In 1945, the German city of Dresden was consumed in a firestorm engineered by the Allies. Many consider it to be a war crime. Others, a necessary evil.
In 1945, the German city of Dresden was consumed in a firestorm engineered by the Allies. Many consider it to be a war crime. Others, a necessary evil.
Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13th, 1945. 2004.
McKay, Sinclair. The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. 2020.
Charles River Editors. The Firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo. 2017.
Gregg, Victor. Dresden: A Survivor’s Story. 2013.
Harris, Arthurs. Bomber Offensive. 1947.
Klemperer, Victor. I Will Bear Witness: A Diary. 1995.
Harmon, Christopher. "Are We Beasts?: Churchill and the Moral Question of World War 2 Area Bombing". 1991.
Editors, History.com. "Massive fire burns in Wisconsin". Nov 2009
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Hello and welcome to Conflicted, the history podcast where we talk about the struggles that shaped us, the tough questions that they pose, and why we should care about any of it. I’m your host, Zach Cornwell.
Welcome to Episode 11: I Must Not Burn
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In October of 1871, near the small town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin, there was a fire.
No one knows exactly where it began. Some historians say that it originated with a group of railway workers who were moving some brush or timber. Others insist that dairy farmers clearing land for grazing had been the catalyst.
But whatever happened, flames crackled to life deep in the woods of rural Wisconsin. And within minutes, they began to spread.
The fall of 1871 was an unseasonably dry one for the Midwest. The grass was brittle like straw. The trees were parched and bone-dry. And once this little fire took hold, it fed and fed and fed off these accelerants. But perhaps most crucially, a cold front had just come through the region, bringing with it heavy gusts of wind and chilly air that breathed life into the flames.
What happened next can only be described as a fluke of nature. A perfectly calibrated, freak accident of biblical proportions. Years later, it would be described as “Nature’s nuclear explosion”
This forest fire grows and grows, sucking up all that cold air, and combining with other smaller brushfires across the region to create a titanic conflagration – a literal wall of flame that raced across the prairie at 90 miles an hour.
According to historian Sinclair McKay, this fire was “a mile high and five miles wide”
Words can’t really do justice to what this would have looked like. There’s only a handful of people in a handful of time periods across human history that have witnessed this kind of horrific anomaly. But on that cold night in 1871, there were plenty of witnesses.
One man, a veteran of the Civil War, described the sound of the oncoming fire as “a roar – 100 times louder than any artillery bombardment”.
One witness said it sounded “like a freight train”.
‘The onrushing flames would leap high into the air then descend to the ground like a bouncing ball, burn everything before them, then rise for another leap. This was a ‘hurricane carrying a sheet of flame.”
By the time the fire reached the tiny town of Peshtigo, it was burning at 2000 degrees centigrade. It melted steel train cars like they were made of wax. Trees exploded on contact with the superheated air. And according to historian Bill Lutz, the fire “turned sand into glass.”
The winds feeding the fires were so strong that they lifted houses 100 feet into the air. Trees were uprooted. And the people of Peshtigo were convinced that they weren’t experiencing a fluke of nature – but the literal end of the world.
As Journalist Greg Tasker describes:
One man, after watching his wife burn, slit the throats of his three children and then himself. In the end, the fire skipped over the family.
A 21-year-old man fleeing the blaze realized he couldn't outrun it and stabbed himself several times in the chest with a penknife. The fire skipped him, and he lived; the penknife hadn't struck deep enough.
Another man hanged himself on the bucket chain of a well.
When all was said and done, 1,200 people were dead. Either cooked alive in their homes or burned to death out in the open. The few who managed to survive were the lucky ones who’d taken shelter in the ice-cold waters of a nearby river. But many more were left permanently disfigured and traumatized.
The ensuing firestorm had turned 1.5 million acres of land into ash. That’s about double the size of Rhode Island, for comparison.
What happened in Peshtigo, Wisconsin has long been overlooked in the annals of history. The Great Chicago Fire, which was happening at roughly the same time, went on to eclipse it in newspapers and textbooks.
But that freak accident of nature in rural Wisconsin held a revolting fascination for scientists and researchers. It was a something no one had ever seen before, and it quickly became known as the Peshtigo Paradigm.
But outside of academics and weather geeks, no one really cared about “nature’s nuclear explosion”. Until…75 years later, during the most destructive conflict the world had ever known and has known since.
As World War Two raged across Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific, the military minds of the time pulled the observations and learnings from Peshtigo off the dusty shelf of history. They were intrigued by this accidental firestorm that had killed hundreds upon hundreds of people with shocking speed and brutal efficiency.
And they started thinking: what if you could recreate this?
What if, through calculated science and modern technology, you could re-engineer the exact conditions and environmental variables that had destroyed Peshtigo in a single night? And what if you could aim that destructive capacity with precision to level not just a small town, but an entire city?
What Mother Nature had created by chance, the Allied Powers would meticulously re-engineer for the express purpose of taking as much human life as possible.
Today we are going to be talking about something that has been viciously debated and endlessly argued for the better part of a century. An infamous aerial bombing attack that is considered by many to have been a necessary evil, and to others an unforgivable war crime.
Today we’re going to be talking about the destruction of the German city of Dresden. If you’re a World War Two buff, you are undoubtedly familiar with Dresden and all of the drama surrounding it. If you’re not, that’s okay, too. Because we’re going to take a hard look at what happened, how it happened, and why it matters.
It's a story that demands constant retelling; because with each passing year, new information, evidence and analysis emerge regarding the tragic fate of that beautiful city.
It's also a topic that is a lightning rod for controversy and debate. Which, of course, makes it a perfect topic for this show.
In 2013, a British World War Two veteran named Victor Gregg published his memoirs. Back in 1945, he had been a prisoner of war, captured by the Nazis and held against his will in the German stronghold of Dresden. He was there to witness the chaos and destruction his countrymen unleashed on that city. While his fellow British soldiers were dropping bombs from 30,000 feet above, he was on the ground, watching it all unfold.
The memory of that experience scarred his conscience and rattled his moral compass for the rest of his life. In 2013, he wrote the following:
“I am ninety-three years old. As I delve into my memory, flashes come and go, I wake up in the middle of the night remembering sometimes disjointed phases of the experiences I went through. It is the sheer horror that remains burned into my memory and, like the fires themselves, impossible to extinguish.”
“The only reason for keeping this atrocity in the public eye is to horrify people so much that they never again allow their representatives to order such crimes. There is no excuse for the men who ordered this terrible event to be carried out. By the time of the bombing of Dresden the formula for the mass murder of civilians had been brought to a fine art.
I have every respect for the brave lads of the RAF who flew the bombers, they were under orders and, as a soldier, I know that orders are there to be obeyed. But, it is my belief that in the act of destroying the evil of the Third Reich we employed further and more terrible evils, although I know that not everybody agrees with me.”
The starkness of those words and the raw emotion that Victor Gregg felt even his nineties, seven decades after the fact – really speaks to the gravity and trauma of what happened.
But…what did happen? What could have ignited such fierce debate and left countless men and women haunted by memories for decades to come?
To fully appreciate what happened at Dresden. To experience even a fraction of the horror that caused Victor Gregg to recoil in disgust at what had been done to an enemy city…we need to understand what was actually lost that night.
We need to visit Dresden in its prime. Long before air raid sirens began to wail in the night.
FLORENCE ON THE ELBE
Dresden was an old city. Even by European standards.
For centuries, it had flourished along the banks of the river Elbe, which runs through eastern Germany. As the years passed, empires rose and fell, borders shifted and regimes changed, but Dresden always sat at the heart of intellectual and artistic life in central Europe.
One of the most common words you’ll hear associated with Dresden is “beautiful”. And it was beautiful, its skyline a tapestry of soaring baroque architecture, gothic towers, and gently sloping cathedrals, with a city center filled with bustling marketplaces, restaurants, and opera houses.
But Dresden wasn’t just famous for its postcard-worthy aesthetics. It was more than just a pretty face. As one resident proudly said, Dresden was “a jewel box”, a hotbed of art, literature, technology, and cultural tourism. Another described it as “the Florence of the Elbe”.
Beginning in the 18th century, countless artists and intellectuals flocked to Dresden to study, work, and live. As Sinclair McKay writes in his book The Fire and the Darkness:
“Dresden had also acquired pleasurable notoriety for the crackling vigor of its artistic life: the wildly innovative painters, the composers, the writers. Here were some of the earliest modernists; visionary architects with new ideas for perfect communities were drawn to the city too. Added to this, music seemed part of the chemical composition of these streets. It still does today: in the old city in the evenings, you will hear classical buskers and the echoes of cathedral choirs. Those echoes were heard many decades before.”
Washington Irving, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow once visited the city, and called it ‘a place of taste, intellect and literary feeling’
But Dresden was a welcoming harbor for the left brain as well as the right, developing into a wellspring of invention and technological innovation.
Porcelain, which for centuries could only be produced in China, was reproduced by German chemists in Dresden. The city was already famous, but this truly put it on the map in a big way. Delicate porcelain china, figurines, and plates from Dresden were all the rage throughout the western world and beyond.
But the city had even more innovation up its sleeve. The first modern women’s bra was invented in Dresden in 1889 by Fraulein Christine Hardt. The world’s first mouthwash was formulated in Dresden in 1895. It also became the first European city to manufacture squeezable toothpaste, latex condoms, coffee filters, and cigarettes. Not only that, it was an industrial epicenter for optical technology, like telescopes, microscopes and camera lenses.
You get the sense, that Dresden was one of those places that had a self-fulfilling creative prophecy. It was known *the* place to be, and so everyone went there, hit it big, feeding the legend of Dresden as *the* place to be.
No doubt, Dresden was blessed with an embarrassment of cultural riches. It was an allure that proved irresistible to a German man named Victor Klemperer.
Victor was an academic by trade. He’d studied romance languages at universities across Europe – Munich, Paris, Naples, and Berlin. Everything in his life seemed to be going according to plan, until, when Victor was 33 years old, an obscure Archduke was assassinated in Serbia, and the first World War erupted across Europe.
Victor may have been a bookworm, but he was also a patriot. A proud German who felt compelled to serve his country in its hour of greatest need. So he volunteered to fight in the muddy, blood soaked trenches against the British and the French in 1915. Three long years passed, and unlike millions of his countrymen, Victor survived World War One. And he did so with honor, earning a medal of distinction for his efforts.
That awful conflict ended in a humiliating defeat for Germany in 1918, but Victor was anxious to start fresh, even if his country couldn’t. So he packed up and moved with his wife Eva to the city of Dresden. In 1920, he became a Professor at the Technical University of Dresden.
Those were hard years economically for Germany. The peace treaty they’d signed after the conclusion of World War One was a crushing repudiation and body blow to their economy. But, Victor Klemperer and his wife managed to carve out a relatively happy existence in the picturesque cosmopolis of Dresden. Victor had his studies, his academic peers, and his students. His wife Eva had a close circle of friends and her beloved pet cat. It was a peaceful life.
But in the early 1930s, things began to change in Dresden.
Throughout Germany, a new power was rising. One that used the shame of World War One and the economic anxiety of the post-war years to propel itself to power. And before long, the brown shirts, red armbands, and black swastikas of the Nazi party had infected the Florence on the Elbe.
Even at this early stage, Victor despised the Nazis. He thought they were thugs, brutal zealots with no respect or capacity for the intellectual impulses that made Dresden famous in the first place. Victor was intensely proud of his German identity, and he felt that the Nazi party did not belong in his country. As he wrote curtly in 1935: “I am forever German. A German nationalist. The Nazis are Un-German”.
Well, the Nazis felt very much the same about Victor. Because even though he was a decorated war veteran, a baptized Protestant and a vital member of Dresdner literati, Victor Klemperer was – ethnically - Jewish.
As the 1930s marched onward, Victor watched with disbelief and anger as the Nazis began to twist and disfigure the face of the Dresden he knew and loved. At first the changes were small, if annoying. An aggressive stare. A mumbled insult on the tram. But then came the rallies, the crimson swastika banners draped over every building. Boycotts of Jewish businesses, racist caricatures slapped on every street corner.
Victor loved his country. But it didn’t love him anymore.
As historian Frederick Taylor wrote in his book Dresden, “Ancient intolerances were seething hidden beneath the city’s perfect, well-cared for skin”.
Anti-Semitism was certainly not new to Germany in general or Dresden in particular, but the Nazis unearthed it, dusted it off, and made it modern and fashionable.
Victor was insulated from some of this, because he was married to what the Nazis classified as a full-blooded Aryan woman. His wife Eva was a “true German”, in their eyes. Although that didn’t stop the Gestapo from regularly harassing the couple and even calling Eva “a Jew’s whore” to her face.
Dresden was a cultural flower, and the Nazis plucked every single petal. As Adolf Hitler said to a roaring crowd on May 30th, 1934, “Dresden is a pearl. And we will give it a new setting.”
The city’s vibrant, cutting-edge art scene was dubbed too “avant-garde” for the Fuhrer’s tastes. Modernist painters had their galleries closed and were forced to paint the kitschy landscapes that Hitler considered “real art”. Not only that, artists were compelled to use their gifts for the purposes of propaganda in service of the Nazi ideology. This was what they called “Gleichschaltung”, which means “coordination”. As historian Sinclair McKay writes:
“It meant that all artistic endeavor had to conform strictly to Nazi ideals.”
Science wasn’t safe either. Being the birthplace of mouthwash and mass-produced toothpaste, Dresden had a very famous Hygiene Museum. It was a big tourist attraction, featuring exhibits on anatomical science and the history of Dresden’s hygiene industry. But the Nazis had a talent for transforming even the most innocuous things into something sinister. The Dresden Museum of Hygiene became the Museum of Racial Hygiene. And the exhibits focused less on keeping bodies clean, and more on keeping bloodlines pure.
Dresden’s music scene also fell prey to the Nazis. 14 Jewish musicians were unceremoniously fired from their chairs in the Dresden Opera. When the conductor, a world famous musician named Fritz Busch, pushed back on this, he was harassed by brownshirts and prevented from performing at all.
Things got worse and worse in Dresden. And before long, the cold-eyed gaze of Nazi bigotry settled on Victor and Eva Klemperer’s world: Academia.
All of Dresden’s fellow professors, researchers, and teachers were forced to swear oaths of loyalty to Hitler in public. To Victor’s horror – but probably not shock – he was dismissed from his post at the university. Along with every other Jew on staff. They were banned from holding academic tenure forever. It didn’t matter that Victor was a baptized Christian and a war hero, he was a Jew. End of discussion.
The Nazis were nothing if not spiteful, and the indignities racked up with head-spinning efficiency after that. The Gestapo took Victor’s typewriter, so he couldn’t work. All Jews were forbidden from owning cars, or using public transit. Victor’s wife Eva was even forced to euthanize her own cat, because Jews were not allowed to have household pets. To top it off, the Nazis took aim at the city’s Jewish children too. As Sinclair Mckay writes:
“There seemed to be an almost childlike spite in the Dresden decree of 1942 that Jews were now forbidden to buy either flowers or ice cream. The latter by-law seemed aimed squarely at the few Jewish children who remained, an act of cruelty so calculated as to suggest something hotter, more lava-like, than sociopathy.”
Around this time, Victor Klemperer started to keep a diary. Every single day, he’d jot down notes, thoughts, and observations. He was determined to “bear witness”, even as he was forced to pin a yellow star to his coat. As he wrote:
“I am now fighting the hardest battle for my German identity. I must hold on to it: I am German. The others are not. I must hold on to it. The spirit decides, not the blood. I must hold on to it”
He decided to:
“Observe, study, record everything that happens -- tomorrow it'll look different, tomorrow it will feel differently. Seize it as it happens and feels."
He kept this diary for ten long years living in Dresden. And thank God he did. As the New York Times put it:
“For its cool, lucid style and power of observation, Victor Klemperer's diary has been hailed as a document of rare authenticity -- the best-written, most evocative, most observant record of daily life in the Third Reich, not solely from the vantage point of a victim.”
Before the Nazis had come to power, Dresden had a population of 6,000 Jewish people. By the winter of 1945, there were only 198 left. And Victor was one of them. His marriage to his Aryan wife Eva had undoubtedly saved his life. But it had cost them everything else.
They’d lost their home, their car, their friends, their pets, their professions, and their sense of dignity. They were cooped up in a Dresden ghetto awaiting the inevitable day when they too would be packed into train cars and sent East to certain extermination.
But - despite all of this, Dresden was still a beautiful, rich, cosmopolitan city - tucked safely away in a protected pocket of the German homeland. The people of the city believed that the flames and horrors of war could never touch them.
But others knew better. Victor Klemperer wasn’t the only German who despised the Nazis and saw the danger they represented. A Dresden politician named Ernst Heinrich knew that a regime built on brutality and blind fanaticism could only end one way. And he bitterly remarked:
“Only the most stupid calves choose their own butcher,”
The Nazis would not butcher the population of Dresden. But they delivered them to the slaughterhouse.
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THE AIR WAR
In 1939, the world was at war. Again.
For the people of Great Britain, it represented an exhausting sense of déjà vu. For the second time in a generation, young British men and young German men were killing each other.
But this time, things were different. The Germans were different. The German soldiers of Victor Klemperer’s generation had fought for each other, for their families, and a vague, abstract notion of national pride. But the soldiers of Nazi Germany were fighting to establish a new world order, one built on a foundation of innocent lives, racial superiority, and casual brutality.
The British knew they were facing a different kind of enemy. The Nazis were at once both primitive and modern. Animated by a cultish, white-hot fanaticism, and yet possessing a dispassionate pragmatism. This was a Neanderthal lust for domination, refined through the prism of cutting-edge technology and tactical ingenuity.
Basically, they were fucking scary.
They were fast. And organized. And good at killing in a way that Europe was not prepared for.
Once the Panzer tanks and dive-bombers of the Nazi war machine got moving, Europe fell like dominos. Poland. Austria. Czechoslovakia. Belgium. France.
That last one came as a shock to the world in general, and Great Britain in particular. The French and British had fought and died together in the trenches of World War One. In that conflict, they had been equal partners, slowly but surely pushing Germany back until the spine of its economy snapped under the effort back in 1918.
In 1939, France had one of the most powerful militaries in the world. No one, it seemed, was more prepared for war with Germany. But within three weeks, the French had surrendered. Mainland Europe was overrun, and the Nazi high command were toasting champagne flutes in Paris. And if anyone in Britain thought the English Channel could protect them from the long reach of Hitler’s ambitions, they were sorely mistaken.
In the early stages of the war, one of Nazi Germany’s most effective instruments of death was its air force, the Luftwaffe.
In the forty years since the airplane was first invented by a pair of American brothers in North Carolina, aerial technology had progressed leaps and bounds. Almost immediately, the militaries of the world saw the potential for this new machine. Its capacity to attack from above, unhindered by roads, terrain, or environmental impediments.
In 1903, the Wright Brothers’ first flight in their aircraft only lasted 12 seconds and traveled 120 feet – that’s shorter than the wingspan of a Boeing 737. But within decades, air forces were building steel planes that could travel hundreds of miles without refueling. Planes that had the ability to carry dozens of people, stacks of cargo, or… thousands of bombs.
With mainland Europe fully in the grip of Nazi Germany and its allies, Hitler needed a way to exert pressure on the last man standing: Great Britain. He didn’t necessarily want to invade the British Isles, he just needed the British to sit quietly in their corner and let him do his thing.
But the Brits were stubborn.
Their gruff yet eloquent Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, knew that Hitler was not the kind of man you cut a deal with. Making peace with Nazi Germany might alleviate some of the short-term pain, but it would only succeed in giving Hitler enough breathing room to solidify his position. And then – eventually – the Nazi war machine would be knocking on their door.
As he put it: “Without victory, there is no survival” only “a long night of barbarism…unbroken by even a star of hope”.
It was an untenable position, and Churchill was shrewd enough to see it. So he says, “No, we’re not going to surrender. We’re gonna hold out for as long as we can. Good luck getting your armies across the English channel, buddy. Come and get us.”
Hitler obliges. To put pressure on Churchill to surrender, he turns to the German air force, the Luftwaffe. And they unleash a devastating campaign of bombing raids on British airfields and radar towers. But the British were not defenseless. The British Royal Air Force – or RAF - manages to keep the Luftwaffe at bay for months and months. And it was at this moment, when Britain was hanging on by its fingernails, that someone made a mistake.
That mistake – and the response to it - would have far-reaching consequences on the ethical trajectory of the war.
Hitler had given explicit orders to the Luftwaffe that under no circumstances were they to attack British population centers, London in particular. In other words, non-military civilian targets were off limits. This was an unspoken, gentleman’s agreement between the warring powers.
But on the night of August 24th, 1940, a group of German bombers got lost and they dropped bombs on London itself. Churchill believed, naturally, that this had been intentional. The very next day, the Royal Air Force carried out a similar raid on Berlin in retaliation. More dead civilians. More innocent lives lost.
This deliberate attack on a non-military target was the first step in a gradual loosening of moral parameters on aerial bombing raids. It didn’t happen overnight, but a line had been crossed.
An enraged Hitler responds with a string of incessant aerial bombing raids on British population centers. This became known as the Blitz; and for 57 straight nights, the people of London experienced the same terrifying ritual over and over again. The ear-splitting wail of air raid sirens. The panicked rush to the underground shelters. The shaking, the explosions and the rumbling overhead. And then emerging from the shelters to find neighborhoods burning, houses gone, and livelihoods destroyed. All in all, the Blitz would kill 14,000 civilians. 20,000 would be wounded.
In the aftermath of one of these raids, a British Air Marshal named Sir Arthur Harris was standing on a London rooftop, watching the fires burn. Harris was a member of RAF senior command, and he found himself mesmerized - and angered - by the sight of London in flames. Years later, he wrote the following in his memoirs:
I well remember the worst nights of the Blitz. I watched the old city in flames from the roof of the Air Ministry, with St. Paul’s standing out in the midst of an ocean of fire—an incredible sight.
As I watched I turned to the sentry on the roof and said: “The last time London was burnt, if my history is right, was in 1666,” and I told him he was looking at history.
As we turned away from the scene I said: “Well, they are sowing the wind.”
The second half of that colloquialism was left unsaid. But Sir Arthur Harris would go on to personally see to it that the Germans would “reap the whirlwind”.
According to his personal memoirs:
“I was convinced, having watched the burning of London, that a bomber offensive of adequate weight and the right kind of bombs would, if continued for long enough, be something that no country in the world could endure.”
Sir Arthur Harris would go on to become the architect of not only the attack on the city of Dresden, but a coordinated bombing offensive designed specifically to obliterate German population centers in the final years of the war.
And his greatest teacher had been the German Luftwaffe itself.
The RAF had been able to observe the effects of bombs on their cities. Best practices, missed opportunities. What worked, what didn’t, and why. And they could use that accumulated knowledge to inflict damage on German cities when the time was right: As Sir Arthur Harris said:
“It would have taken Bomber Command much longer to learn how to attack Germany if it had not been for the lessons of the German attacks on Britain.”
After the failure of his air campaign against Britain, Hitler abandoned his plans of forcing Churchill to surrender, and in 1942 he turned his attentions toward Russia, breaking his agreement with its leader Joseph Stalin and launching an ill-fated invasion of the Soviet Union. It would prove a decisive turning point and just the amount of breathing room that the Western Allies needed to make plans for Nazi Germany’s downfall.
As Sir Arthur Harris observed with smug superiority and acid contempt:
“The Germans never make a small mistake. But they can always be relied upon to make all the imaginable large and catastrophic mistakes. No one but a German would have thought of attacking Russia quite needlessly before the rest of the world had been finished off.”
In February 1942, Harris was promoted to the head of Britain’s Bomber Command. His path to that position had been long, hard-fought, and unconventional.
Arthur Harris was the prototypical definition of the prodigal son. At age sixteen, he bailed on his middle-class English upbringing and hopped a boat to Africa. His older brothers were good English boys, bound for careers in the military; but Arthur wasn’t like them. He clearly wanted to get away from the cloudy skies and rigid conventionalism of England. So he worked as a farm manager in Rhodesia for several years. And he would’ve have been content to live out his life there.
But then, when he was 22 years old, World War One broke out.
Like Professor Victor Klemperer up in Dresden, Arthur Harris felt compelled to serve his country. After briefly fighting in the infantry, he volunteered for a post in the newly-created Royal Air Force. He said he was ”determined to find some way of going to war in a sitting posture.”
He was good at it too. Arthur Harris shot down five German aircraft during the WW1 which made him an “Ace” pilot. He even earned the Air Force Cross. In the end, the pull of familial destiny seemed too much to overcome. Arthur did not return to his farm in Africa. He stayed in England and shot up through the ranks of the Royal Air Force.
In 1942, Arthur Harris was a fifty-year-old career soldier with one of the world’s largest and deadliest air forces at his disposal. His strawberry blond hair and mustache had paled to a reddish grey, but his instincts and determination were no less sharp.
He was also a notorious asshole.
Like, do you know anyone at work, or in your personal life, who is undeniably a jerk? But in spite of being a jerk, they are very good at what they do? Infuriatingly competent. Well, Sir Arthur Harris was a little bit like that. He was abrasive, rude, and transparent to the point of being obnoxious. But he was smart, and effective, and everyone in the RAF knew it.
When Arthur Harris takes over Bomber Command, the thinking around the role of aerial bombing begins to change and evolve. Going forward, the RAF would not be *just* a defensive apparatus. They would take the fight to the enemy, deep into the heart of the German homeland. As British propaganda said at the time:
“Europe is a fortress. But it is a fortress without a roof”.
The idea was to keep the Germans fighting with one hand behind their backs. Because every German defending the skies against British planes in the West, was a German that could not be committed to fighting the Russians in the East. And vice versa.
To do this, the Bomber crews of the British Royal Air Force would be launching raids on the industrial and logistical infrastructure that propped up the German war machine. Oil refineries, supply depots, railways, munitions factories, and docks.
But that was easier said than done.
Flying missions over Germany was a notoriously deadly gig. The cities and industrial centers of Germany were so well defended by anti-aircraft batteries and Luftwaffe squadrons that all attacks had to happen at night. As Arthur Harris wearily recalled:
“We could not operate by-day over Germany without completely prohibitive casualties for day fighters, and we at once began to prepare and train for bombing at night.”
The men who were tasked with flying these bombing missions faced unimaginable stress, hardship, fatigue, and death. So let’s talk about them for a little bit. The young people who men like Arthur Harris sent up into the skies over Germany.
The usual bombing crew was a seven-man team. Entire flocks of bombers, hundreds at a time, would take off from airfields in Britain, fly over the English Channel, across France, and into Germany. Once there, they would drop their bombs, and fly back the way they came.
This entire process could take upwards of 7-8 hours, minimum. And those 8 hours felt like years to these crews.
Being crammed into the tight fuselages of these aircraft was a claustrophobic experience, and once the plane got up to the proper altitude – 30,000 feet or so – the temperature plummeted to sub-zero levels.
Aircrews had to wear jumpsuits that were electrically heated to keep from freezing. They had to rub oil on their faces to prevent losing their noses to frostbite. Some even resorted to wearing ladies silk stockings under their jumpsuits just to get a little bit warmer. On top of that, the jostling and bumpiness of the flights made many airmen intensely nauseous.
But the job wasn’t just a physically taxing experience. It required an almost superhuman level of mental discipline. Bombing a target wasn’t as simple as flying over an X and pulling a lever. Crews had to take into account precise mathematical factors like headwinds, airspeed, and topography.
They had to think quickly in the event of mechanical failure, or bad weather, or unexpected conditions. The smallest error could send them hundreds of miles off course, colliding into another aircraft, or flying directly into the teeth of anti-aircraft fire.
But what got these men through it all was the bonds they formed with each other. That’s a little cliché, but it’s true. It wasn’t just a warm and fuzzy thing either – being tight with your aircrew was a necessity. In order to do their job correctly, these crews had to be as close as childhood friends in a matter of weeks. They had to trust one another implicitly and become a 7-man hivemind in order to respond to the rigors and curveballs of the mission.
But riding along with every crew, from takeoff to touchdown, was something that 21-year-old Flight Sergeant Miles Tripp called “the eighth passenger: fear”.
To be in a bomber crew was to wake up every morning with the knowledge that you would likely die within weeks. 40% of men who joined Bomber Command were killed, maimed, or captured. It was a numbers game very few airmen won. As historian Sinclair Mckay writes:
“They were acutely, silently aware of the mortality rate for bomber crews, and of how it was more likely than not that their lives would soon end in blinding fireballs.”
He goes on:
“One airman recalled watching a plane disintegrate in mid-air and pieces of what he assumed were fuselage hitting the windscreen in front of him. With horror, he realized that he was seeing not metal but flesh; fragments of a dead airmen, blood and muscle, which became fused in the freezing air with the glass, meaning that those in the cockpit had to gaze upon these mortal remains all the hundreds of miles back to base.”
It was a violent job. And their lives ended violently. Crews would have to fly all the way back to England with their dead friends sitting just inches away from them. When planes returned to base, it wasn’t uncommon for the seats to be hosed out to clear the interior of all the blood and viscera from members of the crew who had been hit by bullets or shrapnel.
And then, they’d have to wake up and do it all over again a few days later. Week after week. Month after month.
Naturally, that led to some unhealthy coping mechanisms. McKay continues:
“There were airmen who developed what would now be termed obsessive-compulsive disorder: men who had to rub their faces in a certain way just before they boarded; a gunner who had a very particular order in which he had to get dressed, from the socks up; a flight engineer who had become manically attached to a certain tweed cap, and who would not contemplate flying a mission without it”.
When not up in the air, many tried to distract themselves with alcohol. Others went for bike rides through the English countryside. But no amount of booze or sunshine could keep the nightmares at bay. British airmen would often wake each other up in the middle of the night, screaming.
In the end, many of them became numb to the job. One airman named Gordon Fenwick explained: “There was a today. Maybe a tomorrow. That was it.”
There’s an anecdote from historian Frederick Taylor’s book Dresden, that does a great job of illustrating both the terrifying grind of the job, and the camaraderie of the crews. He tells about a bomber crew who got the news that their tours of duty had been extended:
“Shortly after noon their Australian skipper, nicknamed “Dig,” came into their hut and woke them with the unwelcome news: He sat on the side of a bed, lighted a cigarette, and began, “You’re not going to like this.” No one spoke. “Another directive came through from Group today. That order about extending a tour to thirty-five ops has been amended. The order is now ‘forty sorties over enemy or enemy-occupied territory.’” George broke the dreadful silence. “But that’ll leave us with fourteen to do! We’re back where we were two months ago!” “That’s right, mate.” “We shan’t make it,” said George.
These crews did their work bravely and methodically, but to Sir Arthur Harris’ and the rest of Bomber Command’s frustration, the raids were not having the desired effect on Germany. It wasn’t working. No matter how talented or experienced his crews were, it was very difficult for them to hit specific targets with anything resembling precision.
This was not the age of guided missiles, drones, or satellites. The ability to bomb a particular factory or a particular oil refinery – especially at night with almost zero visibility – was next to impossible. And even if done right, it was very probable that civilian areas would be hit and non-combatants might be killed.
But Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, quickly realizes that civilian casualties were not a bug; they were a feature.
The accidental destruction of civilian areas and the killing of non-combatants, euphemistically termed “spillage”, could be incredibly disruptive. It was a massive drain on infrastructure, morale and worker capacity. If you bomb a factory, it can be repaired and back up and running in a matter of days or weeks. But if you bomb the neighborhood where those factory workers live…well, then you’ve made an impact. A worker who’s dead or homeless isn’t going to be very productive.
At some point, a lightbulb goes off, and Arthur Harris begins heavily advocating for what came to be known as “area bombing” - as opposed to “precision bombing”. It was easier, deadlier, and more effective. But it also incurred heavy civilian casualties, including women and children. And that was the point. Harris believed, along with many others, that the only way to break the will of the German people to fight on, was to inflict massive damage on German population itself.
To make morale a military target.
Not everyone was on board with this strategy. When Winston Churchill himself saw footage of British air raids on Western Germany, and the destructive effect the bombs could have, he said: “Are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?”.
Years earlier, when a member of the British parliament had advocated for unrestricted bombing n German cities, Churchill had replied: “My dear sir, this is a military and not a civilian war. You and others may desire to kill women and children. We desire to destroy German military objectives”.
But as the war ground on, and the intricacies and inefficacies of targeted bombing became more apparent, it was clear that the Allies could not have one without the other. Churchill could not deny what Dr Christopher C. Harmon later called the “cold logic” and the efficiency of area bombing. To slay a monster like Nazi Germany, a certain amount of monstrosity would be required.
As Winston Churchill reluctantly acknowledged, they would have to be “no longer be bound by our previously held scruples.”
Many British people and their leaders, weary of war, still angry and resentful about the destruction of their own cities during the Blitz, thought “area bombing” was a necessary evil. And so in the winter of 1944, Sir Arthur Harris, Head of Bomber Command, was given the green light to unleash the full force of all his deadly resources on the cities of Germany.
His moral case was clear, if controversial. As one American political theorist named Michael Walzer put it: “The greater the justice of one’s cause, the more rights one has in battle.” Taking that idea to its logical conclusion: if an enemy is evil, then whatever you have to do to defeat that evil is morally justified. That is a slippery slope if I’ve ever heard one.
But Sir Arthur Harris believed in this principle with ironclad conviction. He was emphatic in the need for this ruthless strategy, saying:
“It is our last chance; it would have more effect on the war than anything else. I am still, I must confess, of the opinion that, in this hard winter – beset as they are on all fronts – a determined effort could not fail to destroy most of the major towns I mentioned and that that … would be the end of Germany,’
But many, even those in Bomber Command, had their doubts. One British researcher named Freeman Dyson described his slow but steady decline into moral ambivalence over the course of the conflict:
“Since the beginning of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all. At the beginning of the war I … was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war I retreated and said, ‘Unfortunately nonviolent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing.’ A few years later I said, ‘Unfortunately it seems that bombing is necessary in order to win the war, and so I am willing to go to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately.’ After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, ‘Unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified as it is helping to win the war.’ But, ‘In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses.”
For better or worse, the gloves were off. According to Sinclair McKay, the new bombing strategy would be:
Aimed directly at the bodies and souls of the ordinary people to achieve ‘maximum moral effect’ – a hefty euphemism for fear and insecurity. [McKay then quotes an internal Bomber Command memo] ‘The attack must be delivered in such density that it imposes as nearly as possible a 100% risk of death to the individual in the area in which it is applied. The attack should ‘produce an effect amounting to a national disaster’.
And so in the final winter of World War Two, German civilian population centers fell into the crosshairs of the Royal Air Force. Far away to the East, tucked along the picturesque river Elbe, the people of Dresden had no idea that their death warrant had just been signed.
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On the morning of February 13th, 1945, the children of Dresden were putting on their costumes.
Today was the German festival Fasching, which marked the beginning of Lent. Kids were skipping down the streets with their parents, dressed up as cowboys and devils, whatever colorful getup they could patch together for the occasion. It was, as one Dresden native described, it “a glint in the calendar” of an otherwise dreary season.
The weather was even pretty nice. February in Dresden was usually cold and miserable. But as one Dresden man remembered, that day was filled with “serene sunshine and mild weather”.
As Dresden parents walked their costumed children up and down the streets, it would’ve been a welcome distraction from the reality of their situation. Germany was losing the war. Badly. And although no one would ever say it within earshot of the Gestapo, many believed that continued resistance was a lost cause.
The once-mighty German army had been sucked dry of its best soldiers, leaving only inexperienced recruits and wild-eyed fanatics. This was not the same Wehrmacht that had conquered France in three weeks. It was only a matter of time before it cracked.
In early 1945, Germany found itself being squeezed between two pincers simultaneously. The British and Americans from the West. And the Soviet Union from the East. But of the two, it was the Soviet Union that scared them the most.
Over the course of the last few months, refugees had been pouring into Dresden. People who were running from implacable advance of the Red Army. And these refugees brought with them horrifying rumors. Stories of mass murder, gang rapes, and senseless brutality at the hands of drunken Soviet soldiers. And unfortunately, it was all true. The Russians were committing atrocities left and right with complete impunity. All the Germans could do was run.
Sidebar: If you happen to enjoy depressing stories and want hear more about the war crimes committed by the Soviet Red Army and their capture of Berlin, check out the third episode of the show, “They Saw Red”.
But for the people of Dresden, all they could do was hope that the sparkling reputation of their city would save them. In fact, many Dresdeners believed with confidence that the Allies would never attack them with anything other than velvet gloves. The city was too old, too beautiful, and too culturally significant to ever experience the grim fate of other German population centers.
Also balanced against the unsettling stories from the East were more optimistic rumors from the West. It was said that with the Nazis on the cusp of defeat, the Allies would make Dresden the new capital of Germany once Berlin had been destroyed. Another popular rumor flying around at the times was that Winston Churchill himself had a favorite Aunt who lived in Dresden, and he would never allow the city to be attacked.
Well, he didn’t - and he would.
Far away to the West, in the smoke-filled rooms of Allied airfields, the bomber crews were being briefed on their next target. The internal RAF memo said:
“Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance.... 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.”
As a matter of course, the bomber crews were never told their target until the day the attack would take place, for obvious security reasons. When they heard they would be bombing Dresden, they were surprised. As airman Leslie Hay remembered:
The squadron commander draws back the curtain. And he said, It’s going to Dresden. Right at the back of Germany. And my heart sank and I thought, Crumbs, that’s a long way.”
An airman named Miles Tripp recalled: ‘Nobody had ever heard of Dresden being raided before’. And Bomber Pilot William Topper said years after the war:
‘We all knew it was a lovely city. It was full of refugees, it was full of art treasures. We were told the Russians had asked for it.”
And Topper was right. The Russians had specifically asked RAF Bomber Command to attack Dresden. And it was a request that wasn’t without have strategic merit.
Just as Hitler had promised a decade earlier, the Nazis had taken the “pearl” that was Dresden and given it a new setting. Slowly but surely, Dresden had become a key center of wartime production. The cigarette factories had been converted to make bullets. The camera lens companies had been forced to make optical equipment for the military. And the city itself was a vital railway hub for German troops moving East to confront the Red Army.
Consequently, the Soviets wanted Dresden wiped off the map.
Winston Churchill, Sir Arthur Harris and Bomber Command were eager to oblige. Politically, it was a smart move. It simultaneously signaled to the Russians that they could count on the British in the final phase of the war, but it would also demonstrate the killing power the Allies could bring to bear if the Russians got too big for their britches.
Carrot and stick – all in one.
None of that political gamesmanship mattered in Dresden, though.
Especially not to our old friend Professor Victor Klemperer - one of the last Jews left in the city. Over the last 10 years, he’d meticulously logged his experiences under the Nazi regime in his diary. In that time, he’d seen friends shipped off to concentration camps and watched the once-thriving Jewish population in Dresden wither down to almost nothing.
Because of his marriage to his Aryan wife Eva, he’d thus far managed to escape the gas chambers. But now, he was convinced his time had come. The Nazis were clearing the last remaining Jews from the city. Victor Klemperer and his wife were going to be ”deported” the very next week.
Across the city, in a holding cell for Allied POWs, another man was facing an imminent death sentence. It was the British soldier Victor Gregg – who, if you’ll recall – was the 93-year old man from the beginning of the episode who wrote so passionately about the bombing of Dresden.
On February 13th, 1945, Gregg was still a young man. But on that pleasant day in Dresden, he was absolutely convinced that he would die a young man. Not because of Allied bombs, but German bullets. He and a fellow POW had been sentenced to death for sabotaging a factory line in Dresden. They were scheduled to be executed the very next morning. But Gregg’s friend, Harry, was the more cheerful of the two. And the day of the attack, Gregg remembered Harry saying: “Don’t worry. Something will turn up”.
And finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention arguably the most famous person staying in the city of Dresden on that fateful day. Like Gregg, this person was also a prisoner-of-war, but he was an American.
Kurt Vonnegut, a man who would go onto become one of the most respected authors in the world, was just a 23-year-old soldier on February 13th, being held with other POWs in the meat locker of a Dresden slaughterhouse. At the time, even Vonnegut was impressed by the sheer beauty of Dresden. He later told his wife Jane that it was: “The first proper city” he’d ever seen. What happened to him over the next 48 hours would inspire him to write one his most famous novels, Slaughterhouse Five.
As the sun dipped below the horizon that evening, the authors of Dresden’s obliteration were beginning their mission. The British bomber crews were hopping into their winged fortresses.
254 Lancaster bombers, carrying about 2,000 airmen and a combined payload of 880 tons of explosives, took off just after 5 o’clock, heading East towards Germany.
It was a 700 mile journey, and not as the crow flies. To keep what remained of the German air force guessing, the British bomber squadrons had to travel in a large zig-zagging flight path. That way, the German radar operators wouldn’t know which city was being bombed until it was already too late.
Dresden was completely unprepared for what was roaring toward them across the skies of Germany. Many major German cities had a complex system of sophisticated air raid shelters, reinforced subterranean bunkers that could protect their inhabitants from bombs. Dresden did not. The senior Nazi party official responsible for Dresden had built a private bunker for himself, but claimed he couldn’t secure the funds for public shelters.
Many German cities had robust air-defense systems. Batteries of heavy anti-aircraft guns and spotlights that could fill the sky with flak and shrapnel. Dresden did not. All their guns had been moved to the East to fight the Red Army. All the city had to protect itself, was the delusional fantasy that it would never be attacked.
The one thing Dresden did have was air raid sirens. If city officials believed there was a credible threat, they’d hit the switch and Dresden would be filled with a high-pitched warning noise. It wasn’t a novel sound to the inhabitants of the city, though. Dresden had been hit by a couple of small raids before, but didn’t suffer any serious damage.
Nevertheless, the jumpy Nazi officials made a practice of over-using the air raid sirens. For upwards of 150 consecutive nights, the citizens of Dresden had listened to the sirens wail throughout their streets, alleys, and neighborhoods. This had a numbing effect, and by February 13th, 1945 the warning had about as much urgency as an office fire drill.
You had to go through the motions, but none of this was actually real. Well tonight, it was real. And at 9:40 PM, the air raid sirens go off.
Most people obeyed the warning and filed into their basements, cellars, or shelters. But it wasn’t taken seriously. One German soldier named Gunter Jackel remembered the reaction in a hospital. A man from western Germany got scared and “he immediately packed a few things together. We Saxons laughed and smiled and said, “Oh, we’re always having warnings!”
Then a broadcast comes on the radio:
“Attention! Attention! Bombers on approach to Dresden! Seek the air-raid shelters immediately!’”
A man named Herr Frank, who was just a little boy at the time, remembers being pulled out of his bed by his mother, saying the wail of the sirens was “ghastly”. He remembers starting to cry, but his recollections are fuzzy: “Was it just the fright of being pulled out of bed that caused the tears?’
When Professor Victor Klemperer heard the sirens, he and Eva immediately took shelter with the other remaining Jews in the city. As they huddled underground, he remembered a woman next to them saying she hoped the bombers would “smash the whole place up.”
Twenty minutes after the siren went off, the people of Dresden noticed something drifting down from the sky. Not falling, but slowly drifting, like snow. They were clusters of bright red and green lights. According to historian Sinclair McKay, observers thought they looked “like a bunch of grapes, or a magician’s bouquet, or more frequently an inverted fir tree.”
The entire city was bathed in red and green light by what the Dresdeners started referring to as “Christmas trees”.
It was beautiful, but this wasn’t a light show. These “Christmas trees” were actually marker flares, dropped by British Pathfinders to illuminate the city for the bombers. It was a clear, cloudless night, and these marker flares were a glowing, neon sign that could be seen perfectly from 10,000 feet above.
After the “Christmas trees”, many Dresdeners start to feel what they described as a hum. A deep resonance that could be felt in their chests and made the inner ears crackle. The hum, which started soft and continued to grow, was the combined roar of 254 bombers screaming over the city.
Gisela Reichelt, who was a little girl at the time, remembered: “Everyone in the cellar began to pray. Even those who did not believe in God.’
And at 10:12 PM, the Allied bombers open their bay doors. The payloads are so heavy, that the pilots have to account for the sudden jump in altitude due to the lack of weight.
Thousands upon thousands of bombs whistle downward towards Dresden. These were the 4,000 pound explosives nicknamed “Blockbusters”, for for their ability level anything within a 200 foot radius, or about the size of a city block. They were so large, you could’ve seen them falling through the air from the street. They were, to quote Sinclair McKay:
“the size of three men standing in a huddle.
Then the bombs begin to detonate.
In the network of cellars and basements beneath Dresden, people start to experience an intense, percussive sensation. Everything rattles and shakes. Doors start to slam open and shut by themselves. One Dresdener remembered, “paint and plaster came off the walls”.
Up above, the these high-explosive bombs are tearing apart buildings, blowing holes in roofs, and collapsing entire city blocks. There are no eyewitness accounts that can describe this process up close, because if you were close enough to see it, you were already dead. According to Sinclair McKay:
“The bombs changed the very air itself, replacing breathable oxygen with a momentary supersonic shock that could either dismember a human body in under a second or leave its internal organs squeezed, lungs drawn almost inside out. Hearts would be violently contracted and expanded; innumerable blood vessels and veins and arteries would burst at once. As the blast radiated out, the composition of the atmosphere was elasticated, expanding and instantly compressing as though the sky itself was struggling to breathe
Between 10:14 and 10:22 PM, these bombs fall continuously on the city of Dresden. Every five seconds a new bomber was dropping a new payload from above. But alongside the 4,000 pound blockbusters, came something much smaller, and much more devastating. Tens of thousands of thermite incendiaries, just 4lbs each, pelted the city like rain. As a woman named Nora Lang remembered:
“Incendiaries fell in great masses. They would penetrate the roof. It felt as it someone directly above me was shaking out coals or potatoes onto the roof. Boom-boom-boom.”
They were only about the size of relay baton, but once these incendiaries hit a solid surface, they ignited with fierce intensity. They were blindingly bright, specifically designed to burn and burn and burn. So hot they could burn through steel. Some were filled with a flammable jelly that would spatter across surfaces. They were almost impossible to extinguish, and they had one very specific purpose: To set everything in Dresden on fire. Anything that could burn, would burn.
This exact balance of high-explosive bombs and fire-starting incendiaries was meticulously calibrated by Bomber Command. 75 years earlier, Mother Nature had created a firestorm that devoured the tiny town of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. These British bombs were deliberately designed to reengineer those same conditions and create a similar phenomenon in the heart of Dresden.
Here’s how it was supposed to work: The big bombs would blow holes in the roofs of buildings and create large open chasms for wind and air to rush into. Then thousands of tiny thermite incendiaries would fall and start lots of little fires. Those fires would grow and spread, and grow and spread, eventually fusing together into a mile-high firestorm.
This was the Peshtigo Paradigm. Mother nature’s nuclear bomb.
Sir Arthur Harris and the leadership of Bomber Command had actually managed to achieved the Peshtigo Paradigm once before, in the German city of Hamburg. And they had only perfected their fatal methodology since then.
Dresden had a fire department of over 1,000 men. But the flames were burning too hot and spreading too fast to be controlled. They were powerless in the face of it. The Dresden Fire Chief, a man named Rumpf, described the hellish physics of the firestorm:
Such a natural phenomenon can change the normal qualities of the atmosphere to such a degree that within it organic life is no longer possible and is snuffed out…The individual fire centers combine, the heated atmosphere shoots up like a huge chimney, sucking the rushing air up from the ground to create a hurricane, which in turn fans the smaller fires and draws them into itself. The effect of the pillar of hot air produced by such a huge blaze over a burning city would be felt by those in aircraft up to thirteen thousand above ground level…”
The light from the combined fires was so blinding, that when the Professor Victor Klemperer looked out their basement window, he observed that the city was “bright as day”.
At this point, the people cowering in the basements and cellars of Dresden had a choice.
They could either stay holed up where they were, or they could go out, brave the inferno, and try to get to the safety of the river Elbe. Most people were confident that they would be safe underground. And they had every reason to. The local Nazi-controlled newspaper had recently released an article advising best practices in the event of a bombing raid:
“The air raid shelter is the best protection. The numbers of those fallen [killed] in such shelters is small to the point of nonexistence compared with those whose lives and possessions have been saved by them. Instead of fleeing thoughtlessly into the open, we should rather put all our energy into turning our cellar into a really secure refuge.”
This conventional wisdom condemned thousands of people to slow, terrifying deaths.
Many of the people taking shelter in their basements were now buried under several feet of stone rubble. Their houses had been destroyed, and they had no way of getting out of their shelters. And to make matters worse, the air was getting hotter and hotter, turning these cellars essentially into giant brick ovens. Many people drifted off and asphyxiated or went into cardiac arrest from the lack of oxygen. Others simply roasted alive.
There were many Dresdeners who were not trapped, and after the bombs stopped falling, they rushed to get out of their burning homes and away from the steadily growing inferno. 18-year-old Gunter Jackel remembered seeing the effects of the bombs for the first time: “I went outside, and the sky was on fire. […]It was like a nightmare.
A woman named Anita Kurtz described fleeing with her family from their burning apartment:
“The curtains were burning. And the windows had shattered. My father wanted to go across the street to find my grandmother, but the fire was spreading. Cars were on fire where just they had been parked out on the street. The fire was spreading. Incendiaries had hit our building. The men had tried to throw them out, but failed…My father asked me what I wanted to save from the flat and I said my dolls’ pram and my school bag.
The people who were not entombed under the rubble emerged to find a vision of hell where their picturesque city had once been. The firestorm was growing in intensity, forming a swirling pillar of flame in the center of the city that generated gale force winds. It sounds sensational, but this was a literal tornado of fire. The howling winds that fed the fire were so strong, that some people were sucked back into the burning building they were trying to escape.
As Otto Griebel describes the chaos:
Everywhere we turned, the buildings were on fire. The spark-filled air was suffocating, and stung our unprotected eyes. But we could not stay here. Entire chunks of red-hot matter were flying at us. The more we moved into the network of streets, the stronger the storm became, hurling burning scraps and objects through the air.
As she ran for her life through the burning city, Erika Seydawitz tripped and fell onto the street, and she remembered: “The cobblestones were so hot that I burned my hands. My only thought was: even if you end up breaking your arms and legs, get up quickly.’
It the midst of this chaos that people began to find each other. Friends, family, relatives, strangers. As a woman named Marilein Erler recalled : ‘I experienced the most reassuring thing that people can experience – being with friends who had suffered the same pain. All in all. The joy was that we still lived.’
Three hours had elapsed, and thousands had died. But even as their city burned, it seemed like the worst was over. The streets were filled with emergency personnel, people were helping dig one another out of the rubble, the entire city had mobilized to help each other escape.
Then, at 1:07 in the morning, the survivors in Dresden began to feel a familiar, ominous hum in their chest. Then they heard a deep, roar overhead.
The second wave had arrived.
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From his seat in a Lancaster bomber, British airman Miles Tripp could see the city of Dresden burning from 40 miles away.
He was part of the fast-approaching second wave of British bombers, which consisted of 552 aircraft – more than twice the size of the first wave. Tripp was shocked at the intensity of the firestorm that was taking hold. He described what he saw from thousands of feet above:
“The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets stretched from east to west, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame. I was completely awed by the spectacle.”
Another airman described it as: “An enormous bowl of rosy light.”
The colors were particularly arresting to the pilots up in the bombers. Beautiful shades of bright gold, blush pink, and ruby red that made the entire country side glow. As Canadian airman Doug Hicks recalled: “Almost daylight conditions prevailed.”
But Miles Tripp knew that this was anything but beautiful. And he registered with sickening clarity that the bombs he was about to drop would only focus and intensify the misery on the ground. Dresden was so clearly far-gone, that he felt any continued bombing was the equivalent of beating a dead horse. So he made a decision:
“I told Dig to turn to starboard to the south of the city. He swung the aircraft away from the heart of the inferno and when we were just beyond the fringe of the fires I pressed the bomb release. I hoped the load would fall in open country.”
However, the majority of those 552 bombers did drop their payloads of high-explosives and incendiaries into the inferno consuming Dresden. But they didn’t feel like heroes. Doug Hicks remembered the somber mood on the way home:
“ So this is trial under fire. We did it. We have almost completed our first trip. There is no jubilation from the crew, not even a slight hurrah”
Watching Dresden burn stuck with those pilots for a long time. They were some of the few people alive who’d ever witness anything like it again. As Sinclair McKay writes in The Fire and the Darkness:
The bomber crews were flying through an extreme phenomenon of physics: an electrically charged firestorm. It was so far beyond any human capacity to assimilate that it is little wonder that later, back in their bases in the cool grey of morning, so many airmen could not find words to describe what they had witnessed. Below, the oxygen was being pulled into the heart of the inferno, sent skywards with the shrunken, desiccated body parts and the pulverized debris.
And the second wave of bombs brought fresh horror to an already nightmarish environment.
Gisela Reichelt remembered watching an incendiary dropping near her and her family. It was filled with jellied petroleum, and when it burst, it drenched her grandmother in the flammable liquid. Within milliseconds, one of the flying sparks ignited the old woman’s clothes. Gisela watched her grandmother consumed in flames faster than her brain could even register what happened. She remembered years later:
‘No one could imagine coming out of this hell alive,’ she recalled. ‘What did a ten-year-old girl think about such terror? It’s hard to imagine what was going on inside me. But like the first attack, I was thinking: “How can you be so cruel?”
In the center of the city, the firestorm was churning with apocalyptic ferocity. By this point, the winds were hurricane force. As Sinclair McKay writes:
There were citizens in the midst of this trying desperately to hold on to lamp posts in order to escape the inferno’s anti-gravitational pull, but the lamp posts themselves were scorching to the touch.
This is something that is really hard for the brain to visualize, because most people will never experience anything like this – thank God. But the force of these winds was so strong, that people were literally lifted up into the air, higher and higher, all while burning alive. The wind itself was on fire. It sounds like something out of the Old Testament.
As the British POW Victor Gregg later recalled:
“It wasn’t really what you could call a wind, or even a gale, the air that was being drawn in from the outside to feed the inferno was like a solid object, so great was its force. The women were clutching onto the men, sensing the danger of being sucked across the open ground into the center of the enormous bonfire that had once been the center of Dresden”.
To make matters worse, people running through the streets found themselves getting suddenly stuck, as if in quicksand. The roads themselves were melting from the heat into pools of black, bubbling tar. And it trapped hundreds of people. Their shoes melted, and then their feet burned, and all they could do was collapse from the pain and fall face-first into the tar.
I mean, how do you keep your cool during something like this? How do keep from losing your mind? Well, the answer is you don’t. The sheer panic people were feeling really comes through in Margaret Freyer’s account:
“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 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."
Some Dresdeners were surprisingly lucid during their ordeal. One wounded German soldier was laying a bed, in the basement of cellar, calmly waiting for the death he knew was inevitable. He used the time to write one last letter to his wife. It read:
“My darling, darling, wife, I doubt that this letter will ever reach you; these are probably the last words and thoughts I shall ever write to you. Tonight, there have been two air raids, one after another. Now everything around me and above me is on fire. The hospital I’m in has been evacuated, and is empty. Outside, I can hear a firestorm raging, like the one in Hamburg. The whole building has been abandoned long ago. Everybody ran off when it caught fire. I am curious to know how many of them will survive, and where they’ve gone to. Everything around my bed is on fire; smoke and sparks are making breathing almost impossible. It is peaceful here in the cellar. There is one candle giving out a little light. It is going to get very hot in here too. At the moment, I am just lying here in the cellar which is still cool, smoking my last rescued cigarette, and thinking of all the things one ought to think of in one’s last minutes alive. There’s nothing I can do but wait, and write these words. Perhaps you will then sense somehow, even if this letter does not reach you and you find yourself alone, that my last conscious thoughts were with you and with my mother. Yours, V.
Those who escaped the city could only watch as their home was consumed. A man named Ernst Heinrich watched it all burn from a nearby hill:
“The entire city was a sea of flame. This was the end! Glorious Dresden was burning, our Florence on the Elbe, in which my family had resided for almost four hundred years. The art and tradition and beauty of centuries had been destroyed in a single night! I stood as if turned to stone.”
When the sun rose over Dresden on the morning of February 14th, most people in the city had no idea. The entire sky was blotted out with pitch black smoke.
Despite the trauma of the night, the survivors immediately mobilize to search for the missing and catalogue the dead. For many, it was the first time they’d been able to reflect or emotionally absorb what had just happened.
As Nora Lang remembered:
“A complete matter of luck…that we didn’t all die was pure luck. Some houses were still standing. And there was a truck trailer there. We crept under it and just lay down. We were so exhausted. And…it was so cruel…there was this man there who had gone mad. He just stood there and bawled into the night, over and over again: Auto! Auto! [Car! Car!] My brother was five years old at the time. He can’t remember much of what happened that night, except for that man’s voice, and the Auto! He can never forget it.”
Hans Schroter had been separated from this family during the chaos. He immediately started searching for them:
The sight that greeted my eyes was appalling…Everywhere charred corpses. I quickly headed home, hoping to find my loved ones alive, but unfortunately this was not so. They lay on the street in front of No. 38, as peacefully as if they were asleep.
Now, if you’re an American listening to this, thinking that our hands were clean in this ordeal– think again.
Just after noon, a wave of American bombers, release even more bombs onto Dresden. It wasn’t a calculated act of cruelty, just a matter of scheduling. No one could have anticipated how perfectly the firestorm would come together, and US Airmen found themselves bombing a charred husk of a city. The damage had been done. This was overkill at worst, redundancy at best,
But for the people left in Dresden, the most important task at hand was twofold. To find and rescue the hundreds of people trapped under the rubble - and to bury the dead. The latter was extremely important, because if the bodies weren’t buried quickly, disease could spread, making an awful situation even worse.
The British POW Victor Gregg had managed to survive the night. His friend who’d cheerfully suggested something would turn up had been right. Before long, Gregg was pressed into a work crew who’s job it was to dig up and catalogue the bodies.
Kurt Vonnegut was pressed into one of these work-gangs too. It was an arduous, back-breaking process that he would famously call “corpse mining.”. He described it in detail after the war:
“Every day we walked into the city and dug into basements and shelters to get the corpses out, as a sanitary measure. When we went into them, a typical shelter, an ordinary basement usually, looked like a streetcar full of people who’d simultaneously had heart failure. Just people sitting there in their chairs, all dead. A fire storm is an amazing thing. It doesn’t occur in nature. It’s fed by the tornadoes that occur in the midst of it and there isn’t a damned thing to breathe. We brought the dead out. They were loaded on wagons and taken to parks, large open areas in the city which weren’t filled with rubble. The Germans got funeral pyres going, burning the bodies to keep them from stinking and from spreading disease. It was a terribly elaborate Easter egg hunt.
For the British POW Victor Gregg, going cellar by cellar, basement by basement, was a harrowing, soul-scarring experience. One he described in detail after the war:
“Inside we found the victims, in most cases the bodies were shriveled up to half their normal size or worse. Children under the age of three or four were impossible to identify at all, these tender human beings just melted in the heat of the oven they were sitting in. In the majority of cases the victims looked as though they had died peacefully through lack of oxygen, just losing consciousness and falling asleep in the process. After which the terrible heat took over and shriveled them up.
Some of the corpses were so brittle that any attempt to move them resulted in a cloud of ash and dried flesh. It was all s gruesome that to describe what was going on with any degree of clarity is something that I, for one, cannot do.”
One discovery he and his crew of workers made in a shelter, rattled him to his core:
It took the whole of the afternoon wielding sledgehammers trying to prose an opening. We continued the job of opening the heavy metal door. Slowly the horror inside became visible. There were no real complete bodies, only bones and scorched articles of clothing matted together on the floor and stuck together by a sort of jelly substance. There was no flesh visible, what had once been a congregation of people sheltering from the horror above them was now a glutinous mass of solidified fat and bones, swimming around, inches thick, on the floor.”
But there was one bright moment. One that might very well have saved 22-year-old Gregg from going insane. On one day of searching, they:
“Found these four women and two small girls huddle up together and still alive. Even the guards cheered themselves hoarse. It took an hour to get them to the surface but we all felt like heroes. There were no enemies, no hatred, just this sense of utter fulfillment that the rescue of these people had been because of us. Sadly this was a one-off event. In spite of all the backbreaking toil this was the only time our group found people alive.”
By that time Gregg had seen enough of death. In the confusion of the relief efforts, he slipped away to the East and was rescued by Russian troops. He lived the remaining 70 years of his life grappling with what he’d seen over the span of a few short days .
Professor Victor Klemperer and his wife Eva, also took advantage of the confusion. They ripped the yellow stars from their clothes and joined a refugee caravan heading East. They were eventually rescued by American troops. Over the course of his life, Victor Klemperer had survived the trenches of World War One, the vicious persecution of the Nazi Regime, and one of the most devastating air attacks ever unleashed by human beings. And now, he was finally safe.
In the end, the damage to the city was immense. Nothing would ever be the same. An exhaustive catalogue of the destruction was made. The final tally was ridiculous: 19 hospitals. 39 schools. 63 administrative buildings. 647 shops. 31 hotels. 18 movie theatres. 19 postal facilities. 24 banks. The list goes on and on. But the best summary was written on a curt letter sent from a survivor to a relative in another town:
“All three of us still alive. City gone.”
The material cost of the Allied attack was clear as day. But the human cost was yet to be discovered. It was a statistic that would hold great importance in the years to come.
Before the fires in Dresden had even guttered out, the propaganda war was heating up.
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THE PROPOGANDA WAR
While Victor Gregg and Kurt Vonnegut were corpse-mining in Dresden, a darker project was taking shape hundreds of miles to the North in the German capital of Berlin.
Even as the British and American bombers were flying home, news had reached the Nazi high command of the destruction of Germany’s most beautiful city. Adolf Hitler took the news badly. But then, he was always taking news badly by this point.
But the Third Reich’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, saw an opportunity in that horrific attack. Goebbels was a small man who knew how to tell a big story. His thin, skeletal features could come alive when weaving racist overtures against the Jews or diatribes about the Allies. He wasn’t the showman that Hitler was, but his talents were more subtle and, in some ways, more sinister.
When Goebbels initially heard about Dresden, he was “shaking with rage”, according to historian Frederick Taylor. He was so angry, that he suggested to Hitler that they should execute thousands of Allied POWs in response. But… he eventually calms himself and the clockwork of his brain begins turning on how the Nazis could use this tragedy to their advantage.
Goebbels recognized that the deaths of all those people – in such a culturally significant city – was a propaganda goldmine. And in the deft hands of a demagogue, it could serve a purpose.
The Nazis could use what happened at Dresden to bolster the argument that the Allies were every bit as bad as they were. Sure, we may have gassed and cremated a few million Jews here and there…but look at yourselves! You’re roasting women, children and old people alive by the tens of thousands!
It was the type of bad-faith, bullshit equivocation that cynical men like Goebbels excel at.
So, Goebbels has articles written in German publications with sensational titles like “Dresden – Massacre of Refugees” and “The Death of Dresden – A Beacon of Resistance”. He even leaks photos of the piles of corpses in the aftermath of the attack to Allied press outlets. But Goebbels realizes his narrative was missing a little something extra.
The final death tally in Dresden is believed to have been about 25,000. Which is in itself is a horrific number. That’s almost double the number of British people who were killed by German bombs during the Blitz in 1940.
But it wasn’t enough of a showstopper metric for Joseph Goebbels. So what does he do? He adds a decimal point. The Nazis claimed that a quarter of a million people – 250,000 - had been killed in a single night in Dresden.
The numbers were clearly up for debate, but the international press seizes on this particular attack and runs with it. Just as Goebbels hoped they would. The Nazi propaganda minister killed himself just a few months later when Berlin fell to the Red Army, but he’d planted one last poison pill into the world. As historian Frederick Taylor puts it:
“The extent of the wide, long-lasting ripple of international outrage that followed the Dresden bombing represents, at least in part, Goebbels’s final, dark masterpiece.”
Initially, newspapers outside of Germany were not sure how to characterize the bombing raid. Was this the triumphant destruction of a Nazi stronghold? Or was it a deliberate attack on innocent civilians in a culturally important city? Maybe it was both.
Three days after Dresden, an Associated Press reporter named Howard Cowan referred to the raid as a “terror bombing”. This simple phrase grants a huge headwind of legitimacy to Goebbels’ entire case. By using the word “terror”, the implication was made that this wasn’t an attack on factories, machinery, or resources – but an attack on innocent people. Specifically designed to instill fear and terror.
Cowan’s article went on describe the intent of the raid in no uncertain terms:
‘Allied air commanders have made the long-awaited decision to adopt deliberate terror bombing of German population centres as a ruthless expedient to hasten Hitler’s doom.’
The idea of a single phrase being able to swing the court of international opinion seems pretty quaint these days, but “terror bombing” ignites a frenzy of debate and controversy around Dresden. This was quickly turning into a public relations nightmare.
Even journalistic attempts to throw cold water on accusations of terrorism couldn’t help but make the Allies look at least a little bloodthirsty. As one Reuters dispatch read:
“The Dresden raid was…designed to cripple communications and prevent shuttling troops from eastern to western front and vice versa. The fact that the city was crowded with refugees at the time of the attack was coincidental and took the form of a bonus.”
The British and American publics expressed a fair amount of outrage over the idea that their militaries would engage in the same kind of ruthless disregard for innocent life that the Nazis had used throughout the war. For the Western Allies, possession of the moral high ground was critical to maintaining support and enthusiasm for this prolonged, resource-draining war.
Even politicians expressed outrage. One British official said:
“Is terror bombing now part of our policy? If so, why were not the British people being told what was being done in their name?”
Privately they were shaken too. One conservative British minister wrote in his diary:
Dresden also is being smashed to pieces—it is an abominable business—but it cannot be helped in these enlightened days and no one now seems to have any compunction in killing crowds of civilians, so long as they are Germans or Japanese.
But the military insisted that the raid on Dresden and attacks like it were not acts of terrorism:
‘Our job, is to destroy the enemy and this we are doing in an ever more efficient and ever-increasing way. It does not do anyone justice to try and suggest that our air marshals or anyone else are sitting down thinking how many German women and children we can kill. It is not true.’
But some British civilians were absolutely fine with the “area bombing” or “terror bombing”. As one woman cheered on:
Oh yes. It is good to kill the babies especially. I am not thinking of this war but of the next one, twenty years from now. The next time the Germans start a war and we have to fight them, those babies will be the soldiers.’
Most angered and aggrieved by the accusations of unethical tactics, was Sir Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command. By demonstrating the terrible killing power the RAF could bring to bear in such a high-profile way, the humble farmer from Africa had become known as a pitiless butcher in Europe.
But Sir Arthur Harris was angry that his critical work in helping to deal the death blow to the Nazi military machine was being characterized as a wartime atrocity. He tried to explain his perspective in one letter:
“Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government center, and a key transportation center. It is now none of those things.”
‘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 so preserve the lives of Allied soldiers.’ I take little delight in the work, and none whatever in risking my crews avoidably.’
But Harris made it clear just how much value he put on the lives of German civilians:
‘I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”
Arthur Harris believed he had done the right thing in bombing Dresden. That it had been critical in accelerating the collapse of Germany’s ability to resist the Allied advances. Which had, in turn, saved more lives in the long run.
All of this tortured discourse rattled Prime Minister Winston Churchill especially. As you recall, he’d had reservations about Bomber Command’s strategy of “area bombing” from the get-go. But this kind of public blowback was inconvenient both for his political agenda and his moral compass. In the darkest hours of the war, he’d reluctantly agreed with Sir Arthur Harris that awful things needed to be done to stop an awful regime like the Third Reich.
But in the glow of imminent victory over the Nazis, Churchill backed away from this, and ultimately left Harris out in the cold. In a late-war memo he wrote:
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. […]The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.
Even years after the war, the bombing of Dresden haunted Churchill. His son Randolph remembered his father on the verge of tears one day in 1949, saying the following:
“Tens of thousands of lives were extinguished in one night. Old men, old women, little children – yes, yes, children about to be born…”
This political distancing from Bomber Command reached its climax on VE-DAY, or Victory In Europe Day. On May 13th, Winston Churchill gave a radio speech congratulating all the branches of the military, listing out their hard-fought campaigns and battles.
The efforts of Bomber Command and the men who flew hundreds of deadly missions over Germany were barely mentioned at all. And furthermore, they would not be getting a “campaign medal”, a distinction nearly every other branch received.
Harris was furious, not only on his own behalf, but for his men. Airmen who had, as Harris put it:
‘fought alone through black nights, rent only, mile after continuing mile, by the fiercest barrages ever raised … In each dark minute of those long miles lurked menace … In that loneliness in action lay the final test, the ultimate stretch of human staunchness and determination.’
The British military high command tried to smooth all this over by giving Harris himself a special medal on the hush-hush, but he refused:
I must tell you as dispassionately as possible that if my Command are to have the Defence Medal and no “campaign” medal, then I too will have the Defence Medal and no other—nothing else whatever, neither decoration, award, rank, preferment or appointment, if any such is contemplated or intended. I started this war as an Air Vice-Marshal. That is my substantive rank now. With that and the ‘Defence’ medal I shall now leave the Service as soon as I can and return to my country—South Africa.
The architects of Dresden’s destruction paid political prices large and small for their decisions. But what happened to Dresden itself? Was there anything left to salvage in the Florence on the Elbe?
The Soviet Red army didn’t reach Dresden until a full week after Hitler’s death and the fall of the Third Reich. The Nazi officials there were rounded up and interrogated by Soviet intelligence. The leader of the Nazi party in Dresden, a man named Martin Mutschmann, was questioned by the Soviets:
INTERROGATOR: What do you have to say about the air attacks on Dresden?
MUTSCHMANN: It’s terrible, the quantity of valuables that were destroyed in one night. Dresden was city infinitely rich in artistic treasures and many other things. Now almost all of that is kaput.
INTERROGATOR: So you’re not at all concerned about the human victims? It seems you think only in terms of material valuables?
MUTSCHMANN: Of course, a very great number of human beings also died. But I just meant that artistic treasures can’t be replaced.
This exchange is such a perfect window into the morally tone-deaf worldview of the Nazis. And historian Frederick Taylor leaves a hefty portion of the blame for Dresden’s destruction on their doorstep:
This is the authentic voice of the regime, taking responsibility for nothing, fleeing into a strident ignorance when taxed with his part in the destruction of a city and a country that deserved so much better than he and his like were willing to provide. Dresden would have been saved for all humanity in the centuries to come but for the brutal dreams of conquest, enslavement, and genocide that Mutschmann and his like harbored almost to the end.”
As for the people of Dresden; They transitioned from living under one authoritarian regime to another. The Soviets would exercise an iron grip over the city until the USSR collapsed in 1989.
But Dresden was slowly, surely rebuilt over the years. Its most important landmarks were reconstructed and a sense of normalcy returned to its streets, but something irreplaceable had been snuffed out forever. As one Dresdener described:
Dresden was a wonderful city … history, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord … And you have to take my word for it, because none of you, no matter how rich your father may be, can go there to see if I am right. For the city of Dresden is no more … In one single night, and with a single movement of its hand, the Second World War wiped it off the map.
So where does that leave us? How are we supposed to feel about the attack on Dresden? Was this a war crime? – an atrocity, as Kurt Vonnegut, Victor Gregg, and so many other people on the ground believed it to be?
Or was it a necessary evil? As Arthur Harris insisted all his life, and even Winton Churchill believed at one point? To them, every day that the war could be shortened was more Allied soldiers saved or concentration camp prisoners liberated.
As Sir Arthur Harris wrote in his memoirs:
“If I had to have the same time again I would do the same again, but I hope I wouldn’t have to. I hope it’s been of some use, for future generations in keeping them out of these riots. It never does anybody any good.”
Maybe the Germans just had this coming? The Nazis could have dragged the entire world into a dark status quo we can barely envision. This was democracy fighting for its very right to exist. As Frederick Taylor summarizes:
Did anyone really expect the world to fight back while wearing kid gloves, in order not to damage Germany’s artistic treasures or kill German civilians?
He even goes on to make a pretty fair point about the fact that the lives lost at Dresden seem to be held as more valuable than others, just because they lived in such a famous, beautiful city:
Why are there no shelves of books emotively recalling the fate of the forty thousand human beings—many of them women and children and refugees—who died in the Luftwaffe’s systematic bombing of Stalingrad?
The American author Kurt Vonnegut, who’d managed to survive the bombing hiding inside a meat locker, had a much different, more cynical take on it at the time of the publication of his book “Slaughterhouse Five”:
There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre. 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.”
But I think the person who best represents my own feelings about it, is the British POW Victor Gregg. This was a man who saw it happen with his own eyes. He had every reason to cheer on the destruction of an enemy city. But something about it plunged a thorn of revulsion, doubt, and disillusionment deep within his conscience.
Did it shorten the war? Probably. Did it mark a shameful low watermark in the ethical standards of Allies? Undoubtedly.
At the age of 93, in 2013, Victor Gregg concluded his memories of the Dresden experience with the following passage:
“As a nation, I feel that the British people still have to face up to the satanic acts that were committed in their name. Above all else, I wish to see a doctrine enforced by law that this nation will never again turn civilians into targets to create terror.
I could say that I wish to live to see that war between nations stops forever, but I am a realist and a firm believer that if an ogre like Hitler rears its head then that head should be cut off as speedily as possible.
I am not a pacifist.”
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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