It’s the 68th anniversary of the Dresden bombing. In Britain, we don’t think about it as much as, perhaps, we should.
The bare facts. More than 1,200 RAF and USAAF bombers attacked the city between the 13th and 15th of February 1945, in four raids. They dropped 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, killing between 22,000 and 25,000 people, almost all civilians. The city’s anti-aircraft defences had all been moved to defend the industrial works of the Ruhr valley.
The details are chilling. The bombing, first with high explosive to clear buildings out of the way of the wind, and then incendiaries to start fires, was deliberately intended to cause firestorms. A piece written last year on the Command Posts military history blog talks about the 15,000-foot smoke; the RAF bomber crews, 8,000 feet in the air, were sweating, their planes’ bellies exposed to incredible heat even at that altitude. The wind whipped up into great fiery tornadoes, hurling people into the air and sucking oxygen from air-raid shelters so that families suffocated underground. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who was a prisoner of war in the city at the time and whose novel Slaughterhouse-Five depicted the horror, described the scene in the shelters as “like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead.” His captors forced him and his fellow captives to go into the shelters to recover bodies. “Encouraged by cuffing and guttural abuse, wade in we did,” he wrote. “We did exactly that, for the floor was covered with an unsavoury broth from burst water mains and viscera.”
Victor Gregg was a soldier in the British 10th Parachute Regiment. He was captured in Arnhem and held near Dresden. He, like Vonnegut, was made to clear bodies from air-raid shelters. “It wasn’t too bad,” he said, in this interview on this morning’s Today programme. “They were dead. We had the impression that a lot of them had died before they roasted, because of the lack of oxygen. They had this peaceful look on their face. But as you got further in, you’d come to where they’d shrivelled up to about three feet or so. And there were no babies, because children under the age of three would have been too soft, they’d have melted.”
Mr Gregg says he is “ashamed” of what the British bombers did – he didn’t blame the bomber pilots, but the men who sent them: “They roasted these people to death, and there wasn’t a soldier among them. The concept was to go and frighten them. How can old people force the government to give up anything? No, I’ll never forgive them. Churchill, Attlee, the lot of them, that war cabinet.”
I don’t know, and can’t know, whether the Dresden attack was militarily justified. Nowadays it would be morally unthinkable, of course: more practically, I believe that the tactic of attacking civilians to undermine a country’s morale for the war effort is not thought to be effective. But Britain was in total war, and had suffered horrifying attacks of its own: German bomber pilots had coined the verb “coventrieren“, or “conventrate“, meaning “devastate with heavy bombing”, after what the Luftwaffe did to Coventry. We can’t possibly think ourselves into the minds of the politicians and Bomber Command officers who ordered the raid. As well as being a terror attack, the Dresden bombing was intended to “cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts”, and help the Soviet offensive from the east. Four hundred and twenty thousand Russian troops died in the last 40 miles to Berlin as it was: this was a war of extraordinary horror.
So I don’t want to express a moral point, to say that it is a stain on our conscience or that Britain should apologise. Mr Gregg believes we should, but he was there, and has earned a right that I don’t have; I don’t know what an apology would do, now, anyway.
But I do think that Dresden doesn’t have a place in our minds in the way that the London Blitz does, or Stalingrad, or for that matter Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It, like the devastation of Hamburg in 1943 and the USAAF firebombing of Tokyo in Operation Doolittle, isn’t as widely known: understandably, since the winning side is unlikely to dwell on its own murky deeds. So, listen to that Victor Gregg interview, read Slaughterhouse-Five and the Command Posts piece, and the eyewitness records on the Wikipedia page, and be aware of it all, if you’re not already. Some things deserve to be remembered, whether we think they were justified or not.