Today, for the remembrance of the 63rd anniversary of the annihilation of Dresden, I review David Irving’s Destruction of Dresden (bibliog. info at end). Dresden, the capital of Saxony, an art city, “the Florence of the Elbe,” had almost no military importance, and was not fortified. Because it was believed that no civilized nation would attack it, it had also become a hospital town, and a destination for refugees. By February 1945, news of horrendous atrocities inflicted on German civilians in towns swept by the Red Army impelled a frightened wave of millions of refugees to flee westward, taking whatever item or two of their most precious possession they were able to carry, and leaving all else forever behind. The lucky ones were able to pack into the dwindling trains, but most went on foot. When the bombers came to Dresden, schools had been suspended in order to convert the buildings into hospitals and so that the children and young people could serve to assist the refugees arriving hourly in trains and by foot in flight from the Red Terror which was now only 80 miles to the east of the city (83). “The city which in peacetime had a population of 630,000 citizens was by the eve of the air attacks so crowded with Silesians, East Prussians and Pomeranians from the Eastern front, with Berliners and Rhinelanders from the West, with Allied and Russian prisoners of war, with evacuated children’s settlements, with forced laborers of many nationalities, that the increased population was now between 1,200,000 and 1,400,000 citizens, of whom, not surprisingly, several hundred thousand had no proper home and of whom none could seek the protection of an air-raid shelter.” (98)
Irving’s book tells the story by interweaving the perspectives of the British Bomber Command, the pilots, the German populace, and the Nazi government, along with cameos by American and Soviet officials. The history of civilian bombing in the war is also rehearsed to set the framework for analyzing the propaganda campaigns of both sides, and to reflect on the ethical issue. I can recommend the book for the intermediate student of WW2, because of its overview of the air war, and its setting down anchors in a number of matters of importance.
The deliberate terror-firebombing of civilian population centers had reached its first apogee with the bombing of Hamburg in the nights following July 23, 1943 that I discussed earlier. Many cities were to follow. One that is not as well known was the October 14, 1944, bombing of Brunswick (Braunschweig). It created, by 3:10 AM, a medium-strength fire-storm: “light pieces of furniture, tables and chairs were being sucked up by the tornado; violent whirlwinds whipped up the dust and showers of sparks and burning embers were driven before them through the streets… It was just in this area however that six giant bunkers and two public air raid shelters, with about 23,000 people now trapped in them, had been built” (64). The problem was that underground shelters provided protection while the bombs were actually falling, but became death traps if one remained in them during the mounting fire. The right strategy, if one only knew, was to go into the shelter until the bombs stopped, then break out and dash through the flames in hopes of getting out of the fire-storm center in time. In this case, firemen tried to break through to the inner-city bomb shelters by creating a “water alley.”
A group of high-pressure fire-hoses was to be fought forwards under a constant screen of water into the heart of the fire area: the front and sides of this “alley” would be protected from the fierce, radiated heat by veils of water from overlapping jets of water; obtaining water-supplies presented considerable difficulties for this, because although water supplies and hydrants as such were at hand nearby, they were in the fire-area itself. Similarly, the pressure in the hoses had to be reinforced several times by auxiliary pumps in the hose-system; all the time both pumps and hoses were endangered by collapsing building and the heat radiation.
Nevertheless, in spite of time wasted in constantly having to shift the pumps to safer locations, by 7:00 a.m., four and a half hours after the raid had begun, the bunkers were reached. As the doors were unbarred and unlocked, the rescuers heard the sound of “many people talking quietly but nervously under the breath.” All the shelterers were still alive. The evacuation of the 23,000 people was effected, with the people forming an endless human chain along the inside of the water alley to the areas of relative safety outside the fire-storm zone, without any casualties (64-65).
I love that story. It tells so much about the German character at several levels: of the heroic, indefatigable, and creative firemen, but not neglecting the quiet dignity of the citizens waiting patiently for their doom or rescue. Compare that scene to the panic scene in the movie Independence Day.
Flash forward to Dresden, Feb 13, 1945. There is no need to review the details of the fire-storm created by the first wave; see the summary given last year. Here is one of the sights, however, that greeted the pilots of the second wave, three hours later: “The bomb-aimers could see the roads and Autobahnen leading into Dresden alive with activity.” Now, based on our experience of human nature, confirmed by movies like Independence Day and doomsday-scenarios depicted by Scary Gary, you naturally assume the highways were clogged with people frantically trying to escape the city, right? Wrong.
Long columns of lorries, their headlights full on, were crawling towards the city. These must have been the convoys of lorries with relief supplies, and the fire-brigades arriving from the other cities of Central Germany; clearly the second component of Harris’s double-blow strategy was being substantiated: the annihilation not only of the passive defenses of Dresden, but also of a large number of forces summoned from surrounding cities (142).
How many nations would be characterized by traffic jams going into the burning city to help?
It is too discouraging to narrate the aftermath discovered by the rescue crews: what they found as the cellars were opened up one by one, the fate of the refugees huddled in the basement of the train station, others that were camped out in the Grosser Garten Park, children still decked out in Carnival costumes, the collapsed tunnels, the bombed out hospitals and maternity wards… but read it.
The dome of the Frauenkirche actually survived the bombs, seemingly as a defiant witness. But within a day or two it too succumbed to the heat, and the last remnant of Dresden’s glory cracked and fell into the dust and ashes.
There is an interesting detail about the bombers themselves that indicates the double-mindedness of the Anglo-American establishment throughout this raid. “The nine Mosquitos of the Marker Force contained in their equipment racks some of the most advanced electronic apparatus developed by Western scientists…. If they ‘got into trouble, they were to head back west, and try if possible to avoid being forced down, or landing, to the east of Dresden… The crews were to land in German-occupied territory in preference to that overrun by the Soviet army.'” (122) The crews themselves were issued “large Union flags, embroidered in Russian with the words I am an Englishman… it was the best that Bomber Command could offer the airmen for their personal security in the event of being forced down behind Russian lines: they were not offered much other comfort, but warned that the simple Russian soldiery had the habit of shooting strange militiamen on sight, whether decorated with the English Union flag or not.” (137)
Think about it: both as to the safety of their troops, and the security of their secret equipment, the Allies were not worried about falling into German hands. No, they were worried about falling into the hands of their ally, the Soviet Union. This fact alone is worth pondering for a long time.
My final example to mention in detail is the Herculean effort that went into identifying the bodies and preserving their last belongings to be claimed, if ever, by survivors. “All valuables, including jewelry, papers, letters, rings and other identifying material, were placed in separate paper envelopes. These envelopes bore the essential information: the place and date of finding, the sex and, if known, the person’s name, in addition to a serial number. Each victim had affixed to it a colored card with the same serial number on it” (187). Helpers were required to “open up the clothing of unidentified victims and cut samples from the blouses and underclothes, parts of which were pinned to the bodies, the remainder inserted in the envelopes of personal effects. Unidentified bodies were serial-numbered with red cards to avoid confusion” (193). Another index and sorting system was devised for miscellaneous personal effects found in houses or streets. Yet another index was a list of wedding rings recovered. “By May 6th there were between ten and twenty thousand of these rings stored in two-gallon buckets at the Ministry of the Interior” (196).
Is there any other nation in the world where tens of thousands of wedding rings would be, not looted, but catalogued and saved? (But alas, they fell into the hands of the Soviet “liberators.”)
A massive effort to bury the victims in neat rows with identification was undertaken, but as the weather warmed and danger of epidemic threatened, the pace was increased to mass graves, then bulldozing into mass graves, and finally mass cremation on huge steel grates. Such was the natural revulsion of that last expedient to German sensibilities that it was carried out secretly in the Altmarkt, which was cordoned off. A photographer, at risk to his life, slipped in and captured some photos (206), without which that macabre end to it might never have been known to the public.
Irving produces an astonishing amount of detail from many perspectives. The tactical details of how the lead aircraft navigated, found the target, and dropped flairs to guide the subsequent waves of bombers is quite fascinating, as is the account of counter-measures attempted by the Germans. The American “third wave,” allegedly only going for the militarily-significant targets, included the strafing of groups of fire-survivors that is shocking to read about. On the other hand, several British bomber squadrons blanched and failed to cheer when the mission was announced, though there was not much they could do about it.
Last year I provided a summary of the situation colored by a reading of Paul Johnson and A. C. Grayling: it is interesting to compare the slightly different spin here. There, the villain was chiefly Arthur “Bomber” Harris, head of Bomber Command, though a deep shadow was cast on Winston Churchill as well. In Irving’s treatment, Bomber Harris comes off a bit more sympathetically – indeed, according to the Foreword by Air Marshal Robert Saundby, Harris cannot take any of the blame for Dresden –, and the chief villain appears to be the “Prime Minister” himself. At least at the time Irving wrote (1963), he was unable to find actual documentation that Stalin had even asked for Dresden to be taken out. It would be bad enough if WC ordered the bombing in obedience to Stalin; but if the order came unprompted, then – well, let’s just say that it is starting to become difficult to say whether Stalin or WC was the greater war criminal. Much more study will be necessary to make a finely-graded assignation of blame: and the study needs to be done, for the brutal and unjustifiable destruction of Dresden is a festering sore on the Anglo-American soul that is not going to go away until dealt with properly.
Irving, David. Destruction of Dresden (NY: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1963)