Courtesy of our friends at History.com, I am pleased to begin each and every day of the week here at Bulldog Pundit with a snippet of some important event that occurred on this date sometime in the past. Some events might come readily to mind while others may take a bit of effort to recall. Not all are historically portentous and some may even seem whimsical. Nevertheless, each and every one is a grain in the hourglass of human history.
On the evening of February 13, 1945, the most controversial episode in the Allied air war against Germany begins as hundreds of British bombers loaded with incendiaries and high-explosive bombs descend on Dresden, a historic city located in eastern Germany. Dresden was neither a war production city nor a major industrial center, and before the massive air raid of February 1945 it had not suffered a major Allied attack.
On the night of February 13, hundreds of RAF bombers descended on Dresden in two waves, dropping their lethal cargo indiscriminately over the city. The city’s air defenses were so weak that only six Lancaster bombers were shot down. By the morning, some 800 British bombers had dropped 1,478 tons of high-explosive bombs and 1,182 tons of incendiaries on Dresden, creating a great firestorm that destroyed most of the city and killed numerous civilians. Later that day, as survivors made their way out of the smoldering city, over 300 U.S. bombers began bombing Dresden’s railways, bridges, and transportation facilities, killing thousands more. On February 15, another 200 U.S. bombers continued their assault on the city’s infrastructure. All told, the bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped 954 tons of high-explosive bombs and 294 tons of incendiaries on Dresden. Later, the Eighth Air Force would drop 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in three other attacks before the war’s end.
The Allies claimed that by bombing Dresden, they were disrupting important lines of communication that would have hindered the Soviet offensive. This may be true, but there is no disputing that the British incendiary attack on the night of February 13-14 was conducted also, if not primarily, for the purpose of terrorizing the German population and forcing an early surrender. It should be noted that Germany, unlike Japan later in the year, did not surrender until nearly the last possible moment–when its capital had fallen and its Fuhrer was dead.
Because there were an unknown number of refugees in Dresden at the time of the Allied attack, it is impossible to know exactly how many civilians perished. After the war, investigators from various countries, and with varying political motives, calculated the number of civilians killed to be as little as 8,000 to more than 200,000. Estimates today range from 35,000 to 135,000. Looking at photographs of Dresden after the attack, in which the few buildings still standing are completely gutted, it seems improbable that only 35,000 of the million or so people in Dresden that night were killed. Cellars and other shelters would have been meager protection against a firestorm that blew poisonous air heated to hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit across the city at hurricane-like speeds.
At the end of the war, Dresden was so badly damaged that the city was basically leveled. A handful of historic buildings–the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House, and several fine churches–were carefully reconstructed out of the rubble, but the rest of the city was rebuilt with plain modern buildings.
It was Nazi Germany that introduced the world to the concept of “total war,” one that involves the civilian population in addition to the military. And let’s not forget that the Nazis were herding millions of innocents into gas chambers long before Dresden burned to the ground. In the opinion of this writer, it was partly atonement for grievous sins but mostly to terrorize the population and accelerate the end of the conflict that Dresden was destroyed.
In a nutshell, the case for firebombing Dresden (and nuking Hiroshima, for that matter) may be summed up in what I call the “but for”argument:
But for a horrific war started and waged by the Nazis, Dresden would never have been destroyed.