Issue 183 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review

World War 2: 50th Anniversary

Human sacrifice

Even as the war drew to a close in 1945, many thousands still suffered horrific death and injury--few incidents were more shameful than the bombing of the German city of Dresden. Margot Hill describes how and why it happened
After the firestorms--what remains of an architectural showpiece

Shrove Tuesday, the end of the German carnival season, fell on 13 February 1945. The population of Dresden was swollen with refugees moving westwards, away from the advancing Soviet army. Some 20,000 Allied prisoners of war were also billeted in the area.

Until that night Dresden had escaped all but minor bomb damage. There had been a raid on an oil refinery in October 1944, but this was at a distance from the city. The Dresden arsenal, cited as a reason for targeting the city, had been out of commission for some time. Many Germans had come to believe that Dresden was a safe haven. No major war industries were based there. The city's rich cultural and architectural history was seen as a defence against attack. It was a magnet for the displaced and the war weary.

By the beginning of 1945 Dresden's railway stations were no longer occupied with troop movements. Ferrying refugees away from the war front was the function of its stations and depots by this late stage in the war. Most of the city's anti-aircraft weaponry had been converted to anti-tank cannon and moved to the battlefield in the east. The German airforce was crippled by fuel shortages, weakening its ability to challenge attacks by allied bomber fleets. Dresden was effectively without defences.

At about 10pm on the night of 13 February Dresden was alerted to an air attack. British Mosquito bombers began dropping flares on the city to mark the site for the heavy bombers following close behind them. People ran for cover in the cellars of the old buildings. With the exception of a state of the art construction for the city's Nazi boss, there were few air raid shelters. The main precaution taken was to construct collapsible walls between cellars to allow escape should the buildings above he destroyed. Many found no hiding place in the overcrowded city.

Some 15 minutes after the alarms had sounded, Lancaster bombers swept low across the city dropping high explosives and incendiaries. The all clear was given. The streets were blocked with people fleeing burning buildings, making for the river banks, the parks and open spaces to escape the fires that were kindling across the city. Those who remained in their cellars risked choking to death on smoke fumes.

Worse followed. Two hours after this first raid the alarms sounded again. A second and even greater wave of British bombers unloaded their cargo on an already burning city. A firestorm developed, sucking in oxygen, suffocating those who had found no shelter, melting the sandstone buildings, blasting all in its path. One eyewitness who escaped asphyxiation in the cellars described the death on the streets:

Fire and first aid services that had moved onto the street after the first raid were destroyed in the heat of the storm.

The misery was not yet over. At around midday on Wednesday 14 February the United States Air Force took its turn. Mosquito bombers unloaded their bombs onto the smouldering wreckage, then flew low to harry the survivors with cannon fire. Another eyewitness recalls how on hearing the drone of this third wave of bombers she got a lift on a truck to the outskirts of the city:

In less than 24 hours more than 35,000 were dead, mostly women, children and the elderly. Many thousands of nameless refugees were never accounted for.

Churchill: blood on his hands

On 28 March 1945 Winston Churchill wrote to the Chief of Staffs Committee, 'It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed... Otherwise we may come into control of an utterly ruined land ...The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.' This was an astounding statement from the man who had authorised the raid. Ever the opportunist, Churchill recognised the expediency of washing the blood of Dresden from his hands.

Churchill had been intimately involved in the shaping of Britain's area bombing strategy from the early years of the war. After the defeat at Dunkirk in 1940 Bomber Command was seen as a way of continuing the war in Europe from the air. By 1942 a question mark hung over Bomber Command. Losses were heavy, bombers that made it through the anti-aircraft defences rarely managed to hit their targets and aircraft were being blown out of the sky almost faster than they could be built.

A new strategy and a new leadership were needed. With Churchill's backing, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris was appointed as commander in chief of Bomber Command. He was an advocate of area bombing, describing the raids on oil plants and armaments factories as simply 'panacea targets'. The destruction of whole cities, terror bombing to smash civilian morale, was his favoured objective.

Harris had an arrogant disregard for human life. Once stopped for speeding on his way to the air ministry, he was warned by a policeman that he could kill somebody. 'Young man, I kill thousands of people every night', was his reply.

After the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944, bombing of oil installations created fuel shortages that severely hindered German defence, yet Harris continued to advocate mass destruction of cities as a better tactic. The decision to bomb Dresden was first raised by Harris in 1944 but remained on the shelf until January 1945, the eve of the Allied leaders' conference in Yalta. A joint intelligence committee report dated 25 January 1945 submitted to the War Cabinet suggested area bombing as a means of giving `assistance to the Russians during the next few weeks'.

It went on to say that there could be 'political value ...in demonstrating to the Russians in the best way open to us a desire on the part of the British and Americans to assist them in the present battle.' Churchill, eager to have an ace to impress Stalin at the forthcoming conference, wrote to Sinclair, the air minister, in preparation for the Yalta summit:

Harris's plan to bomb Dresden was subsequently authorised.

Yalta began the postwar carve up of Europe. Stalin's victories on the eastern front put him in a strong position at the negotiation table. He demanded Allied assistance, but bombing cities was never requested. After the war the US sought to use the call for assistance as justification for its actions.

The destruction of Dresden was of little strategic value to the Red Army. Bomber Command continued to attack areas due to fall under Soviet occupation, creating problems for reconstruction and recovery after the war.

Two days after the raids on Dresden the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Forces under Eisenhower's command held a press conference. Associated Press reported:

The American public was horrified. The report was suppressed in Britain. Small groups, mainly pacifist organisations, had protested throughout the war at the targeting of civilians. Richard Stokes raised the question in the House of Commons on 6 March 1945. He asked:

The minister left the chamber. It was left to a sidekick to deny the terror tactics. The cover up began. Only Arthur Harris remained unrepentant, dismissing the outrage over Dresden as the reaction of sentimentalists. 'The feeling over Dresden could easily be explained by any psychiatrist. It is connected with German bands and Dresden [china] shepherdesses.'

In 1992 supporters of Harris erected a statue in his honour. The names of thousands who burned were never recorded.


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