February 13th marks the 70th anniversary of Dresden. My ancestral home. In one night I lost seventeen relatives.
By February 1945 there was already widespread acceptance in Germany that the war was lost and a quick capitulation would end the carnage. Dresden had been the home of my father’s ancestors and many of my relatives were still living there. I, myself, was born and raised in Austria and had rarely visited Dresden before its bombing. In 1944, I was there at the Luftwaffe Luftkriegschule to become a fighter pilot. Today, I may say, ‘fortunately’ the war had come to its end before I could make it into combat.
Dresden was then a beautiful city, which seemed to have been bypassed by the war. Its citizens had no fear and had made no preparations for possible air raids. A rumour had it that Churchill’s grandmother used to live in Dresden and that he might still have some property there. There was no military installation apart from the flying school on the outskirts, in Klotsche. The population had already been swollen by refugees from the East who had fled the advancing Russian army. The excessive Allied bombing on February 13, 1945, came as a total surprise.
The air raid was one of the most effective ever to be executed, causing maximum damage over a mere two days. The first wave of bombs blew houses, roofs and service installations to bits. Electricity and water supplies stopped functioning. The second wave came as a carpet of fire bombs. I remember from a blitz in Berlin in 1942 the sound of the phosphorous sticks, like a handclap when they hit the ground, followed by the hissing of a relentless stream of flames. A third round of explosive bombs came down to spread the flaming material all around. Smoke and dust engulfed the whole city.
By the end of the second night, thousands of people were dead, men, women, and children, residents of the city as well as refugees fleeing from the Russian army, burnt or blasted or suffocated by the firestorm that sucked the oxygen from their lungs. The target wasn’t a munitions factory or a submarine base. It was a virtually defenceless medieval city renowned for its art and the beauty of its architecture.
My uncle conducted a survey count of our relatives. Seventeen had perished in the Dresden inferno, mostly elderly ladies. They were either caught in an explosion, burned to death, or asphyxiated from the smoke. The official mortality count, which will never be accurate, is estimated to be 35,000 people. This number is just behind Hamburg’s, the most devastatingly bombed German city in the war, where 40,000 people were lost over several air raids.
The veteran airmen do not need to feel dishonoured by the result of their accomplished mission. They did not know what had happened down on the ground. They only saw the flash of impact, received confirmation that they were on target, then got the hell out of there, back to the safety of their base. They were responsible for their aircraft, the safety of their men on board, and to be sure that they avoided unnecessary risks. That was their job.
The question is, what motivated the order for such a mission as at the time it would not contribute to the outcome or shortening of the war. One thing is certain, however, Hitler’s bombings of British cities and the relentless terrorising of London, with V-1 unmanned bombers and V-2 rockets, motivated revenge. One person was responsible for the order to bomb Dresden that late in the war with such crushing waves of carpet bombings. That person was Sir Arthur Travers Harris (1892-1984), the British commander-in-chief of the Royal Air Force (RAF) from 1942 to 1945 and in charge of Bomber Command. He had been aptly nicknamed ‘Bomber Harris’.
Distinguished historians defined the goal of Bomber Command as follows:
The destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany. It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives; the creation of refugee problems on an unprecedented scale; and the breakdown of morale… are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy.
The bombing of Dresden and other German cities in 1945, shocking as it is today when ‘collateral damages’ are considered war crimes, did not stir the numbed minds of an already defeated German population. Due to this demonstration of superior power by the enemy forces, there was no expectation or even possibility for Germany to rise in rebellion against its Nazi leaders. Even if Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (1907-1944) had succeeded in his attempt on July 20, 1944, the assassination of Hitler could not have resulted in a sufficient assembly of men to wrestle the power from the remaining Nazi leadership. Even in the last hours of the war there was still a glimmer of hope, propagated by powerful radio speeches delivered by Joseph Goebbels, shouting at the German public words to the effect of, “Just wait, we are within weeks of obtaining a weapon that will ensure our ultimate victory! Once in service, our enemies will beg on their knees to stop the carnage we will be in a position to inflict upon them and will be ready to accept peace on German terms!”
Indeed, the true heroes were the courageous Norwegian resistance fighters, sacrificing some of their own people by sinking a barge loaded with barrels of heavy water. The Royal Navy, too, alerted by the British intelligence service, sank two ships carrying barrels of heavy water from Norway to Germany. These actions alone prevented the outcome of the war as predicted by Goebbels. The Germans had perfected the technique of constructing the atomic bomb. They had also constructed the delivery system, the V-2 rocket. But the missing ingredient was heavy water to trigger the fission and the only source of it at that time was a Norwegian fertilizer plant If those sailors had failed, the first atomic bombs would not have been detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but over London and Moscow.
A few months later, holed up in a bunker in Berlin with Hitler and Eva Braun, Goebbels not only killed himself, but also his wife and small children. His diabolical mind could not fathom that his enemies might be less cruel than he and his henchmen had been.
I am not an eye witness, nor have I suffered from the war bombings in Germany. I can only relate what I experienced and stories told to me of what happened at ground level.
In 1940, I was living with my mother, who had moved the household to Berlin. I had just come back from a boarding school in south Germany where air raids had not yet started to happen. My older brother was still living at home and we shared a bedroom. One night I was startled awake by the wail of sirens, sounding a warning of approaching enemy aircrafts. Before I could ask my brother what was happening, he got up, closed the window, and told me to go back to sleep. He was used to false alarms. But these would soon change into actual air raids by British bombers.
In 1942, one of the neighbourhood apartment blocks was hit and set aflame. I joined the rescue team to form a chain, delivering buckets of water up to the roof five stories above. At the age of 17, this experience was rather exciting and did not affect my desire to become a pilot like my older brother.
I was lucky to have escaped the full effects of the war, but the suffering and death around me did not go unnoticed or unfelt.