‘On This Day’ 1945: British and American Warplanes Fire-Bomb Dresden, Germany; 25,000 Perish
In the wars of the 20th century, rapid technological innovation meant that the means of delivering death improved exponentially and so did the number of innocents killed by combatants. By World War II, aerial bombardment was the most effective way of annihilating large numbers of civilians.
In the early days of that great global conflict, President Franklin D. Roosevelt railed against the “inhuman barbarism” of Axis aerial bombardment. But the US and its allies would soon elevate mass-murder from the skies to an entirely new level.
Like their German enemies, Allied bombers deliberately targeted the civilian populations of entire cities. Over the course of the last week of July, 1943, death and destruction on an unprecedented scale were rained down upon the people of Hamburg, Germany during Operation Gomorrah. Tens of thousands of tons of high explosive, incendiary, phosphorous and napalm bombs fell on the doomed city, igniting a massive conflagration that reached 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit and created 150 mile-per-hour winds. Hugo Slim wrote:
There were reports of babies being torn by the high winds from their mothers’ arms and sucked up into the flames. Many died trapped in the burned wreckage of buildings. Upon entering air raid shelters, would-be rescuers found nothing but bones suspended in congealed fat. Women and children were so charred [as] to be unrecognizable… the smallest children lay like fried eels on the pavement. Even in death they showed how they must have suffered– their hands and arms stretched out as if to protect them from the pitiless heat.
Trees were torn from the ground; people were tossed through the air like flaming rag dolls. Others died shrieking in unspeakable agony as the asphalt streets under their melting feet were themselves melted into boiling black liquid. Some 45,000 innocent civilians perished over eight days and seven hellish nights of relentless bombardment. In subsequent attacks the Royal Air Force (RAF) even dropped bombs with delayed action fuses to kill and maim rescue workers. Fifty more German cities were subjected to this barbarism.
The most horrific of these attacks was against Dresden. The war was all but over by the time Allied bombers turned Dresden quite literally into hell on earth. The Red Army was just 80 miles from the city and the US and Britain, knowing that Europe would be carved up between themselves and the Soviets after the war, wanted to impress Stalin with a massive show of force. Up to that point Dresden had been spared from Allied bombing because it was an important cultural city and lacked any significant military targets. It was almost completely undefended.
What Dresden did have was 19 hospitals. There were also well over a million refugees encamped there, many of them fleeing the horrors of the Russian advance. They were drawn by the city’s reputation as a safe haven from the flames of war that had engulfed the rest of Germany. This reputation was reinforced by the presence of some 25,000 Allied prisoners of war in and around the city.
But the Allies– especially the British, who bombed densely populated central cities at night thus abandoning any pretense at precision targeting– had implemented a “terror bombing” policy of deliberately ravaging Germany’s civilian population. The chief of Britain’s RAF Bomber Command, Richard “Bomber” Harris, had declared his desire to visit “the horrors of fire” on Germans. Once Harris was pulled over by police for speeding. “You could have killed someone,” the constable admonished him. “Young man,” the commander retorted, “I kill thousands of people every night.”
Inspired by the “successful” raid on Hamburg, the Allies set out to replicate a fierce firestorm in Dresden. Beginning on the night of February 13, 1945 as many as 25,000 people were killed by American and British bombers dropping some 700,000 phosphorus bombs on the city. These were designed to spark a massive firestorm and they worked exactly as advertised. The heat generated by the ensuing inferno was enough to melt human flesh, turning many victims into piles of goop. One survivor recounted seeing “young women carrying babies running up and down the streets, their dresses and hair on fire, screaming until they fell down, or the collapsing buildings fell on top of them.”
Men, women, children, the sick, the elderly, even the animals in the city zoo– all were incinerated together. The 2,700º Fahrenheit firestorm sucked all the oxygen from the air; many thousands suffocated to death.
The next morning a wave of hundreds of American Flying Fortresses pounded the survivors. Many injured in the previous night’s horrors had been moved to the banks of the Elbe River by the city’s legions of nurses. There they were strafed with machine guns by low-flying American P-52 Mustang fighters, which also attacked the crowds of survivors desperately trying to flee the flaming remains of the city. Nearly 90% of the homes in central Dresden were obliterated but the few targets that could have been considered of military interest– a few factories, the railway system– were relatively unscathed. Nazi military trains were chugging through the city within a few days of the bombing.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was appalled by the savagery of the Dresden raid, calling it and “act of terror and wanton destruction.” “Are we beasts?” he asked after seeing photographs of the devastated city. He wrote:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing… I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive.
One of the Allied POWs caught up in the horrific firebombing of Dresden was the American author Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who was imprisoned in an old meat locker the Germans called Slaughterhouse Five, the name he would give his most famous novel in 1969. Vonnegut survived the attack thanks to the subterranean location of his slaughterhouse prison. Observing the aftermath of the attack, the young Vonnegut remarked at the “utter destruction” and “carnage unfathomable” caused by the Allied bombing.
“There were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes,” he later wrote.
Decades later, during a less brutal yet still devastating war, US military commanders taught officers at the Joint Forces Staff College that the “historical precedents” of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki justified wiping out “civilian populations wherever necessary” during the War on Terror, including the destruction of Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest cities in the Muslim world.
Tagged aerial bombardment of cities, Allied bombing of Hamburg, Allied POWs Dresden, British terror bombing of Germany, Dresden bombing, Dresden death toll, Dresden fire-bombing, Dresden war crime, joint forces staff college, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Dresden, RAF Dresden, Richard "Bomber" Harris, Royal Air Force, Slaughterhouse Five, Winston Churchill Dresden