Bombing of Dresden – WWII Germany and Facts

From February 13 to 15, 1945, during the final months of World War II (1939-45), Allied forces bombarded the historic city of Dresden, located in eastern Germany. The bombing was controversial because Dresden was neither important for German wartime production nor a major industrial centre, and before the massive air raid of February 1945 it had not come under a major Allied attack. By February 15, the city was a smoking ruin, and an unknown number of civilians—estimated at between 22,700 and 25,000—had died.

Bombing of Dresden: background

In February 1945, the jaws of the Allied vice closed on Nazi Germany. In the west, the desperate counter-offensive of the Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) against the Allies in the forest of the Belgian Ardennes had ended in total failure. To the east, the Red Army had captured East Prussia and reached the Oder River, less than 80 kilometers from Berlin. The once-proud Luftwaffe was a skeleton air fleet, and the Allies ruled the skies of Europe, dropping thousands of tons of bombs on Germany every day.

From February 4 to February 11, the “big three” Allied leaders – US President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) – met in Yalta in the USSR and compromised on their post-war worldviews. Other than deciding which German territory would be conquered by which power, little time was given to military considerations in the war against the Third Reich. However, Churchill and Roosevelt promised Stalin to continue their bombing campaign against East Germany in preparation for the advancing Soviet forces.

World War II and area bombings

An important aspect of the Allied air war against Germany involved what is known as “area” or “saturation” bombing. In area bombing, all enemy industry – not just munitions of war – is targeted, and civilian parts of cities are wiped out along with troop areas. Before the advent of the atomic bomb, cities were most effectively destroyed through the use of incendiary bombs which caused abnormally violent fires in enemy cities. Such attacks, according to the Allied command, would ravage the German economy, shatter the morale of the German people, and force a quick surrender.

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Germany was the first to employ area bombing tactics during its assault on Poland in September 1939. In 1940, during the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe failed to put Britain out knees by targeting London and other heavily populated areas with area bombing. Stung but adamant, the Royal Air Force (RAF) avenged the bombings of London and Coventry in 1942 when it launched the first of many saturation bombing runs against Germany. In 1944, Hitler named the first long-range offensive missile V-1, after “vergeltung”, the German word for “revenge” and an expression of his desire to reward Britain for its devastating bombardment of Germany. .

The Allies never openly admitted that they were engaged in saturation bombing; specific military objectives were announced for each attack. However, it was only a veneer, and few mourned the destruction of the German cities that built the weapons and raised the soldiers who, by 1945, had killed more than 10 million Allied troops and even more civilians. The Dresden arson attack would be the exception to this rule.

Bombing of Dresden: February 1945

Before World War II, Dresden was called “the Florence of the Elbe” and was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world for its architecture and museums. Although no German city remained isolated from Hitler’s war machine, Dresden’s contribution to the war effort was minimal compared to other German cities. In February 1945, refugees fleeing the Russian advance to the east took refuge there. As Hitler had thrown much of his surviving forces into a defense of Berlin in the north, the city’s defenses were minimal and the Russians would have had little trouble capturing Dresden. It seemed an unlikely target for a major Allied air attack.

On the night of February 13, hundreds of RAF bombers descended on Dresden in two waves, dropping their deadly cargo indiscriminately over the city. The city’s air defenses were so weak that only six Lancaster bombers were shot down. By morning, some 800 British bombers had dropped more than 1,400 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 1,100 tons of incendiary devices on Dresden, creating a great firestorm which destroyed most of the city and killed many civilians. Later that day, as the survivors left the burning city, more than 300 American bombers began to bomb Dresden’s railroads, bridges, and transportation facilities, killing thousands more. On February 15, another 200 American bombers continued their assault on the city’s infrastructure. In total, US Eighth Air Force bombers dropped over 950 tons of high-explosive bombs and over 290 tons of incendiary devices on Dresden. Later, the Eighth Air Force would drop an additional 2,800 tons of bombs on Dresden in three more attacks before the end of the war.

Bombing of Dresden: consequences

The Allies claimed that by bombarding Dresden they were disrupting important lines of communication which would have hampered the Soviet offensive. This may be true, but it is undeniable that the British incendiary attack on the night of February 13 to February 14 was carried out also, if not primarily, with the aim of terrorizing the German population and forcing a quick surrender. It should be noted that Germany, unlike Japan later in the year, only surrendered almost at the last possible moment, when its capital had fallen and Hitler was dead.

Because there were an unknown number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the Allied attack, it is impossible to know exactly how many civilians perished. After the war, investigators from various countries, and with varying political motives, calculated the number of civilians killed to be between 8,000 and over 200,000. In 2010, the city of Dresden released a revised estimate of 22 700 to 25,000 dead.

At the end of the war, Dresden was so badly damaged that the city was practically razed to the ground. A handful of historic buildings – the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera, and several fine churches – have been painstakingly rebuilt from the rubble, but the rest of the city has been rebuilt with simple, modern buildings. American author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied attack and addressed the controversial event in his book Slaughterhouse-Five, said of post-war Dresden, “It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, with more open spaces than Dayton. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground.

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