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Friday, 18 December 2015

The bombing of Dresden, 1945



On 13th February 1945 Great Britain committed one of the worst war crimes ever perpetrated, namely the senseless and unnecessary bombing of Dresden that killed more than 130,000 people and destroyed one of the most beautiful and historic cities of Europe.

Dresden lies about 100 miles south of Berlin in Germany. It had been the capital of Saxony in the 17th and 18th centuries and was stuffed full of exquisite buildings and priceless art treasures, as well as being home to about 650,000 people. It is possible that the population at the time was more than one million, due to the number of refugees who had flocked there as the Russians advanced from the east.

The raid that caused all the destruction was mounted by more than 750 Lancaster bombers which dropped 2,500 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs. The firestorm that ensued destroyed more than 90% of the inner city, including 22 hospitals.

Dresden was an easy target because it had no strategic importance and no major industries, and was therefore not protected by anti-aircraft guns.

The blame for this tragedy lies squarely at the door of the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Marshall Arthur Harris. His policy had been to undermine civilian morale, thus overlooking the fact that the effect of German bombing on British cities had been precisely the opposite – people became even more determined to fight on in response to the bombing of London and Coventry.

Harris was therefore a terrorist, in that he sought to use terror as a weapon of war against defenceless civilians.

However, the bombing of Dresden was even worse than that, because the war was as good as won by this stage, with allied forces well on their way towards German territory in the west and the Russians advancing rapidly from the east. The bombing therefore played no part whatever in helping to shorten the war.

The prime motive would appear to have been pure revenge for the bombing of Coventry much earlier in the war, when a similarly historic city centre was obliterated with the loss of some 600 lives. However, Coventry was also an important centre for armaments manufacture and was therefore a legitimate target in terms of waging a war. Harris may also have had in mind the “Baedeker” raids that Germany had launched against historic English cities such as Exeter, Norwich and York in 1942.
Even if the Dresden bombing could be justified in terms of revenge for past German misdeeds, the result was overkill to an amazing degree. The 130,000 civilian deaths at Dresden need to be seen alongside the 70,000 victims at Hiroshima and the figure of 51,500 that represents the total number of British civilian deaths caused by all German air raids throughout the war.

The role played by Winston Churchill in the decision to bomb Dresden is far from clear – certainly Arthur Harris thought that he had the Prime Minister’s backing. However, it is noticeable that Harris was alone among Britain’s war leaders not to be honoured with a peerage after the war ended. Harris moved to South Africa to escape the torrent of criticism that came his way once all the facts were known. He eventually returned to Britain in 1953 and was given a baronetcy. He died in 1984 at the age of 91.

There has been much debate in the years since the war over whether Bomber Harris should be honoured with a statue in view of his undoubted contribution to winning the war in the years leading up to the Dresden raid, when the targets were strategically important cities such as Hamburg and Cologne. A statue was eventually erected in London in 1992, being unveiled by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Even so, the event led to many complaints, including from the German government, because of the Dresden raid.

© John Welford