Bombing of Dresden in World War II

The Bombing of Dresden by the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Force (USAAF) between 13 February and 15 February 1945, 12 weeks before the surrender of the Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) of Nazi Germany, remains one of the most controversial Allied actions of the Second World War. The raids saw 1,300 heavy bombers drop over 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices in four raids, destroying of the city, the baroque capital of the German state of Saxony, and causing a firestorm that consumed the city centre. Estimates of civilian casualties vary greatly, but recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000.

A USAAF report defended the operation as the justified bombing of a military and industrial target, which was a major rail transportation and communication centre, housing 110 factories and 50,000 workers in support of the German war effort. Against this, several researchers have argued that not all of the communications infrastructure, such as the bridges, were in fact targeted, nor were the extensive industrial areas outside the city centre. Dresden was a cultural landmark of little or no military significance, a "Florence on the Elbe," as it was known, and the attacks were indiscriminate area bombing and not proportional for the commensurate military gains.

In the first few decades after the war, some death toll estimates were as high as 250,000. However, figures in the regions of hundreds of thousands are considered disproportionate. Today's historians estimate a death toll of between 25,000 and 40,000, with an independent investigation commissioned by the city itself declaring the death total around 25,000. Post-war discussion of the bombing includes debate by commentators and historians as to whether or not the bombing was justified, and whether or not its outcome constituted a war crime. Nonetheless, the raids continue to be included among the worst examples of civilian suffering caused by strategic bombing, and have become one of the moral causes célèbres of the Second World War.


The end of 1944 found the German military retreating on both fronts, but not yet defeated. In the east, the Soviets were pushing the Germans westward. On 8 February 1945, they crossed the Oder River, with positions just 70 km from Berlin. As the eastern and western fronts were getting closer, the Western Allies started to consider how they might aid the Soviets with the use of the strategic bomber force. The plan was to bomb Berlin and several other eastern cities in conjunction with the Soviet advance, in order to cause confusion among German troops and refugees evacuating from the east and to hamper their reinforcement from the west.

A special British Joint Intelligence Subcommittee report titled German Strategy and Capacity to Resist, prepared for Churchill's eyes only, predicted that Germany might collapse as early as mid-April if the Soviets overran them at their eastern defences. Alternatively, the report warned that the Germans might hold out until November if they could prevent the Soviets from taking Silesia. Hence any assistance provided to the Soviets on the eastern front could shorten the war.

Plans for a large and intense offensive targeting Berlin and the other eastern cities had been discussed under the code name Operation Thunderclap in the summer of 1944, but it had been shelved on 16 August. These were now re-examined, and the decision made to draw up a more limited operation.

On 22 January, the RAF director of Bomber operations sent a memo to Air Commodore Buffton, an aide to the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Sir Norman Bottomley, suggesting that an attack on Breslau, Munich and Berlin while the current Soviet offensive continued would have a detrimental affect on German morale. On 25 January, the Joint Intelligence Committee expressed support for the idea and ask Harris, AOC Bomber Command, for his opinion. He proposed a simultaneous attack on Chemnitz, Leipzig and Dresden. That evening Churchill asked the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, what plans had been drawn up to carry out these proposals. He passed on the request to Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, who answered that "We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West". However, he mentioned that aircraft diverted to such raids should not be taken away from the current primary tasks of destroying oil production facilities, jet aircraft factories, and submarine yards.

Churchill was not satisfied with this answer and on 26 January, he pressed Sinclair for a plan of operations "I asked [last night] whether Berlin, and no doubt other large cities in east Germany, should not now be considered especially attractive targets. ... Pray report to me tomorrow what is going to be done."

In response to Churchill's enquiry Sinclair approached Sir Norman Bottomley, the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, who asked Arthur "Bomber" Harris, Commander-in-Chief of RAF Bomber Command and an ardent supporter of area bombing, to undertake attacks on Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, as soon as moon and weather conditions allowed "with the particular object of exploiting the confused conditions which are likely to exist in the above mentioned cities during the successful Russian advance." This activity allowed Sinclair to send Churchill a reply on 27 January:

On the 31 January Bottomley sent a message to Portal saying that a heavy attack on Dresden and other cities "will cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts

The historian Fredrick Taylor mentions a further memo sent to the Chiefs of Staff Committee by Sir Douglas Evill on 1 February, and continues as "Evill makes clear that disrupting mass movements of civilians in one element — perhaps the key one — in the calculations of damage inflicted during the next weeks. The chilling implication is that, if the plan is to cause maximum disruption to movements of any kind within and through a given city, the place to strike that city will be in its heart. In the center are to be found not just the main railway junctions, but also the communication systems, the administrative headquarters, the utilities ... Destroy and disrupt these and you have chaos not just in the city but also in the entire surrounding area. ... This was one of he key lessons that British planners had learned long ago from the German bombing of Coventry. The damage inflicted on the city's infrastructure had lasted far longer and caused more long-term difficulties for war production than the actual bombing of the industrial plants."

During the Yalta Conference on 4 February, the Deputy Chief of the Soviet General Staff, General Aleksei Antonov, raised the issue of hampering the reinforcement of German troops from the western front by paralysing the junctions of Berlin and Leipzig with aerial bombardment. In response, Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, who was in Yalta, asked Norman Bottomley to send him a list of objectives to be discussed with the Soviets. Bottomley's list included oil plants, tank and aircraft factories, and the cities of Berlin and Dresden. A British interpreter claimed that Antonov and Stalin asked for the bombing of Dresden, but there is no mention of these requests in the official record of the conference and may represent later Cold War propaganda.

Military and industrial profile

Dresden was the seventh largest German city, and according to the RAF at the time, the largest unbombed built-up area left. British historian Frederick Taylor writes that an official 1942 guide to the city described it as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich," and in 1944, the German Army High Command's Weapons Office listed 127 medium-to-large factories and workshops that were supplying the army with material.

However, according to the historian Sonke Neitzel: "The industrial plants of Dresden played no significant role in German war industry at this stage of the war".

The U.S. Air Force Historical Division wrote a report in response to the international concern about the bombing, which was classified until December 1978. This said that there were 110 factories and 50,000 workers in the city supporting the German war effort at the time of the raid. According to the report, there were aircraft components factories; a poison gas factory (Chemische Fabric Goye and Company); an anti-aircraft and field gun factory (Lehman); an optical goods factory (Zeiss Ikon AG); as well as factories producing electrical and X-ray apparatus (Koch and Sterzel AG); gears and differentials (Saxoniswerke); and electric gauges (Gebruder Bassler). It also said there were barracks, and hutted camps, and a munitions storage depot.

The USAF report also states that two of Dresden's traffic routes were of military importance: north-south from Germany to Czechoslovakia, and east-west along the central European uplands. The city was at the junction of the Berlin-Prague-Vienna railway line, as well as Munich-Breslau, and Hamburg-Leipzig. Colonel Harold E. Cook, an American POW held in the Friedrichstadt marshaling yard the night before the attacks, later said that "I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics towards the east to meet the Russians.

An RAF memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack said:

Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance ... The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front ... and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.

In the raid, major industrial areas in the suburbs, which stretched for miles, were not targeted. According to Donald Miller "the economic disruption would have been far greater had Bomber Command targeted the suburban areas where most of Dresden's manufacturing might was concentrated

The attacks

In the air

The night of 13/14 February

The Dresden attack was to have begun with a USAAF Eighth Air Force bombing raid on 13 February 1945. The Eighth Air Force had already bombed the railway yards near the centre of the city twice in daytime raids: once on 7 October 1944 with 70 tons of high-explosive bombs killing more than 400, then again with 133 bombers on 16 January 1945, dropping 279 tons of high-explosives and 41 tons of incendiaries.

On 13 February 1945, bad weather over Europe prevented any USAAF operations, and it was left to RAF Bomber Command to carry out the first raid. It had been decided that the raid would be a so-called double strike, in which a second wave of bombers would attack three hours after the first, just as the rescue teams were trying to put out the fires. Other raids were carried out that night to confuse German air defences. Three hundred and sixty heavy bombers (Lancasters and Halifaxes) bombed a synthetic oil plant in Böhlen, from Dresden, while de Havilland Mosquito medium bomber attacked Magdeburg, Bonn, Misburg near Hannover, and Nuremberg.

The first of the British aircraft took off at around 17:20 hours CET for the journey. This was a group of Lancasters from Bomber Command's 83 Squadron, No. 5 Group, acting as the Pathfinders or flare force, whose job it was to find Dresden and drop magnesium parachute flares to light up the area for the bombers. The next set of aircraft to leave England were the twin-engined Mosquito marker planes who would identify the target areas and drop 1,000-pound target indicators (TIs), known to the Germans as "Christmas trees," which gave off a red glow for the bombers to aim at. The attack was to be centered on the sports stadium, next to the city's medieval Altstadt (old town), with its congested, and highly combustible, timbered buildings.

The main bomber force, called "Plate Rack", took off shortly after the Pathfinders. This was a group of 254 Lancasters carrying 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries, or fire bombs. There were 200,000 incendiaries in all, with the high-explosive bombs ranging in weight from 500 pounds to 4,000 pounds — the so-called two-ton "cookies," also known as "blockbusters," because they had the power to destroy a city block. The high explosives were intended to rupture water mains, and blow off roofs, doors, and windows, creating an air flow that would feed the fires caused by the incendiaries that followed.

The Lancasters crossed into French airspace near the Somme, then into Germany just north of Cologne. At 22:00 hours, the force heading for Böhlen split away from Plate Rack, which turned south east toward the Elbe. By this time, 10 of the Lancasters were out of service, leaving 244 to continue to Dresden.

The sirens started sounding in Dresden at 21:51 (CET) Wing Commander Maurice Smith, flying in a Mosquito, gave the order to the Lancasters: "Controller to Plate Rack Force: Come in and bomb glow of red target indicators as planned. Bomb the glow of red TIs as planned.". The first bombs were released at 22:14, the Lancasters flying in low at 8,000 feet, with all but one Lancaster's bombs released within two minutes, and the last one releasing at 22:22. The fan-shaped area that was bombed was one-and-a-quarter miles long, and at its extreme about one-and-three-quarter miles wide.

The second attack, three hours later, was by Lancaster aircraft of 1, 3, 6 and 8 (Pathfinder Force) Groups, 8 Group being the Pathfinders. By now, the thousands of fires from the burning city could be seen more than away on the ground, and away in the air, with smoke rising to 15,000 feet. The Pathfinders therefore decided to expand the target, dropping flares on either side of the firestorm, including the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, and the Großer Garten, a large park, both of which had escaped damage during the first raid. The German sirens sounded again at 01:05, but as there was practically no electricity, these were small hand-held sirens that were heard within only a block. Between 01:21 and 01:45, 529 Lancasters dropped more than 1,800 tons of bombs.

14-15 February

On the morning of 14 February, 431 bombers of the 1st Bombardment Division of the United States VIII Bomber Command were scheduled to bomb Dresden at around midday, and the 3rd Bombardment Division were to follow the 1st and bomb Chemnitz, while the 2nd Bombardment Division would bomb a synthetic oil plant in Magdeburg. The bomber groups would be protected by the 784 P-51 Mustangs of VIII Fighter Command which meant that there would be almost 2,100 aircraft of the United States Eighth Air Force over Saxony during 14 February.

There is some confusion in the primary sources over what was the target in Dresden whether it was the marshalling yards near the centre or centre of the built up area. The report by the 1st Bombardment Division's commander to his commander states that the targeting sequence was to be the centre of the built up area in Dresden if the weather was clear. If clouds obscured Dresden then if it was clear over Chemnitz then Chemnitz was to be the target and if both were obscured then the centre of Dresden would be bombed using H2X radar. The mix of bombs to be used on the Dresden raid was about 40% incendiaries, much closer to the RAF city busting mix than that usually used by the Americans in precision bombardments. This was quite a common mix when the USAAF anticipated cloudy conditions over the target.

316 B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed Dresden, dropping 771 tons of bombs The rest misidentified their targets. Sixty bombed Prague, dropping 153 tons of bombs on the Czech city while others bombed Brux and Pilsen. The 379th bombardment group started to bomb Dresden at 12:17 aiming at marshalling yards in the Friedrichstadt district west of the city centre as the area was not obscured by smoke and cloud. The 303rd group arrived over Dresden 2 minutes after the 379th found that the their view was obscured by clouds so they bombed Dresden using H2X radar for target this location. The groups that followed the 303rd, (92nd, 306th, 379th, 384th and 457th) also found Dresden obscured by clouds and they too used H2X to locate the target. H2X aiming caused the groups to bomb inaccurately with a wide dispersal over the Dresden area. The last group to bomb Dresden was the 306th and they had finished by 12:30.

According to an RAF webpage on the history of RAF Bomber Command, "[p]art of the American Mustang-fighter escort was ordered to strafe traffic on the roads around Dresden to increase the chaos and disruption to the important transportation network in the region." Kurt Vonnegut, an American POW at Dresden, records an attack on his party of POWs by American fighters on 14 February in his fictional work Slaughterhouse-Five. Historian Gotz Berganger asserted in Dresden Im Luftkrieg (1977) that tales of civilians being strafed by the Mustangs were untrue. However, historian Alexander McKee interviewed some eyewitnesses (Gerhard Kuhnemund, Annemarie Waehmann etc.) in Dresden in the winter 1980-81 who told him strafing did occur. These accounts are dismissed by Fredrick Taylor and Helmut Schnatz in studies of the issue in their books.Frederick Taylor, in Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 alleges that there was a brief, but possibly intense, dogfight between American and German fighters, and some rounds may have been mistaken for strafing fire when they struck the ground.

On 15 February, the 1st Bombardment Division's primary target — the Böhlen synthetic oil plant near Leipzig — was obscured by cloud so the Division's groups diverted to their secondary target which was the city of Dresden. As Dresden was also obscured by clouds the groups targeted the city using H2X. The first group to arrive over the target was the 401th, but they missed the centre and bombed southeastern suburbs with bombs landing on the near by towns of Meissen and Pirna. The other groups all bombed between 12:00 and 12:10. They failed to hit the marshalling yards in the Friedrichstadt district and, as on the previous raid, their ordinance was scattered over a wide area.

On the ground

It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother's hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.|4=Lothar Metzger, survivor.

The sirens had started sounding in Dresden at 21:51 (CET) Frederick Taylor writes that the Germans could see that a large enemy bomber formation — or what they called "ein dicker Hund" (a fat dog) — was approaching somewhere in the east. At 21:39, the Reich Air Defense Leadership issued an enemy aircraft warning for Dresden, though at that point it was thought Leipzig might be the target. At 21:59, the Local Air Raid Leadership confirmed that the bombers were in the area of Dresden-Pirna. Taylor writes the city was largely undefended; a night fighter force of ten Messerschmitts at Klotzsche airfield was scrambled, but it took them half an hour to get into an attack position. At 22:03, the Local Air Raid Leadership issued the first definitive warning: "Achtung! Achtung! Achtung! The lead aircraft of the major enemy bomber forces have changed course and are now approaching the city area."

By early morning on 14 February, Ash Wednesday, the center of the city, including its Altstadt, was engulfed in a firestorm, with temperatures peaking at over 1500 °C (2700 °F).

To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire.

Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then — to my utter horror and amazement — I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: "I don't want to burn to death". I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.|4=Margaret Freyer, survivor.

There were very few public air raid shelters — the largest, underneath the main train station, was housing 6,000 refugees. As a result, most people took shelter in their cellars, but one of the air raid precautions the city had taken was to remove the thick cellar walls between rows of buildings, and replace them with thin partitions that could be knocked through in an emergency. The idea was that, as one building collapsed or filled with smoke, those using the basement as a shelter could knock the walls down and run into adjoining buildings. With the city on fire everywhere, those fleeing from one burning cellar simply ran into another, with the result that thousands of bodies were found piled up in houses at the end of city blocks.

A Dresden police report written shortly after the attacks reported that the old town and the inner eastern suburbs had been engulfed in a single fire that had destroyed almost 12,000 dwellings. The same report said that the raids had destroyed 24 banks, 26 insurance buildings, 31 stores and retail houses, 640 shops, 64 warehouses, 2 market halls, 31 large hotels, 26 public houses, 63 administrative buildings, 3 theatres, 18 cinemas, 11 churches, 6 chapels; 5 other cultural buildings, 19 hospitals including auxiliary, overflow hospitals, and private clinics, 39 schools, 5 consulates, the zoo, the waterworks, the railways, 19 postal facilities; 4 tram facilities; and 19 ships and barges. The Wehrmacht's main command post in the Taschenberg Palais, 19 military hospitals and a number of less significant military facilities were also destroyed. Almost 200 factories were damaged, 136 seriously damaged (including several of the Zeiss Ikon precision optical engineering works), 28 with medium to serious damage, and 35 with light damage.

An RAF assessment showed that 23 percent of the industrial buildings, and 56 percent of the non-industrial buildings, not counting residential buildings, had been seriously damaged. Around 78,000 dwellings had been completely destroyed; 27,700 were uninhabitable; and 64,500 damaged, but readily repairable.


The tonnage of bombs dropped on Dresden was actually lower than in many other areas, but ideal weather conditions for a firestorm, the wooden-framed buildings, the "breakthroughs" linking the cellars of contiguous buildings, and the city's lack of preparation conspired to make the attack particularly devastating. For these reasons, the loss of life in Dresden was considerably higher than in many other bombing raids. One contributing factor to the large loss of life in Dresden was the lack of preparation for the effects of air-raids by Gauleiter Martin Mutschmann, as the city did not expect to be bombed. For example when Braunschweig was bombed on nights of 14 and 15 October, 1944, hochbunkers and well trained fire fighters saved 23,000 people from death in a firestorm.

Exact figures are difficult to ascertain. Estimates are complicated by the fact that the city and surrounding suburbs, which had a population of 642,000 in 1939, was crowded at the time of the bombing with up to 200,000 refugees, and thousands of wounded soldiers. Earlier reputable estimates of casualties varied from 25,000 to more than 60,000, but historians now view around 25,000–35,000 as the likely range with Dresden historian Friedrich Reichert pointing toward the lower end of it. It would appear from such estimates that the casualties suffered in the Dresden bombings were similar to those suffered in other German cities subject to firebombing during area bombardment.

According to official German report Tagesbefehl (Order of the Day) no. 47 ("TB47") issued on 22 March the number of dead recovered by that date was 20,204, including 6,865 who were cremated on the Altmarkt, and the total number of deaths was expected to be about 25,000 Another report on 3 April put the number of corpses recovered at 22,096. The municipal cemetery office recorded 21,271 victims of the raids were buried in the city cemeteries, of which 17,295 were placed in the Heidefriedhof cemetery (a total that included the ashes of those cremated at the Altmarkt). Due to the number of dead and lack of labour for collection of bodies for burial and cremation, those found in shelters were cremated where they lay by flamethrowers. These numbers were probably supplemented by a number of additional private burials in other places. A further 1,858 bodies of victims were found during the rebuilding of Dresden between the end of the war and 1966. Since 1989 despite the extensive excavation for new buildings no war-related bodies have been found. The number of people registered with the authorities as missing was 35,000; around 10,000 of those were later found to be alive.

Wartime political responses


Development of a German political response to the raid took several turns. Initially, some of the leadership, especially Robert Ley and Joseph Goebbels, wanted to use it as a pretext for abandonment of the Geneva Conventions on the Western Front. In the end, the only political action the German government took was to exploit it for propaganda purposes.

On 16 February, the Propaganda Ministry issued a press release that stated that Dresden had no war industries; it was a city of culture.

On 25 February, a new leaflet with photographs of two burned children was released under the title "Dresden — Massacre of Refugees," stating that 200,000 had died. Since no official estimate had been developed, the numbers were speculative, but newspapers such as the Stockholm Svenska Morgonbladet used phrases such as "privately from Berlin," to explain where they had obtained the figures. Frederick Taylor states that "there is good reason to believe that later in March copies of — or extracts from — [an official police report] were leaked to the neutral press by Goebbels's Propaganda Ministry ... doctored with an extra zero to make [the total dead from the raid] 202,040.On 4 March, Das Reich, a weekly newspaper founded by Goebbels, published a lengthy article emphasizing the suffering and destruction of a cultural icon, without mentioning any damage the attacks had caused to the German war effort.

Taylor writes that this propaganda was effective, as it not only influenced attitudes in neutral countries at the time, but also reached the British House of Commons when Richard Stokes, a Labour Party Member of Parliament (MP) opposed to area bombing, quoted information from the German Press Agency (controlled by the Propaganda Ministry). It was Stokes' questions in the House of Commons that were in large part responsible for the shift in the UK against this type of raid. Taylor suggests that, although the destruction of Dresden would have affected people's support for the Allies regardless of German propaganda, at least some of the outrage did depend on Goebbel's massaging of the casualty figures.


The destruction of the city provoked unease in intellectual circles in Britain. According to Max Hastings, by February 1945, attacks upon German cities had become largely irrelevant to the outcome of the war and the name of Dresden resonated with cultured people all over Europe — "the home of so much charm and beauty, a refuge for Trollope’s heroines, a landmark of the Grand Tour." He writes that the bombing was the first time the public in Allied countries seriously questioned the military actions used to defeat the Nazis.

The unease was made worse by an Associated Press story that the Allies had resorted to terror bombing. At a press briefing held by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force two days after the raids, British Air Commodore Colin McKay Grierson told journalists:

One of the journalists asked whether the principal aim of bombing of Dresden would be to cause confusion among the refugees or to blast communications carrying military supplies. Grierson answered that the primary aim was communications to prevent them moving military supplies, and to stop movement in all directions if possible. He then added in an offhand remark that the raid also helped destroying "what is left of German morale." Howard Cowan, an Associated Press war correspondent, subsequently filed a story saying that the Allies had resorted to terror bombing. There were follow-up newspaper editorials on the issue and a long time opponent of strategic bombing, Richard Stokes MP, asked questions in the House of Commons on 6 March.

Churchill subsequently distanced himself from the bombing. On 28 March, in a memo sent by telegram to General Ismay for the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, he wrote:

Having been given a paraphrased version of Churchill's memo by Bottomley, on 29 March, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris ("Bomber Harris") wrote to the Air Ministry:

The phrase "worth the bones of one British grenadier" was an echo of a famous sentence used by Otto von Bismarck: "The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier." Under pressure from the Chiefs of Staff and in response to the views expressed by Portal and Harris among others, Churchill withdrew his memo and issued a new one. This was completed on 1 April, 1945:

Post-war reconstruction and reconciliation

After the war, and especially after German reunification, great efforts were made to rebuild some of Dresden's former landmarks, such as the Frauenkirche, the Semperoper (the Saxony state opera house), and the Zwinger Palace (the later two were rebuilt in GDR-time).

The Dresdener synagogue was also rebuilt, having been burned to the ground during Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, when Jews, as well as their homes, businesses, and synagogues, were attacked in cities all over Germany — Dresden's Jewish population was virtually wiped out by the Nazis, falling from 6,000 to 50. The original Star of David on the synagogue was installed above the entrance of the new building; Alfred Neugebauer, a local firefighter during Kristallnacht, had saved it, hiding it in his home until the end of the war.

Despite its location in the Soviet occupation zone as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, in 1956 Dresden entered a twin-town relationship with Coventry, which had suffered some of the worst attacks on any English city at the hands of the Luftwaffe, during the Coventry Blitz, including the destruction of its cathedral.

In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a group of prominent Dresdeners formed an international appeal known as the "Call from Dresden," requesting help to rebuild the Lutheran Frauenkirche, the destruction of which had over the years become a symbol of the bombing. The baroque Church of Our Lady, completed in 1743, had appeared to survive the raids themselves, but it collapsed a few days later, the ruins left in place by later Communist governments as a symbol of British aggression.

A British charity, the Dresden Trust, was formed in 1993 to raise funds in the UK in response to the call for help, raising £600,000 from 2,000 people and 100 companies and trusts in Britain. One of the gifts they made to the project was an eight-metre high orb and cross made in London by goldsmiths Gant MacDonald, using medieval nails recovered from the ruins of the roof of Coventry Cathedral, and crafted in part by Alan Smith, the son of a pilot who took part in the raid.

During her visit to Germany in November 2004, Queen Elizabeth II hosted a concert in Berlin to raise money for the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche. The visit was accompanied by speculation in the British and German press, fuelled mostly by the tabloids, over a possible apology for the attacks, but none was forthcoming.

The new Frauenkirche — reconstructed over seven years by architects using 3D computer technology to analyse old photographs and every piece of rubble that had been kept — was formally consecrated on 30 October, 2005, in a service attended by some 1,800 guests, including Germany's president, Horst Köhler; previous and current chancellors, Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel; and the Duke of Kent.

Post-war debate

British historian Frederick Taylor wrote of the attacks: "The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th century warfare and a symbol of destruction."

A number of factors have made the bombing a unique point of contention and debate. These include the beauty of the city, and its importance as a cultural icon; the deliberate creation of a firestorm; the number of victims killed; the extent to which it was a necessary military target; and the fact that it was attacked toward the end of the war, raising the question of whether the bombing was needed to hasten the end.

That the bombing was necessary or justified

Marshall inquiry

An inquiry conducted at the behest of U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, alleged that the raid was justified by the available intelligence. The inquiry declared that the elimination of the German ability to reinforce a counter-attack against Marshall Konev's extended line or, alternatively, to retreat and regroup using Dresden as a base of operations, were important military objectives. As Dresden had been largely untouched during the war due to its location, it was one of the few remaining functional rail and communications centres. A secondary objective was to disrupt the industrial use of Dresden for munitions manufacture, which American intelligence believed to be the case. The shock to military planners and to the Allied civilian populations of the Nazi counter attack known as the Battle of the Bulge had ended speculation that the war was almost over, and may have contributed to the decision to continue with the aerial bombardment of German cities.

The inquiry concluded that by the presence of active German military units nearby, and the presence of fighters and anti-aircraft within an effective range, Dresden qualified as "defended". By this stage in the war both the British and the Germans had integrated air defences at the national level. The German national air-defence system could be used to argue — as the tribunal did — that no German city was "undefended".

Marshall's tribunal declared that no extraordinary decision was made to single out Dresden (e.g. to take advantage of the large number of refugees, or purposely terrorize the German populace). It was argued that the intent of area bombing was to disrupt communications and destroy industrial production. The American inquiry established that the Soviets, pursuant to allied agreements for the United States and the United Kingdom to provide air support for the Soviet offensive toward Berlin, had requested area bombing of Dresden in order to prevent a counter attack through Dresden, or the use of Dresden as a regrouping point after a strategic retreat.

U.S. Air Force Historical Division report

A report by the U.S. Air Force Historical Division (USAFHD) analyzed the circumstances of the raid and concluded that it was militarily necessary and justified, based on the following points:

  1. The raid had legitimate military ends, brought about by exigent military circumstances.
  2. Military units and anti-aircraft defenses were sufficiently close that it was not valid to consider the city "undefended."
  3. The raid did not use extraordinary means but was comparable to other raids used against comparable targets.
  4. The raid was carried out through the normal chain of command, pursuant to directives and agreements then in force.
  5. The raid achieved the military objective, without excessive loss of civilian life.

The first point regarding the legitimacy of the raid depends on two claims: first, that the railyards subjected to American precision bombing were an important logistical target, and that the city was also an important industrial centre. Even after the main firebombing, there were two further raids on the Dresden railway yards by the USAAF. The first was on 2 March 1945, by 406 B-17s, which dropped 940 tons of high-explosive bombs and 141 tons of incendiaries. The second was on 17 April, when 580 B-17s dropped 1,554 tons of high-explosive bombs and 165 tons of incendiaries.

As far as Dresden being a militarily significant industrial centre, an official 1942 guide described the German city as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich" and in 1944, the German Army High Command's Weapons Office listed 127 medium-to-large factories and workshops which supplied the army with material. Dresden was the seventh largest German city and by far the largest unbombed built-up area left and thus was contributing to the defense of Germany itself.

According to the USAFHD, there were 110 factories and 50,000 workers supporting the German war effort in Dresden at the time of the raid. These factories manufactured aircraft components, Anti-aircraft guns, field guns and small guns, poison gas, optical components (Zeiss Ikon A.G., Germany’s largest optics manufacturer), gears and differentials, electrical and X-ray apparatus, electric gauges, gas masks, Junkers aircraft engines, and Messerschmitt fighters cockpit parts.

The second of the five points addresses the prohibition in the Hague Conventions, of "attack or bombardment" of "undefended" towns. The USAFHD report states that Dresden was protected by antiaircraft defenses, antiaircraft guns and searchlights, under the Combined Dresden (Corps Area IV) and Berlin (Corps Area III) Luftwaffe Administration Commands.

The third and fourth points say that the size of the Dresden raid — in terms of numbers, types of bombs and the means of delivery — were commensurate with the military objective and similar to other Allied bombings. On 23 February 1945, the Allies bombed Pforzheim and caused an estimated 20,000 civilian fatalities; a raid on Tokyo on 9-10 March caused civilian casualties over 100,000. The tonnage and types of bombs listed in the service records of the Dresden raid were comparable to (or less than) throw weights of bombs dropped in other air attacks carried out in 1945. In the case of Dresden, as in many other similar attacks, the hour break in between the RAF raids was a deliberate ploy to attack the fire fighters and rescue crews.

In late July 1943, the city of Hamburg was bombed in Operation Gomorrah by combined RAF and USAAF strategic bomber forces. Four major raids were carried out in the span of 10 days, of which the most notable, on 27-28 July, created a devastating firestorm effect similar to Dresden's, killing approximately 40,000 people. Two thirds of the remaining population reportedly fled the city after the raids.

The fifth point is that the firebombing achieved the intended effect of disabling the industry in Dresden. It was estimated that at least 23% of the city's industrial buildings were destroyed or severely damaged. The damage to other infrastructure and communications was immense, which would have severely limited the potential use of Dresden to stop the Soviet advance. The report concludes with:

That the bombing was not necessary or justified

Frederick Taylor told Der Spiegel, "I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific. It was overdone, it was excessive and is to be regretted enormously", but "a war crime is a very specific thing which international lawyers argue about all the time and I would not be prepared to commit myself nor do I see why I should. I'm a historian." This view is supported by British historian Robin Neillands who writes that, "although hindsight indicates that it was probably an unnecessary operation, that was not the opinion at the time.

British philosopher A. C. Grayling has described British area bombardment as an "immoral act" and "moral crime" because "destroying everything ... contravenes every moral and humanitarian principle debated in connection with the just conduct of war", but "it is not strictly correct to describe area bombing as a 'war crime'."

Allegations that it was a war crime

The historian Donald Bloxham states that "The bombing of Dresden on 13-14 February 1945 was a war crime". He further argues that there was a strong prima facie for trying Winston Churchill among others and that there is theoretical case that he could have been found guilty. "This should be a sobering thought. If, however it is also a startling one, this is probably less the result of widespread understanding of the nuance of international law and more because in the popular mind 'war criminal', like 'paedophile' or 'terrorist', has developed into a moral rather than a legal categorisation."

Günter Grass, the German novelist and Nobel laureate for literature, is one of a number of intellectuals and commentators who have called the bombing a war crime.

Proponents of the "war crime" position argue that the devastation known to be caused by firebombing was greater than anything that could be justified by military necessity alone, and that this establishes their case on a prima facie basis. The Allies were aware of the effects of firebombing, as British cities had been subject to them during the Blitz. "War crime" proponents say that Dresden did not have a military garrison, that most of the industry was in the outskirts and not in the targeted city centre, and that the cultural significance of the city should have precluded the Allies from bombing it.

British historian Anthony Beevor wrote that Dresden was considered relatively safe, having been spared previous RAF night attacks, and that at the time of the raids there were up to 300,000 refugees in the city seeking sanctuary from the fighting on the Eastern Front. In Fire Sites, German revisionist historian Jörg Friedrich agrees that the RAF's relentless bombing campaign against German cities in the last months of the war served no military purpose.

Far-right in Germany

Far-right politicians in Germany have sparked a national debate in the country about the carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities, promoting the term "Bombenholocaust" ("holocaust by bomb") to describe the raids. Der Spiegel writes that, for decades, the Communist government of East Germany promoted the bombing as an example of "Anglo-American terror," and now the same rhetoric is being used by the far right.

During a meeting on 21 January 2005 of the Saxony Landestag (parliament) to discuss how to commemorate the bombing's 60th anniversary, 12 members of the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) walked out during a minute's silence for victims of the Holocaust. The NPD won nine percent of the vote during the state election in 2004, which gave them 12 seats in the Landestag, and is calling for the creation of a new "Reich" in Germany. The party's Juergen Gansel later described the Dresden raids as "mass murder," and "Dresden's Holocaust of bombs," and said that the NPD was fighting the "political battle for historical truth, and against the servitude of guilt of the German people."Hannah Cleaver wrote in the Daily Telegraph: "Strictly speaking, the word 'holocaust,' which comes from the ancient Greek for 'burnt,' might seem apt for Dresden, much of it immolated by the fires started by the RAF's incendiary bombs. But its primary meaning is now so closely linked to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews that such etymology appears to be in bad taste."

British historian Frederick Taylor needed police protection during a visit in 2005 to Dresden's city hall, after publication of his book, Dresden: February 13-14, 1945, which seeks to explain the Allies' decision to launch the attacks. The German tabloid Bild started a campaign against what it called the "scandal author," asking Germans to write to the newspaper expressing their outrage.

Richard Bernstein writing in The New York Times in 2005 said

Taylor told Der Spiegel:

Since the demonstrations of the far right there are also counter-demonstrations of the German far left every year, for example the Anti-Germans. They normally wave flags of the Allies and Israel. They use slogans like "Germans are no victims", "No tear for Dresden" and "Bomber Harris do it again." (for sources see also German Wikipedia) They have called for the Frauenkirche to be torn down in recognition that "all the victims were perpetrators".

Notable survivors

See also



Further reading

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