I would not call Arthur “Bomber” Harris a war criminal, even though his crews referred to him as “Butcher Harris”. As the RAF Bomber Command noted in January of 1945, “Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany…is also the largest un-bombed built-up (area) the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most …and incidentally to show the Russians, when they arrive, what Bomber Command can do."It was the sixth year of Britain’s war, and by now the intricate process of bombing had become almost automatic. The staff at Bomber Command estimated Dresden in terms of concrete and wood and plaster and steel. An average of 28 military trains passed through Dresden’s rail yards ever day. There were 127 factories scattered throughout Dresden making everything from guns to time fuses.
What would be the best mix of explosives to destroy this city? How much would be required? How many bombers would be needed to carry that? How much fuel would they need to reach the target and return?
Everything needed was listed and compiled, from high octane aviation fuel to flares and ammunition, to spare tires and crew meals and string for marking the briefing maps. And all this coordination was expended to produce over the target, in General George Patton’s lexicon, “…an orgy of disorder.”At 5:20 P.M. Tuesday, February 13th, 1945 the first Lancaster took off for Dresden. This huge four engine bomber, 69 feet long, with a 102 foot wingspan, required a crew of seven to deliver seven tons of bombs in the dark. It was an expensive operation.
Out of every 100 flight crew in Bomber Command during World War Two, 55 would be killed, 3 wounded, 12 would be captured, 3 shot down, and only 27 would survive their first 30 mission tour of operations. Only one in forty could be expected to survive a second tour.
So vulnerable was the Lancaster bomber stream that Basil Dickins, of the Operational Research Section, tried to convince Air Marshal Harris to remove the gunners, to save their lives and the fuel. It was a choice that American General Curtis LeMay would make for the B-29 fire raids over Tokyo one month later. But Harris refused.He also refused to listen to the Mr. Dickins when he urged Harris to make the emergency escape hatches of the Lancaster a few inches bigger. It seemed a trivial issue at the time, and Dickins did not push for it. But a post war survey found that 50% of the crews bailing out of American bombers survived. The percentage for Lancaster crew members was 15%The air raid warning sirens sounded in Dresden at 9 minutes before 10:00 P.M. Announcers interrupted the local radio. “Achtung! Achtung! Achtung! The lead aircraft of the major enemy bomber forces have changed course and are now approaching the city area.” Lothar Metzger was a child at the time. “We…dressed quickly, to hurry downstairs into our cellar…My older sister and I carried my baby twin sisters, my mother carried a little suitcase and the bottles with milk for our babies.” There were very few public shelters in the city, and no anti-aircraft guns. Ten night fighters were scrambled from a nearby airbase, but it would take them thirty minutes to get to altitude.At 10:15 P.M. the first bombs began to fall from the stream of 244 Lancaster bombers, one after the other, approaching from slightly different angles. All courses crossed above the sports stadium. First to be dropped were the parachute flares and 1,000 pound Target Indicators, called by the Germans “Christmas Trees”.
These served to mark the target, so that the following bombers could drop their “cookies”, 250 two ton “block busters”, so called because they could destroy an entire city block, designed to “rupture water mains, and blow off roofs, doors, and windows, creating an air flow that would feed the fires caused by the (375 tons of) incendiaries that followed…”. The last Lancaster of the first wave released its bombs at 10:22 P.M. The night fighters were just reaching their defensive positions.Below the bombers, Lothar Metzger crouched in his basement. “There were nonstop explosions. Our cellar was filled with fire and smoke…In great fear we struggled to leave this cellar. My mother and my older sister carried the big basket in which the twins were lain. With one hand I grasped my younger sister and with the other I grasped the coat of my mother…We did not recognize our street any more. Fire, only fire wherever we looked. Our fourth floor (apartment) did not exist anymore. The broken remains of our house were burning. On the streets there were burning vehicles and carts with refugees, people, horses, all of them screaming and shouting in fear of death. I saw hurt women, children, old people searching a way through ruins and flames.”Three hours later, as another 539 Lancaster bombers approached Dresden, they could see the fires from 500 miles away. The objective of this delayed second wave of bombers was, as the RAF stated at the time, to “…catch rescue workers, firefighters and fleeing inhabitants at their fullest exposure.” This time there were no warning alarms. The electricity was out. Between 1:21 A.M. and 1:45 A.M the RAF dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs. The center of Dresden was now consumed by a firestorm, with hundred miles an hour winds and temperatures reaching 2,700 degrees F.A young soldier recovering from wounds, Rudolf Eichner, remembered, “…it was becoming increasingly impossible to breath in the cellar (of his hospital) because the air was being pulled out by the increasing strength of the blaze.” Rudolf ran outside but, “We could not stand up, we were on all fours, crawling. The wind was full of sparks and carrying bits of blazing furniture, debris and burning bits of bodies. There were charred bodies everywhere. The experience of the bombing was far worse than being on the Russian front, where I was a front-line machine gunner.”Lothar Metzger and his family hid in another cellar, but found no shelter. “Explosion after explosion; It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare…. We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children…whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro…and fire everywhere, everywhere fire…I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.”
And Margaret Freyer tried to describe what it was like to be on the streets of Dresden, after the bombers had left. “To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire…. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.”Less than 12 hours later, about noon the next day, Wednesday, February 14, 1945 – Ash Wednesday – Valentines Day - 316 B-17 bombers from the US 8th Air Force dropped another 771 tons of high explosives and incendiaries on Dresden.
On February 15th, cloud cover over another target forced the Americans to cancel the bombing of that site, so they returned to Dresden yet again. In all more than 700,000 phosphorus bombs were dropped on Dresden – about one bomb for every two people in the city.The Dresden police reported that the three raids destroyed 12, 000 homes and apartments, 24 banks, 700 shops, 64 warehouses, 31 hotels, 11 churches, 19 hospitals, 39 schools and the zoo. More than 200 factories were damaged, but most were quickly put back in to operation.
Again according to the Dresden police. as of March 22, 1945, more than a month after the raids, 22,906 bodies had been either buried or stacked and cremated with flame throwers. Between the end of the war and 1966, another 1,858 bodies were found. While that is a horrible death toll it is nowhere near the 100,000 dead claimed by pseudo-historian and holocaust denier David Irving. But was the bombing of Desden a war crime?It was a war. All wars are crimes. As General Curtis LeMay expressed it, “Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you're not a good soldier.”
- 30 -