The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 10 No 4 - December 1996



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 airfields 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


'Dear [Editor]
In the last edition of your [journal] we found some disturbing news regarding the destruction of the site of the battle of Silkaatsnek, near the Hartebeespoort Dam. [See Ian Copley's article, 'The second battle of Silkaatsnek, 2 August 1900' in Military History Journal (incorporating Museum Review), Vol 10 No 2, December 1995]

I recently came across the itinerary of a [1970s] tour which was organised by the Historical Society, which started at Kruger House in Pretoria. It then covered some truly fascinating graves of very interesting people who fought in the [South African War (1899-1902)]... The tour then continued westwards to Silkaatsnek and finally came to the site of the battle of Nooitgedacht. The notes for the excursion were compiled by Charles E More, and contain a mass of information.

Readers who are interested in visiting this area, especially Silkaatsnek, can contact Joan Clarke-Welsby at the Dedecore Country Home, Buffelsfontein, P0 Box 544, Mooinooi, 0325, or Tel: (0142) 743-649 for more information.

Joan Clarke-Welsby

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