A brief, and hopefully not too inaccurate history; correct what you will:
During the first week of February, 1945, as Russian forces were preparing to close in on Berlin, Western Allies discussed how they might use massive air power to ‘aid the Russians’ in taking Berlin, perhaps ‘shortening’ the war that was clearly due to end soon.
To make a very long and convoluted story short, a plan was okayed by Churchill and the RAF and USAAF commanders to bomb three cities: Dresden, Chemitz, and Leipzig in order to block German troops coming from the west to shore up the Eastern Front and utterly break German morale.
I wish I could remember which luminaries got wind of the plan, and begged Churchill to spare Dresden, which was an architectural and artistic jewel of Europe. It was known as ‘the Florence of the Elbe’. No matter, I guess; the plan was approved.
During the four days and nights of bombing, British and American bombers dropped over 3900 tons of bombs and incendiaries, mainly white phosphorus, on Dresden and other cities. Apparently, 40% of the American bombs dropped were firebombs, which explosions and resulting fire and smoke so obscured the air that some planes (oops) bombed Prague and other cities in ‘error’.
The Wiki says that the two-ton bombs called ‘blockbusters’ had enough force to destroy an entire city block, blowing off roofs, blowing out doors and windows, allowing the funneling of air that would help spread the fire from the incendiaries (read: white phosphorus firebombs)
Other fuckups caused Meissen and Pirna to be the recipients of ‘accidental’ bombing.
The importance of Dresden as a military target was totally trumped up, and the machinations make grim reading. But make no mistake: it was the first time that bombing massive amounts of civilians was carried out in what was dubbed ‘strategic bombing’, but what was formalized terrorist bombing.
Any inquiries and tribunals were utterly whitewashed; The Truth will never come to light; historians still write of it, whether in utter condemnation or sick justification. Dresden had no military significance, just some big rail yard they didn’t bomb; they never even did bomb factories in the suburbs that might have loosely been seen as contributing to war materiel, or whatever.
Over 90% of Dresden was destroyed; no one knows how many died. Numbers range from 25,00 to Kurt Vonnegut’s estimate 135,000. The city was full of refugees fleeing the Russians from the east.
Vonnegut was captured by the Germans during the war, and was imprisoned under Dresden during the bombing. Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse-Five, Or the Children’s Crusade, tells bits of the story as fiction/nonfiction through his hero, Billy Pilgrim. I think I remember Kurt saying that after Dresden, nothing would ever again come out of his mouth that wasn’t funny.
Poking around for more memories of the horror, I found this posted ubiquitously, that The London Times apparently posted in 2008 from papers found after his death, but I can’t find the original source. An excerpt:
“There was no war in Dresden. True, planes came over nearly every day and the sirens wailed, but the planes were always en route elsewhere. The alarms furnished a relief period in a tedious work day, a social event, a chance to gossip in the shelters. The shelters, in fact, were not much more than a gesture, casual recognition of the national emergency: wine cellars and basements with benches in them and sandbags blocking the windows, for the most part. There were a few more adequate bunkers in the centre of the city, close to the government offices, but nothing like the staunch subterranean fortress that rendered Berlin impervious to her daily pounding. Dresden had no reason to prepare for attack – and thereby hangs a beastly tale.
Dresden was surely among the world’s most lovely cities. Her streets were broad, lined with shade-trees. She was sprinkled with countless little parks and statuary. She had marvellous old churches, libraries, museums, theatres, art galleries, beer gardens, a zoo and a renowned university.
It was at one time a tourist’s paradise. They would be far better informed on the city’s delights than am I. But the impression I have is that in Dresden – in the physical city – were the symbols of the good life; pleasant, honest, intelligent. In the swastika’s shadow, those symbols of the dignity and hope of mankind stood waiting, monuments to truth. The accumulated treasure of hundreds of years, Dresden spoke eloquently of those things excellent in European civilisa-tion wherein our debt lies deep.
I was a prisoner, hungry, dirty and full of hate for our captors, but I loved that city and saw the blessed wonder of her past and the rich promise of her future.
In February 1945, American bombers reduced this treasure to crushed stone and embers; disembowelled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries. [snip]
The night they came over, we spent in an underground meat locker in a slaughterhouse. We were lucky, for it was the best shelter in town. Giants stalked the earth above us. First came the soft murmur of their dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding towards us, and finally the ear-splitting crashes of their heels upon us – and thence to the outskirts again. Back and forth they swept: saturation bombing.
“I screamed and I wept and I clawed the walls of our shelter,” an old lady told me. “I prayed to God to ‘please, please, please, dear God, stop them’. But he didn’t hear me. No power could stop them. On they came, wave after wave. There was no way we could surrender; no way to tell them we couldn’t stand it any more. There was nothing anyone could do but sit and wait for morning.” Her daughter and grandson were killed.
Our little prison was burnt to the ground. We were to be evacuated to an outlying camp occupied by South African prisoners. Our guards were a melancholy lot, aged Volkssturmers and disabled veterans. Most of them were Dresden residents and had friends and families somewhere in the holocaust. A corporal, who had lost an eye after two years on the Russian front, ascertained before we marched that his wife, his two children and both of his parents had been killed. He had one cigarette. He shared it with me.”
Dresden survivor Lothar Metzgar’s story is here.
We hope you’ve found some measure of peace now, Kurt. Jeez, we loved you.
There really just isn’t anything more I can say. Feel free to add what you will.