TODAY is the 75th anniversary of the start of the campaign of bombing of Dresden in Germany by the Allies, raids which are still argued about because of the death toll and the destruction of a city renowned for its beauty – it was known as Florence on the Elbe.

The capital of Saxony, Dresden was undoubtedly beautiful, dating from the 13th century and endowed over the centuries with a myriad of architectural wonders in various styles. Of particular note was the Altstadt, the Old Town, and the Frauenkirche church, symbol of the city.

Nearly all those wonders were destroyed with bombing that began on the night of February 13/14, 1945. By the end of the raids, an estimated 25,000 people had lost their lives, many in horrific fashion in a firestorm which engulfed the city.

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THIS has long been disputed by military historians. Ostensibly Dresden was a target because it housed military production factories and transport links that might make it strategically important should German forces be able to halt the advance of the Soviet Red Army.

In hindsight we know such a defence would have been impossible given the overwhelming nature of the Soviet invasion. The German civilian population was fleeing west to escape the Red Army while Hitler had ordered troops from the western front to go east and shore up the defences of cities, like Leipzig and Dresden, which lay in the path of the Soviet forces.

Thanks to the Bletchley Park intercepts, British intelligence knew that there was considerable confusion in both the military and civilian ranks in Dresden, which had become a major gathering area for troops, tanks and artillery.

The National:

Bomber Command chief Arthur Harris recommended area bombing to disrupt Dresden entirely and after consulting the Soviets at the Yalta Conference, Winston Churchill gave the go-ahead for the campaign. A secondary purpose was to show the Soviets what the British and American bombers could do to a city, just in case they forgot to stop at Berlin.

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THE United States Air Force, which only flew daytime missions, was supposed to attack first but bad weather on the morning of the 13th meant that the RAF would start the raids that night. With diversionary raids elsewhere and precision-guided pathfinders laying out the targets for them, the first force of 250 Lancasters dropped 800 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs in just 15 minutes. The second raid three hours later saw more than 500 Lancasters drop 1800 tonnes of bombs. Dresden was soon in flames.

Protected by long-range Mustang fighters, the American bomber groups were virtually unscathed as they carried out further raids on the 14th and 15th. The destruction of the city centre was almost total, especially during the firestorm caused by the lethal mix of high explosives and incendiaries – weaponry deliberately deployed by the British after the Blitz on London, Coventry, Clydebank and elsewhere. The RAF lost just six aircraft, the USAF one.

Fewer people died at Dresden than in the bombing firestorm which gutted Hamburg and killed 35,000 in July 1943. 25,000 are believed to have been killed, though that was not even the worst civilian death toll of 1945. The following month the United States Air Force attacked Tokyo, with more than 120,000 killed in a firestorm, and of course, the casualties inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the atomic bombs were considerably more than Dresden.

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THE German propaganda machine said so, claiming 200,000 dead – a complete lie. The slaughter of innocent non-combatant civilians is always supposed to be a war crime, but the Allies won and were never charged.

Those who survived the firestorm have given their accounts of the terror and the horrific scenes they experienced. No one has ever asked why their evidence was not produced in a court of law.

Due to criticism of the tactic and the fact that the war was almost won, area bombing of German cities ceased after Dresden and the destruction of Pforzheim a week later.

The National:


KURT Vonnegut (above) was an American prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombing. His brilliant anti-war book of this sub-section’s title contains his memories of the raid. It should be compulsory reading.

The experience of Dresden deeply affected him.

He wrote in the book: “As a trafficker in climaxes and thrills and characterization and wonderful dialogue and suspense and confrontations, I had outlined the Dresden story many times.”

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THE Encyclopaedia Britannica records: “After the war, German and Soviet authorities considered levelling the Dresden ruins to make way for new construction. But local leaders forced a compromise for rebuilding part of the city centre and placing the modern construction outside – in effect, encircling old Dresden with a newer city.

“After reunification in 1990, Germany undertook the extensive reconstruction of the inner city as a moral and political objective, unveiling new works at various stages with much fanfare in an effort still ongoing in the 21st century. Dresden has returned to much of its former grandeur as a centre for art and culture.”

Some 60 years after the raid, on October 30, 2005, the rebuilt Frauenkirche was re-consecrated. It remains Dresden’s icon to this day.