Early in 1945, Allied commanders gathered to plan Thunderclap, a new plan to strategically bomb Germany, particularly to aid the advance of Soviet troops. They argued that carpet bombing of large cities in eastern Germany would allow Soviet troops to exploit the confusion that would ensue, hampering the movement of German troops from the west of the target cities. On 27 Jan 1945, given the Allied Joint Intelligence Command’s conclusion that the Germans could reinforce the Eastern Front with half a million men which is up to 42 divisions, Sir Archibald Sinclair of the RAF sent Churchill the recommendation of bombing Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz, Leipzig, or other large cities with available resources, in order to hinder efficient enemy movement should such a reinforcement be ordered by Berlin. The interception of Enigma-coded messages confirmed that such movements were likely. Documents dated 4 Feb revealed that RAF bombing priority list was, in a specific order:
- Cities with oil production facilities, such as Politz, Ruhland, and Vienna.
- Cities that were considered transportation hubs or with considerable industrial facilities, such as Berlin and Dresden.
- Cities with factories capable of producing tanks, self-propelled guns, and jet engines.
In sum, the official documents, as well as the Yalta Conference discussions, noted the goal of the strategic bombings was to disrupt enemy communications and other military or industrial goals, not to kill evacuees. However, rumors of off the record discussions ran rampant. For example, British Air Commodore Grierson was accused of saying that after the bombing of Dresden that the aim of Thunderclap was the bomb large population centers to disrupt the logistics of relief supplies.
Dresden was the capital of the state of Saxony, situated on the Elbe River. It was a cultural center, containing famous landmarks as the Frauenkirche, and was dubbed the Florence of the Elbe. The population of the city was largely anyone’s guess as refugees flooded into the city shortly prior to the bombing as Soviet troops advanced to the city’s east, however common estimates put the population at the time of bombings at greater than 650,000.
The attacks were originally planned to start with a raid by the US Eighth Air Force, but the weather prevented the American bombers from taking off. During the night of 13-14 Feb, 796 British Lancaster and 9 Mosquito aircraft were displaced and dropped 1478 tons of high explosive and 1182 tons of incendiary bombs on the first bombing run and 800 tons of bombs on the second run. The incendiary bombs contained combustible chemicals such as magnesium, phosphorus, or petroleum jelly/napalm. There were claims that due to the extreme temperatures inside buildings caused by the tremendous fires, air currents were formed where people fleeing would be sucked into the burning buildings. 3 hours later, 529 Lancaster bombers dropped 1800 tons of bombs. On the next day, 311 American B-17 bombers dropped 771 tons of bombs while the escort Mustang fighters strafed traffic with no distinction between military and civilian on the streets to cause further havoc. Some reports indicate that civilians fleeing the bombing were strafed by American fighter pilots, but these reports are largely without solid evidence.
Margaret Freyer, a Dresden resident, recalled:
The firestorm is incredible, there are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. To my left, I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms, it is her baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire…. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself, ‘I don’t want to burn to death’.
Lothar Metzger, another Dresden resident who was only nine years old at the time, recalled:
We did not recognize our street anymore. Fire, only fire wherever we looked. Our 4th floor did not exist anymore. The broken remains of our house were burning. On the streets, there were burning vehicles and carts with refugees, people, horses, all of them screaming and shouting in fear of death. I saw hurt women, children, old people searching a way through ruins and flames…. (A)ll the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from. I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.
Prior to this bombing, Allied bombers had already bombed Dresden railways twice on 7 October 1944 and 16 January 1945. After the massive bombings on 13-14 Feb 1945, American bombers once again bombed Dresden on 2 Mar 1945.
The bombing methods used by the Allied were to encourage total destruction of buildings: the high explosive bombs first expose the wood frames of buildings, then the incendiary bombs ignite the wood, and finally followed by various explosives to hamper the firefighting efforts. The results were devastating. 24,866 out of 28,410 houses in the inner city of Dresden were destroyed, many of the schools, hospitals, and churches. The estimate of deaths ranges from 25,000 to more than 60,000. The official German report stated 25,000 estimated with 21,271 registered burials.
Roy Akehurst, a wireless operator in an RAF bomber crew, was struck by the destruction that he had help caused:
It struck me at the time, the thought of the women and children down there. We seemed to fly for hours over a sheet of fire, a terrific red glow with a thin haze over it. I found myself making comments to the crew ‘Oh God, those poor people’. It was completely uncalled for. You can’t justify it.
The civilian deaths at Dresden would be used by two political machines as propaganda. First, the Nazi Propaganda Ministry would attempt to use this to stir public resentment against the Allied invaders. Then during the Cold War, Soviet propaganda would describe this bombing as western cruelty, alienating the East Germans with the British and Americans. Churchill, too, started to feel guilty of the widespread destruction the western Allies had caused in Germany, even though he was an early proponent of bombing German cities. In a memorandum sent to Harris, Churchill noted that:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing terror, should be reviewed…. I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives…, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.
Although Dresden did not see particularly more attacks when compared to other German cities, the ideal weather conditions and the common usage of the wooden structures made the destruction more widespread. The lack of anti-aircraft fire also contributed to the higher level of destruction, as Germany did not defend her with anti-aircraft guns as Dresden was far from Allied bomber bases, at least earlier in the war. However, contrary to that statement, a study conducted by the United States Air Force indicated that Dresden was indeed defended by anti-aircraft guns, operated by the Combined Dresden and Berlin Luftwaffe Administration Commands.
In recent history, German historian Joerg Freidrich suggested that the Dresden bombings might be considered a war crime. German sources often suggest Dresden, even during wartime, was nothing more than a cultural center. However, Allied reports indicated the presence of the Zeiss-Ikon optical factory and Siemens glass factory which produced gun sights, and other factories building radar, anti-aircraft shell fuses, gas masks, fighter engines, and various fighter parts. The proponents of the war crimes argument claimed that Dresden was bombed by the Allied terror bombing strategy, meanwhile, prominent military historians such as B. H. Liddell Hart compared the bombing to the methods of the 13th century Mongols. For years to come, Air Marshal Arthur Harris had been again and again under challenge to justify the attacks. He held fast to the belief that although it was near the end of the war, the military needs at that time warranted the bombing of this communications hub.
In 1969, Kurt Vonnegut, who witnessed the Dresden bombing, published the fictional work Slaughterhouse-Five with this event as the backdrop. A film version of the work was released three years later.