This Week in History: The firebombing of Dresden

The attack on Dresden has remained the center of lasting controversy over carpet bombing and wanton destruction.

Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster  bombs Duisburg 390  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Royal Air Force Avro Lancaster bombs Duisburg 390
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
On the night of February 13, 1945, Allied warplanes began one of the deadliest bombing campaigns carried out prior to the US aerial bombardment of Tokyo and atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The two-day attack on Dresden has remained the center of lasting controversy over its use of carpet bombing and the massive wanton death and destruction it left behind. It killed roughly 25,000 people and destroyed some 13 square miles of the city as part of the Allied effort to bolster Soviet troops advancing from the east into Nazi Germany. At 9:51 p.m. on February 13, the first air raid sirens began sounding in Dresden, which by early 1945, was one of the few German cities to remain virtually untouched by the US and British Air Forces. Twenty-three minutes later, the first bombing run commenced, dropping thousands of pounds of explosives and incendiary bombs over the city center. At the time, the operation was described as “area bombing”; its goal was the total destruction of targeted areas. The first wave of bombers would drop conventional explosives, which blasted holes in buildings to create airflow in order to make more effective the subsequent firebombing, as well as to create openings through which the incendiary devices could fall. Less than three hours later, just past 1 a.m. on February 14, a second wave of bombers appeared over the eastern German city. The attack was timed to target the firefighters and rescue workers still responding to the first wave of bombings. Years later, survivor of the Dresden bombing Lothar Metzger , describing hurrying into her family’s basement as the sirens began and subsequently attempting to escape after the building caught on fire. “We did not recognize our street any more. Fire, only fire wherever we looked.” The second wave of bombings, she continued, led to even more destruction and vain attempts to escape the unending destruction. “[There was] fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.” The next morning the bombing started again as waves of British Royal Air Force and US Army Air Force pilots dropped explosives and firebombs on the city for two days. One major goal in the Allied campaign was to demoralize the Germans and reap chaos in the city just shy of the Eastern Front. In a subsequently rescinded memo expressing his unease with the tactic of “area bombing,” then-British prime minister Winston Churchill described the campaigns as “mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.” The campaign of aerial raids killed tens of thousands of people and destroyed one of Germany’s most important cultural and Baroque centers, but it was also part of the Allied war effort to finally put a stop to the genocidal Nazi war machine. As an important industrial center and refuge for military and government operations following Allied bombings in other areas, the United States and United Kingdom viewed Germany’s seventh largest city as not only a legitimate, but necessary target in their efforts to win World War Two. Dresden was home to hundreds of sites the Nazis were using to support their war effort. Hundreds of factories had been converted to produce ammunition and materiel. German soldiers and military offices were positioned in and around the city. Dresden military depots were supplying German troops fighting the Soviets. Perhaps most importantly, the city was a considered a key transit and communications point between central Germany and the Eastern Front. Halting free movement of troops and supplies through Dresden, Allied planners thought, would bring victory closer. Furthermore, the presence of more than 100,000 German refugees from other cities presented an opportunity to reap chaos by necessitating yet another massive civilian evacuation from one of the country’s few remaining safe havens. Although it has been difficult for historians to quantify, the bombing of Dresden did hamper German war efforts. Not only was military production and movement slowed, but the campaign was understood to serve as a demonstration to the Soviet Union that the Allies were contributing in the deadly battles on the vital Eastern Front. Nonetheless, the question of whether the firebombing and destruction rained down on a major civilian center was acceptable, both morally and legally, remains unanswered. Inquiries by the Allied powers have justified the bombing of Dresden as acceptable and legally sound militarily at the time.  In the circumstances faced in WWII, that may have been true, but there is little argument that such a campaign would surely be condemned as illegal and immoral in contemporary warfare, ruled by International Humanitarian Law and constricting legal concepts such as proportionality.