At the end of World War II, the city of Dresden was in ruins, all its buildings destroyed and thousands of civilians dead. The scale of the death and destruction, coming so late in the war, along with significant questions about the legitimacy of the targets destroyed have led to years of debate about whether the attack was justified, or whether it should be labeled a war crime. The bombing of Dresden has become one of the most controversial decisions made in the European theater.
Before World War II, Dresden was called “the Florence of the Elbe” and was regarded as one the world’s most beautiful cities for its architecture and museums, it had numerous beautiful baroque and rococo-style buildings, palaces, and cathedrals.
Although no German city remained isolated from Hitler’s war machine, Dresden’s contribution to the war effort was minimal compared with other German cities.
As Hitler had thrown much of his surviving forces into a defense of Berlin in the north, city defenses were minimal, and the Russians would have had little trouble capturing Dresden. It seemed an unlikely target for a major Allied air attack.
An important aspect of the Allied air war against Germany involved what is known as “area” or “saturation” bombing. In area bombing, all enemy industry–not just war munitions–is targeted, and civilian portions of cities are obliterated along with troop areas.
Before the advent of the atomic bomb, cities were most effectively destroyed through the use of incendiary bombs that caused unnaturally fierce fires in the enemy cities. Such attacks, Allied command reasoned, would ravage the German economy, break the morale of the German people and force an early surrender.
On the night of February 13, 1945, hundreds of RAF bombers descended on Dresden in two waves, dropping their lethal cargo indiscriminately over the city.
The city’s air defenses were so weak that only six Lancaster bombers were shot down. By the morning, some 800 British bombers had dropped more than 1,400 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 1,100 tons of incendiaries on Dresden, creating a great firestorm that destroyed most of the city and killed numerous civilians.
Later that day, as survivors made their way out of the smoldering city, more than 300 U.S. bombers began bombing Dresden’s railways, bridges, and transportation facilities, killing thousands more.
On February 15, another 200 U.S. bombers continued their assault on the city’s infrastructure. All told, the bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped more than 950 tons of high-explosive bombs and more than 290 tons of incendiaries on Dresden. Later, the Eighth Air Force would drop 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in three other attacks before the war’s end.
After the war, investigators from various countries, and with varying political motives, calculated the number of civilians killed to be as little as 8,000 to more than 200,000. Estimates today range from 35,000 to 135,000.
Looking at photographs of Dresden after the attack, in which the few buildings still standing are completely gutted, it seems improbable that only 35,000 of the million or so people in Dresden at the time were killed.
At the end of the war, Dresden was so badly damaged that the city was basically leveled. A handful of historic buildings–the Zwinger Palace, the Dresden State Opera House, and several fine churches–were carefully reconstructed out of the rubble, but the rest of the city was rebuilt with plain modern buildings.
American author Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), who was a prisoner of war in Dresden during the Allied attack and tackled the controversial event in his book “Slaughterhouse-Five,” said of postwar Dresden: “It looked a lot like Dayton, Ohio, more open spaces than Dayton has. There must be tons of human bone meal in the ground”.
Of 28,410 houses in central Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed. 15 sq km totally demolished—of which there were: 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 banks, 31 dept stores, 31 hotels, 62 administrative buildings.
(Photo credit: Deutsche Fotothek / Picture Alliance / US Army Archives).