The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 has remained one of the more controversial aspects of World War Two. Dresden, a city unaffected by bombing up to that point in the war, lost many thousands of civilians in the firestorm that was created by the Allies. As the Russians advanced to Berlin from the east and the Allies from the west, why was Dresden bombed when it did appear that the war would be ended in the near future?
Historically, Dresden had been northern Germany’s cultural centre – a city filled with museums and historic buildings. The Zwinger Museum and Palace and the Frauenkirche Cathedral were world famous buildings. From 1939 to the end of 1944, the city had been spared the bombing raids that the Allies had launched on Nazi Germany. By February 1945, the city was filled with refugees – people moving from east to west in an attempt to escape the advancing Red Army. The Nazi propaganda machine had filled the minds of the Germans with horror stories of what to expect if the Red Army got to Germany. Thousands now fled from this army as it relentlessly advanced to Berlin. No-one knows how many people were in Dresden when the city was bombed. Officially, the city’s population was 350,000, but with the number of refugees there, it would have been a lot higher than this.
Between February 13th and February 14th 1945, between 35,000 and 135,000 people were killed by Allied bombing in Dresden. Historians still argue over the number of deaths. However, there were so many refugees in the city at the time that the real figure will almost certainly never be known.
So why was Dresden chosen as a target? Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, had always held the view that any city that had anything to do with the Nazi war effort was a target. A number of theories do exist as to why Dresden was chosen so late in the war.
1) The city was in Nazi Germany and for this reason was a legitimate target for attack as the Allies were at war with Nazi Germany.
2) The city was not simply a cultural centre – there were factories there producing weapons and equipment for the Nazi war effort. Therefore, the city was a legitimate target. It was also a rail base to send troops to the war front with the Russians.
3) Though the Russians were allies, Churchill and Roosevelt had already decided that Stalin would be a major problem after the end of the war. Therefore, as the Red Army advanced against an army that was effectively defeated, it had no idea as to what an equal and possibly superior military force could do. Therefore, Dresden was bombed to show the Russians the awesome power of the Allies and to act as a warning to them not to stray from the agreements they had made at the war conferences.
An internal RAF memo spreads some light on the reason for the bombing:
“Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest unbombed built-up the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium. 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.”
RAF January 1945
In all, over three waves of attacks, 3,300 tons of bombs were dropped on the city. Many of the bombs that were dropped were incendiary bombs. These created so much fire that a firestorm developed. The more the city burned, the more oxygen was sucked in – and the greater the firestorm became. It is thought that the temperature peaked at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. The surface of roads melted and fleeing people found that their feet were burned as they ran. Some jumped into reservoirs built in the city centre to assist firefighters. However, these were ten feet deep, smooth-sided and had no ladders - many drowned. Very few of those in the city centre survived – those that did provided a vivid picture of what it was like to be in a firestorm.
were no warning sirens. We were completely surprised and rushed back
down to the cellars of the hospital. But these quickly became hopelessly
overcrowded with people who could no longer find shelter in their own
burning buildings. The crush was unbearable, we were so tight you could
not fall over."
"Apart from the fire risk, it was becoming increasingly impossible to breath in the cellar because the air was being pulled out by the increasing strength of the blaze."
"We could not stand up, we were on all fours, crawling. the wind was full of sparks and carrying bits of blazing furniture, debris and burning bits of bodies."
"There were charred bodies everywhere."
"The experience of the bombing was far worse than being on the Russian front, where I was a front-line machine gunner."
After the raid had finished, SS guards brought in from a nearby camp, burnt the bodies in the city's Old Square (the Altmarkt). There were so many bodies that this took two weeks to complete.
A vast amount of the city was destroyed and when the Red Army took it over, the city had all but ceased to exist. Much of the city centre remained rubble into the 1950's, when the Russians who remained in the city during the Cold War, put their effort into rebuilding destroyed cities in Russia itself, rather than rebuild eastern Germany.