"I shall go on writing. That is my heroism. I will bear witness, precise witness!"
— The diary of Victor Klemperer, survivor of the Holocaust and the bombing of Dresden
Exactly 65 years ago last weekend, on 13-14 February 1945, 244 Lancaster bombers of the Royal Air Force arrived on schedule over Dresden, the Saxon cultural and communications center that had barely been touched by the war to date. The first bombs fell at 10:14 p.m. on the Altstadt ("Old City"), the designated target at the very center of Dresden. The target, in the shape of a wedge, was more than 1.5 square miles/4 square km. in extent and included few structures of military significance. The aiming point was a sports stadium occupied by refugees from the intense fighting on the eastern front, which was by then just 60 miles/100 km away. The Altstadt, for the most part, contained dense residential districts and cultural landmarks that were renowned throughout Germany and the world. It included only a handful of military installations and no industry, although nearby suburbs contained factories that were vital to the Nazi war effort.
As the Lancasters arrived over Dresden and emptied their bomb racks, a second and even larger wave of 550 RAF bombers was already en route from English airfields, arriving at 1:21 a.m. to drop thousands more incendiary and high-explosive (HE) bombs on an even broader target, which turned out to be most of the city. Once again the factories and military installations in the suburbs, including an army barracks, were untouched.
The following afternoon (February 14th), 316 B-17 bombers of the 8th U.S. Army Air Force lumbered toward Dresden in deteriorating weather for a third attack that produced mixed results, militarily speaking. By the time the third raid was complete, a total of 2,600 tons (2,360 metric tons) of bombs had destroyed 13 square miles (34 square km.) within the urban area, considered a "virgin" target because it had been almost immune from prior attack. The damage could have been even worse: the leading formation of B-17's flew past the cloud-covered city and bombed Prague, mistaking it for Dresden.
Since most of the Dresden was already destroyed, and clouds prevented an full assessment of the damage caused by the B-17's, the third attack was considered less "successful." But the RAF's two earlier raids started a firestorm that achieved the Allies' goal: 95% of the target, the central districts of Dresden, was obliterated in about twelve hours.
First, conditions were ideal: Dresden was undefended and the weather was perfectly clear, as predicted, for the two RAF attacks. None of the three waves of bombers met any serious resistance. Antiaircraft units had been relocated to meet more pressing needs elsewhere as the massive Allied invasion of Germany proceeded on two fronts. A Luftwaffe fighter squadron briefly scrambled but returned to base without mounting any attacks on the bombers or their P-51 fighter escorts. Allied losses were negligible.
Second, conditions on the ground were ideal for the "perfect firestorm." Most of the buildings in the central area of Dresden were made of masonry, but their structural elements were timber. The western Allies, after five years of bombing German cities, had perfected the technical means of maximizing damage and creating catastrophic fires in residential areas. In the jargon of the time, this was known as "area bombing," as opposed to "precision" bombing of pinpoint targets — like a defensive position on a battlefield, an airbase, a factory, an oil refinery — in a relatively small area. Area bombing (also called "carpet bombing") was not unique to the Allies — it was practiced by all sides — but they perfected its techniques over Germany and, soon, Japan.
The RAF Bomber Command's heavy reliance on area bombing was, in many respects, an admission of defeat. Precision bombing is most effective at low altitudes during daylight, when bombers are also most vulnerable to antiaircraft fire and fighter attack. The RAF's daylight raids earlier in the war resulted in unsustainable losses of bombers and crews, forcing an "area bombing" strategy from high altitudes during the nighttime. The growing squadrons of the USAAF could endure heavy losses far better than the RAF, so the burden of "precision" daylight bombing fell on the crews of its B-17's and B-24's. To reduce losses, the USAAF eventually adopted the RAF's high-altitude strategy but continued its daytime raids. To compensate for highly inaccurate bombing from such heights, the Allied "bomber stream" often included over a thousand bombers flying in columns of 100 miles/160 km or more.
"Area bombing" typically began with a rain of HE bombs that destroyed the roofs of dwellings and caused many to collapse into the narrow streets, blocking escape and preventing fire trucks from putting out blazes. The HE bombs also left deep craters in the streets and severed water mains, further disrupting attempts to limit the spread of the fires. The concussion from the explosions blew out windows and doors, allowing strong drafts to penetrate the buildings that remained standing and fuel the fires.
Once the vulnerable (and volatile) interiors of dwellings were opened up to the sky, thousands of 4-pound incendiary bombs fell inside and ignited small fires. These separate blazes quickly combined into a conflagration that could produce hurricane-force winds and consume an entire city. Large trees were completely uprooted and firefighters were swept off their feet. When fully developed, a firestorm sucked the oxygen right out of the air, leading to the suffocation of thousands of Dresdeners who were huddled in inadequate shelters and cellars from which they could not escape. Thousands of civilians died from oxygen deprivation or carbon-monoxide poisoning.
By the end of the third attack, an estimated 12,000 dwellings had been immolated in central Dresden, along with 11 churches, 39 schools, a zoo and 19 hospitals.
By any standard, the human cost of the bombing was enormous. Postwar estimates of 100,000 to as many as 250,000 deaths have, however, been greatly reduced since the records of the former East Germany became available following German reunification twenty years ago. Until recently, the consensus of historians, German and non-German alike, was that 24,000 to 40,000 people were killed by the bombs and the inferno that followed. In 2006, the city council of Dresden commissioned a study by a panel of German historians that produced an estimate of 18,000 to 25,000 deaths. The exact number will never be known because thousands of refugees were streaming through the city, though the regime did everything possible to keep them moving quickly west to avoid creating bottlenecks in the transport system.
Only about 100 of the bombing victims were members of the German military. The large Wehrmacht (army) barracks 2 miles/3.2 km. north of central Dresden was not targeted and remained intact. Still, the raid by B-17's on February 14th accomplished one of the principal objectives of the attack: the destruction of railroad marshaling yards along the Elbe river that were vital to the supply and reinforcement of German troops on the eastern front. Three days later, however, trains were running again on a very limited schedule.
[USAAF photo of Dresden on February 15, 1945]
Why was Dresden bombed so late in the war? The city finally became an important target, more than five years after the war began, as Allied troops closed the noose around the Nazi regime. The city was in a vital location for the movement of troops and supplies by rail and road, both from west to east and north to south. It was on the main rail line from Berlin to Prague and Vienna. On average, 29 trainloads of troops and arms passed through Dresden each day. Its war industries were substantial, with over a hundred medium to large factories and workshops devoted to military production, including the massive Zeiss-Ikon plant. Some 50,000 civilians were employed in war-related industry, including many women and slave laborers like the "armaments Jews" who were allowed to live because there was a desperate shortage of industrial workers in Germany. Despite the military and economic significance of these suburban facilities, they were not targeted and, except for the railways, suffered little damage.
The immolation of Dresden was quickly and widely condemned. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, immediately saw an opportunity to turn opinion against the Allies in neutral countries like Sweden. It was among his last, and most successful, propaganda campaigns. Dresden was falsely depicted, both during and after the war, as an "open city" — a strictly cultural center of no military importance that was swollen with hundreds of thousands of refugees. The war was nearly over anyway, according to this view, and the destruction of Dresden contributed nothing to the Allied cause.
The Goebbels spin had traction. Since 1945, the attack has been routinely condemned as an act of cultural desecration, retribution and terror bombing for its own sake. Neo-Nazis in Germany and elsewhere continue to insist that the Allied destruction of Dresden, with an alleged death toll of up to 375,000, was the moral equivalent of the Holocaust: "Auschwitz + Dresden = 0" remains a favorite slogan.
Even as the ruins were still smoking, the Dresden raids received negative reviews in the neutral and Allied press alike, causing a major political flap in Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon felt it necessary to distance himself from his own Bomber Command. In a confidential memo written at the end of March, and quickly withdrawn, Churchill insisted that Bomber Command should focus its efforts on "military objectives" rather than "mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive." Dresden was seen as a "raid too far" and the fallout destroyed the reputation of Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, the chief proponent of area bombing in residential districts. Revulsion over Dresden likely led U.S. war planners to remove Kyoto, another "virgin" cultural landmark in Japan, from the list of possible targets for the atomic bomb.
After 65 years, a more nuanced and complex view of the Dresden raids and their purpose has emerged.
Was the true intent of the attack to inflict "terror and wanton destruction," as the Churchill memo suggested? And there's a related question: if Dresden contained factories and military installations that were so vital to the Nazi war effort, why were most of those targets ignored by planners? An RAF memo, distributed to pilots before the bombing, explained: "The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front ... and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do." This language suggests that the purpose of the raids was interdiction, broadly defined: the disruption of economic activities and German supply lines to the eastern front, exactly as Stalin had demanded at the Yalta conference earlier in February. (Some U.S. pilots were not convinced by this rationale: they could plainly see that the target was essentially civilian and a few bombardiers deliberately released their bombs prematurely in open country outside Dresden.)
If interdiction was the objective, why didn't the attack focus narrowly on highways, bridges, railroads and similar facilities? In fact, the major goal of area bombing was to create as much chaos as possible in the streets and communications facilities, blocking transportation routes and disrupting war production. In that sense, the raid was ultimately successful: with thousands of factory workers and their families dead or homeless, even the lightly-damaged factories suffered sharp and lasting declines in production — often for the rest of the European war, which ended in German surrender three months later. With the transportation system demolished, even workers with intact dwellings were unable to get to their jobs through the bomb craters and vast piles of rubble. With a focus on day-to-day survival for themselves and their families, workers stopped going to work and absenteeism soared.
Dresden's communications system was so disrupted that it was impossible to coordinate the movement of troops and war material through the city even as the railroads were repaired. The raids effectively knocked Dresden out of the war, leaving it unable to contribute to Germany's defense. Even if the bombing was effective in that sense, the moral question, under the theory of "just war," remains unresolved: were the benefits realized by the attack proportional to the amount of suffering inflicted on the civilian residents of Dresden, who at that time were mainly women, children and the elderly? [This will be the topic of a future posting.]
Whatever the rationale for the bombing and its military consequences, the results on the ground, in the Altstadt and neighboring districts, were horrific. Hundreds of eyewitness accounts of the Dresden bombing and its aftermath have been compiled and published. Here in the U.S., the city is best remembered through the work of Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war at the time of the firestorm. Slaughterhouse Five includes a fictionalized account of what he witnessed. (As Vonnegut explained later: "All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true." However, Vonnegut's claim of 135,000 civilian deaths relied on the bogus "research" of "historian" and Holocaust-denier David Irving.)
Despite its terrible consequences, the raid provided immediate, if unintended, benefits to a few residents of the city. A small remnant of Dresden's Jewish community survived even as late as February 1945. Many, like journalist Victor Klemperer, had been temporarily exempted from deportation to the Nazi death camps because they were married to Aryans. Another 300 slave laborers worked twelve hours each day as "armaments Jews" ("Rüstungsjuden") in war production.
In its final months, however, the Nazi regime dedicated itself even more ferociously to the total annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe. Just hours before the bombing began, deportation notices had been issued to many of the remaining Jewish residents of Dresden. They were ordered to report to the railroad station just three days later. As Klemperer wrote in his diary:
"...on the evening of this 13 February the catastrophe overtook Dresden: the bombs fell, the houses collapsed, the phosphorus flowed, the burning beams crashed on to the heads of Aryans and non-Aryans alike and Jew and Christian met death in the same firestorm; whoever of the [Jews] was spared by this night was delivered, for in the general chaos he could escape the Gestapo."With the destruction of the Gestapo headquarters in the bombing, the files on Dresden's surviving Jews were destroyed. Klemperer and other survivors of the bombing could safely remove the yellow stars from their clothing and blend into the stream of refugees flowing west into territory occupied by the U.S. Army. Victor and Eva Klemperer survived the war.
[Above: Architect Daniel Libeskind's design for the Dresden War History Museum, formerly the city's armory. It's scheduled for opening this year. The glass wedge, in the shape of the targeted Altstadt district, points toward central Dresden.]
Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945
Victor Klemperer, Diary
Max Hastings Armageddon (includes estimates of "at least 35,000" deaths as recently as 2005).
Susan Griffin, Chorus of Stones
Wikipedia article, "Bombing of Dresden in World War II"
Since reunification two decades ago, as mentioned above, the archives of the former East Germany have been open to historians for the first time, resulting in a more complete understanding of what happened in Dresden — and why. Recent examples include the excellent Dresden by British historian Frederick Taylor, probably the definitive history in English (and the source of much of the information related here). Anticipating the 65th anniversary of the raids, the February 1st edition of the New Yorker published an account (abstract) of the attacks and the subsequent restoration of Dresden, especially after reunification. (The article, by George Packer, is revealingly titled, "Will Dresden Ever Confront Its Past?") Area bombing in Europe and, especially, Japan is the subject of another New Yorker article by Roger Angell in the February 15-22 issue.
Whatever the source, it's obvious that the destruction of Dresden continues to be viewed through ideological filters more than sixty years later.
PHOTOS show Dresden during or in the aftermath of the bombing (Wikimedia). The British newsreel below shows the bombing from the air. For views on the ground, sometimes graphic, see this short documentary.