For Dresden was not an industrial city, it did not have more than one or two small factories producing strategic materials for the Nazi war effort, and it was virtually undefended from air attack.

The fact is that the destruction of Dresden was intended to hasten the end of the war. It was hoped that it would be such a blow to German morale that the Nazis would capitulate. As such the raid was a failure. Yet at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, where the atomic bomb was dropped in order to force the Japanese into surrender, the tactic of a massive terrorizing blow was successful.

The Japanese surrendered. Thus the dropping of the atomic bomb, although it cannot be morally justified, did save the thousands of Allied soldiers’ lives which would have been lost had the war continued.

Had the Germans surrendered after Dresden perhaps less controversy would surround this tragedy of the Second World War.

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