Why was Dresden so heavily bombed?

They had heard the “wump a whump” of distant aerial bombardments many times before. But on February 13, 1945, American prisoners of war heard Dresden’s fire sirens blaring right above their heads. The German guards moved them two floors down to a meat locker. When they surfaced, “the city was gone,” recalls writer and social critic Kurt Vonnegut, one of the American POWs who witnessed the bombing of Dresden.

The punitive three-day Allied bombardment of Dresden from February 13–15 in the final months of World War II became one of the most controversial Allied actions of the war. The 800 bomber raid dropped some 2,700 tons of explosives and incendiaries and decimated the German city.

As a major center of Nazi Germany’s rail and road network, the destruction of Dresden was intended to overwhelm German authorities and services and obstruct all transport routes with a crowd of refugees. The Allied assault came less than a month after some 19,000 American soldiers were killed in the last German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge, and three weeks after the grim discovery of atrocities committed by Nazi forces in Auschwitz.

In an effort to force a surrender, the Dresden bombing was intended to terrorize the local and national civilian population. It certainly had that effect.

Dresden attack: a barrage of explosives and incendiaries

When Vonnegut and others were hiding underground, British Bomber Command blind illuminator planes had rained explosives and incendiaries on the city. Then, “visual cue” planes dived low to drop thousands of flares and gunnery target markers. The main attack formation followed: over 500 “Lancaster” heavy bombers loaded with explosives and incendiaries. The US Eighth Air Force attacked the next day with an additional 400 tons of bombs and launched another raid with 210 bombers on February 15.

with the German Luftwaffe destroyed and the anti-aircraft defenses crumbling, the Royal Air Force lost only six aircraft. On the ground, however, thousands of small fires coalesced into a powerful firestorm that created winds so powerful it sucked oxygen, fuel, shattered structures and people into its flames.

“Those who have unlearned to cry,” lamented Nobel Prize winner and Prussian playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, “will learn it again when Dresden is destroyed.”

Controversy in Counting the Dead

Bodies in the street after the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany in February 1945.

Initial and partisan estimates of the death toll seemed to suggest that the Dresden bombing was particularly cruel. David Irving would claim in his 1963 book, The destruction of Dresden, that the bombing was “the greatest massacre in European history”. His estimate of 150,000 to 200,000 dead was long accepted without question. But his claim that Dresden was “Germany’s Hiroshima” quickly drew serious criticism, not only for its lack of evidence, but also for its ignorance of the Holocaust. (Irving later gained notoriety — and a criminal conviction — as a Holocaust denier.)

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Partly to prevent right-wing ideologues from exploiting widespread speculation about the death toll, the city of Dresden set up a historical commission in 2004 to produce more accurate data with historical, military, forensic and archaeological. In 2010, he released a revised estimate of 22,700 to 25,000 dead.

As shocking as such a huge death toll may be, it has not marked the history of the war of “strategic bombing” of cities. Most German cities had been razed by 1945, and many left proportionally higher death rates and degrees of destruction. The bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 generated the first major firestorm and killed over 30,000 civilians. And while the German Blitz about England has become the subject of many books and films, the Luftwaffen the raids on Eastern European cities such as Belgrade (more than 17,000 dead) or Warsaw (up to 25,000 dead) were far more deadly – not to mention the non-nuclear bombings of cities in Japan.

On the ground, however, the scale of the death and devastation seemed incomparable to witnesses like Vonnegut.

Assigned to a sanitary clean-up team after the bombing, POW Vonnegut had to dig into shelters and basements that “looked like a tram full of people with simultaneous heart failure. Just people sitting in their chairs , all dead,” starved of oxygen by the devouring firestorm.

Dresden was known as the “German Florence” on the Elbe

The ruins of Dresden Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church.  In the background is the dome of the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden.

The ruins of Dresden Frauenkirche, a Lutheran church. In the background is the dome of the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden.

Observers noted early on that the bombing of Dresden meant not just the death of civilians, but the destruction of a center of European culture and Baroque splendour. Since the reign of Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), the “German Florence” on the Elbe, housed famous art collections, a collection of porcelain, prints, scientific instruments and jewelry.

Many Germans perceived a particular injustice in the belated bombing of Dresden in February 1945 – a sentiment which gained some international influence in the post-war years. Dresden was a densely populated city in the winter of 1945, filled with refugees fleeing the advancing Red Army. For most of them, the end of the war seemed near and inevitable and a large-scale attack unnecessary.

Allied strategists, however, feared allowing the Wehrmacht to regroup inside the German border if they eased their pressure. The American army alone had suffered almost 140,000 casualties from December to January 1945 and 27,000 in the week before the bombing of Dresden alone – the heaviest casualties of the Western Allies’ war against Hitler.

So while the Dresden bombing was a campaign of terror that inflicted a devastating assault on civilians and cultural sites, it was part of a war in which such tactics had been widely and grimly deployed. . Less than three months later, and eight days after Adolf Hitler’s suicide in his underground bunker, the German High Command signed the unconditional surrender of all German forces.

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