A series of British and American air raids during World War II that nearly destroyed the scenic and historic German city of Dresden.
With the World War II nearing an end, the British air ministry in January, 1945, devised a plan called Thunderclap, an air offensive that was to be directed at Berlin and population centers in eastern Germany. The Allies’ major justification of this campaign was that it would add to the growing chaos in Germany created by the rapid westward advance of Russian troops and thus make it more difficult for the German army to summon reinforcements and armaments to meet the Russian advance. The attack also was intended to crush German morale. The Russians had been pressuring the British and Americans to conduct such an offensive in order to paralyze German communications. It was an outgrowth of a grand Allied strategy initiated in 1943, which called for combined operations to crush the German war machine. Specifically, the plan called for bombardment by the Allies from the air, by Allied ground operations from the west, and by Russian ground operations from the east.
Dresden was officially designated a military target for several reasons. First, it was considered a primary communications center in the Berlin-Leipzig-Dresden railway complex. Second, it was an important industrial and manufacturing center directly associated with the production of aircraft components and other military items, including poison gas, antiaircraft guns, and small arms. Third, it was believed that a raid would devastate the area, curtailing communications within the city and disrupting the normal civilian life upon which the city’s larger communications activities and manufacturing enterprises depended. In addition, it was theorized a widespread assault that included bombing strikes against the city’s industrial plants, which were interspersed throughout the region, would be construed as part of the overall pattern of the raid. However, many historians have argued that Dresden had, from a military perspective, virtually no great strategic importance. The city had little heavy industry and for this reason had been spared earlier bombings, except for a small raid by the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force in October, 1944.
Noted for its magnificent architecture and its manufacture of fine china, Dresden long had been considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Its streets were adorned with statuary and other art, much of which dated from the seventeenth century. Among the city’s residents, there was a mistaken notion that the city’s grandeur protected it from an all-out attack. Until February, 1945, Dresden suffered from only those problems confronting most other German cities of the time: the loss of men in action and the economic hardships resulting from the war. Residents further believed that a nonstrategic city with a large number of military hospitals, POW compounds, and refugees would not face the same attacks that other cities had. Consequently, most of the German air defense and flak batteries that would otherwise have been stationed in Dresden had been relocated to areas where it was assumed they were more needed.
On February 13, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command dispatched 796 Lancaster bombers and 9 Mosquitoes from the United Kingdom. The planes attacked Dresden in two waves, three hours apart, dropping first high-explosive bombs and then tons of incendiaries that precipitated a mammoth firestorm. The high-explosive bombs were intended to demolish roofs and windows, leaving the interiors of buildings vulnerable to the second wave of bombers that followed with the incendiaries. Soon, rising columns of intense heat merged into a single conflagration that sucked up oxygen and burned it, creating hurricane-force winds and temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. On the following day, U.S. B-17 bombers, in a third-wave strike against the city, contributed to the damage. Target sector markings on RAF photographs confirmed that the attack on the heart of the city was carried out as planned. Military areas situated north of the city, including factories and freight stations, received minimal damage, though part of an American P-51 Mustang fighter escort was ordered to strafe traffic on the roads around Dresden to heighten the chaos. Only eight Allied planes were shot down during the assault.
At the time of the attacks, Dresden was virtually defenseless, because all remaining German fighter planes assigned to the area had been grounded for lack of fuel. In addition, the inhabitants of the city were mostly women and children who recently had fled the Russian offensive in the east. Indicative of the town’s feeling of relative security was the fact that it had never put into operation the civil defense precautions for lessening the effects of potential firestorms that had been taken in other cities.
The total devastation wrought on the city in the twenty-four-hour period was unprecedented in its suddenness and totality. The city was nearly extinguished in a single blow. For a long period of time, residents remained in a state of collective shock so intense that the shock itself nearly numbed their grief. However, their daily struggle for survival amid the ruins instinctively became their immediate concern. Helplessness and despair set in only later.
The firestorm created by the bombardment was impossible to extinguish, because the incessant assault made it extremely difficult for the fire service to utilize either the river or canals. The fires burned for seven days. Although a final death toll in the bombardment has never been established, estimates have run between 25,000 and 135,000. The hospitals that survived the raids were overwhelmed. Corpses were loaded onto farm carts for burial in mass graves or stacked in huge pyres, as distraught men and women roamed the desolate streets seeking any traces of relatives or friends. Survivors later related macabre scenes, such as a bus filled with dead soldiers, all sitting perfectly in their seats. In another area, some corpses were discovered dressed in costumes for a February 13 pre-Lenten carnival that some residents had been celebrating. The raid completely leveled the center of the city, including the cathedral, known as the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Overall, almost 12,000 buildings were turned into a wasteland of rubble and smoldering corpses. Most of the deaths on the ground were caused by suffocation and carbon monoxide poisoning, as residents huddled in their cellars waiting for the fires from the first attack to be extinguished. The area of destruction was approximately three times that of the area damaged in London during the more than two months of sustained German bombing in the Battle of Britain (1940). The firebombing inflicted on Dresden left almost nothing standing and most of what did remain was bulldozed for safety reasons.
From its inception, the Allies’ strategic bombing campaign in Europe had generated controversy. Despite its general horrors, the air offensive failed to break German morale and, until the last months of the war, did not decisively impact German industrial production. Although the bombing contributed to the ultimate Allied victory over the German forces, it clearly did not in itself bring about victory.
Much of the speculation on the motive for the attacks has centered on Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander of the RAF Bomber Command. Harris was the principal proponent of nighttime area strategic bombing carried out by formations of heavy bombers attacking large targets, such as cities, which were nearly impossible to miss at night. He believed that long-term bombing was the most effective way of destroying an enemy’s industrial centers and demoralizing its population. He also made it clear that he opposed the redeployment of bombers to other theaters of aerial operations. In the spring of 1944, he strongly objected to the temporary interruption of the strategic bombing campaign by Allied leaders who planned to relocate the bombers to France to help in the assault on rail lines and bridges in preparation for the Normandy invasion.
The Harris strategy was an outgrowth of the original doctrine of strategic heavy bombing that had emerged in Europe at the end of World War I and was adopted in part as a justification for separating air operations from the British Army. Prior to the bombing of Dresden, the cities of Lübeck, Rostock, Pforzheim, Hamburg, Hildesheim, Cologne, Magdeburg, Mainz, and Würzburg had been subjected to tactical bombardments, where the maximum number of bombs had been dropped within as large a target area as possible. Theoretically, strategic bombing would accomplish several goals, including the crippling of German industry and the undermining of the Nazi war effort. It was also felt that because the RAF was poorly trained in night bombing, a practice it was not expected to perform, it lacked efficient bombs and navigational aids to conduct precision bombing. However, even the daylight attacks proved wildly inaccurate and achieved little of strategic value. Photographic evidence revealed that only a small percentage of bombs was being dropped anywhere near designated targets. Consequently, the RAF adopted the policy of “area bombing,” the less-discriminate bombing of entire cities and towns. During the course of the European air campaign, more than 500,000 German citizens and more than 55,000 RAF airmen fell victim to the strategic bombing campaign.
Despite the criticism that followed the Dresden raid, Harris remained unrepentant, citing in his defense British prime minister Winston Churchill’s approval of the raid. In the opinion of many military historians, Churchill only agreed to the bombardment because the RAF demonstrated such a great lack of accuracy during air operations. Although they were subjected to searchlights, heavy flak, and night fighter attacks, the RAF bombers and their crews were spared the vengeance of marauding Luftwaffe day fighters, who took a heavy toll on the Americans.
Following the war, Dresden became a part of East Germany, whose authorities continued the city’s ruin by bulldozing vast areas of burned-out buildings and replacing them with Soviet-style, high-rise apartment buildings. With the fall of Communism, efforts to reconstruct the city received a fresh boost, as programs were developed to construct new housing and restore old landmarks.
Although some have viewed the Dresden bombing as cruel and senseless because it targeted civilians while German capitulation was so near, others have justified the raids by arguing that Germany started the war and carried out terror bombings on British cities. In the latter view, the real responsibility for the Dresden bombing rests with Nazi leaders. Although debate continues over the ultimate responsibility for the terror, there is little doubt that the bombing of Dresden represented a milestone in the annals of modern warfare.
Clayton, Anthony, and Alan Russell, eds. Dresden: A City Reborn. New York: Berg, 2001. A comprehensive introductory history of Dresden, including the seventeenth century baroque period, events surrounding the World War II bombardment, and the postwar reconstruction efforts. Irving, David. The Destruction of Dresden. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963. A detailed analysis by a British historian of the planning that went into the air strikes against Dresden. McKee, Alexander. Dresden, 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1982. A critical account of the Dresden raids, based in part on a study of official records and interviews with survivors and airmen who participated in the bombings. Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse Five. New York: Delacorte, 1969. Vonnegut, who witnessed the raids as a prisoner of war, recreates the scene of the terror in his critically acclaimed novel.
Air Force, U.S.
Royal Air Force
World War II
The Allied bombing of Dresden, Germany, on February 13-14, 1945, completely destroyed one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.