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.

dresden bombing
An aerial bomb damage assessment photo shows Dresden still smoldering after the February 13-14, 1945, attacks. A number of fires are still burning fiercely in the vicinity of the central goods depot and railroad marshalling yards south of the Elbe River.

As the RAF bombers approached, air raid sirens began wailing across Dresden at 9:51 pm. Because the city lacked adequate bomb shelters, many civilians took to their basements. Thirteen minutes later the incendiary bombs began falling on Dresden, setting whole blocks ablaze.

Fire brigades rushed into the heart of the burning city, working without success to contain the fires that were now devouring block after block of apartments, shops, churches, and historic structures. The firemen were fighting a losing battle, struggling with broken water mains and having to run lines to the Elbe River.

Soon Dresden was engulfed in the kind of hellish firestorm that had destroyed Hamburg in July 1943 and killed 41,800 people. Tornado-like winds roared through the city, sucking up oxygen and feeding the inferno.

A British paratrooper, Victor Gregg, who had been taken prisoner at Arnhem, Holland, was a POW at Dresden, and he said, “The people of Dresden believed that as long as the Luftwaffe kept away from Oxford, Dresden would be spared.”

Such was not the case, however. Gregg said that about 10:30 pm on the night of February 13, “The air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night, no notice was taken. The sirens stopped and, after a short period of silence, the first wave of pathfinders was over the city, dropping its target flares.

“As the incendiaries fell, the phosphorus clung to the bodies of those below, turning them into human torches. The screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of those not yet hit. There was no need for flares to lead the second wave of bombers to their target, as the whole city had become a gigantic torch. It must have been visible to the pilots from a hundred miles away. Dresden had no defenses, no antiaircraft guns, no searchlights, nothing.” (Read more about the bombing operations that shaped the Second World War inside WWII History magazine.) 

“We saw terrible things”: Accounts from Dresdeners

In a 2014 BBC interview, Gregg further recalled that the POWs were sent into the city on a detail to search for survivors. In one incident, it took his team seven hours just to get into a 1,000-person air raid shelter where they found no survivors or corpses—just a green-brown liquid with bones sticking out of it; what had once been a group of human beings had all been melted by the intense heat. He also noted that, in areas farther from the town center, he and his team found adults shriveled to three feet in length. (Gregg wrote a book about his experiences titled Dresden: A Survivor’s Story.)

A civilian survivor, Lothar Metzger, and his mother, wife, and twin children had taken refuge in a cellar with many others. He recalled that it was “not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark, and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic.

“Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands, and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins, and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.”

Metzger continued: “We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death. Burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.”

dresden bombing
Recovered bodies from the firestorm that consumed Dresden; many suffocated in air raid shelters. Initial German estimates put the number of dead at around 200,000; postwar analysis lowered the numbers to around 25,000.

Another Dresdener, Margeret Freyer, also never forgot the horror she witnessed. “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 a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of a lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

“Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: ‘I don’t want to burn to death.’ I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.”

Other Germans who survived had vivid, horrible memories that stayed with them for the rest of their lives. Nora Lang was 13 years old when the bombers struck and set fire to her family’s apartment building. The family ran to the neighborhood air raid shelter, and when the “all clear” sounded, they emerged to a vision of Hell. “Behind us everything was burning,” she recalled, “[and] in front of us everything was burning.”

Anita John, 12 in 1945, said that when she and her parents rushed to the cellar of their apartment building with 13 neighbors during the first raid, her mother covered her with her body to protect her. Once the bombing stopped, Anita emerged from the cellar after but could not find her parents. She only realized that they were dead when she saw their bodies laid out in the street in front of the rubble of the building; all the other people in the cellar, including her parents, had suffocated due to the firestorm that sucked almost all the oxygen out of the basement. How she survived she did not know.

Thirteen-year-old Karl-Heinrich Fiebiger was home alone when the attacks began. He ran for safety through the burning city to no place in particular. He remembered a sticky substance released by the bombs raining down and getting in his hair. After he ran from his family’s apartment building, it was destroyed by a bomb; his older sister and her two small children died. It took three weeks before he was reunited with his mother. 

Another survivor, Hanns Voight, said later, “Never had I expected to see people interred in that state: burnt, cremated, torn and crushed to death. Sometimes the victims looked like ordinary people apparently peacefully sleeping. The faces of others were wracked with pain, the bodies stripped almost naked by the [fire] tornado…. Here the victim was a shapeless slab, there a layer of ashes shoveled into a zinc tub.”

Kurt Vonnegut Witnesses the Attack

About a half hour after the first wave struck, a group of Messerschmitt Me-110 night fighters lifted off from the Luftwaffe’s Klotzsche airfield, five miles north of Dresden, but they were too late to intercept the first bombers; due to the shortage of aviation fuel, the planes had not been allowed to take off until receiving specific authorization from higher headquarters. And, with most of its antiaircraft guns having been removed to defend elsewhere, Dresden was essentially undefended as the bombers struck—a sitting duck.

dresden bombing
The burned-out remains of the heart of Dresden, 1945. Some 78,000 buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands more damaged.

Three hours after the first strike, while the firefighters were still struggling to put out the inferno, the main force of 529 bombers came over and added to the destruction with more bombs. By dawn on the 14th, hundreds of British bombers had swept over Dresden and dropped more than 1,400 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 1,100 tons of incendiaries.

On the morning of February 14, the bombing of Dresden left the city dying and burning, its own funeral pyre. But its agony was not yet over.

The next day it was the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s turn. A force of 316 Boeing B-17s arrived and bombed through cloud cover using H2X—a new ground-scanning radar developed for bombing when the target could not be visually sighted. Some of the bombers flew off course, and instead of bombing Dresden, hit Prague in Czechoslovakia, 120 miles to the south-southeast. The “Mighty Eighth” dropped more than 950 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 290 tons of incendiaries on Dresden that day.