Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
In February 1945, bombers from the British RAF and the USAAF descended upon the German city of Dresden unleashing several thousand tons of incendiary bombs upon the unsuspecting population below. In total, anywhere from twenty-five to forty thousand residents perished in the ensuing firestorm that swept the city. What did the Allies hope to accomplish with the bombing of Dresden? Did Dresden play a pivotal role in the German war effort, thus, justifying the indiscriminate bombing of civilians? More specifically, did Dresden possess viable military targets for the Allied bombers? Why were there no precautions taken to alleviate civilian casualties during the raid? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what do historians have to say about the bombing raid? Can this attack be considered a war crime on behalf of the Allies? If so, what implications does this sort of label provoke?
Allied Strategic Bombing
According to historians, the bombing of Dresden represented a clear departure of the Allies’ original bombing strategy. To understand this deviation, it is important to first explore the initial bombing policies set forth by individuals within the British and American military high command. On numerous occasions, the Allied bombing strategies were made publicly known by both military and political leaders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance, consistently maintained that the American’s “unchanging and official policy throughout [the war] was always the precision bombing of military targets, and that civilians were never purposely targeted" (De Bruhl, 47). In a statement by the American Air Force, this policy was reiterated with the proclamation that American bombers “would attack only key military or industrial targets” using precision bombing to minimize the “amount of suffering to the civilian population” (McKee, 104). As a result of these policies, American bombers were limited to making bombing runs during the day in order to identify targets more precisely, and to avoid collateral damage.
In a similar fashion, Arthur Harris, the commander over the Royal Air Force during WWII, advocated the use of precision bombing as well and identified “factories, communications centers, and other industrial sites” as key targets for Allied Bombers (De Bruhl, 40). However, Harris, in stark contrast to Roosevelt, also adopted policies that advocated the use of “area bombing,” when appropriate, which aimed to destroy “roads, water mains, and the electrical supply” of cities in order to disrupt “essential services” of the civilian population across Germany (De Bruhl, 40). Harris believed in a concept of “total war” that supported victory no matter what the cost in human lives may be. Unbeknownst to many military and political leaders, this policy soon evolved “into the system that would become standard bombing procedure” for the Allies by the end of the war (De Bruhl, 40). What prompted the change in strategic bombing policies from the avoidance of civilian targeting to the “area bombing” of entire cities, as seen in Dresden?
Map of Dresden, Germany
Shift in Policy
According to Tami Biddle, casualties from the indiscriminate V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks, the firebombing of London by the Luftwaffe, and the prolonged duration of WWII played a dramatic role in influencing Allied military and political leaders in regard to civilian bombing (Biddle, 76). For years, V-1 and V-2’s were relentlessly launched “against London and Southern England” (Taylor, 169). In the Belgian port of Antwerp, “more than six thousand” of the city’s “citizens were to die” as a result of these indiscriminate rocket attacks by German forces (Taylor, 169-170). As Biddle proclaims, motives of revenge and wartime fatigue, therefore, gradually “eroded” the Allies’ initial mindset towards appropriate wartime measures (Biddle, 76). Civilian bombing, in turn, quickly gained recognition by Allied leaders since it offered a viable means of ending conflict within the European theater far sooner than traditional bombing methods. In theory, the Allies believed that “area bombing” of German cities, such as Dresden, would disrupt communications, lower German morale, and “weaken Germany to the point where an invasion was easier” (Hansen, 55).
With WWII quickly coming to a close by 1945, Allied leaders were desperate to take the fight to Germany and, in turn, resolve hostilities across Europe (Biddle, 99). Following the Ardennes Offensive, however, Germany proved, wholeheartedly, that the final months of the war would not be easy for the Allies (Biddle, 98). According to Studs Terkel’s description of the Ardennes Offensive, the Germans “fought like dogs” and inflicted “terrible losses” upon the Allies in “their last effort to slow” down the Allied armies (Terkel, 472). Moreover, historian Frederick Taylor underscores this point with the following statement:
“The Ardennes offensive would be reckoned a catastrophe in the longer term for Germany, but in the meantime morale had been bolstered [on behalf of the Germans] and the invincibility of the western Allies cast into question…one thing was certain: anyone bold enough to say that the war was all but over would have received pretty short shrift from soldiers and public alike” (Taylor, 172).
As a result of this newfound German resilience, Allied leaders and strategists were forced to turn their attention toward cities within Germany that included Berlin, Chemnitz, Leipzig, Nuremburg, and Dresden. By implementing vast “area bombing” over these regions, Allied leaders hoped that air raids would “cause chaos and panic” along the Eastern Front, thus, helping “the Red Army with its advance” (Neitzel, 76). Through a coordinated attack upon these areas, the Allies hoped to “wipe out the entire industrial, transport and communications system” of Eastern Germany for the approaching Soviet army (Taylor, 337).
Attack on Dresden
According to Allied intelligence, Dresden -- in particular -- served as a major hindrance to “Marshal Ivan S. Koneff’s First Ukrainian Army” located only “seventy miles to the East” (Biddle, 96). As Frederick Taylor states, Allied leaders suspected Dresden of being a major “transit point for military traffic” (Taylor, 163). More specifically, they believed that the industrial sector of the city was responsible for the construction of rocket components, communications equipment, machine guns, and aircraft parts (Taylor, 150). By disrupting the industrial and military components of Dresden, Allied strategists believed that “a timely conclusion to the war in Europe” could be achieved since the Soviets would be allowed to advance faster and more effectively (Biddle, 97). Moreover, Allied strategists hoped that a large-scale bombing of Dresden would cause a widespread revolt by the local German population, thus, bringing about a “quick end to the horror of war” (Neitzel, 76).
During the late evening hours of February 13th, 1945 a group of “796 Lancaster bombers” from the British RAF began their attack on Dresden (Taylor, 7). In one night alone, these bombers managed to drop “more than twenty-six hundred tons of high explosives and incendiary devices” upon the city below (Taylor, 7). These initial raids were further compounded by the American Eighth Air Force on the morning of February 14th (Davies, 125). The attacks, in total, managed to destroy “thirteen square miles” of the city’s landscape, and resulted in the death of “at least twenty-five thousand inhabitants” who died as a result of direct bomb impacts, or were “incinerated, or suffocated by the effects of the firestorm” that ensued (Taylor, 7). Moreover, thousands of buildings and landmarks within the city limits were obliterated as well. According to Taylor, “the park, the zoo, the lodges, exhibition buildings, and restaurants were all sacrificed to explosion and flame” (Taylor, 278). With the mass destruction created from the Allied bombers, it seems impossible that any military targets could have survived the widespread devastation. But did the Allies truly achieve the success they desired with these raids?
Aftermath of Dresden Bombing
In terms of the overall destruction to German resolve, the raids over Dresden proved highly successful. As the New York Times reported shortly after the final bombs were dropped, the raids succeeded in creating “manifest terror in Germany” (New York Times, Feb. 16th 1945, 6). This notion is reflected by historian Sonke Neitzel, who states that the bombings quickly encouraged the citizens of Dresden to favor a “quick end” to the overall war (Neitzel, 76). In regard to the amount of military and industrial targets shattered by the bombing, however, the results were not as promising. According to Frederick Taylor, reports of “military targets [that were] noted as ‘damaged’ were relatively unimportant” and minuscule (Taylor, 357). Because Allied bombers focused primarily on bombing “the heart of the city” during their raid, civilian sectors of Dresden faced far more destruction than the military and industrial areas of the city (Taylor, 359). As Taylor describes, trains were running within days, and factories that suffered damage were producing again within weeks (Taylor, 356-359). Was this lack of devastation to military targets a result of poor planning on behalf of the Allies? Or did the plan to bomb Dresden possess more sinister components? More specifically, was the bombing of civilian targets a bigger priority for Allied bombers?
Historiography of Dresden Bombing: Military Necessity or War Crime?
According to Sonke Neitzel, the bombing of Dresden was completely unnecessary since “the contribution of the city to the war economy was not considered to be outstandingly significant” as Allied leaders maintained (Neitzel, 66). As he proclaims: Dresden possessed “no key oil refineries or large armament plants” (Neitzel, 66). As a result, it would appear as though Dresden possessed no viable military targets for the Allied bombers. Neitzel supports this claim by describing the lack of military defenses around the city during the bombing. As he proclaims, the Nazi’s placed little strategic importance upon Dresden and maintained “comparatively weak” air defenses within the city (Neitzel, 66). This notion is further emphasized by the fact that “not one [air raid] bunker was built in Dresden” by the Axis powers during WWII (Neitzel, 68). Had Dresden been vastly important to the German war effort, Neitzel argues that more measures would have been undertaken by the German military to provide adequate anti-aircraft batteries, and air-raid bunkers for the population. As he demonstrates, however, this did not occur.
As a result, the Allied claims that Dresden played a significant role in the overall military power of Nazi Germany appear to be false. Therefore, how can the Allied decision to bomb Dresden be explained? Disregarding the fact that the decision to bomb Dresden was the result of poor calculations, it seems more logical to conclude that the raids were a consequence of vengeful attitudes on behalf of the Allied forces. This vengeful mindset can be seen in a quote by The New York Times shortly after the bombing of Dresden:
“From east and west, and devastatingly from the skies, it is being brought home to the German people that they are merely making the cost of their defeat heavier to themselves by continuing a hopeless resistance. If in that resistance more landmarks of European culture and Germany’s own better past must be wiped out, the Germans may, as they were drilled to do, thank their Fuehrer [sic] for the result” (New York Times, Feb. 16th 1945, 22).
As seen in this news article, Allied forces were willing to do whatever was necessary to end the war across Europe, even at the expense of massive civilian losses in Germany.
In a separate article by the New York Times, it was reported that “the highest proportion of incendiary bombs in the European war, about 50 percent, was used” against Dresden during the “half-dozen attacks” upon the city (New York Times, Jan. 3rd, 1946, 5). In the aftermath of the firebombing, it was discovered that nearly “75 percent of the city” had been completely destroyed by Allied bombers (New York Times, Jan. 3rd, 1946, 5). Because of the vast destruction inflicted upon the city, it is clear that military targets were not distinguished from civilian sectors during the attack. Consequently, historian Tami Biddle argues that the bombing of Dresden appears to be more accurately described by the metaphor “terror-bombing” (Biddle, 75).
Since historians have largely concluded that the raids against Dresden were unnecessary, can the bombings, as a result, be identified as a war crime since military targets were mostly untouched? Many historians have argued that the bombing of Dresden was a simple response to the deliberate V-1 and V-2 rocket attacks upon Allied cities. However, can the large scale attack upon Dresden be rectified as a result of this? According to Norman Davies: “in morality, two wrongs do not make a right, and pleas of justified response do not wash” (Davies, 67). Dresden, in this sense, demonstrates that atrocities were not strictly limited to the Axis powers. Rather, both the Allies and Axis powers were capable of committing atrocious crimes during WWII.
A.C. Grayling supports this notion by describing the residents of Dresden during the raids. As he proclaims, “the city was known [by Allied leaders] to be full of tens of thousands of refugees,” in addition to the local German population, that were “fleeing the approach of the Soviet troops” (Grayling, 260). Yet, as he states, Allied bomber crews were directed to aim at “a stadium close to the city center” that held a large proportion of these refugees (Grayling, 260). If the main targets were industrial and railway yards, as proclaimed by Allied commanders, why were the bombers of the RAF and USAAF directed to bomb within the vicinity of a known civilian/refugee area? As Grayling proposes, the Allies understood that Dresden served as an “iconic city” to the entire German nation due to its rich artistic, architectural, and cultural contributions throughout history (Grayling, 260). By attacking the civilian population of Dresden so ferociously, Allied forces, as he proclaims, were embracing a notion of “hitting the enemy where he will feel it most” (Grayling, 260). In this sense, the Dresden bombings served as a “psychological” weapon against the German army. By killing thousands of German citizens in this manner, German military units would be more likely to feel the psychological burden of choosing whether to continue the fight or not (Biddle, 75).
In addition to the statements of Grayling, historian Alexander McKee describes the senseless killings in Dresden as a means of demonstrating Allied power to the Soviet Union. As he proclaims, the bombing of Dresden was implemented “to make clear to the Russians that, despite some setbacks recently in the Ardennes, the United States of America was a super-power capable of wielding overwhelmingly destructive forces” (McKee, 105). German citizens, therefore, were caught in the middle of an intense ideological conflict brewing within the Allied armies. The destruction of Dresden, as a result, was a means of advancing American and British power in the final months of the war, regardless of the high civilian death toll within the city. This statement appears highly logical in explaining the bombing of Dresden, as many Allied leaders were, undoubtedly, aware by this time that relations with the Soviets were rapidly declining and that a new worldwide balance of power was quickly approaching.
Finally, according to historian Frederick Taylor, the concept of a “war crime” against the Germans is made evident by the amount of Allied planning that went into the raids over Dresden. As he describes, these plans demonstrate, wholeheartedly, the sheer brutality and crimes of the Allied bombing. Taylor proclaims that the delay between the first and second raid during the night of the bombing was “a deliberate, cold-blooded ploy on the part of Bomber Command’s planners” (Taylor, 7). Because the second wave was designed to arrive a couple hours after the initial raid, Taylor argues that many of Dresden’s residents were led to believe that the bombing was over once the first wave of bombers passed (Taylor, 7). Consequently, once the second wave of bombers arrived, those who survived the first series of bombs were caught in the open and “above ground,” along with “firefighters, medical teams, and military units” that were dispatched to the firebombed areas (Taylor, 7). As a result, many more civilians died within moments of the second wave’s arrival.
As seen with these descriptions of the attack, the case that the bombing of Dresden constituted clear war crimes against the German population becomes more evident. According to modern historians, the residents of Dresden were the clear targets of revenge, anger, and wartime fatigue. In addition, historians point out that their deaths served more of a political purpose for the Allies, rather than a militarily driven one. Their deaths served no other purpose than to promote American and British superiority over the Nazi and Soviet regimes; all in the name of supposedly “hastening” the overall victory of the Allied forces (Biddle, 77). By this time, however, scholars point out that the German army was in disarray and that an Allied victory was inevitable regardless of the bombings that took place in cities like Dresden. Thus, the argument of “hastening” the end of WWII does not appear reasonable.
In closing, the bombings of Dresden by American and British forces proved to be a tremendous deviation from the initial bombing policies and strategies of the early years in WWII. With so many civilian deaths (and very little devastation inflicted upon military targets), historians maintain that the attack upon Dresden was largely unnecessary to the Allied war effort against the Axis powers. Consequently, they maintain that the area bombing conducted by Allied forces was, in many respects, a crime against humanity. Because the victors of war often write history, however, historians argue that this is an aspect of WWII that is often ignored.
In the coming years, it is unlikely that the debate over Dresden will subside as historians continue to offer new arguments (and counter-claims) to this contentious subject. Regardless of ones' view on this debate, however, one thing is certain: Dresden will always serve as a prime example of the horrendous nature and impact of warfare and should not be forgotten.
Biddle, Tami Davis. “Sifting Dresden’s Ashes,” The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 29 No. 2 (2005):(Accessed: February 15, 2013).
Biddle, Tami Davis. “Wartime Reactions,” in Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, ed. Paul Addison, and Jeremy A. Crang, 96-122. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Davies, Norman. No Simple Victory: World War II in Europe, 1939-1945. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
De Bruhl, Marshall. Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden. New York: Random House, 2006.
“Doom Over Germany.” New York Times, February 16, 1945, (Accessed: March 2, 2013), 22.
Grayling, A.C.. Among the Dead Cities: The History and Moral Legacy of the WWII Bombing of Civilians in Germany and Japan. New York: Walker & Company, 2006.
Hansen, Randall. Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942-1945. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Hill, Gladwin. “Rail City Blasted.” New York Times, February 16, 1945, (Accessed: March 1, 2013), 6.
Hill, Gladwin. “U.S. Army Disliked in Ruined Dresden.” New York Times, January 3, 1946, (Accessed: March 1, 2013), 5.
McKee, Alexander. Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox (New York: Souvenir Press, 2000).
Nietzel, Sonke. “The City Under Attack,” in Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, ed. Paul Addison, and Jeremy A. Crang, 62-77. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2004).
Terkel, Studs. “The Good War:” An Oral History of World War II. New York: The New Press, 1984.
Taylor, Alan. "Remembering Dresden: 70 Years After the Firebombing." The Atlantic. February 12, 2015. Accessed May 15, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2015/02/remembering-dresden-70-years-after-the-firebombing/385445/.
© 2017 Larry Slawson
YoBoySpaty35 on February 03, 2020:
Nice JOB it is a great article
Robert Sacchi on March 21, 2019:
It is one of those cases of how someone counts. In both cases numbers vary. With the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings there are the initial death tolls. Then there are those who died from the effects of the bombing from the bombing to the end of 1945. Then there are the cancer deaths attributed to the bombings. Keep in mind for many years the death toll attributed to the Dresden bombing was135,000. After the fall of the Berlin was an objective study came up with the 25,000 figure. The Hamburg bombing was more deadly than the Dresden bombing.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on March 21, 2019:
@Robert Yes, that's a very good point. I was reading awhile back that more people actually died during the Tokyo fire bombing than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
Robert Sacchi on March 20, 2019:
One thing that is rarely mentioned is the Dresden bombing took place three weeks before the Tokyo fire raid, March 9, 1945. That was the first of a series of B-29 fire raids against Japan. Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris believed in order to bomb anything you had to bomb everything. It seems the USAAF was coming around to Marshal Harris's view.
Thank you for posting.
S P Austen from Qualicum Beach, BC, Canada on October 25, 2018:
(Just re-posting as myself this time, as for some reason I couldn't get on here before. Please delete the previous comment, which comes up as a guest user.)
I didn't have time to read this article in its entirety, but what I did read was interesting and well-written. The tragedy of warfare is that there are always retaliation strikes for offences caused by the enemy. As I have understood it historically, the bombing of Dresden was in fact revenge for the almost total devastation of Coventry, in England. We also must remind ourselves, (without necessarily justifying the Dresden incident) that Nazi Germany began the civilian bombing campaign in the first instance, and London endured the Blitz which was meant to soften up the British prior to invading the island. Warfare is always monstrous, and makes monsters of us all, but when a nation is desperate (as England was) you fight back with all you have. Best wishes, Steve.
SP Austen on October 25, 2018:
I didn't have time to read this article in its entirety, but what I did read was interesting and well-written. The tragedy of warfare is that there are always retaliation strikes for offences caused by the enemy. As I have understood it historically, the bombing of Dresden was in fact revenge for the almost total devastation of Coventry, in England. We also must remind ourselves, (without necessarily justifying the Dresden incident) that Nazi Germany began the civilian bombing campaign in the first instance, and London endured the Blitz which was meant to soften up the British prior to invading the island. Warfare is always monsters, and makes monsters of us all, but when a nation is desperate (as England was) you fight back with all you have. Best wishes, Steve.
M. Cooper on July 22, 2017:
Dresden was a major recruiting area for the SS. (cf. 'The Tin Drum', Gunter Grasse). It was also a major transport hub, which was why there were so many refugees in the area. The American bomb site was not as good as it was supposed to be and allied aircrew preferred to drop bombs on a marked or burning 'target' and rapidly go for home. They could not know how long repairs to industry would take until after the event, if ever. Also the Russians were only a short distance away and demanded support.
William F Torpey from South Valley Stream, N.Y. on May 17, 2017:
Fascinating history, Larry. Thanks. In 1955-56 I was stationed in Wharton Barracks in Heilbronn, another city that suffered a similar fate. Our post had to be evacuated one day when an unexploded 2,000 pound WW II bomb was discovered in the dependent area. I was public information specialist at the time, but our regimental commander would ordered me to evacuate with the troops (although one of our photographers was sent to the scene.) The bombed out church in downtown Heilbronn, I was told, was left unrepaired at the time as a reminder of the devastation suffered by the city in many WW II air raids.
Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on May 16, 2017:
Haha, I wish they had an "editing" feature as well!
But yes, I certainly agree with you. I went back and revised my article a bit. After re-reading it again, it came across that I was taking sides in my article (a result of writing too quickly haha). My primary goal in writing this, however, was to showcase that historians are divided over whether or not the bombing reflected a "war crime."
Glen Rix from UK on May 15, 2017:
Noticed a few typos in my previous response - the consequence of using an iPad instead of a keyboard. Why isn't there a facility for editing our responses?
Glen Rix from UK on May 15, 2017:
No they did not constitute a war crime. Just look at the East End of London and Coventry to see what the Luftwaffe inflicted on England. The Nazi regime had to be prevented from making further incursions into Europeans from adding to the millions of Jewish people that they slaughtered.