Published: February 3, 2018
Waves of British bombers began reducing one of the world's most beautiful cities to rubble on this day. Thousands were to die in the ensuing firestorm as all-out war against Nazi Germany was intensified.
The bombing of Dresden in East Germany, a medieval city formerly renowned for its rich artistic and architectural treasures, remains controversial. The war was coming to an end with Hitler holed up in his Berlin bunker, the Russian Red Army racing towards the German capital from the east and the British and Americans advancing from the west.
Besides, many saw Dresden's contribution to the Nazi war effort as minimal, its defences were slight and the Russians would have had little trouble capturing the city. It seemed an unlikely target for a major attack.
But Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, head of Britain's Bomber Command and nicknamed "Bomber Harris", believed that any city that had anything to do with the Nazi war effort was a legitimate target.
On this night, 1,300 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers descended on Dresden in two waves, dropping more than 1,400 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 1,100 tons of incendiaries, destroying 90 per cent of the city and killing thousands of people. The city’s air defences were so weak that only six planes were shot down.
A massive firestorm developed over eight square miles engulfing the narrow, medieval streets. The more the city burned, the more oxygen was sucked in – and the greater the firestorm became. It is estimated that the temperature reached 1,800 deg Fahrenheit.
The following morning, as fire-fighters tried to tackle the inferno, 529 bombers of the USAAF (U.S. air force) attacked, causing even greater chaos. On February 15, another 200 U.S. bombers continued their assault on the city.
All told, bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped more than 950 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 290 tons of incendiaries on Dresden.
Given the high number of civilian casualties – estimates now ranging from 35,000 to 135,000 – and the relatively few strategic targets, some have called the bombing of Dresden a war crime. However, both the British and the American militaries defended the bombing as necessary.
It had been pointed out that Dresden was not simply a cultural centre – it had factories producing weapons and equipment for the war effort and its railway could send troops to the front for the fight against the Russians.
But many historians believe that one purpose of the devastating attack was to give a signal to Russia. The Russians were allies but Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt were uneasy about Josef Stalin's ambitions and post-war plans.
The reasoning went that the bombing of Dresden would show the Russians the awesome power of the Allies and act as a warning to Stalin not to stray from agreements he had made at war conferences.
An internal RAF memo dated a few weeks earlier seems to confirm this view. It said: “Dresden is the largest unbombed city the enemy has got.
"The intention of the attack is to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance – and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”
After reunification in 1990, Germany undertook extensive reconstruction of the city – work that is ongoing. Dresden has been restored to much of its former grandeur as a centre for art and culture.
Footnote: Germany dropped 35,000 tons of bombs on Britain over eight months in 1940-41, killing an estimated 39,000 people. In total, Britain and the U.S. dropped about 1.9 million tons of bombs on Germany over seven years. The number of civilian casualties is unknown because of the shifting population and widespread movement of refugees.