A Brief History
On February 13, 1945, bombers from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the American Air Force (USAAF) struck the eastern German city of Dresden, a city so beautiful it was once known as the “Florence on the Elbe,” incinerating tens of thousands of people.
Digging deeper, we find the Allies decisively beating the military forces of Nazi Germany on all fronts, including in the air.
The British were particularly bitter about the destruction and death caused to British cities and civilians at the hands of Germany’s Luftwaffe (air force) early in the war and then again when German rocket scientists unloaded on Great Britain jet powered cruise missiles (V-1) and history’s first inter-regional ballistic missiles (IRBMs or V-2).
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, authorized the massive bombing of Dresden, a beautiful old city that was claimed by the Germans to be a non-military city. There was, however, some military value to the city and the rail yards were the declared target.
Why rail yards would need more than a third of the 4,000 tons of bombs to be incendiary bombs is not really clear. What is clear is that the streams of hundreds of bombers blew up and burned out pretty much the entire city center, destroying centuries-old buildings and cultural centers.
Unfortunately, the population of Dresden was swollen at that time by hundreds of thousands of refugees, mostly women and children to a total of perhaps 1.2 million. A minimum of 25,000 people died in this massive bombing raid, most by incineration in the fire storm that was caused by the incendiary bombs (fire bombs). Nazi authorities, likely exaggerating for propaganda purposes, claimed 200,000 civilian deaths, and estimates as high as 500,000 fatalities have been made! If these more extreme estimates have any validity, then the Dresden death toll would potentially surpass the estimated 129,000–226,000 killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In terms of physical destruction beyond that of human losses, the bombing of Dresden and the resulting firestorm destroyed over 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of the city centre. By comparison, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima resulted in a radius of total destruction of about 1 mile (1.6 km), with resulting fires across 4.4 square miles (11 km2).
Obviously, this kind of carnage purposely caused with little if any military need for it so late in the war caused many people to question the morality and legality of the raid. With many times more attention paid to the fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki due to their destruction by the first use of atomic bombs, Dresden has been forgotten by many, but certainly not by the relatives of those killed.
The terrible raid is commemorated each year on its anniversary by demonstrations and is depicted in a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five (1969), in which he recounts his real-life memory as a witness to the raid while being held as a prisoner of war in Dresden! A movie by the same name was released in 1972.
Question for students: Was the firebombing of Dresden justified? Please let us know why or why not in the comments section below.
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Many scholarly books address the topic:
Addison, Paul and Jeremy A. Crang. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945. Ivan R. Dee, 2006.
Hahn, Walter and David Irving. Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden. Focal Point Publications, 2007.
Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. Harper, 2004,
For the novel and film mentioned in the article, please see…
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-five or the Children’s Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death. The Folio Society, 2008.
Slaughterhouse-Five. DVD. Directed by George Roy Hill. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, 2004.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Richard Peter (1895–1977) of Dresden, 1945, view from the city hall (Rathaus) over the destroyed city, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This file was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden (SLUB) as part of a cooperation project. The Deutsche Fotothek guarantees an authentic representation only by using copies of the original images as provided by the Digital Image Archive.
You can also watch a video version of this article on YouTube: