Alphen, Netherlands. 16 February. Seventy years ago on the sunny morning of 16 February, 1945 the beautiful German city of Dresden lay in smouldering ruins. Known as the “Florence on the Elbe” Dresden had been attacked over the preceding weekend of 13-15 February, 1945 by 722 Royal Air Force and 527 United States Army Air Force heavy bombers which had flown 700 miles/1,100 kms or 10 hours to attack the target and return to their many bases in Eastern England. During the attacks three thousand nine hundred tons of high explosive and fire bombs (“cookies”) had been dropped by the bombers on an area 1.25 miles/2.01 kms in length covering some 4 square miles/6.5 square kms or 1600 acres. Between 22,700 and 25,000 people were killed many of them incinerated by the firestorm the raids whipped up.
Many reasons have been given for this “maximum effort” attack on a German cultural icon when the outcome of the war could no longer be in doubt. The Bomber Command aircrews of 1, 3, 5, 6 and 8 Groups who carried out the attack were told that Dresden was a rail hub with significant arms manufacturers and that the city was full of German reserves waiting to attack the advancing Red Army. That was only partially true. Whilst Dresden did possess significant industrial and military targets it was also full of refugees fleeing the advancing Russians, together with Allied prisoners of war.
In spite of losing half of its 125,000 aircrew during the long bombing campaigns that had attacked Germany in growing strength since 1940 the RAF had been relentless in fulfilling the determination of its leader Air Vice-Marshal Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris to prove his belief that the RAF could win the war through ‘strategic bombing’. This fixation was the culmination of a battle between the Services that went back to the 1920s when military thinkers such as Trenchard, Douhet and Mitchell developed the idea of strategic bombing and which was captured in the words of 1930s British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, “The bomber will always get through”. In other words, Dresden was attacked because the RAF could attack it and by 1945 almost all German cities of note had been attacked. These attacks included the 1942 attack on another cultural icon Lubeck, and the August 1942 Hamburg firestorm which shook the Nazi regime to its foundations.
“Dresden”, as it was soon became known, also had its origins in the 1940 Luftwaffe attacks on Warsaw and Rotterdam. However, revenge for the German attacks on British cities, the London Blitz of 1940-41, but most notably the so-called Coventry Blitz of 14 November, was clearly a motivation. Harris said, “The Germans entered this war under the childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, Warsaw, London and half a hundred other places they put their rather naïve theory into practice. They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”.
However, my own theory having examined the attack in some depth is that far from supporting the Soviets the attack was actually aimed at them. Shortly before Dresden Churchill had attended the Yalta Conference which took place from 4-11 February. Churchill had been appalled by Britain’s humiliation at Yalta and Roosevelt’s acceptance of Stalin’s proposal to carve up Europe. In particular, Churchill had fought in vain to keep Poland an independent state and failed and had little belief that Stalin would observe the terms of the pact. Whilst I can find only circumstantial evidence it would appear that the attack on Dresden was meant as a warning to Stalin about the destruction the RAF could bring to bear if the Red Army should fail to stop and kept marching West.
When Polish bomber crews saw the terms of Yalta and that Poland was about to be handed over to the Soviets they threatened to mutiny. However, they were told by the Polish Government-in-Exile to complete the mission against Dresden. As ever, these brave men fulfilled their duty and those that survived had to wait a further 44 years to see Poland free.
Too much modern history attempts to impose contemporary values on past acts. Very few in Britain in 1945 would have questioned the attack on Dresden, though a few did. After all, it was the total end to a total war. These politicised histories view past acts through the political correctness of the current age. Equally, Dresden was used by Nazi apologists to imply a form of moral equivalency between the acts of the genocidal Nazi regime and those of the Free World. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the attack Berlin claimed some 200,000 civilians had been killed by the British and Americans.
Therefore, the Dresden legacy is important because it reminds all of us who believe in liberal democracy that in an ideal world upholding the values for which one is fighting must also be apparent in the way one fights. Equally, Dresden also reminds us that there are some enemies who adhere to few values and can only be impressed and deterred by power, strength and a ruthless determination to win.
By 1945 the RAF had perfected the art of area or carpet bombing. The Main Force (codename ”Plate Rack”) was divided into two unopposed waves led by Pathfinders and a Master Bomber who ‘painted’ the main target (the Ostreigehege Stadium close to the old city) with 1000 pound red marker flares. Over the next three hours two hundred and fifty-four Lancasters of 5 Group dropped firebombs on the target, before the second wave attacked with high explosives to create a firestorm. The RAF lost six aircraft, three of which were ‘bombed’ by their other aircraft.