With the Second World War in its final year, the tide had turned against Nazi Germany whose armies and civilians were increasingly paying the price for the aggression of the previous four years.
Nowhere was it more evident than the German city of Dresden, where an intensive two-day bombing campaign was under way on February 14th, 1945.
The first bombs fell on Dresden late on the night of February 13th, delivered by 244 RAF Lancaster bombers. In a terrifying two-minute period they dropped 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries (fire bombs) on the city from a height of 8,000 feet. The high-explosive bombs, ranging from 500lbs to 4,000lb ‘blockbusters’, were designed to demolish buildings and rupture water mains, while the job of the 200,000 smaller incendiaries was to start a firestorm that would rage through the ruins.
A second wave of bombers was sent to strike Dresden three hours after the first. By that time there was no mistaking their target – fires from the first attack could be seen by the second wave of Lancaster aircrews from 500 miles away. This time 529 RAF aircraft dropped more than 1,800 tons of bombs on the city, deliberately expanding the target area.
On the ground, fire crews fighting the blazes started by the first attack were caught in the open by the second wave. Most sirens failed to sound as electricity supplies had been knocked out. Fighting the spreading firestorm was also hindered by many of the city’s water mains being destroyed.
During the morning of February 14th, American forces joined the sustained attack on Dresden, with 316 USAAF B-17 Flying Fortresses dropping 771 tons of bombs on the city shortly after noon. By now heavy cloud, combined with smoke from the fires, was obscuring much of the city, which meant these bombs were less precisely targeted and fell over a wider area, enlarging the destruction.
The following day, February 15th, another wave of American bombers was due to bomb a synthetic oil plant near Leipzig, but found it completely obscured by cloud. They diverted instead to their secondary target, Dresden, where their bombing again spread destruction to the city’s suburbs.
During the four bombing raids over two days, almost 4,000 tons of high explosives and incendiaries was dropped on Dresden. Much of the city was reduced to rubble and the resulting firestorm ravaged more than six square kilometres of the city centre. The death toll on the ground was estimated at up to 25,000 people killed and many thousands more injured and burned. Many victims died from suffocation as the intense firestorm consumed all available oxygen.
The city’s air defences had been depleted before the raids by the need to deploy guns and aircraft against the Russian ‘Red Army’ approaching from the east. It meant Dresden was only lightly defended and of the 796 British bombers deployed in the raids, only six were lost, three of those hit by bombs dropped from aircraft flying in the darkness above them. Just one bomber was lost in the Americans’ daytime raids.
The devastation was so extensive that moral concerns were raised in certain quarters among the Allied forces, some questioning the military value of Dresden as a target. Even Winston Churchill later tried to distance himself from the raids once the extent of destruction was known, although he had previous urged RAF Bomber Command to target cities in the east of Germany to aid the Russian advance there.
But for most people in the UK, who had endured Hitler’s ‘Blitz’ bombing of British cities in 1940 and ’41, it was a case of “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. After four years of all-out war, there was little sympathy for the victims of bombing in Germany, with a strong feeling that “they started it”.
It had been summed up in 1942 by the head of RAF Bomber Command, Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, when he said: “The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
If anywhere truly did “reap the whirlwind”, it was the unfortunate city of Dresden, which would take decades to recover from the events of February 14th and 15th, 1945.