On this day in 1945, over 1,200 Allied bomber aircraft took to the skies for an attack on Dresden, an industrial city in Eastern Germany. That night, the first of four sorties (missions) began and, over the next 48 hours, 3,900 tonnes of incendiary and high-explosive (HE) munitions were dropped on the city centre. The fires spread quickly and the flames, reaching high into the night sky, ravaged the industrial centre. But as the railyards and factories of Dresden went up in flames, so too did the residential districts. In revenge for the Blitz attacks on London, Allied air crews had been instructed to raze Dresden. By the end of the last sortie on February 15th, over 90% of the city centre was in ruins; nearly 25,000 German people were killed as they took shelter in air raid shelters and ran for cover in the streets.
At this point in the war, many months after the Allied invasion of France, the attack on Dresden was of dubious necessity. The city was virtually undefended: Luftwaffe aircraft and ground-based AA (anti-aircraft) crews had been sent East to take on the Red Army. . British Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris defended his support for the raid, claiming that it was a justified piece of revenge. Since the Blitz, Harris had been an almost fanatical proponent of area (as opposed to pinpoint) bombings of German civilian centres. By this point, however, even Prime Minister Winston Churchill – one of the Allies’ most aggressive leaders – recognized that bomber command had gone too far. After Dresden, Allied bombing raids were cut back significantly.
In The Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut – an American prisoner in Dresden at the time – claims that the bodies of dead civilians were so numerous that German authorities had to burn them with flamethrowers. As a firsthand witness of the bombings, Vonnegut later claimed that he was the only person on earth who benefited from the Dresden “atrocity”, because of the profits from his book sales: “Some business I’m in.” After the war, some went so far as to claim that Dresden was a war crime on the same level as the Holocaust, because of the masses of civilians who perished for no strategic gain. Whatever the exact legal truth of the Dresden bombings – which will likely never be agreed upon, because the intelligence used to justify the raid has been lost or hidden – the tragic loss of civilian life and infrastructure was one of the most extreme manifestations of Allied revenge at the tail end of WWII.