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Under the cover of darkness, 254 bombers took off on February 13, 1945 from British airfields bound for Dresden, a German cultural and railroad center near the eastern edge of rapidly-shrinking Nazi territory. Hours later, one of the most controversial Allied actions of World War II would result in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, launching a debate about wartime morality that continues to this day.
In the middle of 1944, just weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6th, intelligence officers and Royal Air Force (RAF) leadership floated the idea of a large-scale bombing raid on eastern Germany. Code-named Operation Thunderclap, the attack primarily targeted Berlin with the intent of decimating Nazi to bring a rapid close to the war. Due to the sheer size of the forces involved, British officials opted to put the assault plan aside on August 16th.
At the end of four more months of fierce fighting on two fronts, the Germans were on the run. An attempt to break through the Anglo-American line in the west fell flat near the end of 1944 just as the Red Army gained momentum by the day in the east. With an eye toward capitalizing on the disintegrating Germany military, RAF director of bomber operations Air Commodore Sydney Bufton wrote out a brief memo describing how well collaborating with the Soviets advancing on the Eastern Front might work to undermine the Nazis further. This time, the concept of a mass bombing raid gained wide support. Within days, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was pushing for a concrete assessment of operational needs.
On the ground in Nazi-controlled territory, confusion seemed to be the order of the day. With the Soviets pushing west from Poland to within 40 miles of Berlin, hundreds of thousands of Germans were fleeing for fear of the Red Army’s punishments. (The Nazi propaganda machine fabricated stories of Allied brutality to keep citizens terrified.) From a military standpoint, Adolf Hitler and his advisers were frantically pulling divisions from the Western Front in the hopes of stalling the Soviet march on the capital. Sensing the opportunity to upend Hitler’s planned transition and amplify civilian disorientation, British leaders became convinced a large strike would break Germany’s back.
When the Yalta Conference opened on February 4th, Red Army leaders conferred with their counterparts in the British and American armed forces extensively. The ability to cut off reinforcements and diminish German warmaking capacity -- primarily through bombing oil refineries and weapons factories -- was immediately agreed upon, as well as the importance of both Berlin and Dresden as centers of German strength in the midst of the collapsing Nazi defense.
At the time, Dresden was “the seventh largest city in Germany” and “the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got” according to a RAF memo issued the night of the attack. With a well-developed railroad infrastructure and as many as 127 factories, it seemed a logical target for the Allied forces. To residents, the city had a reputation as a center for the arts and elegant architecture -- Germany’s answer to the magnificence of Florence in central Italy. As RAF bombers left the ground during the night of February 13, 1942, the contrast between military intelligence and the reality within Dresden would come to be a point of contention for decades.
The first two waves of aircraft belonged to the British Pathfinders unit, large and small aircraft dropping flares to light up the sky and half-ton bright red target indicators (nicknamed “Christmas trees” by the Nazis). Shortly before 10:00pm, air raid sirens began sounding throughout Dresden. Half an hour later, almost all of the 254 Lancaster bombers that left England arrived carrying nearly 900 tons of high explosive and incendiary ordinance. According to planners, the heavyweight “blockbusters” -- two-ton bombs literally able to level a city block -- would blast doors off their hinges and shatter windows, giving the fire-bombs that followed ample oxygen to spread flames from one building to the next.
Over the course of the next 38 hours, several British and American bomber groups made runs at Dresden, nearby Chemnitz and (by mistake) the Czechoslovakian capital of Prague. With heavy cloud cover over the target areas, American planes relied on H2X radar to identify the center of Dresden -- the ground mapping technology was less refined than many thought, meaning bombs were spread across areas unintended for destruction.
Fires raged for a week, with more than 90 percent of the city center burning to the ground -- including large portions of the Altstadt, dating to the medieval period. With temperatures rising above 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, many of the thousands dead were reduced to charred skeletons. Early estimates from German officials put the number killed at a maximum of 25,000 but Joseph Goebbels and the Nazi Propaganda Ministry quickly distributed leaflets touting more than 200,000 victims.
Once word of the damage reached Britain, many within the government -- including Churchill himself -- found the idea of “area bombing” like that employed at Dresden to be distasteful. Victims of vicious attacks themselves during the Battle of Britain, many residents of England noticed a common thread with the Coventry Blitz of 1940. Historians recognize the fire-bombing of Dresden as the first time public debate arose on whether the means of defeating the Nazis could be justified by the ends. In the years to come, as a wider picture of the true weakness of the German military at the time of the bombing became clear, some would call for war crimes trials for those involved.
Opinions are still divided about the scope of casualties and the intended outcomes of the Dresden raids. With more than 13 square miles of the city destroyed under the weight of 4,500 tons of bombs, some wonder if the inflated refugee population might have made things worse than reported. Still others look at the known suspicion held by Churchill and President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt toward Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin as providing a reason “to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do,” as the pre-attack memo stated.
Regardless of perspective, one thing can be said for certain: despite vast efforts to restore Dresden to its former glory, the city will never quite be the same.
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