The Bombing of Dresden: Was the Attack Fully Justified?

April 25, 2021 Topic: History Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: HistoryWarGermanyBritainAllies

The Bombing of Dresden: Was the Attack Fully Justified?

Was Operation Thunderclap—the 1945 air raid on the German city—a military necessity or an Allied war crime? The question is still debated.

Here’s What You Need to Remember: It was February 1945, and the Bombing of Dresden had yet to commence. At this point in the war, the citizens of the capital of the German state of Saxony were beginning to think that they were living a charmed life. After all, they knew that every other major German city except theirs had been flattened by countless Allied air raids since 1940.

And yet here they were, virtually untouched. (Dresden had, in fact, been first bombed by the U.S. Eighth Air Force on October 7, 1944, and again on January 16, 1945, but the damage and casualties were minimal.)

Perhaps the Dresdeners felt lucky because the city on the Elbe River, 120 miles south of Berlin, was well known as a cultural treasure—the “Florence on the Elbe” and the “Jewel Box”—and was regarded as one the world’s most beautiful cities for its architecture and museums, with few industrial or military sites worth bombing.

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Among its treasures were the baroque Zwinger Palace, the State Opera House known as the Semper Oper, and the Frauenkirche, the latter built in the 1700s. Here too, the world-famous Dresden china and porcelain had been made for decades. There seemed no good reason for the status quo to change.

But Dresden’s luck was about to run out.

“I Can Assure You, Gentlemen, That We Tolerate no Scruples.”

Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Command, had a special desire to wipe every major German city off the map, even though it was plainly obvious that targets were becoming fewer, and the end of the war was just weeks away.

Early in the war, British Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal had calculated that a concerted program to bomb the Third Reich’s cities could kill 900,000 people in 18 months, seriously injure a million more, destroy six million homes, and leave 25 million Germans homeless, thus creating a humanitarian crisis that, he believed, would lead to the collapse of the Nazi government. 

In 1941, Harris had said that he had been intentionally bombing civilians for a year. “I mention this,” he said, “because, for a long time, the Government, for excellent reasons, has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call ‘military targets.’ I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.”

British Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris
British Air Chief Marshall Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of the RAF’s Bomber Command, was a strong proponent of taking the war to Germany’s civilian populace.

Harris was no doubt remembering that the German Luftwaffe had first engaged in “area bombing tactics” when it helped Francisco Franco in his civil war to topple the Spanish government in 1937, and then again when it bombed Polish cities during Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. Still in the forefront of his mind was the Luftwaffe’s indiscriminate bombing of London and other British cities during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Germany Ramps up its Attacks on Great Britain

Albert Speer, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Armaments, recalled a meeting in 1940 when Adolf Hitler endorsed Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring’s proposal to hit London with a massive number of incendiary bombs: “Göring wants to use innumerable incendiary bombs of an altogether new type to create fires in all parts of London. Fires everywhere. Thousands of them. Then they’ll unite in one giant area conflagration.”

“Göring has the right idea,” said Hitler. “Explosive bombs don’t work, but it can be done with incendiary bombs—total destruction of London. Of what use will their fire department be once that really starts?”

Out to avenge the bombings of London, Coventry, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Bath, Bristol, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow, Newcastle, and other cities, the Royal Air Force struck back hard at German population centers. In 1942, the U.S. Eighth Air Force set up shop in Britain and in 1943 began bombing Germany in earnest along with its British counterparts.

To retaliate, German rocket scientists (such as Werner von Braun) developed the world’s first long-range offensive missile in 1944. Hitler named it the V-1, for “Vergeltung”—the German word for “vengeance”—and ordered the Luftwaffe to step up attacks against Great Britain.

Why Dresden Became a Target for Bombing

Dresden had a population of 630,000, making it Germany’s seventh largest city. But a flood of refugees fleeing the Soviet advance in the East had swelled the population to over a million by early February 1945.

And the city was woefully unprepared for any sort of major aerial attack. Most of the antiaircraft batteries that ringed it had been removed to protect other cities.

In early 1945, the handwriting was on the wall: Nazi Germany was doomed. In January, the advancing Soviets had uncovered the death factory at Auschwitz in Poland. This exposed the Nazis’ crimes for all to see, further hardening Allied resolve to totally destroy the Third Reich—to drive a silver stake into its heart so that it could never rise again.

In northeastern Germany, the Red Army had captured East Prussia and reached the Oder River, less than 50 miles from Berlin, and was bulldozing its way toward the German capital. 

From February 4 to February 11, the “Big Three” Allied leaders—U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin—met at Yalta in the Soviet Crimea (the Argonaut Conference) and hammered out their visions of the postwar world.

Other than deciding on how German territory would be carved up and administered by which power, there was little discussion about how the final military operations would be conducted. However, after General Aleksei Antonov, deputy chief of the Soviet General Staff, requested that the Allies apply some of their aerial firepower in the East, Churchill and Roosevelt promised Stalin that they would continue their bombing campaign against Germany to aid the advance of Soviet forces.

Dresden bombing
American bombs cascade down on Dresden, February 14, 1945. More than 3,900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs would be dropped on the city in the two-day raid.

Dresden, therefore, became a target in early 1945. Allied intelligence revealed that, far from being an inoffensive center of culture, Dresden and the surrounding area was home to 127 factories that manufactured everything from rifles and machine guns to artillery pieces, aircraft components, precision optical devices, and poison gas (the latter manufactured by Chemische Fabrik Goye, GmbH).

Dresden was also a key rail hub, with lines running to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Munich, Breslau, Leipzig, and Hamburg. The Wehrmacht’s headquarters had also been relocated from Berlin to the Taschenbergpalais in Dresden, and there were at least one ammunition depot and several military hospitals.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff of both the United States and Britain had earlier in the war authorized the aerial attacks on German cities to accomplish “the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial, and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people to a point where their capacity for armed resistance is fatally weakened.”

Colonel Harold E. Cook, an American prisoner of the Germans in Dresden, stated after the war, “I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks, and artillery, and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics toward the east to meet the Russians.”

Thus, RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) determined that Dresden was a legitimate military target and decided to mount a joint attack on the city at the direct request of the Soviet government. There would be four separate raids commencing on February 13. Seven hundred and twenty-two heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force and 527 of the USAAF would drop more than 3,900 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices as part of the planned bombing of Dresden.

Hellish Firestorm: The Bombing’s Two Waves

The U.S. Eighth Air Force was scheduled to fly the initial strikes during the bombing of Dresden on February 13 but they were canceled because of poor weather. The weather did not stop Bomber Command, however. A historian wrote, “To support the attack, Bomber Command dispatched several diversionary raids designed to confuse the German air defenses.

“These struck targets in Bonn, Magdeburg, Nuremberg, Böhlen, and Misburg, near Hannover. For Dresden, the attack was to come in two waves, with the second coming three hours after the first. This approach was designed to catch German emergency response teams exposed and increase casualties.”

The first wave was a flight of Avro Lancaster bombers from 83 Squadron, No. 5 Group, based at RAF Coningsby. They would be the pathfinders and would light up the target area with incendiaries.

Close on their tails was a group of DeHavilland Mosquitoes that dropped 1,000-pound bombs to mark the aiming points for the rest of the raiders. The main bomber force, consisting of 254 Lancasters, would arrive next with a mixed load of 500 tons of high-explosive bombs and 375 tons of incendiaries.