Critical Essays Understanding the Bombing of Dresden


The bombing of Dresden began February 13, 1945, and lasted through April 17 — a period of two months — yet even today, it remains one of the most controversial military decisions in modern warfare. Why this premier cultural city was devastated during World War II continues to be clouded in mystery. Two contradictory reasons for the bombing have emerged. First, with the Russian army advancing on the Eastern Front, German forces were being solidified to repel the Russians and needed to be "softened," thereby allowing the Russians to advance more easily. Second, with the war winding down and the Western Allies and Russians realizing that conquered land would be up for grabs, the bombing would demonstrate to the Russians the immense power of the Western Allies (the United States, Great Britain, and France) and would deter the Russians from grabbing land; besides, if the Russians occupied land that the Western Allies wanted, the bombing would devastate the land, making it worthless.

Code-named Thunderclap, a plan put forth by Allied military leaders to bomb sequentially one large German city after another, the Dresden destruction began the night of February 13, 1945, when Britain's Royal Air Force sent planes to bomb the city. In all, the Royal Air Force sent 800 aircraft over Dresden, dropping incendiary bombs that caused massive devastation — not because of their initial impact, but because of the fires that ensued. The following afternoon, the U.S. 8th Air Force assaulted Dresden with 400 bombers, then continued with 200 more planes on February 15. A brief respite ensued after these February bombings, but on March 2, the U.S. 8th Air Force again bombed the city, using 400 more aircraft. Finally, the destruction of Dresden concluded with the 8th Air Force sending 572 bombers over the city on April 17.

The number of persons killed during the two-month bombing of Dresden is impossible to pinpoint precisely. Estimated casualties range from 35,000 up to 135,000, a disparity due in part to the chaotic nature of all wartime bombings. The great number of refugees flooding into Dresden from the outlying regions, desperately hoping to escape the oncoming Russian army, complicates the details of this tragedy.

Information about the bombing remained secret until 1978, when the U.S. Air Force declassified many of the documents concerning Thunderclap. However, the true reasons for the exorbitant bombing remain ambiguous. The Allies insist that Dresden housed military installations such as barracks, camps composed of makeshift huts, and at least one munitions storage depot. However, the hutted camps were full of refugees, not soldiers, and the munitions storage depot housed munitions stores used in mining. In addition, the Allies claim that Dresden was the site of a communications center that needed to be destroyed in order to help the Russian Allies approaching from the east. Clearly, many citizens in both Britain and the United States were so outraged by the Germans' bombing of London earlier in the war that they were happy to see a substantial retaliation of some sort. There was little mourning for Dresden by the Allies.

Given the military reasons advanced for bombing Dresden, the issue is even more clouded when we consider the political reasons behind the action. A Royal Air Force memo cites the need to strike the German army behind its front line, but continues with the belief that the bombing will also show the advancing Russians the power of the Western Allied forces. As World War II wound down, some Russian and Western Allied leaders openly described the final war campaigns as a victors' "land-grab" operation. However, after the war, a leading Russian general suggested that the Allies destroyed cities in eastern Germany bound to fall under Russian control with the sole purpose of leaving worthless rubble to them.

Whatever the reason — or reasons — for the Allies' bombing of Dresden, the fact remains clear that the city was destroyed and civilians were killed to a greater extent by far than ever occurred in the Germans' bombing of London. The image of a destroyed Dresden that once housed one of the greatest art collections in the world and was truly one of the renowned musical and architectural centers can still cause entirely different reactions, ranging from those who say that the bombing was necessary for military and political reasons, to those who claim that the bombing was a senseless and unnecessary act, aimed only at destroying German neighborhoods where strategic installations did not even exist.

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