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.

The cloud cover was still thick, so the bombs were dropped again using H2X radar. The southeastern suburbs and two nearby towns were hit this time, along with bridges, train stations, depots, warehouses, and railroad marshaling yards.

Kurt Vonnegut, a private serving in the 423rd Infantry Regiment, 106th Infantry Division, was one of thousands of Americans captured by the Germans in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. Transported to Dresden, Vonnegut was housed, not in a regular POW camp, but in a large building used as a slaughterhouse.

Luckily, Vonnegut and the other POWs with him survived the bombings and firestorm. (He would use his experiences in Dresden as the basis for his 1969 semi-autobiographical historical novel, Slaughterhouse Five.) 

After the second raid, his captors put him and the other prisoners to work retrieving bodies for mass burial. “But there were too many corpses to bury,” he said. “So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.”

In a new introduction to the 1976 reprint of the novel, Vonnegut wrote, “The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I’m in.”

Life magazine also noted, “Dresden’s authorities finally cordoned off the center of the city and set up 25-foot-long
grills where thousands of the victims were cremated.”

Tens of Thousands of Buildings Destroyed by 2,700 tons of U.S. Bombs

In the aftermath of the attacks, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, attempting to gain sympathy from the international community, stated that Dresden was only a historic city of culture and that it held no war industries. The Third Reich also inflated the number of casualties, claiming that more than 200,000 civilians had been killed. (That figure has been repeated for decades, but in 2008 an independent historical commission formed by the city of Dresden concluded that approximately 25,000 persons died in Dresden and another 30,000 were injured—still a tremendous number.)

The city itself was a silent, dead, burned-out shell. Thousands of structures had been destroyed in a 15-square-mile radius. There was no electricity or water. No vehicles moved. The stench of burned wood and human flesh hung over the city like a shroud, and Dresden’s architectural treasures lay in ruins. A handful of stunned survivors picked their way through the still-burning rubble, searching for relatives or anything of value.

The RAF reported that 78,000 dwellings had been totally destroyed, with another 27,700 left uninhabitable and a further 64,500 damaged but repairable.

In March and April, nearly 1,000 U.S. Eighth Air Force planes would return and drop more than 2,700 tons of bombs on Dresden before Germany surrendered.

Was the Bombing of Dresden Justified? 

Within days after the February attacks, the claimed necessity of the bombing of Dresden came under scrutiny. A number of critics have questioned the tactics used and have even accused the British and Americans of “indiscriminate terror bombing”—a phrase that had been used to condemn the Germans’ use of saturation bombing of civilians in cities in Poland, Britain, Belgium, and elsewhere.

In March 1945, Churchill himself sent a memo intended for the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff: “It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land….

Dresden bombing
Horrific photo of a German corpse found in the ruins still wearing a Nazi armband.

“The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.”

 In response, Chief Air Marshal Arthur Harris wrote, “I assume that the view under consideration is something like this: no doubt in the past we were justified in attacking German cities. But to do so was always repugnant and now that the Germans are beaten anyway, we can properly abstain from proceeding with these attacks.

“This is a doctrine to which I could never subscribe. Attacks on cities, like any other act of war, are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier….

“Actually Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation point to the East. It is now none of these things.”

In the United States, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, who also felt the heat from the destruction of Dresden, authorized an inquiry that came to the conclusion that the raid, based on the intelligence available, was fully justified because Dresden was a place through which German forces could be moved to reinforce their lines on the Eastern Front.

Some historians also believe that Roosevelt and Churchill worried that after the war their ally Stalin and the USSR might become a threat and wanted the obliteration of Dresden to serve as a demonstration of Allied military power—and a warning to Stalin to not challenge the West.

For his part, Air Chief Marshal Harris never softened or wavered from his view that conducting saturation bombings of German cities was completely necessary. “The Germans started the war,” was his firm conviction until the day he died in 1984.

dresden bombing
Survivors of the bombing and firestorm remove rubble from the streets of Dresden in March 1946; by then the city was under Soviet occupation and more hardships lay ahead.

(Unfortunately, the historical record shows that the first intentional “area bombing” of civilians in World War II was conducted by the RAF against Mönchengladbach, Germany, on May 11, 1940, on Churchill’s orders the day after he became prime minister, and four months before the Luftwaffe began its Blitz of British cities.)

Harris continued, “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”

In his postwar memoir, Bomber Command, Harris wrote, “I know that the destruction of so large and splendid a city at this late stage of the war was considered unnecessary even by a good many people who admit that our earlier attacks were as fully justified as any other operation of war. Here I will only say that the attack on Dresden was at the time considered a military necessity by much more important people than myself.”

A historian wrote, “Few mourned the destruction of German cities that built the weapons and bred the soldiers that by 1945 had killed more than 10 million Allied soldiers and even more civilians. The firebombing of Dresden would prove the exception to this rule,” and many of the generals and airmen of Britain and the United States have since been criticized by some as being no better than the Nazi war criminals.

At the end of the war, Dresden was so badly damaged and beyond repair that much the city was basically leveled by dynamite and bulldozers. However, a handful of ruined historic buildings—the Frauenkirche, Zwinger Palace, State Opera House, and several others—were carefully reconstructed to their former glory out of the rubble, but the rest of the city was rebuilt in the ugly “socialist modern” style.

Today Dresden has experienced a renaissance and returned to life as one of Germany’s most important cities—a center of education and technological advancement.

Regardless, the debate over the attacks of February 13 and 15, 1945, continues to this day and those attacks remain as one of the more controversial actions of World War II.

Perhaps the last word should go to British historian Frederick Taylor, who wrote, “The destruction of Dresden has an epically tragic quality to it. It was a wonderfully beautiful city and a symbol of baroque humanism and all that was best in Germany. It also contained all of the worst from Germany during the Nazi period. In that sense it is an absolutely exemplary tragedy for the horrors of 20th century warfare and a symbol of destruction.”