During the Second World War, civilians were targeted deliberately from the air. In 1940, Britain’s capital, London, suffered 57 consecutive nights of bombing by the German Luftwaffe. During the Blitz, as it came to be called, more than 40,000 civilians were killed. Tens of thousands of others were made homeless, and more than a million houses were destroyed.
The aerial attacks continued throughout the war, targeting other cities.
The allies did their share of bombing civilians as well, including one devastating raid on the German city of Dresden.
Huge Air Raid Triggers Firestorm
On the night of February 13-14, 1945, almost 800 Royal Air Force Lancaster aircraft dropped 2,700 tons of bombs on the centre of the ancient city. Over the following two days, U.S. Air Force bombers carried out daytime raids on what was left of the community.
The bombing followed a tried and true pattern. First high explosives were used to blast open buildings. Incendiaries followed to land in the fuel supplied by the wreckage. This caused so many fires in a concentrated area that the air above them became super-heated; it’s estimated the temperature peaked at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit.
The very hot air rose rapidly and drew huge volumes of oxygen into the fires at ground level. The roaring rush of heated air rushing upwards had the power of a tornado, strong enough to pick up people and suck them into the flames.
Roads melted and people fleeing the fire had their feet burned. Some jumped into reservoirs in the city centre. But these ponds were ten feet deep and had smooth sides, so people could not get out and many drowned.
Others sheltering underground were asphyxiated as all of the oxygen was sucked out of the bunkers by the fires raging above them.
Was the Dresden Attack a War Crime?
Prior to the February 1945 attack, Dresden had been spared from bombing largely because it was of little military significance. Known as the “Florence of the Elbe,” it was a centre of culture filled with beautiful Baroque-style, historical buildings.
Ever since the raid on Dresden questions have been asked about whether or not it constituted a war crime. The attack clearly broke Geneva Conventions about the protection of civilians.
Roy Akehurst was a wireless operator who took part in the raid on Dresden. At Spartacus-Schoolnethe is quoted as saying: “We seemed to fly for hours over a sheet of fire―a terrific red glow with a thin haze over it. I found myself making comments to the crew: ‘Oh God, those poor people.’ It was completely uncalled for. You can’t justify it.”
After the war, Sir Robert Saunby, Deputy Air Marshal at Bomber Command, offered some perspective: “That the bombing of Dresden was a great tragedy none can deny . . . It is not so much this or the other means of making war that is immoral or inhumane. What is immoral is war itself. Once full-scale war has broken out it can never be humanized or civilized, and if one side attempted to do so it would be most likely to be defeated. That to me is the lesson of Dresden.”
Justification for the Dresden Attack
Air Marshall Arthur Harris was in charge of organizing the attack on Dresden after receiving orders to do so from Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Harris had introduced the tactic of the area bombing of cities, a system copied from the Germans and which they called terror bombing. Some have suggested the Dresden raid was payback for the German terror bombing of Coventry, Rotterdam, Warsaw, and many other cities.
Harris himself said Dresden was a significant military target. It was the largest unbombed city in Germany and was serving as a communication and logistics centre for the battle against the advancing Soviet armies. There were some munitions factories in and around Dresden that were supplying war materiel to Nazi fighters, but these were of minor importance.
History.com says the raid had a major purpose and that was “terrorizing the German population and forcing an early surrender.” This didn’t work because the German High Command hung on till the last possible moment to surrender after their capital city was reduced to rubble and their leader dead.
Warning to the Soviet Union
Writing in Workers World John Black advanced the theory that Churchill used the raid to send a message to the Soviet Union.
Many senior war strategists, among them Churchill, concluded that after the defeat of Germany, the Western Allies were going to be facing a belligerent Soviet Union in Europe.
Black wrote that “Churchill’s goal in Europe was not only to destroy the military machine of Britain’s imperialist rival―Germany―but to stop the advance of the Soviet Union. With the latter in mind, he decided to bomb Dresden.”
Following this thesis, the destruction of the city was to show the Soviets just what allied bombing was capable of doing and make them think twice about any military adventures.
To reach this political goal, wrote Black “the U.S. and British rulers could easily sacrifice more than 35,000 non-combatants with the bombing of Dresden.”
An internal memo from the Royal Air Force surfaced after the war and gave this rationale: “The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”
- The American writer Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden at the time of the attack. He survived the firestorm by sheltering in a meat locker under a slaughterhouse and made the bombing of the city the central theme of his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five. In an introduction to his 1961 book Mother Night he wrote “Everything was gone but the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been baked like gingerbread men. So we were put to work as corpse miners, breaking into shelters, bringing bodies out.”
- During the late 1980s, Russian President Vladimir Putin was a KGB spy based in Dresden, which was then in occupied East Germany.
- “The Bombing of Dresden.” C. N. Trueman, The History Learning Site, May 19, 2015.
- “Dresden Bombing Death Toll Lower than Thought.” Bojan Pancevski, The Daily Telegraph, October 2, 2008.
- “Foreword to the Destruction of Dresden.” Sir Robert Saunby, Focal Point Publications, 1963.
- “The Truth about the 1945 Bombing of Dresden.” John Black, Workers World, February 23, 1995.
- “Mother Night.” Kurt Vonnegut, Dial Press, 1961.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor
Brandon from Houston, Texas on May 09, 2016:
very well written hub
CJ Kelly from the PNW on May 09, 2016:
Great hub on a very tough subject.
I just finished Martin Middlebrook's The Battle of Hamburg, which was about the other great firestorm raid of the war (although unintended). I've gone back and forth on whether or not Dresden was justified. But then you think of the Holocaust and what they did in Russia, and I think, maybe.
The bigger question was whether from a military standpoint was Harris' strategy justified. I think not. As the oil and transportation proved much more effective in destroying Germany's ability to resupply its army. Morale was never destroyed like Harris thought it would be. However, Speer always claimed that had the RAF and Americans stayed at Hamburg another week, morale would have broken and social disorder could have ensued.
Dresden was not justified from a military standpoint. While there may be some merit to Black's claim about Churchill's desire to impress the Soviets, Bomber Command was Harris' baby, and the PM had very little say in the targeting.