6B Text

The bombing of Dresden (centre and bottom left), my mother’s beloved city, by Allied forces between the 13th and 15th of February 1945, remains one of the most contentious acts of World War II. 722 heavy bombers from the British Royal Air Force (Lancaster cockpit bottom right) and 527 from the United States Air Force dropped more than 3,900 tons of highexplosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city (map bottom right). The resulting firestorm destroyed 39 square kilometres of the city centre and killed an estimated 25,000 people, including refugees fleeing eastward from the Russian advance.

Historians and politicians have dwelt in detail on the bombing of Dresden, and many questions both practical and moral continue to be debated. It is often suggested that Churchill ordered the bombing of Dresden in retaliation for the 1940 bombing of Coventry (top left). This is unlikely. In the grand theatre of European war, decisions were probably more complex and tactical. Dresden, although renowned for its unique cultural heritage, was always considered a legitimate target because it was an important centre of technical industry and a major transport hub. The city had been on a list for ‘strategic bombing’ from before the time that ‘Bomber Harris’, the scapegoat for the attack, came to head Bomber Command. Whilst a staunch defender of the aerial bombing of German cities, Arthur Harris did not conceive the idea, nor was he responsible for choosing the targets. He was, however, bullish and memorably said; ‘The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind’.

In his 2004 book ‘Dresden’ the British historian Frederick Taylor staunchly defends the bombing. The book is careful in describing the planning and well-thought-out legitimacy of Dresden as a target. Taylor also emphasises the part played by chance. Anonymous Royal Air Force meteorological officers had sealed the fate of Dresden on the morning of 13th February, by predicting cloud breaks over the city coupled with good weather over the Lincolnshire bases to which the bombers would return. There is fascinating documentation of the attack on Dresden and its aftermath, including film and the remarkable photographs by Richard Peter (top right). There is also a wealth of testimony, both contemporary and recollected, ranging through diaries, photographs and memoirs to combinations of fact and fiction, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five and Harry Mulisch’s The Stone Bridal Bed.

By a twist of fate, the bombing liberated a small number of Jews who had remained in Dresden, as well as some prisoners of war, including the American Kurt Vonnegut and the British Victor Gregg. On 13th February 1945, Victor Klemperer, protected because he was married to an Aryan, was living with his wife in a designated ‘Jewish house’. During the day he reluctantly complied with Nazi orders to deliver notices of deportation to some of the last remaining members of the Jewish community. Fearful that he too would soon be sent to his death, he used the confusion created by the Allied bombings and the fact that the Gestapo HQ with all its records was destroyed, to rip off his yellow star. Without this identifying symbol he and his wife Eva escaped from Dresden, carrying his precious diaries and little else. Klemperer, ever the diarist, later wrote about the morning after the bombing:

‘We walked slowly, for now I was carrying both bags, and my limbs hurt, along the riverbank… Above us, building after building was a burnt-out ruin. Down here by the river, where many people were moving along or resting on the ground, masses of the empty, rectangular cases of stick incendiary bombs stuck out of the churned-up earth. At times, small and no more than a bundle of clothes, the dead were scattered across our path… Further from the centre some people had been able to save a few things; they pushed handcarts with bedding and the like or sat on boxes and bundles. Crowds streamed unceasingly between these islands, past the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession’.