On this day 73 years ago, the most destructive bombing campaign in all of history began. I am, of course, referring to the terror bombing of civilians in the German city of Dresden, conducted by allied air forces at the behest of Britain’s RAF Bomber Command. It is undoubtedly unpopular for anybody, particularly an Englishman, to write about such an event. Accusations of treachery will surely be afoot upon publication, the immortalised ‘Quisling’ quip will also seep into the discourse, as a great many readers struggle to understand why an historian on the victorious side would write such a thing in defence of the Germans.
I dare to partake in this endeavour, notwithstanding my political viewpoints or where my sympathies may align themselves, because of an inherent compassion for innocent life, something that should infect all with a sense of decency and moral principle. Because what happened at Dresden was not simply a part of the “just war” against Germany or National Socialism, it was not a mere facet of modern warfare. It was precisely what Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris labelled it as; terror bombing. It was a targeted and willing assault on innocent civilians with the expressed aim of causing mass incineration and, thus, fear.
How such a thing can be overlooked, particularly by those who cried “war crimes” against the Axis enemy of the day, is rather baffling.
Between 13th and 15th February 1945, when arguably the war was already won and with allied forces rapidly advancing on the German Reich, 722 Heavy Bombers of the Royal Air Force and 527 American war planes descended on Dresden. All told, the allied mission dropped 3,900 tonnes of incendiary devices on Dresden, destroying 6.5 square kilometres of the city. It might be noticeable that amongst these dates and figures lies no death toll; that it because the precise number of deaths is disputed, for nefarious reasons.
Since the war, the allied propaganda machine sought to conceal from the world the crime they had committed at Dresden on those fateful nights, and it has to be said not without good reason from their perspective. Their fear, of course, should the real death toll be revealed, is that it would illicit a measure of sympathy for the fallen Germans, who they sought to dehumanise in order to ensure their populations remained committed to the vociferous destruction of National Socialism. Whilst this is perhaps a topic for another discussion, it may go some way to explaining the willingness of people today to overlook physical attacks on members of society who exhibit nationalist sentiment today.
They did not wish to be known as butchers or mass murderers, but alas, that is what they were. It’s said that Sir Arthur Harris, when shown images of the destruction in the aftermath of the Second World War, ‘turned green in repulsion’ and almost fainted. He is known as the architect of the Dresden campaign, with many political misfits deriding his actions as criminal but, like many a German, he was a subordinate following orders. What is unpopular amongst particularly British and American readers, is the fact that Harris’ superior officer was none other than Sir Winston Churchill, who himself gave the order for the RAF to partake in such crimes.
In Dresden after the war, one could hear countless tails of women and children evaporating before their families’ very eyes; skin melting on the equally melted roads and pavements; family homes burning for days on end; the elderly simply incinerated whilst they slept. The horrors of the event shatter the myth that the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the greatest of allied crimes in the Second World War. The stories one can extract just from a few eyewitnesses at Dresden are enough to make one’s stomach churn. Speaking of which, it would be prudent at this point to warn the reader that there is a photograph of dead bodies further down the page that some may find distressing.
The first wave of bombing took place on the night of the 13th, with hundreds of RAF planes dropping firebombs indiscriminately across the city. The dry air combined with the timber structures of the town to produce a potent fire storm. Then, just 3 hours later, a second wave of bombers struck. They dropped their payloads, again indiscriminately, across the residential areas of the city. It had been decided that the second wave would follow at this precise interval, so as to strike when the concentration of rescue teams around the city was at its highest, thus maximising damage and essentially destroying the city’s ability to offer rescue to its people for the coming attacks.
Such a strategy was highly cynical. It demonstrates that, not only did those authorising and planning the attack care little for innocent civilians – who were, by the way, mostly women and children with the men fighting at the front – rather they actively sought out such a demographic as their expressed target. Many a fighter pilot actually executing the plan was somewhat dismayed that he had been sent to commit such an atrocity – that said, only just over 50% of pilots taking part in the sorties over Dresden actually returned with their life.
The attacks then continued over the 14th and 15th February 1945. In the morning of the 14th, they targeted again the same built up, civilian areas of the city that were still burning from the previous night’s escapades. It’s said that the burning city could be seen from up to 80 kilometres away. The bombings continued over the course of the 14th February, with bad weather causing a wider dispersal of incendiary bombs which further increased the scope of the damage. On the morning of the 15th, a USAAF bomber division that was supposed to be attacking a synthetic plant some distance away, instead bombed (again) its secondary target as a result of bad weather.
As one can imagine, the result of repeated firebombing of a concentrated residential city produces carnage of untold proportions. The entirety of the city centre was destroyed. Those who survived the event had no home to go back to. Thousands of women, children and many of the city’s elderly contingent were left without food, water or shelter in the depths of winter. The official estimated death toll is between 25-27,000 who perished as a direct result of the bombing. German news agencies at the time reported a death toll of up to 500,000.
The issue with this is that nobody really knows for certain how many people perished at Dresden. The allies had – and still have – every reason to offer a very conservative estimate, for it is they who were responsible for this senseless killing, but on the other hand the Germans had every reason to exaggerate as a means to galvanising the population to the defence of the Reich. The actual figure is estimated by historians to be much higher than the “official” estimate offered, but lower than the German estimate, so we are looking at a figure of around 150,000-200,000 people massacred in a 48-hour period – this level of mass murder is unmatched to this day, for even the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan later in 1945 did less human damage than the firebombing of Dresden.
How, when Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment at Nuremberg for waging ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ (something which the allies did themselves), can the same so-called upholders of legality absolve the allies of this terrible war crime committed at Dresden? Of course, that’s purely rhetorical, for we already know the answer; as Winston Churchill ironically put it, “history will remember me kindly, for I shall write it”.
The victors truly do write the history, which is why today we hold memorials for the 5,000 or so civilians killed in Coventry during 6 years of war, but not the 150,000 mostly women and children butchered on Churchill’s orders over a 48-hour period. Yet surely, this is a moral abdication of the grandest sort. How can we, the grandchildren of those who fought one another, claim a moral superiority over those men who led us to war all those years ago, whilst we remain blinkered to the massive suffering that took place on the other side of the fence?
We cannot continue to view the Second World War in the same way that our parents and grandparents did. No longer can we dehumanise the losing side, purely because it suits our political aims. We must demonstrate some humility and compassion in our remembrance of the fallen, and all the moreso in this case of a mass butchery of innocent women and children. Just to state “well they voted for the Nazis” is not a sufficient argument to dehumanise an entire demographic. It simply will not do any longer. Peace in Europe will be secured, in the long term, through humility and an acknowledgement of legitimate grievances on both sides of the table.
We must remove the blinkers that force us to see history through a narrow prism of victors and losers. We must look beyond our ingrained perceptions of good and evil, and recognise that the allies, too, did terrible things in the name of peace and democracy.
For those interested in further reading and documentary footage on this subject matter, I suggest you explore www.hellstormdocumentary.com – but be warned, their documentary is blocked by many Western governments who still to this day seek to conceal the truth.
I would also recommend watching the following lecture by acclaimed British historian David Irving, who spoke at the London Forum on the ‘Saturation Bombing’ of Dresden.