Between the 13th and 15th February 1945, the Allied forces unleashed one of the most ferocious bombing raids in the history of aerial warfare when they attacked the east German city of Dresden. Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the brutal event today, it is hard to believe the utter ruin that was inflicted upon the city and its inhabitants.
Dresden had, up until that point, survived the war fairly intact with only a couple of daylight raids of note. A cultural centre of no great industrial importance, its residents believed that their luck might be in. Rumours abounded that Churchill had an aunt living in Dresden; that he wanted it to serve as a future capital of Allied-occupied Germany; that because of its many hospitals it would be inhumane to bomb it.
Similar sentiments had been made about the Luftwaffe’s decision not to bomb Oxford. Hitler, apparently, saw it as the ideal capital after the success of Operation Sea Lion.
Dresden was not lucky. Some 800 bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) dropped thousands of high explosive bombs across the city, their target illuminated by the flares dropped earlier from the nifty De Haviland Mosquitoes.
People often talk of a Blitz spirit amongst the population of London. The same could be said of the Germans in Dresden. In the short interlude between the night raids, people reported for work, cleared rubble, tended to the wounded and buried the dead. Bake houses remained open to feed the survivors.
Debate still rages today over whether the Allies were justified in their use of carpet bombing against civilian targets. Was it necessary or morally justified? Could moral principles be considered when tackling a foe as formidable and unscrupulousness as Nazism?
Ultimately these questions are irrelevant. The bombing occurred, Dresden crumbled and its people were left to reflect on how they became dragged into such a destructive war by their maniacal leader.
Today Dresden has been rebuilt and is prospering but the legacy of February 1945 lives on. Unexploded Bombs remain a constant hazard; live ordnance was still being regularly recovered from the city’s old cemetery as recently as the 1990s. Countless other bombs are likely to remain hidden beneath buildings, roadways and parks.
Dresden’s suffering will be remembered with poignancy both in Germany and in Britain and America. It is right to point out that Allied airmen were only following orders; how many of them really enjoyed seeing the results of their bombers’ payload?
War, by its nature, entails significant collateral damage. The more monstrous the enemy, the more severe that damage is likely to be.