60th Anniversary of the Bombing of Dresden
60 years ago today, airmen of the RAF's Bomber Command were preparing for an operation that would come to dominate the history of World War II. Yet at the time it was just another routine attack amongst the many thousands carried out in the final months of the war. Freddie Hulance, a 21 year old pilot on 227 Squadron, didn't think there was anything unusual about it. "When we landed", he remembers, "a few people were talking about the fires, but we had seen much worse; it was just another target and it soon faded from our memories. It was many years after the war that we began to talk about it." And he still talks about that target today, because on the night of 13th February 1945, Freddie, now 81, flew his Lancaster bomber to Dresden, a name that has become synonymous with the controversy surrounding the bombing of the German cities.
In my eyes, the men of Bomber Command were amongst the greatest heroes of World War II. For the greater part of the war they took the fight into the heart of the Nazi empire when no one else could, or would. Yet their valiant efforts seem to have been diminished by time, questioned and criticised by historians who have never been called upon to fight for their country. Most people acknowledge the heroic feats of the RAF’s more famous Fighter Command, yet more men from Bomber Command died in one single night on one single raid than the total RAF losses during the whole of the months long, Battle of Britain. Of the 110,000 airmen who served in Bomber Command, 55,573 lost their lives, a casualty rate of over 50% and one of the highest of any military formation during the war. They sacrificed their lives in their thousands so that we could be free today, but 60 years on they feel increasingly hurt by the criticism of the bombing campaign and especially the furore surrounding the attacks on Dresden. So where did it all go wrong? Was the RAF's bombing of Dresden really a war crime as many historians have suggested? Should our country apologise for its conduct 60 years ago? My answer to that is a resounding 'no', indeed the time has now come to attack the many myths surrounding Dresden.
There are endless disputes about the Dresden bombing raid – historians, propagandists and polemicists argue over who launched it and why, the numbers who died, its contribution to hastening the end of the war, whether it was a just cause or a war crime. But there is no dispute about one thing – the awful slaughter and destruction it wrought on a city of rare beauty. By all accounts old Dresden was magnificent, a gem of the north European Renaissance which blossomed into a baroque masterpiece in the eighteenth century. Its elegant palaces and churches inspired comparisons with Venice and Florence. It had twice been hit by American bombers – in August 1944 and then again in October but neither attack could have prepared the citizens for the savagery of the 13th and 14th February. It was intended to be so. The instructions to the crews at briefing and the composition of the bomb loads they carried - a mix of high explosives and incendiaries - leave no doubt that ‘shock and awe’ was the intention.
Witnesses in the air and on the ground remember it well. In his memoirs, RAF pilot Robert Wannop recorded his thoughts as his aircraft bore down on the target. He wrote, "above it all we sat sombre and impassive, each man concentrating on the job in hand. The whole city was ablaze from end to end. It was like looking at a sea of liquid flames, inspiring in its intensity. It was so bright at bombing height that we could easily have read a newspaper".
Once the city centre was ablaze nowhere was safe. Those who stayed in the underground shelters risked being suffocated as the heat sucked the air out of their hiding places. Outside the winds created by the firestorm were now at tornado force, catching and hurling into the air not just debris but people too. Twenty-four-year-old Margaret Freyer recalled seeing a woman carrying a baby in her arms – "she runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. My eyes take this in but I myself feel nothing. I just stumble on. The firestorm is incredible. There are calls for help and screams and all around is an inferno. I hold a wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and face are burning. It feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips".
The horror of the attack is undeniable and the arguments over the numbers who perished that awful night continue today. Disposal of the dead began immediately and the ruthless Nazi efficiency helped - SS men came from the Treblinka concentration camps to put to use their expertise at disposing of bodies. A month later it was possible for an official report to conclude that the known number of dead was 18,375 and estimate that the final figure would be in the region of 25,000. Among the many wild casualty figures that would later be quoted, it remains the only one that has any official authority to it. It is undoubtedly a minimum figure. Most responsible histories add between 10,000 and 15,000 more for the unknown number of refugees who died, bringing the consensus death toll to somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000. It was a staggering total, a terrible calamity by any standards but in the years after the war the death toll took on all the characteristics of an urban myth. It has suited the critics to exaggerate and distort the truth about Dresden and to demonize those who attacked it. The death toll was upped as far as 320,000 by some and the argument that Dresden was an 'innocent city' and hence the victim of a war crime began to take hold.
Historian Frederick Taylor drew on recently unearthed archive material to demolish this argument. The city's own yearbook of 1942 boasted that it was, 'one of the foremost industrial locations in the Reich'. It had 127 civilian factories which had secretly been switched to war work producing bomb-aiming apparatus, searchlights, and parts for V-1 flying bombs to name but a few. The city’s chamber of trade admitted that ‘the work rhythm, of Dresden is determined by the needs of our army’.
But not only was Dresden pouring out materials for the war from its factories, it was also about to take a more active role in the fighting, whether its citizens wanted to or not. They may have thought it an ‘open city’, to be left untouched because of its heritage, but their Führer thought otherwise. The German High Command had designated it a military strongpoint, part of the defensive line along the River Elbe at which the Soviet advance could be held. The order from Berlin was that it was to be defended at all costs. It was also a vital link in the German rail network and twenty-eight military transports a day came through Dresden with troops and tanks to fight off the advancing Soviet army. An Allied POW who was in a train shunted into a siding on the night before the bombers came ‘saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp with thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars transporting supply logistics towards the East to meet the Russians.’ So ‘peaceful’ Dresden was in reality a war factory, a fortress and a transport hub - these factors alone made it a legitimate target for the bombers.
Another favoured argument of the critics is that 'the war was nearly over' and hence the bombing should have been stopped. With this argument, the armchair historians that criticise the deeds of the brave men of Bomber Command have access to a wonderful weapon called ‘hindsight’. That weapon simply wasn’t available to the aircrews who dodged the flak and the German fighters in order to defeat the Nazis. The harsh reality of the time was that only total war would bring Hitler’s Germany to its knees. And in a total war, you don't stop because you think the enemy might capitulate in a couple of months, you take the fight to the enemy until the final day. The end was far from apparent in those early weeks of 1945 when the Allied armies had still to cross the Rhine, and anyone bold enough to say the war was all but over would have received pretty short shrift from soldiers, airmen and public alike. There had been mass casualties at the Battle of the Bulge and Arnhem, the Germans were getting the first jet fighters airborne, and V-1 and V-2 rockets were raining down on southern Britain killing thousands of civilians. One wonders what the hindsight experts would be saying today if the RAF had stopped the bombing early and the war had gone on for months, perhaps even years.
I know what one person might say; At the time of the raids, a Dutch woman, Elka Schrijver, was one of 4,000 political prisoners in a jail south-west of Dresden where the male inmates were digging a huge hole in the ground. She says, "after our liberation, documents found by the Red Cross showed that this was meant to be a mass grave and that orders from Dresden had been received to shoot all of us. Subsequent to the Dresden raids, nobody had the courage to execute these orders. Those of us who were political prisoners in Saxony at the time directly owe our lives to those air raids."
Perhaps the final word on the Dresden raid should be left to Freddie Hulance whose Lancaster bomber was one of the first over the target – he has little time for those who deliver their judgements on his dead friends and colleagues with all the benefit of hindsight. "I once heard someone describe the bombing of Dresden as a holocaust", he says. "Well that was a word that I had never heard until the end of the war when we were shown what the Germans had done to the Jews. Knowing the real meaning of holocaust I am even more proud of what I did. I helped to shorten that war, a war that we simply had to win."