Why the Dresden Firebombing Campaign Was a World War II Public Relations Nightmare
During the last months of World War II, from February 13 to 15, 1945, the Allied armies bombarded the historic city of Dresden in eastern Germany. The firebombing of Dresden is considered a public relations nightmare or, better yet, controversial because it was neither crucial to German wartime manufacturing nor a leading industrial center.
Before the great air raid of February 1945, the city had not experienced any significant Allied attack. By the end of February 15, the city was a smoking ruin and an unknown number of civilians, around 20,000, were dead.
Firebombing is a method designed to damage a target, usually an urban area, by fire triggered by incendiary materials instead of the blast effect of huge bombs.
The bombardment of Dresden
Prior to the Dresden bombing of 1945, a report documented Dresden as a possible bombing target. The report concluded by noting that Dresden is an unpleasant blitz target compared to other cities of similar size. Dresden was an old city and had hardly been hit by air attacks. Although the tonnage of bombardment in Dresden was small compared to other cities, the attack on it was more devastating.
For the most part, it was unprotected, with no anti-aircraft guns. On February 13, thousands of RAF bombers descended on Dresden in double waves, unleashing their deadly charge aimlessly on the city. The city’s air defenses were entirely weak. Only six Lancaster bombers were shot down. The following day, 800 British bombers had dropped more than 1,400 tons of high explosives.
Additionally, over 1,100 tons of incendiaries were dropped on the city, causing a massive firestorm that destroyed most of the city and killed many civilians. Later that day, 300 American bombers began bombing Dresden’s bridges, railroads and transportation facilities, adding to the death toll. On February 15, an additional 200 American bombers continued their attack on Dresden’s infrastructure.
In early 1945, German troops were believed to be crossing Dresden from west to east to fight the advancing Soviet army. Winston Churchill and his War Cabinet claimed that this factor qualified Dresden as a tactical target. He viewed the aspect of the bombardment of the city as an opportunity to possibly halt the flow of German troops and hasten the Soviet Army’s advance into Germany, simultaneously aiding the Russian war effort.
Why the firebombing in Dresden was just a public relations nightmare
Allied advisers from the ‘Big Three’, US President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met in Yalta February 4-11 in the USSR to negotiate their ideas for the next world -war. They focused on deciding which German region would be dominated by which power, and not enough time was allowed for military matters in the war against the Third Reich.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt and Churchill promised Stalin to continue their firebombing campaign against East Germany as a base for the developing Soviet forces. Allied forces insisted that by bombarding Dresden they were cutting off vital lines of communication that would have hampered the Soviet offensive. Also, Royal Air Force briefing notes show that the Allies wanted to show the Soviets the capability of bomber controls.
This statement may hold some truth; however, it is undeniable that the British incendiary attack was also directed, if not primarily, with the aim of terrorizing the German population and forcing an immediate surrender.
Since there were an unidentified number of refugees in Dresden during the Allied raid, it is difficult to know precisely how many civilians died.