The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 2 - December 1995

(incorporating Museum Review)


by Paul Grobbelaar
William Fehr Collection

'Wer das Weinen verlernt hatte, der lernte es wieder beim Untergang Dresdens'(He who has lost the ability to weep, wept again at the fall of Dresden)
Gerhart Hauptmann

On 13 February 1995, it was exactly fifty years since the destruction of the city of Dresden in Germany during the Second World War. As it had been behind the Iron Curtain for most of the interim period, the Western World was never really informed of the full reality and inhumanity of the bombing and destruction of Dresden at the hands of the Allies in 1945.

The attack on Dresden was planned by air marshals who were steeped in an air of condescending superiority, which has been revealed repeatedly throughout the history of the British Empire. In the two Boer Republics during the Anglo-Boer War and in other colonial territories in the Middle East and northern India, the criteria of 'civilised warfare' were tossed overboard when the civilian population was attacked in order to destroy an enemy who refused to yield. In South Africa, women and children were placed in concentration camps and a policy of scorched earth applied in order to try to contain the Boer guerrillas.

Before and during the two World Wars, the idea of attacking the civilian population was propagated by militarists such as Haig, Trenchard and Harris. These policies subordinated the lives of civilians to military objectives and the destruction of the enemy - something unheard of in modern warfare. Until then, war had been waged against the military forces of the enemy country according to a laid down set of rules of conduct. However, after these British successes, it became easier to use special circumstances as an excuse for the use of unorthodox methods. It was also easier to whip up public opinion into accepting these methods.

Assumed scenarios and wargames at military colleges after the First World War (1914-1918) led to theories about air power and the ways in which the enemy could be defeated by an attack from the air only. The idea was promoted that the civilian population of the enemy country could be used as the primary target, thereby forcing its government to negotiate for peace.(1) These theories were elevated to doctrines of warfare and, when war against Germany eventually became a reality, the immorality of warring against civilians had already become obscured by the callous military conscience of the air marshals...

The city of Dresden is situated on the Elbe. The silhouette of towers and bridges which characterised the city were made famous by the paintings of Canaletto. A catalogue of all the treasures from the Baroque and Rococo periods found in the pre-war Dresden could easily have filled two volumes. The art galleries included works of old masters such as Holbein, Cranach, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals, van Dyck, Rubens, Botticelli and Canaletto. These collections had been started in 1560 as a private collection of Elector Augustus and were gradually accumulated over a period of nearly four centuries. In 1756, when the Seven Year War broke out, the collection of engravings alone already consisted of 130 000 items and by 1945, half a million had been collected.

In 1707, porcelain, the 'white gold' which later would make the little town of Meissen famous, was accidentally discovered by J F Bottger in his summer residence on the Bruehl Terrace which overlooked the Elbe. Although most of the porcelain was manufactured at Meissen, a few kilometres away, the delicate porcelain Shepherdess became the symbol of Dresden. The Gruenes Gewoelbe was another collection - the most wonderful treasures manufactured from turned porcelain, gold, silver and jewels. In addition, there were numerous famous collections of clocks, chronometers, geometric instruments and arms.

Many of the buildings, particularly the Zwinger, were decorated with statues. There were also sculptures and relief work from the classical period of Greece. On a European scale, the city had been a centre of music and musicians for centuries - Bach, Handel, Telemann, Wagner and Strauss. The city also had theatres, libraries and a zoo. Even during the war, the elephants, tigers, monkeys and deer in the zoo brought joy to children. A permanent circus building, the famous Sarrasani Circus, with its own stables, had been situated near the waterfront of the Neustadt since 1912.

Dresden was indeed a city of culture, a metropolis of which one could be proud. Since it had no industries which manufactured armaments or ammunition and was of no tactical or strategic value to the Nazi war effort, it was regarded as safe from the destruction of the war. As a result of the war in Eastern Europe, Dresden had, by 1945, obtained the additional status as a shelter for the civilian refugees fleeing before the Soviet army as it captured the eastern provinces of Germany. It is estimated that on 13 February 1945, about one million people were living in Dresden, but only 600 000 were actually inhabitants of the city. The remainder were homeless civilians, refugees from the terrors of the war. As a result of this influx, the streets were congested and tremendous traffic jams restricted the normal flow of traffic in the streets.

A series of events which had already started in 1917 sealed the ultimate fate of this city... The air marshals in charge of the British Bomber Command during the Second World War believed that an air force could win a war single-handedly by means of bombers, without any need for consolidating the victory on the ground. The mastermind behind this doctrine was Lord Trenchard, founder of the Royal Alr Force and this idea had its origin in the Smuts report published during the First World War. The report was futuristic and visionary:(2)
'The day may not be far off when aerial operations with their devastation of enemy lands and destruction of industrial and populous centres on a vast scale, may become the principal operations of war, to which older forms of military and naval operations may become secondary and subordinate.'

It had been Trenchard's intention to create a vast force of heavy bombers which would be able to destroy the German cities one by one. According to the plan, the terrified inhabitants of a destroyed city would flee to the nearest still-existing one, which the bombers would then also destroy. As the ever-swelling wave of civilians fled from city to city, the bombers would destroy them one by one, forcing the enemy to discuss peace terms.(3)

During the interwar period and until late in the Second World War, the British air power theorists successfully prevented the logic of these doctrines from being questioned. They claimed that air operations were a mysterious subject understood only by the air marshals of the RAF.(4) Had they been concerned, they might have admitted that the true purpose of these operations was to instil fear and panic in the civilian population, which would serve to apply pressure on the enemy government to negotiate peace terms. The British bomber marshals had been reared on this doctrine.(5) The air marshals planned that not only the factories, power stations and docks, but also the factory workers and even civilians would be the targets of their bombers. People would be burned out of their houses and forced to flee to the rural areas to starve and create chaos there.

This view was confirmed further by Air Commodore Charlton in his book, War from the Air, in which he indicated what could be achieved by an aerial attack. Using London as an example, he predicted that a devastating firestorm similar to the Great Fire of London could be created, followed by a full-scale and totally undisciplined flight from the city, resulting in the disintegration of the public transport system and the disruption of the provision of food. He scornfully referred to the '... labouring masses herded together in old houses... the most difficult people to control (factory employees in particular), who will be more susceptible than most to dismay and stampede.'

The ultimate objective of the doctrine of aerial attack was spelled out clearly and unambiguously by Sir Charles Portal in 1940:
'... [When we] have... reached the stage of desiring to burn down a whole town... we shall do it by dropping a large quantity of incendiaries first and then a sustained attack with High Explosive to drive the fire-fighters underground and let the flames get a good hold.' In November 1942, Portal added that the minimum result of such an onslaught should be the total destruction of six million German houses. Twenty-five million German civilians would be left homeless, while 900 000 German civilians would be killed and another one million seriously injured.(6)

The most important disciple and proclaimer of Trenchard's doctrine during the Second World War was Air Marshal 'Bomber' Harris. According to Webster and Frankland, Sir Arthur Harris had a habit of seeing only one side of a question, which he would then exaggerate. Professor Blackett, scientific adviser to the Admiralty for the Normandy invasion, was of the opinion that Harris was 'a very poor strategist but a good commander', because, although his aims were wrong, he managed to convince his men that they were winning the war and so keep up their morale in spite of cruel losses. In Blackett's view, Harris, a convinced exponent of the Trenchard dogmas, had delayed the defeat of the U-boats by nine months because he would not divert the planes from the German cities.(7) Harris and his Bomber Command were allowed to conduct a more or less independent war, often at the expense of the overall needs of British strategy.(8)

The background to the decision to bomb the city of Dresden is murky. When he launched his assault on the city, Harris acted within the letter and the spirit of the Air Ministry directive, which read: '... I am directed to refer to a telephone conversation of 26 January 1945... in which the subject of the attack of the industrial areas of Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig was discussed... The opinion of the Chief of Air Staff... is that... we should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and related attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz or any other cities where a severe blitz will... cause confusion in the evacuation of the East... I... request that... you will undertake such attacks with the particular objective of exploiting the confused conditions...'(9) Harris had achieved what he wanted - he could wage an area bombing campaign in the East. (10)

An interesting observation is made by McKee when he said: 'What can certainly be recorded is the proximity of Harris's underground bunker at High Wycombe, from which he directed the bomber war over Germany, to a Churchill residence; and the fact that he was a visitor there. Much may have been said which is not always put on paper, or the paper would simply be confirmation of something already discussed verbally...'

The policy of the RAF to bomb the cities carried the seal of approval of the Churchill government. By 1945, Churchill's poor reputation during the First World War as 'the Man of Gallipoli' had already been replaced by the image of the 'bulldog war leader growling defiance at Hitler Germany'. Grand hare-brained plans, without considering the means available, still appealed to him. Examples of such plans were the abortive attack on the French colony at Dakar in 1940, the adventures and evacuations in Greece and Crete in 1941 and the loss of two warships of the Royal Navy sent to Singapore in 1942 as a display of power. Another catastrophe followed in 1943 when a poorly-equipped and improperly trained expedition was landed in Dodekanesos in an attempt to encourage Turkey to enter the war. This gamble is described by L Marsland Gander, a war correspondent, as 'preposterous and irrelevant'. Another decision by the Prime Minister, which shows a great similarity to his eventual command with reference to Dresden, was unsuccessful - merely because there was no effective opposition to offer resistance. This was the bombing of the helpless French fleet in the harbour at Mels el Kebir in North Africa in 1940. The question asked afterwards was the same that would later be asked about the destruction of Dresden: Had it really been necessary? The British admirals involved in this incident 'viewed the government's orders with something approaching horror', to quote the official British Naval historian, Captain S W Roskill. About 1 300 French seamen were killed in a brutal and dramatic attack fired by the guns of the British Navy.(11)

Soviet Russia's unwilling entry into the war in June 1941 meant that Churchill no longer held the world stage with his rhetoric and eloquence. This annoyed him tremendously. In 1942, Lord Beaverbrook, a member of the government told journalist Cecil King how keen the Prime Minister had been in supporting Stalin while the Germans were sweeping away everybody in Russia. However, when the Red Army started gaining victories, Churchill became jealous of Stalin. According to Beaverbrook, Churchill was adamant during the nightly meetings of the unofficial war cabinet that it was a war of 'Winston Churchill versus Adolf Hitler' and that Stalin 'had no business to butt in and divide the laurels'.(12) There is evidence that by 1944 the British Chiefs of Staff were planning to commit an atrocity 'which would terrify the enemy into instant surrender'. In July 1944 Churchill was recorded as follows in the minutes of a meeting of the British chiefs of staff: 'The time might well come in the not too distant future when an all-out attack by every means at our disposal on German civilian morale might be decisive.' At the same time, he asked the chiefs of staff to consider poison gas 'or any other method of warfare we have hitherto refrained from using.'(13)

On 25 January 1945, ten days before the Yalta conference was due to start, Churchill called Sir Archibald Sinclair, minister of the Royal Air Force, and insisted on knowing what the RAF was planning in order to '[baste] the Germans in their retreat from Breslau'. The following day, Portal advised Sinclair as follows: 'We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.' However, Sinclair's reply to the Prime Minister was cautious: 'The target which the enemy may offer in a large-scale retreat westwards to Dresden and Berlin is best suited to Tactical Air Forces... it would be extremely difficult for our heavy bombers to interfere with these enemy movements by direct attack on their lines of retreat.' He suggested that the bombing of oil targets would be retained as high priority but was prepared to use heavy bombers for territorial attacks in East Germany if climatic conditions made accurate bombing of these targets possible. To this Churchill responded sharply: 'I did not ask you last night about plans for harrying the German retreat from Breslau. On the contrary, I asked whether Berlin, and no doubt other large cities in East Germany, sbould not now be considered especially attractive targets. I am glad that this is "under consideration". Pray report to me tomorrow what is going to be done.'(14)

Sinclair promptly informed the Prime Minister that 'the Air Force [has] now arranged that, subject to the overriding claims of attacks on enemy oil production and other approved target systems within the current directive, available effort should be directed against Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden and associated cities where heavy attack will cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the East and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts. The Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Bomber Command, has undertaken to attempt this task as soon as the present moon has waned and favourable weather conditions allow. This is unlikely to be before about 4th February.'(15) This note of Sinclair's was sent to Churchill on the opening day of the Yalta Conference which lasted from 4 to 11 February 1945. Churchill needed something to make him look important and successful in the eyes of this meeting of the Great Powers.(16)

In his briefing on the first day of the Yalta Conference, General Antonov, Deputy Chief of the Red Army General Staff, requested the Americans and the British specifically to prevent the enemy from moving troops from the Western to the Eastern Front by means of air attacks on communications networks. They were requested specifically to paralyse the communications networks of Berlin and Leipzig. No reference was made to Dresden as a target of these attacks. The Russians therefore never requested the British and Americans to bomb Dresden, as was later mentioned in their defence. In fact, it would appear that the Russians themselves did not want the bombing of Dresden.(17)

While the British historians were brave enough to tell the full truth, that is, that the unfortunate, freezing and starving civilian refugees were the first target of the attack, even before any military target, the Americans regarded this as dangerous. In Tedder's version of the command in a study prepared for the USAF Historical Division, he merely mentions Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden 'and associated cities where heavy attack... will hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts', making no mention at all of the refugees.(18)

When the weather was eventually suitable for the action which Churchill had already assigned to his own air force on 26 January 1945, the Yalta Conference was already over. No prestige or negotiating advantage could therefore still have been obtained from burning Dresden. Churchill nevertheless did not withdraw his order. In July 1948, Malcolm Muggeridge said of Churchill: 'I've come to the conclusion that he was so power-drunk during the last part of his period in office that he scarcely knew what was going on, just maundered along' - a damning judgement of Churchill and his sensitivity to Stalin's growing influence on the international scene. In the summer of 1944, Dresden took its place alongside Leipzig and Chemnitz as among the towns which Sir Arthur Harris believed to be in urgent need of destruction. According to Sir Charles Portal, 'immense destruction could be produced if the entire attack was concentrated on a single big town other than Berlin and the effect would be especially great if the town was one hitherto relatively undamaged.' Dresden appealed to Bomber Command particularly because the city centre would burn easily and dramatically. The target area would be Dresden Altstadt.

The bombing of Dresden has to be judged against this background. During the night of 13/14 February 1945, the city centre of Dresden on both sides of the Elbe, as well as the surrounding residential areas, was reduced to a heap of rubble. According to reports by eyewitnesses, the terror of that night and the next day remains very real.

The sirens which announced the first bombers started whining at 21.41. The night suddenly became as bright as day, illuminated by the Christmas tree patterns of the RAF's illuminating flares which were used to mark the target to the bombers. At 2 000 ft (610 m), Dresden looked surprisingly like a miniature model of a real city. At the minimum altitude of 500 ft (152 m), individual vehicles and human figures could be distinguished. The first reactions of the inhabitants were that of a rather trusting people who had been unable to conceive of Dresden as a target for the massive fire-raids which had reduced most other German cities to a wilderness of blackened stones and empty walls.(19)

Superficially, what had occurred in Dresden up to this point was an ordinary air raid such as hundreds of cities and towns in the country had endured. The first significant hint of a change was not during the first wave of attack at all, but after it, perhaps as much as one hour after it. This hint was contained in the observation of an inhabitant that they had to pass between jets of flame sweeping across the road at irregular intervals. The fires had begun to travel horizontally at high velocity and for considerable distances.(20)

'To my left I see a woman. I 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 baby flies in an arc into the fire. It's only my eyes which take this in: I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still...'(21)

'I stumbled on towards where it was dark. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then - to my utter horror and amazement - I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling that they were being shot... Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders...'(22) 'We walk on a little way and discover two crouching figures. They were two men, one a railwayman who was crying because (in the smoke and debris) he could not find the way to his home. The other was a civilian who had escaped from a cellar together with sixty people, but had to leave his wife and children behind, due to some dreadful circumstances. All three men were crying now, but I just stood there, incapable of a single tear... what I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep... women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off... some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other... From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water-tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again... people whose clothes were still glowing.'(23) Opposite the Zwinger, across the River Elbe, loomed the blazing dome of the Sarrasani Circus building, designed to seat 5 000 people. At 04.00, the whole structure collapsed on itself.(24)

'People came crawling on their hands and knees, so as to be near the ground and be able to breathe better, but not knowing, as they crawled, whether they were really getting away from the fire-storm or merely heading into other burning areas of the city... several men were running around, looking for their wives. One man found his wife, and it was heart-rending how the man bent over her body and cried and moaned...'(25)

'The second wave of bombers were overhead, apparently flying from the direction of the Altstadt along the length of the Grosser Garten in which the Zoological Gardens were situated. Twice as many bombers as in the first attack swamped the Zoo with explosives and incendiaries, including thermite bombs (which the Germans usually referred to as 'phosphorous' bombs). All the animal houses, with the exception of those housing the elephants, were set on fire. The concert hall was blazing, also the staff living quarters... the screams of terrified animals of many species mixed with the rumbling of collapsing buildings... the elephants gave spine-chilling screams. Their house was still standing, but an explosive bomb of terrific force had landed behind it, lifted the dome of the house, turned it around, and put it back again... the elephant warden, Galle, managed to break into the elephant house... then the elephants told us where they were by their heart-breaking trumpeting... the baby cow-elephant was lying in the narrow barrier-moat on her back, her legs up to the sky. She had suffered severe stomach injuries and could not move... In the... humanoid-ape house... the gibbon crept out from under a corner. The creature held its hands to Sailor-Jackson, who saw that it had no hands, merely stumps. Haunted by the expression of suffering on its face, he drew his pistol and shot the beast.'(26)

During the third attack one low-flying aircraft 'came from the centre of the destroyed town. Its target was the tide of refugees flowing along the Tiergartenstrasse. He attacked several times, flying very low, firing from cannon and machine guns into the refugees. Then he flew low over the Zoo and made several firing runs at anything he could see that was still alive. In this way our last giraffe met her death. Many stags and other animals which we had managed to save, became the victims of this hero.'(27)

In Dresden it was said afterwards that the temperature generated by the fires in the centre of the Altstadt reached 3 000 degrees. As sandstone can only stand up to 1 200 degrees, this would explain why the Frauenkirche collapsed and fell in on itself next morning, whereas churches built of harder stone stood as burnt-out shells.(28)

'At midnight, a second enemy air fleet appeared in the red sky of the Elbe valley and bombed the masses of people who had fled to the green, open spaces.' The earth shuddered for 35 minutes under the onslaught of the bombs sent to complete the destruction. The dead bodies of tens of thousands who had fled there for safety were the grim witnesses to this atrocity.(29)

'Twelve hours later, on Wednesday, when the sirens were out of action, a third attack laid a fresh belt of destruction upon the periphery of the city, where the streams of homeless humanity might be expected to be. And on the following day, at midday again, enemy formations bombed the villages further along the Elbe valley where the long columns of refugees were seeking shelter.'(30)

'While we were lying in the dirt, our hands clawing at the earth as if we wanted to crawl inside it, they came at us, wave after wave, circling, flying low, shooting with their machine guns... again that popping noise as they fired without mercy into the people, and the screams and clods of earth flying around... Slowly the drone of the planes was lost in the distance. They had completed their bloody deed. The same kind of massacre was repeated in the Elbe meadows, where thousands of bombed-out Dresdeners had fled. They too were fired at with the machine guns by low-flying aircraft.'

The following day, again at noon, bombers bombarded the towns along the Elbe Valley where the columns of refugees from Dresden had sought refuge. The attack on Dresden hit especially hard because the Allied cause in the war against the Hitler regime and the Nazis was above suspicion. Had it been an attack by the Luftwaffe, the transgressors would have received the death penalty at the Nurnburg trial and there would have been other related trials after the war.
Gerhard Hauptmann, a well-known German writer, poet and playwright, who, at the time of the bombing of Dresden, returned to the city of dreams of his youth to die, used these words to express the deepest feelings in his heart at the sight of the senseless destruction:
'Dresden. This happy morning star of youth had illuminated the world until now. I know that many kindred spirits exist in England and in America who were familiar with divine light of the Sistine madonna and who, shattered by the destruction of this star, are weeping. I... am standing before God, a helpless supplication in my heart - the prayer that he would love, refine and purify humanity even more than before.' Having researched the events leading up to the bombing of Dresden on 13 February 1945, from the viewpoint of the tragic loss of a city of culture and world renown, the writer came to the conclusion that this bombing paved the way for a post-Second World War policy of indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and cities regardless of their military strategic value. It is the opinion of the writer that the Nurnburg Trial and subsequent hearings of Nazi war criminals allowed the Allied war criminals to go free solely because they were the victors and that this gave the world free reign to adopt a new kind of warfare aimed at the civilian population, of which Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Bosnia and the Chechnian conflict are some examples. The writer hopes that this article will spark a debate which could make a contribution towards the return of morality on all levels of society and under all circumstances, even war.


1. H R Allen, The Legacy of Lord Trenchard (London, 1972), pp 47,58;
Strickland (1989), pp 2186, 2188-9, 2193; Janssen (1989), p 2202;
A McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox (London, 1982), pp 15, 263A, 274.
2. A P Boyle, Trenchard (London, 1962), pp 226-236; McKee, Dresden 1945, p 50.
3. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 51.
4. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 52.
5. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 52.
6. D Richards, Portal of Hungerford (London, 1977), p 255.
7. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 57.
8. C Willmot, The Struggle for Europe (London, 1952), p 177.
9. Allen, Lord Trenchard, pp 169-172.
10. C Messenger, Bomber Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945 (Cape Town, 1984), pp 185-6.

11. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 96.
12. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 96.
13. McKee, Dresden 1945, pp 63-5.
14. C Webster and N Frankland, History of the second World War - The strategic Air Offensive against Germany, 1939-1945, Volume III (London, 1961), pp 100-104.
15. Webster, History of the Second World War, Vol III, pp 100-104.
16. Webster, History of the Second World War, Vol III, pp 100-104.
17. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 275; Webster, History of the Second World War, Vol 111, p 105.
18. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 263; Webster, History of the Second World War, Vol III, p 104.
19. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 165.
20. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 159.

21. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 172.
22. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 173.
23. McKee, Dresden 1945, pp 174-5.
24. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 187.
25. McKee, Dresden 1945, pp 209, 252.
26. McKee, Dresden 1945, pp 193-5.
27. McKee, Dresden 1945, pp 222-3.
28. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 176.
29. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 268.
30. McKee, Dresden 1945, p 268.


Allen, H R The Legacy of Lord Trenchard (London,1972).
Boyle, A P Trenchard (London, 1962).
Charlton, L E O War from the Air (London, 1936).
Frankland, N and Dowling, C Decisive Battles of the Twentieth Century: Land - Sea - Air (London,1976).
Harris, A Bomber Offensive (London, 1947).
McKee, A Caen: Anvil of Victory (London, 1964).
McKee, A Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox (London, 1982).
Messenger, C Bomber Harris and the Strategic Bombing Offensive, 1939-1945 (Cape Town, 1984).
Richards, D Portal of Hungerford (London, 1977).
Rodenberger, A Der Tod von Dresden (Frankfurt am Main, 1963).
Webster, C and Frankland, N History of the Second World War: The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, 1939-1945, Volume III (London, 1961).
Wilmot, C The Struggle for Europe (London, 1952).


The recent Dresden article by Paul Grobbelaar, which featured in the December 1995 edition of the Military History Journal (incorporating Museum Review), Vol 10 No 2, sparked some interest from our readers. Here are some of their comments:

Dear Mr Grobbelaar
c/o The Editor

I have read your excellent article on Dresden but two points occur to me which I find puzzling: Firstly, your references do not appear to include David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden. I know that he is controversial in some quarters, but I found this work most impressive. Secondly, in your second paragraph (on p 58) you note that the 'criteria of "civilised warfare" was tossed overboard...' and I would ask you to include Ireland in the places where this has occurred. I am sure that you have heard of the atrocities committed by the English forces in that unhappy country, which reached a crescendo in 1921. I am sure that you would not fall for the old English lie that Ireland is a part of the 'United Kingdom' so the matter is internal!
I cannot but agree emphatically with your concluding paragraph. It is incredible how much people will swallow, even defend a person such as Stalin and his murderous gang. I agree that Himmler & Co deserved what they got but not from Communists and the likes of Churchill.

G Stephenson


The writer of the article, 'Dresden: Fifty years after the firestorm', published in the December 1995 edition of your journal, obviously allowed the views he expressed to be dictated more by a deep personal hatred of the British than by any respect for historical objectivity - or fact either, for that matter.
While it is true that during the inter-war years, RAF marshals were imbued with so-called 'Trenchard Doctrine' that the bombing of civilian targets could in itself end a war, the British were by no means alone in believing this fallacy. Nor were they the first to try putting it into practice.
History's first recorded air raid on a civilian targets were the night attacks launched by German Zeppelins against London in 1915-16, and later by Gotha G IV bombing aircraft. Two of these raids took place in broad daylight, and it is ironic that it was a committee sitting under the chairmanship of South Africa's General Jan Smuts who, noting their effects on civilian morale, recommended that similar attacks be made on Germany. The French did launch some aerial reprisals on German towns in the First World War, but British air operations against Germany were confined to day and night attacks against industrial targets in the Saar and Rhineland. The range of the aircraft available at that time permitted no deeper penetration, although these were being planned by the time the war ended.
British conversion to the concept of bombing as a weapon against civilians only came with the establishment of the RAF on 1 April 1918, but until the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, there was no opportunity to put it into practice. Britain's use of the bomber in the inter-war years was confined to peace-keeping operations against the villages of warring tribes in northern Iraq and on the north-west frontier of India. In both cases, the inhabitants were always given advance warning to evacuate. Inter-tribal warfare was endemic in those regions, and still is. Bombing was the only way it could be checked.
The RAF was indeed founded with the aim of using strategic bombing against Germany in a future war, but Italy, Japan and Germany were thinking along the same lines, and all three were well ahead of Britain in launching air attacks against civilians in the pursuit of military objectives.
The Italian General Guilio Douhet appears to have been the first to expound the concept of the omnipotence of air power in wars of the future when he published his book The Command of the Air in 1921, and the Italians made full use of air power against civilians in Abyssinian campaign. Likewise, the Japanese used bombers in their war with China, most spectacularly in the case of Nanking, while the Germans made widespread use of the bombers in the Spanish Civil War. Thanks to Pablo Picasso, everybody has heard of Guernica. All this must surely make the point that it was not the marshals of the RAF alone who 'tossed overboard the criteria of civilised warfare', whatever that is. The first RAF raid against a German city was in September 1940 when an ineffective attack on Berlin produced a retaliation against London which, incidentally, relieved the pressure on Britain's advanced airlields and may have cost the Germans victory in the battle of Britain. None of the victorious allies in the Second World War is likely to deny that the raid was justified. Whereas the early British strategic bombers faced the risk that they could not return from raiding Germany if the prevailing westerly winds proved too strong, the defeat of France put German bombers within easy reach of Britain's main cities and, in the winter of 1940-41, extensive damage was done to all of them. The fate of Coventry will be especially remembered because Luftwaffe Marshal Hermann Goering celebrated the occasion by coining a new verb, 'to Coventrate'. He threatened a similar fate for other British cities and did his best to carry it out. The centres of all the main British cities were burnt out during that winter, with London a persistent target. Indeed, the first recognised 'firestorm' raid was launched against the City of London in January 1941. It is not recorded that the Luftwaffe marshals took account of the civilian casualties caused by these raids and few Britons who experienced them on the ground had any sympathy for the Germans when their turn came.

All of this, incidentally, was after the Luftwaffe's indiscriminate bombing of undefended cities such as Warsaw and Rotterdam, not to mention its machine gunning of refugees on the roads of northern France during the German advance to the Channel coast in May/June 1940. Belgrade and Moscow came later. As for what was done to Dresden, it is true that at the Yalta Conference held a few days before, the Russians - who were constantly complaining that the Western allies never did enough to help win the war - had not specifically recommended the town as a target. But Stalin did ask for action against those eastern German cities in the path of the Russian advance, such as Berlin, Leipzig and Chemnitz. The choice of Dresden was made because at that time the Russians were only about 50 km away and it was judged that to bomb there instead of Berlin would be a more effective contribution to the Russian effort.
Moreover, 'Bomber' Harris always maintained that the order to bomb Dresden came directly from Churchill, who was undoubtedly attempting to impress Stalin, if not please him. It was not the choice of any air marshal, as the article implies.
It is true that the RAF's main objective in the raid was to create confusion. But confusion was an accepted military objective at the time, and its effectiveness as a weapon in war had already been proved by the Luftwaffe in 1940 and before that in Spain and Poland.
It is extraordinary that any article on the destruction of Dresden should mention only the two British raids, both of which were restricted to the night of 13/14 February, and fail to note the daylight attacks launched by US bombers on each of the following two days, and again on 2 March. The article mentions the attack at noon on the day following the night raids, but does not point out that it was launched by the Americans, not the RAF. In fact, the Americans had been the first to hit Dresden, in a light attack in the previous October.

The article says that 'During the third attack...' one low-flying aircraft attacked with cannon and machine guns the 'tide of refugees flowing along the Tiergartenstrasse'. The two RAF attacks were both launched at night and from 10 000 ft (9 140 metres), when it would have been quite impossible to have seen the refugees fleeing the city. Moreover, British bombers did not mount cannon. An attack of this kind, if in fact it ever took place, could only have been carried out by a US fighter escorting the US bombers. RAF night bombers were never escorted and it is doubtful whether US fighter cover could have penetrated so far into Germany at that time.
I put it to you that this article is a polemic, and intended to be one. It has no place in a journal dedicated to serious history.

George Barrell

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