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Bombing of Dresden in World War II

The bombing of Dresden in World War II by the Allies remains controversial after more than 50 years. Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, was fire-bombed by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) over three days (February 13-15, 1945) near the end of World War II. Air Marshall Arthur Harris, inventor of area bombing, ordered the action. He was never held accountable for this alleged war crime.

85% of Dresden was destroyed

Reasons for the attack

Dresden was widely considered a city of little war-related industrial or strategic importance, though, after the fact, in his memoirs Winston Churchill described it as a "centre of communications of Germany's Eastern Front." Dresden itself was most noted as a cultural centre, with noted architecture in the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House and its historic cathedral (the Frauenkirche) and other churches. It was also called "Elbflorenz", i.e. Florence of the Elbe, due to its stunning beauty. It has been claimed that the bombing was at the request of the Soviet Union, to attack a German armoured division in transit through the city. However, RAF briefing notes indicate that one of the motives was to show "the Russians when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do" (that is, to intimidate the Soviets).

At the time, the city was cramped full of refugees fleeing from the advancing Red Army. Dresden, having been spared from previous attacks, was considered to be very safe. Bomber Command was ordered to attack Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and other east German cities to "cause confusion in the evacuation from the east" and "hamper the movements of troops from the west". This directive led to the raid on Dresden and marked the erosion of one last moral restriction in the bombing war: the term "evacuation from the east" did not refer to retreating troops but to the civilian refugees fleeing from the advancing Soviet troops. Although these refugees clearly did not contribute to the German war effort, they were considered legitimate targets simply because the chaos caused by attacks on them might obstruct German troop reinforcements to the Eastern Front. There are eyewitness-reports that even civilians fleeing the firestorm engulfing Dresden in February 1945 were strafed by British and American aircraft, though it is doubted [1].

Nature of the attack

The fire-bombing consisted of dropping large amounts of high-explosive to expose the timbers within buildings, followed by incendiary devices (fire-sticks) to ignite them and then more high-explosives to hamper the efforts of the fire services. This eventually created a self-sustaining 'fire storm' with temperatures peaking at over 1500 °C. After the area caught fire, the air above the bombed area, become extremely hot and rose rapidly. Cold air then rushed in at ground level from the outside and people were sucked into the fire.

3,907 tons of bombs were dropped. Out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. An area of 15 square kilometers was totally destroyed, among that: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 bank and insurance companies, 31 department stores, 31 large hotels, and 62 administration buildings.

Impact of the attack

The precise number of dead is difficult to ascertain and is not known. Estimates vary from 35,000 to 135,000 dead. Such estimates are made very difficult by the fact that the city was crowded at that time by many unregistered refugees and wounded soldiers. The foreign slave workers may represent a large number of dead, since they were usually employed in the squads to fight fires storms. (In comparison, some 100,000 died in the bombing of Hiroshima, about 50,000 in the bombing of Nagasaki and 100,000 in the bombing of Tokyo and 200,000 were killed in Warsaw during the Warsaw uprising 1944.) There have been larger estimates for the number of dead, ranging as high as a quarter of a million, but they are from disputed sources, such as the Nazi Propaganda Ministry and Holocaust denier David Irving. The Nazis made use of Dresden in their propaganda and promised swift retaliation.

Dresden compared with other bombing targets in Germany

This destruction is not out of line with the destruction of other German cities and the tonnage of bombs dropped was lower than that used on many other cities. The US Strategic Bombing Survey says nothing about Dresden but says "On three nights in late July and early August 1943 it struck Hamburg in perhaps the most devastating single city attack of the war — about one third of the houses of the city were destroyed and German estimates show 60,000 to 100,000 people killed. No subsequent city raid shook Germany as did that on Hamburg; documents show that German officials were thoroughly alarmed and there is some indication from interrogation of high officials that Hitler himself thought that further attacks of similar weight might force Germany out of the war. The RAF proceeded to destroy one major urban center after another. Except in the extreme eastern part of the Reich, there is no major city that does not bear the mark of these attacks. However, no subsequent attack had the shock effect of the Hamburg raid."

Was the Dresden bombing justified?

The Dresden bombing is a strongly debated decision, and the action is still widely perceived as lacking military justification, even within the context of the controversial area bombing policy pursued against Germany by Britain's Bomber Command in 1942-1945. The city has never regained its pre-war population of 630,000.

One popular charge against the bombing is that the city was not a military target. However, other evidence suggests otherwise; The city contained the Zeiss-Ikon optical factory and the Siemens glass factory (both of which were entirely devoted to manufacturing military gunsights). The immediate suburbs contained factories building components of radars and electronics, and fuses for anti-aircraft shells. Other factories produced gas masks, engines for Junkers aircraft and cockpit parts for Messerschmitt fighters. After the attack, Germany was to claim that Dresden's industry was only making civil goods, a notion which much of the world accepted, and still accepts, as true.

Allied experiences of the attack

There are anecdotes of the pilots and crew having problems years later. Some had nightmares, some thought they would go to hell as war criminals, some had unshakable visions of the fires and the burning cities. Many other veterans, however, doubt these anecdotes, noting that their briefings included details on what they were hitting, and that no one in their recollection had any misgivings about the mission.

Author Kurt Vonnegut had been captured during the Battle of the Bulge and was a prisoner of war near Dresden during the bombing. He later wrote about his experiences and feelings in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Post-war: reconstruction and reconciliation

After the war great efforts were made to rebuild some of Dresden's former landmarks, such as the Frauenkirche, the Semperoper or the Zwinger. Despite its location in the Soviet occupation zone (subsequently the DDR), in 1956 Dresden entered a twinning relationship with Coventry, which had suffered the worst destruction of any English city at the hands of the Luftwaffe earlier in the war, including the destruction of its cathedral. Groups from both cities were involved in moving demonstrations of post-war reconciliation.

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