Fire from the Sky: The Bombing of Dresden, Part Two

The famous Dresden Frauenkirche, destroyed in the 1945 bombing raid.

No other allied bombing of a German city caused as much controversy as the bombing of Dresden. Within days of that event,  the German-Nazi propaganda machine began to put out the story that Dresden was innocent and harmless, that nothing of any military importance had been occurring there, and that the attack upon it by allied bombers was callous and cruel, a war crime of monumental proportions. Joseph Goebbels proclaimed to the German people that if they surrendered to the allies, they could expect this sort of thing and more. Keep fighting, he said to his fellow Germans, because the British and Americans will show no mercy. Consider the terrible fate of Dresden, said he, and let that be a lesson to you.

At first the Soviets, our allies, cheered the bombing. In early 1945 Germany was their bitter enemy. But by the late 1940’s, after East Germany, including Dresden, had become part of the Soviet occupation zone, and relations with the West had deteriorated, they had changed their tune. The Soviets and East Germans, in an odd twist,(especially since the bombing had occurred in large part to soften German resistance on the Eastern front)  in various official pronouncements within the new cold war climate, proclaimed a viewpoint similar to that of the earlier Nazi propaganda, namely that the British and Americans had, in 1945, been unnecessarily cruel to Germany and therefore cannot be trusted.   This was the Soviet “line” for many years. And we all know that if a lie is told enough times over a long enough period of time by people in authority, eventually the majority of people will come to believe it.

With the passing of years a legend grew in both East and West. It became widely believed that more  died in Dresden than Hiroshima. Time and again various so-called authorities claimed that the number of dead could be counted in six-digit figures. In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE,  his principal character Billy Pilgrim and  friends are among the “few” survivors of the bombing.  In this book Vonnegut, citing historian David Irving, claims that over 135,000 lives were lost, a figure that he stood by to his dying day.*

Author Frederick Taylor (mentioned in Part One) attended a memorial service and wreath-laying service in Dresden in 2002, a service often televised and watched by people across the nation. As such things go, it has, over the years, become one of the largest and best-attended of its kind in Germany with marches, meetings, speeches, and concerts embracing themes of mourning, reconciliation, and peace. Survivors came to the podium and told their heat-breaking stories. The tears flow freely.  Though a few extremist groups paraded about shouting slogans and making noise, it was, on the whole a dignified and sober event.

Yet a problem remains. It is still widely believed that  Berlin, Hamburg, Nuremburg, and other  heavily bombed German cities might have had it coming, yes, they were thoroughly Nazi and full of factories making tanks and planes and war materials but no, not Dresden. Their fair city, “Florence on the Elbe”, a beloved bastion of art and culture, was not a legitimate target. Nothing more dangerous than fine china and stoneware was manufactured there. Bombing Dresden was a terrible mistake, perhaps even a war crime. When the British and Americans did this they abandoned the moral high ground and stooped to the level of the facists they were fighting. Dresden, so it is still widely believed, was an innocent sacrificial lamb for the rest of Germany. What happened to them was an outrage. Unforgiveable.

Frederick Taylor took it upon himself some years ago to explore and possibly challenge this version of things. In his book DRESDEN, TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 1945, based upon years of careful study, including the examination of city records not seen since the terrible event, records made available in recent years by the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he makes the case that Dresden was anything but innocent and uninvolved in the Nazi war effort.  He states in his preface that in his research a clear picture emerged “not of an innocent city but of a normally functioning city…that was, by the standards of the time a LEGITIMATE MILITARY TARGET ”… (emphasis mine) containing “vital sites of manufacturing, communications, and services of great importance to that nation’s war effort..” (xiii) He gently, compassionately, but firmly, and with all due respect, compels us to abandon the myth of an innocent Dresden and see the city for what it really was in early 1945.

What kind of city was Dresden in early 1945? What then justified the bombing?  According to Taylor, here are the facts.  First, the place was thoroughly Nazi. There had been little or no resistance there to the rise of Hitler. In his book there is a photograph of a Dresden street draped with swastika  flags in preparation for Hitler’s 1934 visit where adoring crowds lined the streets and cheered their new leader. Was it a city of peace and tolerance? In 1938 the large, beautiful Jewish synagogue near the city center was burned to the ground, not by allied bombers but by LOCAL brown shirts. No one in Dresden, as far as we know, lifted a finger to stop them. During the war Jews and other “undesirables” in Dresden were dispossessed, rounded up, and shipped off to death camps just as in other German cities. A beautiful city, yes, but a city with a terrible dark side-not exactly “innocent .”

Second, the city was full of small factories, shops, and manufacturing facilities producing vital military goods. By early 1945 German authorities had learned to abandon, whenever possible, large-scale industrial targets vulnerable to air attack and break them up into much smaller, better hidden shops. Taylor shows a photo of a long line of production line workers making radar instruments at the Dresden Sachsenwerke factory in 1944. Another photo shows Nazi officials inspecting military products at the Radio Mende factory where approximately 2500 workers produced communications devices for military-field telephones and two-way radios.  Most firms that had produced consumer goods before 1939 switched to war-related goods and governments contracts. Bernsdorf & Co. in Dresden went from making cigarettes to making ammunition with only slight alterations to tooling and machinery. Slave workers there were expected to produce one thousand bullets per hour. The Goehle-Works manufactured optical and precision instruments used by the military as well as timed fuses, a standard part of torpedo armament in U-Boats.  In chapter 13 entitled “A City of No Military or Industrial Importance?” Taylor asserts emphatically that the people of Dresden, like nearly all others in that nation, were heavily involved in the war effort.

Even if we had NOT seen Taylor’s book could we believe, if we pause and rationally think this through, the silly notion that the city of Dresden was profoundly unique and engaged only in peacetime-type pursuits while every other major German city at the time was up to it’s eyeballs in the war effort? Are we to entertain the fantasy that Dresden was only a city of peace-loving, gentle artists, shopkeepers, and churchgoers hostile to Nazi ideology and the material demands of the armed forces? Do we buy the myth that this major city of over two-hundred thousand souls was simply trying to mind its own business and sit the war out?  The answer should be obvious. Dresden was a good-sized city where Nazis and money -hungry businessmen eager to fill fat government contracts by means of cheap imported labor were in charge.

Armed forces in wartime have a ravenous appetite.  Slave labor from the occupied countries was shipped to German shops precisely because there was a severe labor shortage.  In early 1945 shops and small factories in Dresden were running 24-7, especially in untouched Dresden, I suspect, because other cities had been so heavily bombed.  Only among the refugees was there significant unemployment. And among refugees this is to be expected.  Dresden was, for the most part, like every other major wartime city, Axis or Allied. There was plenty to do and there were plenty of places to work. And a  productive city like Dresden was not to going to be spared simply because it was more “beautiful” than the others.

Third, and perhaps most important in this analysis, was the fact that Dresden was a major transportation hub. Taylor provides a revealing quote from a US POW who found himself there, (like Kurt Vonnegut), during the bombing:

“The night before the RAF/USAAF raids on Feb 13-14 we were shunted into the Dresden marshalling yard where for nearly 12 hours German troops and equipment rolled into and out of Dresden. I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks, and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics toward the East to meet the Russians. (p.163)”

Railway facilities and administrative offices and repair shops were common targets throughout Germany in the strategic bombing campaign. Again, being located in a particularly beautiful city did not make them immune from air attack. By every standard of modern warfare, they were legitimate military targets. We should never forget that German railways were also heavily utilized to ship slave labor into Germany  from the occupied nations to work in munitions factories (several of which were in Dresden) and, more sadly, used to transport Jews to places of confinement and death.  Railways were vital arteries circulating throughout giving life to the Nazi body. Every time a rail line was destroyed or disrupted, it became more difficult for the German state to wage war and carry out the infamous “final solution.” Why did Auschwitz operate with such a terrible “efficiency?” Because, among many other reasons, the trains tended to run on time.

It bears repeating:  the strategic bombing campaign, a massive effort involving thousands of planes, bombers and fighters, and hundreds of thousands of pilots, crews, and support personnel, was waged quite simply to make it more and more difficult for the German state to wage a major war effort on two fronts.  Every bomb dropped was directed to that end. It was believed that the German nation under this terrible unrelenting destructive pressure would eventually find it impossible to carry on and surrender.  Approximately three months after Dresden was bombed this occurred. Germany was bombed nearly every day and night from approximately mid-42 to the war’s end.

Though it may have seemed otherwise, the bombing campaign was not necessarily a campaign to kill people. It was a campaign to take away their ability to wage war. The fire-bombing of Dresden, terrible as it was, effectively took that  productive city out of the war effort making the German nation less able to carry on it’s war effort than before. In the early 1940’s there was no way to accomplish this without “collateral damage,” the killing of civilians.

Victory was achieved at a terrible cost. More non-combatants died in World War Two than in any previous war.  Since then things have improved-in a sense.  We now have “smart bombs” and the ability to bomb and destroy physical targets with a precision unheard of in the 1940’s. For this we can be thankful. In future conflicts, civilian casualties should be fewer.

No, there were no smart bombs” in the 1940’s. In their first year of bombing Germany, before the US entrance into the war, there were times when the British bombers, who tended to bomb at night, were doing well if one percent of their dropped bombs actually struck the intended target, usually a factory or railway marshalling yard. One can only imagine their frustration. It is easy to understand why they disparaged  attempts at “precision bombing”  preferring, later in the war, to simply bomb cities with incendiaries knowing that a big fire would take out small shops and factories along with everything else-homes, museums, churches and many other structures that, admittedly, had little to do with the war effort. Unfortunately large numbers of civilians were killed or injured. But, this strategy, at least from their point-of-view, achieved better results.

They also justified firebombing with the belief that the worse they made it for the Germans, the sooner they would come to their senses, get rid of that madman Hitler, and sue for peace. It had been decided by Roosevelt and Churchill at the Casablanca meeting in early ’43 that nothing less than an unconditional surrender would be accepted. This time, unlike 1918, there would be no armistice.

We need to remember that there was no unconditional surrender in 1918. The armistice was simply a cease-fire. A few weeks later the troops on both sides simply left the trenches and went home. After the terrible slaughter of that war it sure seemed like a good idea at the time. Everyone rejoiced, even the Germans. They counted themselves especially fortunate.  No bombs were dropped on German cities. No enemy soldier set foot on German soil during hostilities. Among Germans civilian casualties were very few. Indeed, since the noise, destruction, and killing had all occurred elsewhere, it was easier for the German people to believe that they hadn’t really lost the war. After the disastrous Versailles treaty was signed and carried out, a treaty in which Germany got, as they say “the short end of the stick”, it was easier for Hitler and his cronies to convince their countrymen that somebody, Communists and Jews in particular, had betrayed the nation and “sold them out.” Later, in world war two, the allies, well aware of all this, were determined to teach the Germans an unforgettable lesson.   This time the Germans, with dozens of their cities in ruins, would know beyond the shadow of a doubt that this time they had been completely defeated. The allied strategy was designed to be memorable, something the Germans wouldn’t soon forget. A hard lesson indeed. The firebombing of cities was simply a terrible but necessary means to that end.

Though we all understand that ”two wrongs don’t make it right” we should not forget that the Germans had fire-bombed London, Coventry, and other places in Britain. The British bomber crews flying over German cities saw themselves as simply giving “Jerry” a bigger dose of his own medicine. Many of these fellows had, no doubt, lost loved ones in “the blitz” of 1940-1941. As late as the Summer of 1944 “buzz bombs” were falling into London for one reason and one reason only:  to kill civilians. Hundreds of Londoners died from these odd unmanned German “rockets” fired from secret bases in Belgium and Holland.  The killing of innocent Londoners had only recently ceased in early 1945 after the bases were overrun by the allies.

By contrast, no American city was bombed in World War Two. We’d best not be too harsh on the Brits, they suffered in ways that we Americans didn’t. And they had some scores to settle with the “Jerries.”

And so the people of Dresden in early 1945, due to the confluence of an unusual set of circumstances, namely ideal bombing weather, an utter lack of even the most basic air-raid defenses making the city utterly helpless, and tragically bad instructions from local leaders as to what they should do in the event of an air raid, suffered terribly and saw most of their fair city reduced to ashes in the space of a few short hours in an awesome, terrible firestorm.

It’s an easy guess that few Dresdeners believed that they deserved this. Most of the dead and homeless were probably refugees, the elderly, women, and children. Unfortunately bombs and fires are not able to sort out the guilty and the innocent.

After the war, Americans in the West German occupation forces made a curious discovery: all Nazis and even Nazi sympathizers had suddenly and inexplicably vanished. There were none to be found. When local leaders in city after city were interviewed by US officials, very few would admit that he/she had voted for or ever cheered Hitler or displayed a swastika or worn a party pin on their lapel or had ever been “political” in any meaningful sense.  American officials were confused as to how Herr Hitler had ever come to power at all in 1933.

As to the fate of the Jews it was worse.  No one admitted to knowing anything. Yes, they had heard “idle rumors,” but no one had reliable information.  The Nazis, and, of course people weren’t quite sure what had happened to them,  were the guilty party-not us-so they said. It is not fair, American officials were told time and again, to make us suffer for what “they” did. And if we did tend to look the other way when the brown shirts burnt Jewish houses and synagogues (as in Dresden) and beat Jews and political or ideological enemies in the street, you’ve got to understand that we had no choice.  We couldn’t do anything about it.  Don’t blame us, we’re innocent. The Nazis, along with the Gestapo and the SS, etc. They are to blame-not us. Maybe they all died in the war. So let us be.  Again and again, US officials heard this sort of thing.  Or as Sergeant Shultz would say in the TV series “Hogan’s Heroes”: I know nothing!

For the few who couldn’t deny their involvement in Nazi nastiness there was a familiar alibi: “Don’t blame me. I was following orders and had no choice.”

The only thing post-war Germans really knew and were eager to talk about, so we’re told, was how much they had suffered and how difficult life had been during the war. And when American officials walked through their ruined cities, it was hard to argue with them on this. On this subject, they had a point.

And so it was with the people of Dresden. For years they have said something  like this: We paid for their sins. Yes, the other German cities, they were full of Nazis and factories producing war materials but no, not our fair city of culture and fine art, grace, and refinement.  Our city was a place of peaceful citizens doing nothing more dangerous than the manufacturing of fine china. How could the allies do this to us? They went a raid too far. It wasn’t fair. Dresden didn’t deserve the fire-bombing.  This was a crime.

And I’m told that they believe this still. Yes, they’re a bit like the rest of us aren’t they? We believe what we want to believe and the facts be damned.

*Most modern historians and researchers, including Frederick Taylor, put the official death toll somewhere between 25, 000 to 40,000. Sobering indeed, but far less than the oft-quoted figure of 135,000.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Fire from the Sky: The Bombing of Dresden, Part Two

  1. Jim,
    Sorry that it has taken me awhile to get back to you with this one. As you know, quite a few things going on…but anyway, on to Dresden. This is still a difficult topic for American historians to discuss. Yet, a discussion on context is critical to explaining a situation like Dresden. Certainly, the Allies did not have any sort of precision-guided munitions like we have now, nor do military forces face the openess of the current world press and social media and all that this brings. Yet, the tactics and strategy for strategic bombing in World War II belong to a time even before Dresden. Many looked to strategic bombing as a way to bring war from the frontlines to the key industrial areas. This not only meant taking out key production and leadership facilities, but also, bring the pain of war directly to the population, thus killing the will of the people to fight and bringing about an end to conflict. Many air strategists still remembered the horrors of the Western Front, and the promise of airpower provided a way to avoid the stalemates of 1914-1918. The concept of collateral damage was not as important to WWII air strategy (Douhet nary gave it a thought). Thus, firebombing whole cities and planning air operations that deliberately avoided collateral damage was not part of the game plan.
    Also, Dresden, while brutal, was nowhere near as bad as other bombing operations (Tokyo comes to mind). Certainly the Germans had no qualms about inflicting collateral damage, etc. The USSR also didn’t invest a whole lot in urban repair, given that WWII damage in their sphere of control was evident 10-15 years after the war, whereby West Germany managed to move beyond that.
    Nowadays, collateral damage is a major, major factor in air operations. Mostly because of what we are capable of (a raid like Dresden today would take at least 80% fewer sorties and munitions), it also added to our limits. We can be so precise that now, a miss that wouldn’t matter then definately matters. Yes, in the modern air campaign perspective, Dresden would come across as a bit excessive, but in World War II, with the geopolitical and military situation, the tactics and strategies and the technologies, Dresden was no different than any other action undertaken at that time.

  2. Thanks for “tuning in.” Good response as usual. Yes, the Dresden bombing was really no different than any other action. If anything, Dresden, as far as I can tell, experienced fewer bombing sorties than Berlin, Nuremberg, Hamburg and Leipzig. Berlin was hit again and again by massive squadrons of bombers dropping explosives (many different types) and incendiaries. Yes, and there were likely far more civilian casualties in the March 8 raid (a few weeks after) on Tokyo. What made the difference for Dresden was simply the ideal bombing weather on 2/13 and the utter lack of proper preparations and defenses with the resulting catastrophic firestorm. Of course nowadays, we’re always trying to “win the hearts and minds” of civilians in the midst of conflict. Keeping “collateral damage” to a minimum is a constant priority. In WWII winning hearts and minds was a post-war objective, something we’d worry about later. During hostilities we had only one real objective: their unconditional surrender.

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