One of the more controversial events of World War II was the bombing of Dresden, Germany in the final months of the war. The initial bombing campaign took place over a three-day period where 722 RAF and 527 USAAF heavy bombers dropped a total of 3,900 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs over four raids between 13-15 February 1945.

The civilian casualty rates were appalling. The heat from the incendiary devices created a firestorm that destroyed nearly seven square kilometers of the city center and burned to death anywhere between 35,000 and 135,000 people. The wildly varying casualty estimates are because refugees fleeing the Russians to the east had streamed into the city. Although Nazi Germany was on a total war footing, Dresden, considered the “Florence on the Elbe” before the war, was not a high-value target. There was little in the city of military consequence.

German propaganda initially reported the death rate at over 200,000 but that was proven false. While the death rate could be as high as 135,000, the figure was probably closer to 35,000. That number is still horrific.

Prelude to the Bombing

In late January 1945, the Nazi war machine was smashed. The Battle of the Bulge on the Western Front was over. It had resulted in losses far more than the German Army could afford and the foolhardy and disastrous New Year’s Day Luftwaffe campaign had left the Nazis with virtually no air cover. The Russians were in German territory and their offensive was set to cross the Oder River, just 70 km from Berlin.

The RAF Bomber Command had drawn up preliminary plans to bomb the cities of Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz to create confusion among the people and hamper the Germans’ ability to reinforce the Eastern Front offensive.

The American intelligence had Dresden, which by that point of the war had been untouched, as having 110 factories and employing 50,000 workers. It also contained a massive communication and rail hub.

A memo sent to the Bomber Command the night before the raids commenced, stated that a secondary purpose for the raid was to show the Russians what RAF Bomber Command can do.

“Dresden, the seventh-largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed 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, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance…. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front… and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”

However, during the raid, the industrialized sectors of Dresden’s suburbs were not touched, although all of the major industry was there. Instead, the raids would be targeting the city’s hub and the rail and marshaling yards.

The Bombing Raids Commence 

The attack was slated to begin with the USAAF in the daylight followed by an RAF night attack, yet bad weather canceled the American assault on February 13. The British plan was to hit the target in waves three hours apart so that when the second wave arrived, the German firefighting units would just be going into action.

The first group of RAF bombers consisted of heavy Lancasters acting as pathfinders. They would drop streams of flares, which the Germans called “Christmas trees” to illuminate the target area. Next, small Mosquito bombers would drop 1,000 lb Target Indicators which would glow red for the bombers to aim at.

The main body of the attack was 244 heavy Lancasters (10 had turned back) carrying 500 tons of high explosives (HE) and 390 tons of incendiaries. The HE bombs varied from 500 to 4,000-pound, “Blockbuster” bombs which would create airflow for the incendiary bombs to follow.

The bombing began at 22:14 hours and lasted eight minutes, the last bomb dropping at 22:22. The target area covered was a mile and a quarter long and a mile and three-quarters wide. Dropping from 8,000 feet, the devastation was appalling.

When the second wave of the bombers appeared shortly after o1:00., the fires could be seen from 60 miles away on the ground. They were visible from 500 miles away in the air with smoke rising to over 15,000 feet. Therefore, the pathfinders didn’t need to pinpoint the area so they expanded the target area.

The second wave began at 01:21 hours on 14 February and finished at 01:45 hours. The next group of 529 Lancasters dropped an additional 1,800 tons of bombs.

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At noon 431 heavy B-17 bombers accompanied by 781 P-51 fighters were to attack Dresden. Of those, 316 B-17s dropped 771 tons of bombs on Dresden while 60 moved to Prague and bombed it with 153 tons of bombs.

On February 15, the U.S. was to bomb Leipzig but the city was obscured by clouds, so the planes moved to Dresden and dropped their bomb loads using the H2X radar. The bomb loads were widely scattered.

The Germans put up virtually no defense over Dresden. Their heavy flak artillery had been sent to the Eastern Front. The British lost six aircraft in all out of 796 aircraft involved. Three were lost when bombs dropped from a higher squadron hit aircraft flying below. The Americans lost one bomber in the action.

Horror on the Ground

The firestorm that engulfed the city center was unlike anything the people had ever witnessed before. The oxygen was sucked out of the air, leaving people to collapse in the street where they were quickly incinerated. One witness described the horror.

“Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins, and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.

We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers, and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.

I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.”

The damage to the German industry was negligible. German Minister of Armaments Albert Speer reported after the war that the industry was back up and running and the recovery was fast. Rather, it was the city’s residential areas that were hard hit.

Over 78,000 dwellings were completely destroyed: nearly 28,000 became uninhabitable and 64,500 damaged but fixable. Casualties were widespread. There were so many dead bodies at the Altmarkt Square that the bodies had to be cremated in place. By the end of the raid, the Germans had accounted for 22,096 dead including those cremated in the square. Of all of the refugees who had streamed from the east, 35,000 were missing. Of those 10,000 were later accounted for. Another 1,858 bodies were later found when Dresden was being reconstructed after the war and until 1966.

The author Kurt Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden. He saw first-hand the destruction and carnage. The German Army sent POWs in to bury the bodies, “but there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.”

He later put his recollections into his novel Slaughterhouse-Five which describes the bombing of Dresden.

The debate over whether the bombing and the resultant firestorm over Dresden was a war crime or a legitimate military target still rages. The British and Americans, who took part in the bombing raids, for the most part, believe that the city was a vital military target. While the German citizens, like those of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, believe it to be genocide.

This article was originally published on February 14, 2018.