Guest Post: The Bomber War Pt. II – Dresden

A guest post by David Garrett:

Eighty years after the end of WW II the bombings of Dresden in Germany, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons, are perhaps the two allied actions which are still subject to the most debate, and upon which opinion as to the justification of each is still hugely divided. This post looks at the bombing of Dresden, and addresses two fundamental questions: Was it a legitimate target, and was the action justifiable at that stage of the war?

  It is often argued that bombing  Dresden in four raids by both  Bomber Command and the US Eight Air Force between 13-15 February 1945  was not justified because “the war was almost over then”. Firstly, even with the benefit of hindsight, that was not the case; the totally unexpected Battle of the Bulge had only just been won, and had the Germans not run out of fuel – in large part because of allied bombing of synthetic oil plants – it may well still have been going in February 1945. The objective – the recapturing of the port of Antwerp –may even have been achieved. Even after the Battle of the Bulge was won, General Patton – the antithesis of a pessimist – said both publicly and privately  that the Germans could still win the war.

Secondly, the allied commanders of the time did not have the benefit of hindsight. New “revenge weapons” – including the V2 which the allies had no means of attacking – were raining down on Britain. The allies had no idea – and in fact neither did I until reading comments on Part I of this series – that the threat from the Me 262 jet fighter was vastly less than it appeared. All the allied commanders knew was that there was a new fighter which flew at nearly twice the speed of the brilliant P-51 Mustang, and that they were extremely difficult to counter. (In one encounter it took no less than thirteen  Mustangs to shoot down a 262).

In February 1945 the borders of the Reich had yet to be breached either by the Russians in the east or the British and Americans in the west. At that stage, who knew how long it would take to force a surrender, or what it would take to do so?  Unlike in the Pacific war, there was no utterly game changing weapon being developed in great secrecy somewhere in England. So once the Battle of the Bulge was won, Harris was given the green light to continue what he had been doing – smashing German cities and the strategic assets within them.

Revisionist historians – the chief of them David Irving, who once had considerable credibility – claim that Dresden had no military targets within its boundaries. This is clearly utter nonsense – as statements by the Germans themselves show.  Its yearbook for 1942 proclaimed:

Anyone who knows Dresden only  as a cultural city…would be very surprised to be made aware of  the extensive and versatile industrial activity that make Dresden one of the foremost industrial locations in the Reich.”

Zeiss, the biggest manufacturer in the city, was no longer making cameras for tourists but was instead making bomb aiming apparatus and time fuses. Machine guns, searchlights, aircraft parts – particularly vital instruments for fighters – field telephones and two way radios were just a few of the war related goods made there. In total, the city had 127 factories which purported to be making consumer goods and luxury items, but were in fact turning out war related materiel.

Dresden was also a vital transport hub  through which men and heavy weaponry  were moved to fight the Russians on the eastern front. And it must be remembered that much of the reason for continuing the bomber offensive to the very end  was to appease Stalin, and his endless demands for his allies to “do something” to help him and his troops.

So, in my view it is very clear that far from being some kind of harmless German backwater, and a  seat of ancient Germanic culture only,  Dresden was indeed a totally legitimate military target – albeit one that hitherto had not been high on the list of prospective targets.  It was most definitely not – as Goebbels later claimed – a city without war industries, its factories turning out only talcum powder and toothpaste.

The effects of the raids between 13 and 15 February 1945 are much better known than the above – although the casualty figures are still debated, albeit less hotly these days, after a typically thorough German review in 2010. The official  German figures of the time list somewhere north of 25,000 deaths – but  for his own cynical purposes, Goebbels simply added a zero to that number to decry the allies’ brutality, and some historians who should know better are still claiming that around 250,000 lives were lost. (As noted above, David Iriving was an enthusiastic proponent of the claim that 250,000 or more people died. Interestingly, Wiki says that Irving later discovered that the primary sources he was renowned for relying on were forged, and that the real death toll was around the official German figure of approximately 25,000)

 But numbers are to an extent irrelevant; for both those who died and the  survivors – the vast majority of them civilians –  the experience was indeed a vision of hell: the firestorm that ensued, with its hurricane strength winds, tore babies from mothers’ arms; sucked the air from the cellars where people were sheltering – the local Nazi authorities having not constructed anywhere near as many bomb shelters as were necessary – ; people trying to escape the inferno on foot were stuck in molten tar on roads and incinerated where they stood. People who tried to take refuge in ponds and canals were boiled alive – or asphyxiated or cremated if they climbed out and tried to take refuge elsewhere. All of that is true. Most of the dead apparently died as a result of suffocation, which itself was a direct result of the firestorms consuming the oxygen in the air.

And there is also no question that a firestorm was indeed the intended  consequence – the crews themselves knew that from the mix of explosive bombs and incendiaries which their aircraft were loaded with. And if that was not obvious enough, the briefing officers made it clear that a firestorm was the objective.  Why was it so bad for those on the ground? A combination of factors all – for a change – on the allied side: clear conditions enabling accurate bombing on markers precisely placed on the target by pathfinders; a lack of night fighters, and very little anti-aircraft fire; “favourable” weather conditions which enabled the fires to get going, and rapidly increase in intensity.

So were the raids justifiable, or were they, as some hysterics still claim, “a war crime” by Harris and Churchill, the latter of whom approved the raid? To be honest, I wasn’t entirely sure what the end of this article would be until I wrote it. A helpful critic has posed the question “does it have to be the best  target to be a legitimate one?” To explore that question fully would take an entirely separate piece longer than this one, and probably bore everyone here silly.

Sir Max Hastings, arguably the greatest living historian of WW II, said in correspondence with the writer that the claim that it was a war crime is “utter bullshit”, and that Dresden was, for all reasons referred to above, a legitimate target – but not in his view at that late stage of the war. In other words in his expert opinion, there were many more justifiable  targets for attack in February 1945. To put that another way, I suggest Sir Max is saying there were better targets at that point than yet another city. It is certainly true that instead of Dresden, massive raids by both Bomber Command and the USAAF resulting in the complete destruction of a synthetic petrol plant would not have attracted any post war debate.

Who  am I to disagree with Sir Max? It was at that stage of the war very obvious to everyone but Harris that synthetic oil plants were emphatically not  one of the “panacea targets” which he derisively labeled any  target other than major  cities. Secondly, by that stage in the war both Bomber Command and the USAAF finally had the technological capability to hit precision targets such as oil plants, factories, and rail marshalling yards with very limited civilian casualties. The Americans in particular – mostly because of the P-51 Mustang – were able to fulfil their fantasy from 1942 of precision daylight bombing without interference – although the claim to be able to “put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 25,000 feet” was what Sir Max describes as “typical American bullshit”.

So, with eighty years of hindsight, I would have to say No, the Dresden raids were not justifiable given that the “bang for buck” from destroying oil plants, tank building factories, bridges and rail marshalling yards would have been much greater. But that is a conclusion with the benefit of hindsight, and that is always 20/20.

(Much of the above is taken from chapter 11 of “Tail-end Charlies – the last battles of the bomber war” Nicholl and Rennell, Viking, 2004. It contains the best short summary of the issues surrounding the  Dresden bombings I have ever read)

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