Monday, February 13, 2006
Dresden Bombed, February 14, 1945
Today in 1945, American and British air forces began bombing Dresden, a city of over 600,000 people located in eastern Germany. The attack and the resulting firestorm is today considered one of the most controversial acts of the Second World War.
At the beginning of 1945, the Allied powers were pushing into Germany from two directions: the Americans, British and French from the west and the Soviets from the east. The German Ardennes offensive at the end of 1944 (today called the Battle of the Bulge) had set the western advance back by a few weeks, but the Soviets’ advance was relentless and, against the weakening German military, nearly unstoppable.
It is important to remember the tremendous losses the Soviet Union endured during the war. In all, possibly 20 million Soviet citizens died during the war. There were many reasons for such heavy losses, but suffice it to say that British and American war planners were very aware of the sacrifices Stalin was willing to push on his people to achieve victory against the Nazis. They also knew that the eastern front was taking German manpower away from the western front; if the Soviets slowed down or stopped their advance, the American and British forces fighting in France and Belgium would feel the effect as the German generals moved men from one front to the other. A clear path had to be made for the Soviet advance.
The Allied Joint Intelligence Committee concluded at the end of 1944 that the Germans still had the ability to reinforce the eastern front with half a million soldiers in addition to the men already fighting there. Using the American and British strategic bombing forces to destroy any and all means of transit to the east would stop these forces from bolstering the front lines and make the Soviet advance into Germany easier. A plan had been drawn up in the summer of 1944 for just such a bombing campaign, but it had been shelved soon afterward. In January, 1945, the plan was dusted off and discussed with the Soviets for the first time. It was decided that Allied bombing would focus on German cities in the eastern part of the country, with the hope that the confusion caused by mass destruction and the resulting immobilization of transport would slow down reinforcements heading for the front. Dresden was put on the bombing list because it was a rail center and an alternate route to the front if the rail lines in and around Berlin and Leipzig were destroyed. Dresden’s baroque architecture and stylish gardens had been bombed in October, 1944 and January, 1945, but these attacks were light in comparison to what was lay in store.
Bad weather forced the cancellation of the first planned raid, an American force slated to hit the city during the day on February 13th. Thus, the RAF Bomber Command had first mission of the raid during the evening of the 13th and early in the morning of the 14th. Over 800 British bombers dropped 1478 tons of high explosives and 1182 tons of incendiary bombs on Dresden. The second attack came three hours later when over 500 Lancaster bombers dropped 1800 tons of explosives.
The US Army Air Force continued the mission during the afternoon of the 14th and again on the 15th, dropping more than 1100 tons of bombs on the now furiously burning city. All told, the four raids released more than 3900 tons of explosives. There were subsequent raids after these, but the railway was never completely put out of commission.
Over 80% of the structures in Dresden were destroyed. The loss of life is difficult to estimate because the population of the city surged and ebbed constantly due to the flow of refugees in and out of the city. The Nazi propaganda machine claimed a death toll of 300,000, but modern historians put the number closer to 25,000.
The bombing of Dresden caused groups in both England and the United States to question the value of bombing population centers. The general belief was that the Germans were beaten and that further strategic bombing did little to shorten the war. Even Winston Churchill, who had initially agreed to the plan, stepped away from it afterwards.