Justified or a Callous Act? The Bombing of Dresden Explained

Graham Land

3 mins

08 Aug 2018

From 13 – 15 February 1945, RAF and US Air Force planes dropped around 2,400 tons of explosives and 1,500 tons of incendiary bombs on the German city of Dresden. The 805 British and about 500 American bombers inflicted destruction on an unimaginable scale on the virtually-undefended, refugee-crammed city’s old town and inner suburbs.

The hundreds of thousands of high explosive and incendiary bombs caused a firestorm that trapped and incinerated tens of thousands of German civilians. Some German sources put the human cost at 100,000 lives.

The air strike was designed to bring a conclusive end to the Second World War, but the humanitarian catastrophe that resulted from the attack has continues to bring up ethical questions that are debated to this day.

Why Dresden?

On the 73rd anniversary of the firebombing of Dresden, Dan Snow accompanies British veteran Victor Gregg, a POW in Dresden during the raid, as he returns to the city for a historic meeting with Irene Uhlendorf, who was just 4 years old on the night of the bombing. Together they are able to talk about the horrors of that night and the effect that it has had on the rest of their lives.Watch Now

Criticisms of the attack include the argument that Dresden was not a wartime production or industrial centre. Yet an RAF memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack provides some rationale:

The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.

From this quote we can see that part of the reason for the bombing was rooted in anticipation of post-war hegemony. Fearing what a Soviet superpower might mean in the future, the US and UK were in essence intimidating the Soviet Union as well as Germany. And while there was some industry and war effort coming from Dresden, the motivation seems to be punitive as well as tactical.

dresden bombing

Piles of corpses against a backdrop of destroyed buildings.

Total war

The bombing of Dresden is sometimes given as an example of modern ‘total war’, meaning that the normal rules of war were not followed. Targets in total war are not only military, but civilian and the types of weapons used are not restricted.

The fact that refugees fleeing the Soviet advance from the east caused the population to swell means that the amount of casualties from the bombing is unknown. Estimates put the number anywhere between 25,000 up to 135,000.

Dresden’s defences were so minimal that only 6 of some 800 British bombers were shot down during the first night of the attack. Not only were urban centres razed, but infrastructure was flattened by US bombers, killing thousands as they tried to escape the growing firestorm that had engulfed the majority of the city.

Forces willing to carry out such destruction as visited on Dresden were not to be trifled with. In a few months time, the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would use total war to put an exclamation point on US military power.

Dan talks to Hirata San, a survivor of the Hiroshima attacks, and one of the few remaining survivors who speak English, about the Hiroshima bombing.Listen Now

Aftermath, remembrance and continued debate

A cultural rather than industrial centre, Dresden was previously known as the ‘Florence of the Elbe’ due to its many museums and beautiful buildings.

During the war American author Kurt Vonnegut was held in Dresden alongside 159 other US soldiers. The soldiers were kept in a meat locker during the bombing, its thick walls protecting them from the fires and blasts. The horrors Vonnegut witnessed in the aftermath of the bombings inspired him to write the 1969 anti-war novel ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’.

The American late historian Howard Zinn, who was himself a pilot in the Second World War, cited the bombing of Dresden — along with that of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Hanoi — as an example of questionable ethics in wars which target civilian casualties with aerial bombs.

Like the Germans had done to Warsaw in 1939, Dresden was basically levelled by the Allied attack. In the district of Ostragehege a mountain of rubble consisting of everything from smashed buildings to crushed human bones has been transformed into a place of recreation, a curious way to memorialise what some consider a war crime.

Ken Oatley, as one of the people who took part in the bombing of Dresden, talks about what it was like, and what he feels about having done it.Listen Now

Perhaps the horrors of Auschwitz rightfully overshadow what happened at Dresden, though one might ask if even stories as horrific as those that emerged from the notorious death camp can be used to justify the additional horrors that were visited upon the people of Dresden in February of 1945, just 2 weeks after Auschwitz’s liberation.

The shadow of Dresden haunted Arthur Harris for the rest of his life and he never escaped accusations that Dresden was a war crime.