From 13 to 15 February 1945, British (and some American) heavy bombers
2,400 tons of high explosives and 1,500 tons of incendiary
bombs onto the ancient
cathedral city of Dresden. In just a
few hours, around 250,000 to 350,000 civilians
were blown up
Victor Gregg, a British para captured at Arnhem, was a prisoner of war in Dresden that
night who was ordered to help with the clear up. In a 2014 BBC interview he recalled the
hunt for survivors after the apocalyptic firestorm. In one incident, it took his team seven
hours to get into a 1,000-person air-raid shelter in the Altstadt. Once inside, they found no
survivors or corpses: just a green-brown liquid with bones sticking out of it. The cowering
people had all melted. In areas further from the town centre there were legions of adults
shrivelled to three feet in length. Children under the age of three had simply been vaporised.
It was not the first time a German city had been
firebombed. “Operation Gomorrah” had
seen Hamburg torched on 25 July
the previous year. Nine thousand tons of explosives
and incendiaries had flattened
eight square miles of the city centre, and the resulting
inferno had created
an oxygen vacuum that whipped up a 150-mile-an-hour wind burning
at 800 Celsius.
The death toll was 37,000 people. (By comparison, the atom bomb in
40,000 on day one.)
This thinking was not trumpeted from the rooftops.
But in November 1941 the Commander-in-Chief
of Bomber Command said he had been
intentionally bombing civilians for a year.
“I mention this because, for
a long time, the Government, for excellent reasons, has
preferred the world
to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the
are pleased to call Military Targets. I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.”
The debate over this strategy of targeting civilians
is still hotly contentious and emotional,
in Britain and abroad. There is no
doubting the bravery, sacrifice, and suffering of the
young men who flew the
extraordinarily dangerous missions: 55,573 out of Bomber Command’s
flyers never came home. The airmen even nicknamed their
Harris, highlighting his scant regard for their survival.
Supporters of Britain’s “area bombing” (targeting
civilians instead of military or industrial sites)
maintain that it was a vital
part of the war. Churchill wrote that he wanted “absolutely
exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi
In another letter he called it “terror bombing”. His aim was to demoralise the
Germans to catalyse regime change. Research suggests that the soaring homelessness
levels and family break ups did indeed depress civilian morale, but there is no evidence it helped
anyone prise Hitler’s cold hand off the wheel.
Others maintain that it was ghastly, but Hitler
started it so needed to be answered in a
language he understood. Unfortunately,
records show that the first intentional “area bombing”
in the Second World War took place at Monchengladbach on 11 May 1940 at
orders (the day after he dramatically became prime minister),
and four months
before the Luftwaffe began its Blitz of British cities.
Not everyone was convinced by city bombing. Numerous military and church leaders
strong opposition. Freemason Dyson, now one of Britain’s most eminent
at Bomber Command from 1943-5. He said it eroded his moral
beliefs until he had no moral
position at all. He wanted to write about it, but
then found the American
novelist Kurt Vonnegut had said everything he wanted
Gregg, Vonnegut had been a prisoner in Dresden that night. He claimed that only one
person in the world derived any benefit from the slaughterhouse — him, because he wrote a
famous book about it which pays him two or three dollars for every person killed.
Germany’s bombing of British cities was
equally abhorrent. Germany dropped 35,000 tons
on Britain over eight months in
1940-1 killing an estimated 39,000. (In total,
the UK and US dropped around 1.9
million tons on Germany over 6 years.)
Bombing German cities clearly did have an impact on the war. The question, though,
is how much. The post-war US Bombing Survey estimated that the effect of all allied
city bombing probably depleted the German economy by no more than 2.7 per cent.
Allowing for differences
of opinion on the efficacy or necessity of “area bombing” in the days
when the war’s outcome remained uncertain (arguably until Stalingrad in February 1943),
the key question on today’s anniversary remains whether the bombing of Dresden in
February 1945 was militarily necessary — because by then the war was definitely over.
Hitler was already in his bunker. The British and Americans were at the German border
after winning D-Day the previous summer, while the Russians under Zhukov and Konev were
well inside eastern Germany and racing pell-mell to Berlin.
Dresden was a civilian town without military significance. It had
no material role of any sort
to play in the closing months of the war. So, what
strategic purpose did burning its men, women,
old people, and children serve?
Churchill himself later wrote that “the destruction
of Dresden remains
a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing”.
Seventy years on, fewer people ask precisely which military objective
justified the hell
unleashed on Dresden. If there was no good strategic reason
for it, then not even the passage
of time can make it right, and the questions
it poses remain as difficult as ever in a world
in which civilians have continued
to suffer unspeakably in the wars of their autocratic leaders.