by Frederick Taylor
The RAF launched a massive, two wave raid against the Saxon capitol of Dresden on February 13, 1945 that devastated the city. The 8th AF launched an attack the following day. The death toll was estimated to be as high as 320,000 at one point following the war, with a major portion of the city destroyed by an inferno unimagined by Dante. Kurt Vonnegut witnessed the attack while a POW in a nearby Stalag, and that experience is the basis of his novel "Slaughterhouse 5". Resentment toward Britain and the US is still present in the city nearly 60 years later.
The attack is viewed as barbarous, and motivated by pure vengeance. Dresden was a cultural city, and often called "Florence on the Elbe". Many foreigners visited, and even lived within, the city prior to the war, and it was well known for its "Dresden China". The claim was no armaments industry existed within the city to justify the attack. The heinous crime, as it is seen by some, is compounded by the reported large number of refugees from the eastern front who were occupying the city at the time of the raid.
The legend of Dresden, however, is not supported by the facts as Mr. Taylor's book reveals.
Mr. Taylor is a British historian, and a pacifist, who set out to study the story of Dresden's destruction. His research discovered an attack that went "horribly right", and a truth veiled in NAZI and Soviet propaganda. Mr. Taylor discusses Dresden's history as the medieval capital of Saxony, on through the unification of Germany and the rise of Nazism. He even recounts the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin on October 8, 1971 to give some sense of destructiveness of firestorms. (Odd he didn't chose the Chicago fire which occurred at the same time). [Personal note: my family lost property during this fire, but otherwise survived.]
The three waves of the attack are detailed, showing how weather provided the first wave with perfect nighttime bombing conditions. The second wave encountered problems identifying target markers due to the inferno blazing in the heart of the city. The RAF Master Bomber then directed the second wave to bomb non-burning sections of the city. Perhaps it is at this point that one can criticize the attack. Should he have directed the second wave to drop in the center of the blaze, or to move on to secondary targets? Such speculation is only to second guess the decisions made, but it is hard not to feel some disbelief in the carnage being inflicted upon Dresden. Weather intervened on behalf of the beleaguered city when the 8th AF made it's run. The lead groups of the Dresden spearhead took a detour around weather and FLAK zones, and mistook their actual target, Prague, as Dresden. Thus, the third wave was a much smaller scale attack than intended.
On the ground Mr. Taylor details the city's air raid planning. The Gauleiter for Saxony, headquartered in Dresden, had a lavish shelter built for himself, and other local NAZI and military leaders. The citizens were not provided with adequate shelters. The citizens also grew complacent due to repeated air raid alarms with no attacks on their city. However, they were attacked three times by the 8th AF prior to the February 13th attack (the first being conducted by the 486th and 487th groups).
Dresden was not originally high on the list of target cities due to its location near Berlin and other more important targets. However, as the marshalling yards of the larger cities became unusable, Dresden became more important to the German war effort, and that brought it to the attention of the Allies. Pressure by the Russians to bomb Dresden further sealed the city's fate.
Mr. Taylor uses survivor accounts to detail the hell that the citizens had to endure during, and following the attacks. It can make for some difficult reading, and a few of the photos provided may be hard to view.
The legend of Dresden started in Britain, when RAF Air Commodore Grierson delivered a press conference. While after stating that RAF had achieved its strategic goals in the Dresden raid, he was asked a follow-up question by a journalist, "...the principal aim of such bombing of Dresden would be to cause confusion among the refugees or to blast communications carrying military supplies?" AC Grierson responded with, "Primarily communications; to prevent them moving military supplies. To stop movement in all directions if possible--movement of everything." He then added, "and what was left of German morale." While destruction of morale was never a part of official policy, it is clearly understood to be a byproduct of such raids. This unguarded comment would prove injurious to the allied powers.
The following day AP journalist Howard Cowan submitted a report to the censors for approval. The draft lead off with,
"Allied air bosses have made long awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of great German population centres [sic] as ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler's doom..."
and ended with the statement,
"...All out air war on Germany became obvious with unprecedented daylight assault on refugee crowded capital two weeks ago [this was the Feb 3rd assault on Berlin] and subsequent attacks on other cities jammed with civilians fleeing Russian tide in east."
The article was initially stopped by the censors, but Cowan pressed for approval, and eventually received it with one minor edit. Mr. Taylor declares this misquote as one of the great propaganda mistakes of the war. The article was run by the American press, and on Radio Paris. When it eventually made its way into the British press, the article caused alarm, and furor among allied commanders.
Josef Goebbels was having difficulty dealing with the tragic bombing of Dresden for fear that it would further weaken faith in the NAZI party, and the resolve of the average German to continue the struggle. However, the declaration by the American press of the "terror" bombings of Dresden, Goebbels was able to launch a propaganda campaign to show that the Allies had abandoned strategic bombing for terror tactics. He hoped to galvanize the Germans to fight to the bitter end. Following the war the Soviets downplayed the attack, but with the fall of the iron curtain they fanned the flames of the "funeral pyres" by inflating the original contrived numbers from 100,000 to as much as 320,000 dead, nearly half the wartime population. By doing so they hoped to further alienate the Western from the East. While the true number of deaths may never be known, Mr. Taylor's evidence indicates the number to be fewer than 35,000 dead.
Because of the apparent scandal caused by the press reports of the Dresden raid, it could be claimed as the "high water mark" of the air war in Europe, and caused many in the allied camp to question their bombing policy. The raids would continue for another two months, with planners constantly aware that their plans were under scrutiny.
Mr. Taylor provides data to show that in the grand scheme of things the February 13 attack on Dresden is not much worse than attacks on other German cities. While the attack on Dresden was an unqualified success, the attack on nearby Chemnitz and Leipzig on the 14th divided the RAF forces and was less successful. On a per capita basis, the attack on Pforzheim ten days later was much more devastating destroying 83% of the city, and killing 17,600 residents (1 in 4 citizens died in Pforzheim versus 1 in 20 in Dresden) .
Mr. Taylor speculates that, ironically, the attack on Dresden may have been Kyoto's salvation. American Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, demanded that Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan, removed from all bombing target lists, including the list of cities to be bombed with nuclear weapons. He did not want Kyoto to suffer a similar fate as Dresden. [Read, "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes].
Mr. Taylor also discusses the impact of the bombing campaign on the German war effort, and argues that the air campaign was more affective than other studies indicate.
The book is well researched and written, with good historical information to allow the reader to draw his, or her, own conclusions about the Dresden attack. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the air campaign in the ETO, and about the Dresden attack in particular.
© Copyright by the 486th Bomb Group Association