Hermes' Wings

History, Writing and Personal Musings

Category Archives: Articles of War

The Battle of the Bulge

Masthead - Battle of the Bulge

Mapping the Ardennes offensive proved much arduous than my earlier work on Normandy and D-Day.

Admittedly, I knew little about the Ardennes, cloaked as it was, under a tangle of oak, willow, conifers, poplar and beech. What I did know about this great campaign came from scattered readings and for having seen the great 1965 turkey The Battle of Bulge, the significantly better Battleground (1949), and the two-odd episodes of Band of Brothers which portrayed US airborne at the besieged market town of Bastogne.

Part of the challenges is that the landscape of the Ardennes is a difficult place to wrap the mind around, populated as it is with places with impossible names like Houffalize, Foy, Soy, Wiltz, Champs, Saint-Vith, La Gleize, the vaguely wookie-sounding Neiderwampach, Sibret, Butgenbach and a rather pleasant-sounding village named Bra.

The battles here were monstrous; the brainchild of a despot grasping at straws for a last victory which he believed would reverse the course of the war. However, the finer details of the battle contain an almost supernatural quality: of phantom, snowsuit-clad Germans passing in an out of US lines, of American paratroopers holding frozen ground against titanic German tanks appearing of the mist, of foxlike English-speaking Germans sowing discord behind the lines, of diehard SS commandos wielding captured US Army equipment and uniforms to punch through Allied lines and a fog which hung like a pall for the first nine days of the battle.

Yet, the alien, hard edges of the Battle of the Bulge are softened somewhat by the pop-culture icons who found themselves in the midst of this struggle — men like the late, affable actor Charles Durning, who possibly survived an SS war crime outside the town of Malmedy, and the author, Kurt Vonnegut of Indianapolis, who, as a member of the green US 106th Infantry Division, fell into the German bag after his regiment was overrun by swarms of Teutonic armor and infantry.

This, I suspect comes to down to our human need to identify something familiar out of the monochromatic visions which emerge from literature and photography. Arguably, cartography is one way to cut through this hermetic barrier. Words may have the ability to evoke powerful scenes, but maps have the power to crystallize text onto a landscape we can visualize in our mind’s eye.


The initial set of three maps took over 30 days to create, with my working nights after my day job. Several contemporary books were consulted to figure out how events transpired, including Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944, which proved to be singularly useless. In the end, I went back to the sources: US Army historical documents, manuscripts, dispatches and books including Hugh Cole’s excellent The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge (US Army, 1965).

The Front Explodes

The Battle of the Bulge - 16-19 Dec 44

Brodie - WinterAllied optimism that the war would be over by the Christmas of 1945 was nearly quashed as Christmas approached and the war in Europe looked as though it had no immediate end in sight. The US First Army settled to rest and regroup in the Ardennes Forest in Belgium, an area considered as being a relatively quiet sector of the front. Many of its units were in strung-out shape after enduring relentless combat since the Normandy campaign. But in what was probably the greatest intelligence lapse by the Allies in the war, the Germans were able to assemble, in secret, three entire armies (or over 275,000 men) along the 60-mile long Ardennes front.

Color - Ardennes(Top Left) A group of US soldiers huddle in a frigid wind in this wartime drawing by Sergeant Howard Brodie, an artist for “Yank” magazine. (Above) A US patrol in the Ardennes. Going by the clear skies, this image was likely taken after December 26, 1944.

The Life and Death of Kampfgruppe Peiper

The Battle of the Bulge - Kampfgruppe Peiper

Events of the 1965 film The Battle of the Bulge largely depicted the movement west of the 1st SS Panzer Division, which had orders to reach to the Meuse River. In real life, the SS was badly delayed by the inability of other units to clear the way – a problem compounded by poor roads which were in no state to support an armored advance. On several occasions, commanders reported mud coming up the decking of tanks.

As the pressure mounted, the SS began to act on an order supposedly handed down from high command, instructing units not to take prisoners, lest they slow down the momentum of the advance. A series of atrocities by SS troops ensued, particularly by Kampfgruppe Peiper, led by an ambitious young veteran of the Russian front, 29-year-old Joachim Peiper.

82d Airborne Trooper - Bra (AP)Captured SS Trooper (Bra, belgium)

Among the evocative photographs to come out of the Battle of the Bulge were these two images. Here, two paratroopers of the US 82nd Airborne Division bring a young SS captive in at the point of a Tommy gun. These pictures were taken at Bra, Belgium on December 24, 1944. (Both photographs taken by the Associated Press)

Brodie - Malmedy MassacreSgt. Howard Brodie’s depiction of how the “Malmedy Massacre” went down.

The Bastion

The Battle of the Bulge - Bastogne

As the Germans swept deeper into the Ardennes, the Belgian town of Bastogne, occupying a key position on the rail and network in the region, came under threat. Bastogne was nearly undefended until the 48th hour of the German offensive. In desperation, the Americans rushed a tank unit (Combat Command R from the 9th Armored Division) to stall the incoming Germans until reinforcements could be pushed into Bastogne. The only other units available were paratrooper divisions recovering from an abortive campaign in Holland that September. The US 101st Airborne Division was alerted to advance into the sector, but being a parachute division, it had no attached armor and a grave shortage of bazookas.

A second tank force (this time from the 10th Armored Division) also raced to defend Bastogne. By dusk on the 19th, the area around Bastogne was embroiled in combat. By December 22, American troops within the Bastogne perimeter realized that they were surrounded. Meantime, the Germans, torn between their desire to stay on course towards the Meuse River and their inclination to nullify Bastogne, mounted a series of penny packet attacks against the perimeter which achieved little and wasted valuable time.

Bastigne Chow (Corbis WW20077)A group of paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division get some hot chow near the frontline. The discovery of a large Red Cross warehouse within the Bastogne perimeter early in the siege, allowed the besieged paratroopers the luxury of hot pancakes on most mornings. (Corbis)

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A Day at the Beach: Normandy 1944


March 2021 Update: I am pleased to announce that an updated, corrected and more comprehensive look at the battle of Normandy is now online. Find it here. It encompasses the expansion of my research into the campaign. The number of maps are now +40 (a jump from the 19 or 20 found in this post). The site also hosts hundreds of high-resolution images, including aerial reconnaissance photos from the US National Archives, all laid out in narrative form.

In the blank, unexplored spaces of the ancient world, map makers set down warnings that “here be dragons.” In the modern world, dragons might not exist but ambiguity does.running

When an associate recently suggested a quartet of books revisiting the battle for Normandy for the upcoming 75th anniversary of D-Day in June, I realized that I had no desire to add to the existing span of literature on Normandy. To do so felt trite, conventional and despite the overwhelming heroic mythos of the campaign, boring, because it meant retreading ground already explored at length but hundreds of writers since 1944.

While I may be incapable of adding words, I have no compunction about adding art pertaining to the battle, and especially maps, because here is a medium capable of heightening clarity and through which a modicum of originality can be achieved even though the places have all been mapped a thousand times before since early humans began to wonder about the world around them, recording the lines, culverts and rises made by people and nature alike on parchment in order to quash our fear of the unknown. Swords and arrows, it turns out, are not the only ways to kill dragons. Structure and knowledge are equally potent.

For me, map-making, like music, is another form of communication, using a language made up of lines, hues and symbols to tell a story. Maps are meant to be things of precision and when they work, they invite the viewer to explore the world set in pixel or ink before them, allowing us traverse a landscape in our imagination and wonder what happened here or there.

Below follow my attempts to map the most important events in the three-month slog which constitutes the battle for Normandy. I have given myself until January 31st February 10 to complete the series in order to start an unrelated photography project on living spaces on the Indian subcontinent, partly inspired by the work of the living British artist, Doreen Fletcher, who paints the neighborhoods of London’s East End, even as gentrification threatens to expunge the character of the place. (Check out her work; it’s interesting)

In any case, here are the maps, with a handful of pertinent photographs and my thoughts. If you have comments or criticisms to make, I’m open to hearing them.

The below map, titled “Closing the Gap,” while posted out of chronological order in the following series, is possibly my favorite, with my dispensing of the usual NATO-style military symbols which are a staple of battle maps in favor of a self-devised system of icons and glyphs intended to compact unit designations. I think the end result is more attractive and effective in the way it conveys information.

Normandy - Falaise - Closing the Gap

Building on the work of Major C.C.J. Bond, late of the Canadian Army, whose work was published in the official “The Victory Campaign,” Part III, this map includes research from several sources, including Terry Copp’s Fields of Fire (2003). I was particularly interested in analyzing the travails of the Free Polish Division around the town of Falaise (depicted using blue arrows) whose contributions have been largely ignored by postwar historians. The included figures of German motorized transport and tanks claimed as destroyed by the Allied air forces can be misleading in that claims by pilots often did not mirror reality. In fact, the Germans lost 133 tanks (most of which were abandoned), 701 “soft-skinned” vehicles and 51 guns in the so-called “Falaise Pocket,” in contrast to claims by pilots that they had blown up 6,251 vehicles within the pocket.

An Overall look at Operation “Overlord”

Normandy D-Day Map

The prospect of returning militarily to France sent the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill into paroxysms of fear and dread, haunted as he was by the specter of another “Dunkirk.” For years, he had put off a cross-channel invasion of western France by cajoling and manipulating the Americans into participating in military expeditions in the Mediterranean intended to take the Allies into Germany through the soft, underbelly of Italy. By 1943, however, the Americans were of the firm belief that Nazi Germany could only be defeated through a direct assault on Hitler’s “Atlantic wall” a metaphysical entity threading from Spain to Norway. The American planners of the 1940s knew well enough that walls, no matter how thick or tall, offered no impediment to determination and a plan began to coalesce, involving pitching twelve Allied divisions (roughly 156,000 men) into German-occupied Normandy, to hew an iron beachhead from which Allied troops could range deeper into Nazi-occupied Europe.

In retrospect, Churchill’s fears seem unfounded. He spent much of June 5 and 6 in a state of unbridled inner terror, fearing that the invasion, codenamed Operation “Overlord,” would fail, dealing the western alliance with a critical setback, and forcing them to marshal manpower for another invasion in late 1945 or 1946 — by which time Hitler could have used his western reserves to smash the Soviets on the eastern front. Yet, the bulk of Germany’s forces along the Norman coast were tired, rear-echelon units with substandard equipment. The best division in the area was the 12,734-strong German 352nd Infantry Division, which had almost no combat experience (50% of its officers were green while the rank and file was largely made up of teenagers from the Hannover area). Only the presence of a hardened cadre of veterans from the Eastern Front peaked the division’s fighting prowess to acceptable levels. The other divisions were worse, with the exception of the 709th Infantry under the experienced Lt-General Karl-Wilhelm von Schlieben, also a veteran of the Russian front.

Von Schlieben’s command, however, was less than stellar, being largely composed of men regarded as unsuitable for frontline service. The average age of a soldier in the 709th was 36 and their training had been minimal. Russian defectors padded out the infantry even though their combat effectiveness was questionable. The unit’s left flank, however, was bolstered by the 91st Airlanding Division, which although green, was better motivated and tough.

The Allied armada, which left England on June 5, would take 17 hours to cross the English Channel while Allied paratroopers flew out after dusk to secure the flanks of the invasion zone – west of the Norman capital Caen and on the Cotentin peninsula, in order to stem the flow of German reinforcements into the planned beachhead assault zone. At midnight, 13,348 Allied paratroopers began to descend onto Normandy, throwing the Germans into chaos. Then, just after dawn, at 6 am, the Allied invasion fleet hove into view off the Norman coast.

Sword Beach

A critically important sector, troops hitting “Sword” Beach were meant to roll up into the Norman capital, Caen (population 54,000), whose great road hub would have facilitated an easy advance deep into Nazi-occupied France and open the way to Paris, just 149 miles away.

The unit handed the task was the British 3rd Infantry Division, the oldest command unit in the British Army with exploits ranging back to the Battle of Waterloo in the 19th century. Bolstered by 4,000 commandos, a brigade of (212) Sherman tanks, and the paratroopers of the 6th Airborne Division on their right flank, the Third pushed ahead towards Caen on the morning of June 6, sweeping aside German resistance until the sole German armored division in the area, the 21st Panzer, placed itself between them and Caen at midday.

The 21st Panzer, once a fabled stalwart of the North African war was now a toothless tiger, replete with misfits and recruits — although 2,000 original members, having been hospitalized for wounds in North Africa two years ago, had returned to swell its ranks. Evidence of its diminished standing was borne out by the fact that it had until recently, been equipped with old French tanks captured in 1940, although by D-Day, it had been outfitted with Panzer IVs, a medium tank which was an even match for the Allied Sherman. Even its commander, Major-General Edgar Feuchtinger, behaved as though the running of this division was something of a chore, if not punishment. Accordingly, Feuchtinger spent more time lavishing attention on his mistress in Paris, than on working to get his division to full operational status. In fact, Feuchtinger was once again philandering in Paris when the invasion materialized, enraging his superior, Lt-General Hans Speidel, the Chief of Staff of Army Group B. As a chastened Feuchtinger raced back to Normandy on the afternoon of the 6th, the division activated itself and sent out patrols.

Troops from the British 3rd Infantry Division press on towards Caen on D-Day. (IWM)

British tanks and Infantry streaming towards Caen began to take heavy fire as they reached the Periers Ridge, a stretch of high ground before the villages of Periers-sur-le-Dan and Bieville. Instead of smashing through, the British infantry of the 1st South Lancashire Regiment and the tanks of the 13/18th Royal Hussars dug in. Aside from a smattering of German infantry and strung-out screens of antitank guns, there was virtually nothing between them and the city. They could have well been in Caen by mid-afternoon. But their leader, Brigadier Edward Cass, preferring to wait for reinforcements. It would prove a fateful decision.

Meantime, senior German officers were scrambling to deploy their armored reserves scattered around central and southern France. At 9 am, nearly two hours after the beach landings, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt of OberKommando West, had attempted to rush the 12th SS (Hitler Jugend) Panzer Division and the elite Panzer Lehr Division into the invasion zone, only to be stalled by Field Marshal Alfred Jodl, the German Chief of Operations Staff in Berlin, who argued that only Hitler had the authority to move these units. But Hitler, a habitual late riser, was still asleep and would not awake before noon. When he did, he flew into a rage at the news of the Allied invasion. By when the armored units finally began to move, it was 4 PM.

By this time, British thrusts towards Caen and Lion sur-Mer had stalled, prompting them to give up on their plan to link up with Canadian troops fighting in the neighboring “Juno” sector. Rushing through this gap, tanks and infantry of the 21st Panzer reached the coast intact. “The future of Germany may very well rest on your shoulders,” a senior officer had told their commander, Colonel von Oppeln-Bronikowski. “If you don’t push the British back, we’ve lost the war.” Instead, the Germans were horrified to see a swarm of Allied transport aircraft tugging gliders headed in their direction at 6 pm. Afraid that they would be cut-off by gliders landing all around them, Oppeln-Bronikowski called the retreat. Caen, however, would remain in German hands for the next five weeks, becoming a thorn in the Allied side and costing the lives of thousands of troops before it eventually fell.

This map was arduous to make, in that it took nearly 10 hours to complete, because instead of separating the various component actions of June 6 into three entities — the airborne landings, the main beach assault and the push inland and the German counterattack — I sought to encompass every aspect of the eastern British sector into a single map. However, in comparison to my map of “Utah” Beach which can be found below, this map was also frustrating to make because of a paucity of information.

For example, I did not have the luxury of detailed information about the drop patterns of British airborne units from official British sources — unlike the US military which liberally proffers information about the activities of the 82d and 101st Airborne Divisions on Normandy’s Cotentin Peninsula. Movements of land forces were established through careful research and by consulting several books on Normandy, specifically Georges Bernage’s Gold Juno Sword (2007). The resulting map, I hope, offers a clear picture of events in the “Sword” sector, although, given its complexity, I feel myself searching for Waldo.

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Tumult over Fortress Europa

Airwar Mast3-01

Unable to mount a cross-channel invasion of France early in the Second World War, the Anglo-American alliance believed that their bombers could open a veritable “second front” against the Third Reich which the Soviet Union had been clamoring for since 1942. The British believed that their bombers could win the war single-handedly. American enthusiasm was more tempered in that they believed that their daylight strikes would shorten the war. Both sides had bitter lessons to learn.


Once touted as a technology masterwork capable of bringing wars to an end with a minimal cost in lives, the heavy bombers of the Second World War occupied a hallowed position in wartime societies which saw them as an essential tool.

The great quest of the human race in the years of austerity from the 1920s to the 1940s was not to cure poverty, hunger or disease, but how to push aloft multi-engined behemoths with a bomb-load and how to dump that deadly cargo onto an enemy state with the utmost of accuracy and a minimal of effort. Such an achievement, it was thought, would save lives — through the obviation of another static, land slog such as World War I.

The Americans favored the use of rugged, heavily armed day bombers equipped with the top-secret Norden bombsight to carry out pinpoint accuracy of bombing against Germany’s most vital military targets, while the British, who having tried daylight bombing only to be badly bloodied, preferred to bomb German cities at night in an effort to break Axis morale. The American view was that indiscriminate night bombing (indiscriminate because accuracy in night bombing was impossible despite advances in technology), was not only wasteful but that the bombing of civilian areas would do little to cripple the German war industry. The British, in turn, warned the Americans that daylight operations were impracticable because of the vulnerability of four-engined heavy bombers to enemy fighters. Yet, the British had no leg to stand on when on a single night in 1944, they lost 96 bombers in combat.[1]

Lancaster Poster

This horrific casualty figure was a direct result of the unwavering confidence of Allied bomber barons that the relentless bombardment of Nazi Germany would force Adolf Hitler out of power and bring about the economic collapse of the Third Reich. In reality, just as American drone strikes in Afghanistan and western Pakistan have served to increase suicide and terror attacks on American and western forces in the modern era, German resistance congealed into an overwhelming hatred of the Allies, driven by the need to kill as many of “them” before Germany herself collapsed. To this end, the Germans developed fantastic tactics involving heavily armored fighter aircraft to ram bombers, a bat-shaped, rocket-powered craft designed to bolt into the midst of a heavy bomber formation and engage them using a large-bore cannon, a jet fighter made partly out of wood intended to be flown by teenagers of the Hitler Youth and a range of technical breakthroughs which not only made the business of finding the enemy easier, but blowing him out of the sky as well.

Yet, a sense of vulgarity permeates discussions about bombs, bombers and aerial bombardment, with their inseparable echoes of the secret human lust for corruption. It is a thing of uncouthness, unsophisticated, like conversations about pornography. The late writer, David Foster Wallace, once described how a pornographic actress looked as she excitedly told a fellow writer (Evan Wright, the author of Generation Kill) about her rescue and adoption of a stray dog. She looked for “a moment” like a 14-year-old, Wallace wrote, only to have the impression last for only a “heartbreaking” second or two.[2] Aerial bombardment, with its metaphorical  manifestation of debasement is no less of a loss of innocence of the species. Where the unsavoriness arguably ends, however, is at the legions of ordinary airmen of all sides whose wartime experiences constitute some of the most extraordinary tales of duty, loss and heroism in the annals of military history. From a sociological point of view, it is nothing if not remarkable that an entire generation of humans, hewn out of the hardships of the depression-era and thus being largely unused to technology, were able to adapt to the role of “modern” aviators.

B-17 aircrews 1B-17 doomedB-17 Memphis Belle

But why talk about events which are now over 70 years old? Because then as now, bombing continues to be touted as a solution to external problems and because then as now, we are witness to pronouncements by those promising panacea through technology. If the last one hundred years of human history and culture have told us anything it is that while technology has the means to perhaps improve our lives, it is incapable of solving our more fundamental problems because human nature, in general, is intractable.

By 1944, at the apex of the Second World War, it had begun to sink in to the Allies that the war would not be won by the bombers despite their formidable technology. As hundreds of airmen continued to die on a daily basis for futile war aims, the military boffins and the inventors continued their dogged progress into uncharted scientific territory, developing one wondrous gadget after the next, until, in the end it became not so much as winning the war in the air, but giving the fighting men the means to stay alive in the face of escalating odds until the juggernaut of the land armies could roll into Germany to crush the last vestiges of the Reich. Perhaps the air campaign against the Nazis is less an indictment against the effectiveness of bombing than a statement of fact that bombing is perhaps not the ideal solution to the world’s problems.

47,268 members of the Royal Air Forces (including 9,887 Canadians, plus thousands of other “colonials”) and 26,000 American airmen of the US 8th Air Force lost their lives over Europe during the war in order for strategists to learn that indiscriminate or wholesale bombing is ineffective. How well that lesson has been absorbed by successive generations is debatable.

Section Intro-01

Night and Day - Lancaster + B-17


8th AF Aura of Death



While nose art was classified by American psychiatrists as a projection of the violent male ego, aircrews likely saw them as a means to soften and feminize the brutal nature of warfare. By assigning a motif to aircraft, the airmen hoped to turn their machine into a living thing capable of graciousness and mercy. Aircraft became a “she,” a female entity which shared in their life and death struggles. Air Force headquarters, however, was appalled by the pornographic nature of these artworks.  Yet, their fears for the inner souls of their airmen and potential of their wholesale transformation into ribald, roughened warriors so far gone into the realm of immorality that they would be incapable of returning to the fold in civilian life, was in many ways, as ludicrous as sending them out to drop bombs on populations in the first place. As actor Marlon Brando’s character, “Colonel Walter E. Kurtz,” succinctly points out in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (1979): “We train young men to drop fire on people but their commanders won’t allow them to write “Fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene!”

Perhaps, in demanding that aircrews tone down the explicit nature of their artwork, 8th Air Force headquarters was also trying to protect the innocence of the English youth, who were bombarded daily with images of nude women soaring over their rural villages and homes on canvases of airborne aluminum.

Divider-11ABomber Crew Casualties


The high stresses of air combat prompted men to adopt a variety of animals for emotional support. Every combat group had an animal mascot, and nearly every hut in every squadron had at least one pet, usually a dog, although there were exceptions as the following photographs show:

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The Island that Refused to Die


Book in progress (September 2016-present)

Status (January 2019): Manuscript quasi-complete at 544 pages | Further editing required | Above mast painting by Rowland Hilder, 1942


A British Imperial island during the Second World War, Malta occupied a strategic place in the narrows of the Mediterranean Sea. It was a rocky aircraft carrier from where the British could launch attacks on Sicily, and its natural harbor gave the Royal Navy an excellent base. In short, Malta was a thorn in the enemy’s side.

The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, was determined to take it for his own, and in June 1940, he had the men and the machines to do it. But although Mussolini and the Germans tried their best to blast Malta off the map and starve it into submission, they had badly underestimated the fighting spirit of islanders and the British. Although outmanned and outgunned, Royal Air Force planes flown by Commonwealth pilots and American volunteers harried enemy attackers and Allied warships based there wreaked havoc upon German and Italian shipping.

Kept alive through a tenuous and erratic supply line — vulnerable convoys sailing from Gibraltar and Alexandria, Malta hung on, defying the odds, wielding massive influence on the battles raging in North Africa and sparking fierce naval clashes which gutted the Axis merchant fleets and scarred the Italian Regia Marina, that other Royal Navy. The phrase “naval battles of World War II” may conjure imagery of the Pacific, but more surface engagements were fought in the Mediterranean than in any other place during the war — 50, compared to 36 in the Pacific and 49 in the Atlantic.

The siege of the island lasted for nearly two-and-a-half years, eclipsing all the great sieges of modern history (barring Leningrad) as the defenders fought a lonely, heroic campaign, a private little war against the might of two Axis militaries, paving the way for the Allied liberation of the Mediterranean.

Below follows some of the assorted art and graphics connected with this work. They’ll probably never be published in the way I intend anyway.







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The Firebombing of Dresden

Dresden Masthead

The Allied attack on Dresden in February 1945 was arguable one of the most destructive events of the Second World War barring the atomic strikes. This study analyzes the allied air raids, discovering the true extent of the damage within the city and the raid’s ultimate significance to the allied war effort.

For the longest time, there was simply no reference to the bombing at all, until eventually, a trickle of literature emerged. The writer, Kurt Vonnegut, who as an American POW in the city was drafted to help with the clean-up following the attacks, was among the first, writing a novel (“Slaughterhouse-Five”) partly based on what he saw there. But where Slaughterhouse Five attempted to convey of folly of war, it was attacked by some as being too sympathetic to the bombed Nazis. Later, The Soviets tried to use the attack to turn East German sentiments against the Western powers. The West, meantime, tried to forget that the attacks ever took place. Winston Churchill, who had authorized the raid, made little mention of it in his biography and often deferred responsibility elsewhere. But propaganda or shame, the bombings now serve as a case for restraint.

Note — This is an expanded version of a scholarly study written in 2004, during my first year at college, for publication in a Texas A&M University annual.

Divider-9BY AKHIL KADIDALDivider-9

The German city of Dresden, once hailed as the “Florence of the Elbe,” had led a charmed life for much of the Second World War.

Its great collection of architectural masterworks and its reputation as a cultural center had saved it from air attacks and to refugees from bombed-out parts of Germany, the city, with its immaculate streets and buildings, represented a sanctuary from the relentless swarms of Allied bombers which roved over the Third Reich night and day. But while the peace had become habitual for denizens of the metropolis, the quixotic motivations of Allied bombers dominated discussions by those mystified by their city’s immunity from the war. One rumor claimed that the city had been spared because Winston Churchill’s relatives lived there (they didn’t); another postulated that it was exempt from bombing because the allies intended to establish it as the post-war capital of a defeated Germany.[1]

Art - Dresden 2

Art - Dresden 1Few members of the populace believed their city would be attacked, said a British prisoner of war, Sgt. W. Morris, who was held captive in the city for several months. “It was a beautiful city with parks and grand houses — it seemed virtually untouched by war. I quite liked the people of Dresden. They were more softly spoken, civilized people than I had met elsewhere in Germany. The Russians had reportedly already bypassed the city and the people were convinced that the war was all but over. They were certainly more frightened of being caught up in the Russian advance than of any threat from the air.”[2] To think of hitting such a beautiful place would be like having the Luftwaffe bomb Oxford, which they never had, pointed out Private Victor Gregg, a 25-year-old British paratrooper who had been captured at Arnhem in September 1944.[3]

Quote 3It was a sentiment that the future American writer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, late of the US 106th Infantry Division until his capture in the Ardennes on 19 December 1944, would agree with, described Dresden as having “very few air-raid shelters in town and no war industries, just cigarette factories, hospitals, clarinet factories.”[4] City officials were so certain that the place would not be attacked that they were employing hundreds of Allied prisoners of war in non-military work within the municipal limits, in complete assurance that Germany was not contravening the Geneva Convention by holding prisoners in dangerous locations. Private First Class Vonnegut and 149 of his Allied compatriots were being held in the Friedrichstadt district, at a municipal, underground slaughterhouse known to the Germans as Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five), where the future giant of postmodernist literature was being put to work at a nearby factory manufacturing malt syrup for pregnant German women.[5] And so, made complacent by the myth of its own invulnerability and overflowing with refugees escaping the relentless advance of Soviet Red Army, Dresden was in no position to fend off a potential air raid.[6]

Officials had their hands full just trying to provide accommodations for the hundreds of displaced persons arriving every day even as the city’s official population of 625,174 swelled to over a million by nightfall on February 13.[7] Every Dresden family was ordered to take in guests to keep people off the streets, but hundreds continued to languish out in the open.[8] Yet, few believed that the city was in any real danger. The townspeople took comfort from the fact that the city had survived numerous attacks and catastrophes in its seven hundred and fifty-years of recorded history, including a devastating siege by Austrian troops in 1760. Most deluded themselves that Dresden could withstand allied air raids should they ever materialize.

Unbeknownst to them, the German government had recently reclassified the city as a Verteidigungsbereich (Defensive Area), negating all chances of the war passing them by. Notwithstanding its immense reputation as a cultural storehouse, Dresden also possessed 127 factories, and by 1945, ranked seventh in Germany’s list of important industrial cities.[9] Furthermore, the city was a vital nexus for military troops and equipment moving to the Eastern Front.[10] Under these conditions, Dresden had become a military target in the sixth and final year of the Second World War.

Map 1 - Bombing 1941


The sequence of events leading up to the attack on Dresden was linked together as early as July 1944 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill commented that: “The time might well come in the not too distant future when an all-out attack by every means at our disposal on German civilian morale might be decisive.”[11] That time came in early 1945, when the Anglo-American armies were on the threshold into Germany. The journey had not been easy. Taken aback by a series of impressive but failed German counter-attacks in late 1944, allied commanders feared that German resistance would stiffen in the fight for their homeland.

In this climate of fear and haste to end the war as soon as possible, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Bomber Command, a massive formation which controlled Britain’s bomber squadrons, saw this as a last opportunity to prove one of its oldest maxims: that the demoralization of an enemy people through indiscriminate bombing would unravel their national spirit and induce their government to sue for peace, thus obviating the need for a ground offensive.[12] So vehement was the British belief in this that the RAF had adopted the indiscriminate bombing of cities or “area bombing,” as it was known, as the cornerstone of its offensive air tactics in 1941.[13]

Art - Bomber-CommandThe policy of nocturnal area bombing had much to do with Bomber Command pursuing a flawed military doctrine and punishing the Germans for their blitzing of British cities as it did with the RAF suffering bomber losses in daytime operations during the first year-and-a-half of the war.

Night bombing not only made it harder for the Germans to intercept and shoot down British bombers, but it also made precision bombing impossible with the technology at hand. These handicaps and a general British reluctance to using their heavy bombers during the day (unlike the Americans who whole-heartedly embraced daylight bombing), the RAF had little choice but to adopt the indiscriminate bombing of built-up areas by night under the hopes that concentrated bombardment would also wipe out enemy industries in the affected area.

Bomber Harris

Britain’s senior-most bomber leader, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris became so fixated by these tactics, which he seriously believed would cause the collapse of Germany before a single British soldier had be landed in western Europe, that he had been given an affectionate nickname: “Bomber” Harris. Yet, to “Bomber’s” annoyance, his area bombing program had been repeatedly interrupted by the demands of other strategic concerns.

In late 1943, for example, he was forced to scale back area attacks in order to support the Allied air strategy against Germany’s oil industries, one of the few targets which realistically offered an opportunity to end the war. Allied strategists correctly surmised that the destruction of the oil industry would have far-reaching consequences for Germany’s armies in the field.[14] The destruction of even half of Germany’s oil assets, including depots and synthetic oil plants, would certainly have halved the fighting capacity of her troops.

As it transpired, the Americans were forced to fill in the gap left by Harris’ non-committal and they proved so successful that Germany was in the throes of a severe fuel crisis by 1945. The German war diary showed that German aviation oil production had virtually stopped by February 1945, and that the industry had eked out a mere 400 tons of high-octane fuel that month through exertion of effort — prompting the German Quartermaster-General to recommended that immediate cessation of the flying training program.[15]

Table 1 - RAF Bomb Distribution

Harris believed that such attacks were a side-show and his contribution to the oil campaign was far from effectual. From August to November 1944, he reserved only fifty-eight percent of Bomber Command’ strength for the oil campaign, and in that time, his squadrons had mounted only 34 large-scale operations with heavy bombers against the oil centers, flying a total of 7,611 sorties and losing 82 aircraft. It is interesting to note that the RAF, with its heavy incendiary bomb tonnage could have been used with good effect against the flammable oil factories. Yet, despite a few successes, Bomber Command’s experiences were unsatisfactory.[16] Consequently, in the latter half of 1944, less than one tenth of Bomber Command’s bombs were falling on oil refineries. In October, for instance only six percent of all of Bomber Command’s bombs fell on oil targets. This dip in tonnage would have allowed the Germans rebuild the factories, had it not been for the American effort.[17]


Harris instead proposed bringing Germany to her knees with a series of cataclysmic air raids on Berlin, Leipzig, and other large cities.[18] Accordingly, in a letter to Churchill in September 1944, Harris argued that as the Germans would be expected to fight to their fullest in defense of their homeland, full emphasis must be placed to “knock Germany finally flat.”[19] Harris, however, had made such claims before with little success to show for it. His credibility was low and although Churchill was suspicious, he was nevertheless intrigued enough to send a letter of encouragement:

I agreed with your good letter, except that I do not think that you…can do it at all [knock Germany flat]. I recognize, however, that this is a becoming view for you to take … [and] I am for all cracking everything onto Germany.[20]

Harris was thrilled but Churchill had more strategic reasons for offering his backing having become increasingly wary of Soviet Russia’s post-war ambitions. If the power of Bomber Command could be used to impress Josef Stalin through the obliteration of a German city, perhaps the Soviets would temper their territorial ambitions in Europe, having realized that they had no leverage over Allied air power.[21] Intelligence officers were told collate a list of targets which had hitherto escaped serious bombing within the planned Russian zone of occupation.[22] Almost immediately, the Saxon capital of Dresden topped the list.

Officially, the British were confident that a massive air attack on Dresden would result in a debilitating blow to German morale and trigger an unavoidable aftershock to the corporeal unity of the Reich. As evidence of this, one needs to go no further than an official study prepared by the British Directorate of Bomber Operations, which coldly calculated that an attack on a city, “with a daytime population of 300,000, we may expect 220,000 casualties … [of which] fifty percent or 110,000 may expect to be killed. It is suggested that such an attack…cannot help but have a shattering effect on political and civilian morale all over Germany.”[23]



In early 1944, Harris’ bombers were diverted again — much to his chagrin — to support the Allied armies in Normandy and Western Europe. Their efforts over the battlefields served as bonafide achievements, but Harris was anxious to return to the business of grounding German cities to dust. Never mind that Bomber Command had repeatedly attempted to break German morale with catastrophic raids — but with little success. What was unique in 1945, however, was the sudden concentration of the allied air effort against inapt targets when Germany was already on its knees.

Art - Lancaster

Determined to pull out of the oil campaign, Harris used the pretext of bad weather from late October, which made precision bombing against factories impossible, to suggest to Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of Air staff, on November 1, that the lapse of fair weather could be used to deal with those German cities still standing after five years of war — especially those in the east. “[Bomber Command should attack] Magdeburg, Halle, Leipzig, Dresden, Chemnitz, Breslau, Nuremberg, Munich, Coblenz and Karlsruhe,” Harris wrote, “And further the destruction of Berlin and Hanover.”[24] Harris went so far as to threaten to resign if his proposals were not met.

Art - HarrisPortal who had increasingly, in the months after D-Day, tried to compel Harris to pummel German war industries was in a quandary. In fact, Portal’s frustration with Harris had begun in 1943, when his attempts to get Bomber Command to attack aircraft factories and other relevant strategic targets had been repeatedly ignored.[25] Part of Harris’ bravado in disregarding the traditional RAF chain of command was because of his close relationship with Churchill, and access to the Prime Ministers’ country home, Chequers, which was near Bomber Command’s own headquarters at High Wycombe. [26] As much as he would have liked to have accepted Harris’ resignation, Portal realized that his hands were tied by Harris’ close ties to Churchill and his erroneous public standing as a war-winning hero.[27] Forced to reject Harris’ offer of resignation, Portal surrendered his remaining authority, allowing Harris to conduct the campaign as he saw fit.[28]

Yet, behind Harris’ dogged persistence and scheming, was an overriding anxiety (shared by nearly all senior commanders and soldiers in the field), that the war might drag on until November 1945 as the battle lines stiffened in the west. Already, the Russians had stalled in the east, having encountered the first of the heavily defended “fortress” cities in Poland and Eastern Europe. The Ardennes offensive had petered out by the first week of January, but nevertheless offered a glimpse of what Germany could do if given a little latitude. Then there was the urgent need to deal with Japan at the earliest. In all, January 1945 was a time of crisis for the Allies. The emergency was exaggerated by Germany’s deployment of advanced weaponry, such as Messerschmitt Me262 jet fighters whose threat was not merely confined to daylight, as a special night fighter wing (Nachtjagdgeschwader 11) was formed in mid-1944 to fill the void left by the transfer of German single-engined nightfighting units to the daylight battle in an attempt to bring diurnal bombing by the Americans to a halt.

By mid-January 1945, Nachtjagdgeschwader 11 had swelled to three gruppen, equipped with radar-fitted Fw190s and Me109Gs, and more importantly, a small jet night-fighting squadron (10th Staffel) with Me262As under Major Kurt Welter, a 28-year-old veteran who looked much older than his age, with the jovial visage of a travelling salesman.

Meantime, other fearsome weapons were entering the battlefield. Arado Ar234 jet bombers, outfitted as reconnaissance aircraft, sustained the last Luftwaffe photo-reconnaissance sorties over England, while a rumored vengeance weapon, the V-3 was supposedly in development, capable of hitting cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States. Allied experts believed it was a true intercontinental ballistic missile, when in fact the V-3 was a 50-barrel cannon positioned at Mimoycques, France, capable of firing missiles at speeds of 335 mph with a maximum range of 100 miles. Then, there was the V-4, a supposedly piloted flying-bomb allowing SS diehards to mount kamikaze-style suicide attacks. This last threat may have well transpired if Germany had enough fuel and volunteers to carry out the program.

Lancaster 1

Art - CrewmenPortal drafted a new set of objectives for Bomber Command on January 26. He stated that while oil targets, followed by aircraft factories and U-boat bases, should continue to receive top priority, the bombers should also work towards the dislocation of the enemy’s transportation network in the east. On January 31, Portal officially affirmed his decision to the British chief of staffs, saying that Bomber Command would engage in “heavy attacks on four cities, Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig and Chemnitz” to prevent the enemy from shifting his western forces against the Russians.[29] The proposal found supporters at SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) and armed with their acquiescence, Harris prepared to resume the area-bombing offensive.

The die was cast on February 2 when London received incorrect information that the German 6th SS Panzer Army (under SS General Josef “Sepp” Dietrich) was being transferred to eastern Germany to combat the Russians advancing out of Poland. The Combined Strategic Targets Committee (CSTC), a special body in charge of identifying targets for the sustenance of the strategic air campaign, recommended the prompt bombardment of cities along the transport line, including Berlin, Chemnitz and Dresden.

Days later, on February 7, the CSTC, working on information supplied by the JIC (Joint Information Committee), dispatched a top-secret target list to allied strategic bombing forces and SHAEF, identifying ten cities to be attacked within the next few days in order to not only prevent military reinforcements from moving east, but also to preclude the evacuation of displaced persons from the path of the advancing Russians:


The proposed attacks were encompassed in a plan codenamed Operation “Thunderclap.” But “Thunderclap” was not new. It had been touted and rejected in July 1944 for suggesting a “catastrophic” blow to Berlin in order shatter the city’s morale and its military, civilian and political establishments. By 1945, however, the situation had ostensibly developed to an extent to warrant its employment.

Lancaster 3

As US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied Supreme Commander, studied the plan, the RAF’s deputy Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Norman Bottomely, authorized Harris to make preparations. “Thunderclap” was to be a three day and night affair with the Anglo-American strategic forces operating in unison. The primary target was Berlin, but it was later claimed by Bottomely in a minute to Portal, that Harris had also recommended the bombing of Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig, as they were important to the enemy’s “Lines of Communications” in the east, and because they housed large numbers of refuges.[30]

Later, however, as the actual date for the operation drew near, Harris began to express misgivings about selecting Dresden as a target. How much this can be attributed to human empathy towards the doomed enemy population is unknown, but what is known is that Harris’s dismay had much to with the welfare of his crews, who would have to fly long distances without the benefit of proper maps or information on the city.[31] Dresden and Chemnitz were nine to ten flying-hours away – at the far fringes of the Third Reich. Furthermore, meteorological departments painted a bleak picture for long-range operations over the Reich, predicting that the second and third weeks of February would be bleak and unfavorable.

Map 2 - Bomber Range

KleveBad weather that month had already forced Harris to employ scattered and isolated raids. For instance, the first two weeks of February were mostly marked by Mosquito pinprick raids and nightfighter patrols by Harris’ specialist unit, 100 Group, with its twelve squadrons of Mosquitos wielding modified weaponry and cutting-edge electronics. However, the month had also begun with a massive RAF operation in support of the Rhine crossing by British and Commonwealth troops at Goch and Kleve.

Both Rhine towns were utterly ravaged, especially Kleve, which was hit by 1,384 tons of high-explosives from 285 Lancasters on the night of February 7/8 and had the ignominious honor of having suffered the most devastating attack on a German town of its size (with a civilian population of less than 50,000).

In the meantime, despite weather hurdles, “Thunderclap” was definitely on for the last day of the second week of February. Air Vice-Marshal Robert Saundby, Harris’s deputy, received confirmation that Dresden and Chemnitz were the designated targets, with a curious afterword that the attack was part of an operation that was being personally reviewed and supported by Churchill. This was undoubtedly true. Churchill was at the time attending the Crimean Conference at Yalta, and he had perhaps taken it upon himself to astound Stalin with the power of his bombers. Moreover, it is clear that Churchill wanted to hurt or “baste” concentrated pocket of non-combatants (including evacuees) with an abrasive mixture of apathy and vindictiveness at these two, as of yet, pastoral cities. Most Americans, to their credit, were opposed such tactics. For one, indiscriminate attacks against civilian centers were anathema to American bomber forces which favored daylight, precision strikes. US Army Air Force leaders, General “Hap” Arnold and General Lawrence Kuter, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff for Plans, were openly against the operation, going so far as to brand it as a “terrorist action.

In a long letter to Maj-General Frederick Anderson, commander of the US VIII Bomber Command, Kuter revealed his feelings.

Since any such attack will feature USAAF units in the limelight, we should consider whether the recent [V-1] buzz bomb attacks have not instilled in the British Government a desire for retaliation in which American air units will be called upon to share with the RAF Bomber Command the onus for the more critical features of night area bombing. Our entire target policy has been founded on the fact that it was uneconomical to bomb any except military objectives and the German productive capacity. The bombing of civilian targets in Germany cannot be expected to have similar effects to those which might be expected in a democratic country where the people are still able to influence national will. It is contrary to our national ideals to wage war against civilians.[32]

Even the US Secretary of State Henry Stimson objected to targeting city centers, arguing that to do so would give the United States a “reputation for outdoing Hitler in atrocities.”[33] The quandary was complicated by the fact that despite being ranked seventh in Germany’s list of important industrial cities, Dresden was a city of questionable military importance. The American OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA) had identified 110 military targets within the city, including an infantry weapon factory, a poison gas plant, and firms engaged in producing precision instruments.

Bombs 2


The city’s industrial heart amounted to the Zeiss-Ikon Optical firm which had a plant three miles from the city center. Siemens-Glas AG ran a gas mask factory on Freiberger Strasse, and elsewhere there were two factories making radar components for a factory in Berlin. A small munitions factory (also run by Zeiss and numbering approximately 1,500 employees) was churning out anti-aircraft shells from a site north of Dresden. These were the biggest. They were also hundreds of minor firms, located in small warehouses or office buildings, producing everything from toothpaste to aircraft engine components.[34]

The larger plants were valid enough targets, but they were not the object of the allied attack. The British instead chose to concentrate their fury on the city center, and in the case of the Americans, the marshaling yards. Not one of the factories mentioned were within three miles of the city’s center. At the heart instead, was architecture of the grandest style in Europe. Intricate and grandiose gothic towers, shimmering in their golden hue, black and white Tudor-type houses, buildings made of oak and plaster, and dozens of elegantly crafted bridges straddled the sprawling Elbe. There were also numerous palaces, art galleries, including the Green Vaults gallery and the Albertinium, which contained hundreds of priceless paintings and sculptures. Dresden’s only importance lay in the fact that it possessed a significant transportation network.

The British were unswayed, however. According to the official British history, Churchill went to so far as to take part in the final planning of the operation even though he was actively engaged in the Crimean conference (which ended on February 11).[35] An illustrative letter reflecting Churchill’s wishes, penned by the distinguished British diplomat, Sir Anthony Eden, betrayed the dispassionate attitudes of the government.

The psychological effects of bombing have little connexion with the military or economic importance of the target; they are determined solely by the amount of destruction and dislocation caused… I wish to recommend therefore that in the selection of targets in Germany, the claims of smaller towns of under 150,000 inhabitants, which are not too heavily defended, should be considered, even though those towns contain only targets of secondary importance.[36]

It was later claimed that the Soviets called for the attack, but the Russians had done little more than express three wishes to their allied counterparts.

  1. Expedite the advance of Allied troops on the Western Front, so as to:
    1. Defeat the Germans on the Eastern Front.
    2. Weaken the German forces in the West, to ensure that only minimal reinforcements could be made available to oppose the Soviet armies in the east.
  2. Hinder enemy communications by the use of air power, and prevent him from transferring his forces to the East from the Western Front, and from Norway.
  3. Prevent the Germans from moving troops from Italy.[37]

Neither Dresden nor Chemnitz had been specifically mentioned by the Russians, but on February 8, SHAEF informed Bomber Command and the US 8th Air Force that Dresden had been selected as the first target because of its importance to the supposed “reinforcement” effort.

The attack was set into motion within days — joined by the Americans, despite their privations.[38] Once the first wheel had turned, there could be no stopping the three-tiered juggernaut which would leave behind an utterly devastated metropolis in its wake.


Harris planned a double blow —a type of attack which had shown its value during operations in the latter part of the previous year.

The first wave, codenamed “Plate-Rack Force,” consisting of aircraft from 5 Group (an elite RAF bomber formation), would trigger the enemy’s defenses but nevertheless bludgeon on through to bomb their target. As they withdrew, they would leave behind a target swathed in flames and enmeshed in chaos. The withdrawal would also prompt the defenders to stand down. Searchlights would be switched off and the nightfighters would return to their base as their fuel supply ran low.

At the castigated target, meantime, firemen and rescue services would go to work, to be caught up in a desperate struggle of dousing flames and freeing people caught in the rubble — at which time, the second wave, codenamed “Press-On Force” with aircraft from 1, 3, 6 (Canadian) and 8 (Pathfinder) Groups would materialize (often in greater strength), to catch the defenses by surprise and inflict maximum damage upon the rescue workers, the target’s communication network (including telephone services) and in the process deliver a coup de grace. Was such an attack warranted?

The ambiguity is made more pronounced by the fact that the ancient Saxon capital was not benign, having been caught in the grip of the German security apparatus. Nazi fanatics of the SS and the Gestapo ruled over foreign workers and Allied POWs with an iron hand. Men and women were executed for trivial infringes and the city administration was complicit in the holocaust. In the first week of February, when Allied prisoners of war were being evacuated from the Stalag Luft VIIIB POW camp at Lamsdorf in Silesia, owing to Russian advances in the sector, they had come across columns of Bulgarian and Hungarian Jews, mostly women, who were being herded into Dresden’s slaughterhouses to be executed. One POW, Sgt. John Mathews, an RAF observer from 57 Squadron who had been shot down in 1942, “managed to speak to some of the women who knew they were on their way to be killed.”[39]

Mosquito IV


Because no one had believed that Dresden would be seriously attacked during the war, the city’s defenses were woefully insufficient. Most of the city’s heavy flak guns had been sent to the Eastern Front and in February 1945, Dresden had just eight flak batteries, each of which had between four to ten guns. The 565th Heavy Flak Battalion (four batteries strong) was equipped with the excellent 88 mm gun. Other batteries (all from the IV Air Zone Command) were armed with captured Russians cannons re-bored to take the German 88mm shell. These weapons were inferior to their German counterparts.

The Luftwaffe, too, was weakly strung out in eastern Germany. For nightfighting, Jagdkorps I, under the command of a wooden-legged Lt General Joachim-Friedrich Huth, had just two gruppen along the immediate routes to Dresden. Huth’s predecessor had been sacked for being unable to cope with the intensifying air war in the 1944. Huth, however, was a firebrand and he had known the British before – as a Messerchmitt Me110 fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain. But now he was facing a Britain fortified by determined industry at home. His task was immense, and he was near powerless. For one, declining numbers of combat aircraft were making defense impossible. While the Luftwaffe had begun 1945 with 1,038 nightfighters in central Germany and 94 in Poland, it now had a fraction of those left following the inevitable battle of attrition in the weeks since. Replacements were scarce. The bulk of Germany’s aircraft factories had been thoroughly devastated by relentless American bombing and in the first four months of 1945, the factories could produce only 7,540 aircraft, in comparison to the British who managed over 10,000.

Oblivious to the fact that the British were about to begin large-scale attacks on eastern German cities, Huth had deployed just two groups of nightfighters in the area — I and II Gruppen of Nachtjagdgeschwader 5 in the area. Both were based at Altenburg, fifty miles west of Dresden. A single squadron (the 5th Staffel) from this wing was based at Dresden’s Klotsche airfield, with no more than eight Ju88G nightfighters. They were to have a minimal effect on the British attack.

Back at Bomber Command headquarters at High Wycombe, Harris waited for bad weather to clear. Germany had been socked in for almost a week but when on February 12, the RAF Meteorological department predicted favorable weather conditions for the following day and night, Harris deftly scheduled the raid for February 13. The Americans were to open the show with a morning attack on the 13th. Poor weather, however, cancelled the strike at the last minute, placing the onus on the British that night. The precision American attack would have served to prepare Dresden for the more grievous British raids to follow that night, but fate had intervened against the city.


Two hundred and forty-five Avro Lancaster heavy-bombers of 5 Group, loaded with more than 800 tons of incendiaries and high-explosives, and led by eight “pathfinding” Mosquitoes from 627 Squadron, prepared to take off at sunset.[40]

With typical complexity, the British executed a series of diversionary, secondary and ruse flights. As 5 Group (codenamed “Plate-Rack Force) made its way towards Dresden, six Mosquitos from 8 (Pathfinding) Group would light up Dortmund with flares in order to bait the Luftwaffe. Later, as “Plate Rack Force” approached to within striking distance of Dresden, 360 bombers (mostly Handley-Page Halifaxes) from 4 and 6 (RCAF) Group would attack the Bohlen oil refinery, south of Leipzig.

“Plate Rack Force” would then attack Dresden before withdrawing on a different route from whence it had come. The second blow was to fall three hours later – a timeframe which had already been established in past raids as being the optimal time lapse between dual attacks. Composed of 551 aircraft, of which at least 200 were from 1 Group and 150 from Air Vice-Marshal’s Richard Harrison’s 3 Group which had evolved its own status as a specialist outfit after being equipped with the G-H blind bombing device in late 1944, the second wave also possessed 67 aircraft from 6 (Canadian) Group and pathfinder aircraft from 8 Group.[41]

Before the second wave went into the attack, diversionary airplanes were to hit several cities. The Dortmund bound force is already mentioned, but 16 Mosquitos were to carry out a dummy marking of Bonn at the same time of 12.30 AM. Eight others were sent against Misburg and Nuremburg, but as the second main force concluded against Dresden, 71 Mosquitos were to hit Magdeburg.

Art - Hamburg 3

On the afternoon of February 13, operational bomber groups began receiving their telefaxed raid orders from Bomber Command Headquarters at High Wycombe. Few of the airmen who heard those orders could forget its message:

Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest un-bombed built-up area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees and troops alike but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well-known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance and like any large city with its multiplicity of telephone and rail facilities, is of major value for controlling the defence of that part of the front now threatened by Marshal Koniev’s breakthrough. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.[42]

The following briefing went on to inform the crews that the city was being bombed to “block the supply [of troops and armaments] to the Russian Front.”[43] If that were true, then the raiders would have had instructions to bomb the five primary bridges which connected North and South Dresden over the Elbe River and the city’s three train stations.[44] Instead, raid leaders were given orders to concentrate the bombing at the center of Dresden, the culturally-rich Altstadt District. The aiming-point was not the railway yards as it should have been, but a stadium close to the city center.[45]

By 6 PM, 244 Lancasters of “Plate-Rack Force” became airborne. At the helm, but taking a different route to the target was the master bomber, Wing Commander Maurice Smith, DFC of 627 Squadron, leading a small force of Mosquitos. Their mission was to mark the aiming point only after pathfinders, an elite British force that used flares and fire markers to pinpoint a target, had done so.[46]

Even as Smith’s nine-strong force sped towards Dresden, they spotted familiar green and white flares on the horizon as 83 Squadron carried out its mission. The British took the city by such surprise that by when Nachtjagdgeschwader 5 was alerted, the pathfinders were already dropping their cargo over the city. Dresden’s air raid sirens began to wail only three minutes after the arrival of the British — at 10.06 PM.

Moments later, Smith’s squadron roared overhead, dropping their red flares on the central target point – the Dresden Cycle Stadium. As the Mosquitoes ran out of flares, they turned around to head for home, soaring low across the city at an altitude of less than 500 feet. The navigator of one Mosquito, Flying Officer Ken Oatley, marveled at how the flares made the city look like it was in daylight. Ahead rose the spires of several cathedrals. The pilot, Flying Officer James “Jock” Walker, gently pulled back on the control column and the Mosquito leapt over them and into the approaching darkness. Not a single German gun had been fired at them.[47]


At 10.15, the main force arrived. Using the light thrown up by the pathfinders, the main force unloaded its bombs on the culturally-rich Alstadt district which contained most of Dresden’s old treasures and the adjoining Johannstadt, a mixed-class suburb boasting elegant apartment houses, shops and minor factories.[48] Hundreds of surprised Dresdeners were caught out on the streets. This was especially true at the city main train station at Hauptbahnoff, where thousands of refugees had gathered for the night. In the ensuing panic to find shelter, hundreds perished in a stampede before the bombs struck. Those that made into the shelters awaited a slow and prolonged death by asphyxiation.

The first attack lingered on until 10.28 PM by which time the first wave had dropped 881.1 tons of bombs on the city center. A significant percentage of these (43%) were incendiaries – weapons that were useless for little else except setting fires.[49] The bombing was, in the words of British officers, “a fine concentration [of bombs], and fires visible for one hundred miles.”[50] By eleven, much of the Altstadt district was in flames. City rescue services rushed into action.

With their mission accomplished by 10.21 PM, 5 Group began withdrawing. As their aircraft left, the crews typed out a message in Morse code destined for High Wycombe: “Target attacked successfully – a fine concentration [of bombs], and fires visible for one hundred miles.”[51] In the meantime, the Bohlen raiders were also leaving after having dropped 787½ tons of high-explosives and 1.3 tons of incendiaries. Unfortunately, few of the munitions fell on factories.

GreggAs the attack died away, German survivors began filtering out of their hiding places and shelters to take stock. Paratrooper Victor Gregg who held been transferred to Dresden that same afternoon to be executed for the crime of burning down a soap factory, had been held in a building with a glass dome with hundreds of other condemned men. Every morning, the Germans had pulled 30 men from the crowd — men who were never seen again. It had only been a matter of time before Gregg’s number was up, but in the midst of the raid, several incendiaries and a large, 4,000 lb “Cookie” bomb had struck his jail, blasting off the glass dome and killing countless POWs. Only Gregg and a dozen men survived.

Stumbling out of their shattered goal in a daze, the men wandered about the burning area until they were marshalled by a German officer into a rescue party. Two dissenting men were shot on the spot and properly cowed the rest of the group went into the inferno to rescue civilians. For two hours, the group worked without respite when the sirens began again.

Map 3 - Dresden

The 550 “heavies” of the second wave had arrived. It was 1.07 AM. RAF aircrews would later claim to have spotted the fires of Dresden as far away as Leipzig, sixty miles away.[52] The city lay supine, unable to offer any resistance, not even in the form of a weaving searchlight.[53] The horrified inhabitants on the ground could see the bombers, thousands of miles up, reflected by the light of the awesome flames on the ground.

To “Press-On” Force’s Master Bomber, Squadron Leader Charles de Wesselow of 635 Squadron, it seemed that 5 Group had done their job well — so well that he had difficulty identifying the aiming point through the conflagrations below. After minutes of fruitless hunting, Wesselow radioed the squadrons to mark areas as of yet untouched by the fire. It was a controversial order which would settle Dresden’s fate.

Dresdeners and rescue workers, having emerged from the chaos of the first attack were caught unawares by the second attack as most of the city’s air raid sirens and power lines had been rendered out of action in the earlier attack. Even as hundreds of trucks bearing medical supplies, food and water raced into the city, Wesselow’s pathfinders were unloading their white flares onto the city.

As the flares cascaded earthwards, the bomber crews had a sense of the horror unfolding beneath them. “There was a sea of fire…” said one pilot later. “The heat striking up from the furnace below could be felt in the cockpit. The sky was vivid in hues of scarlet and white, and the light inside the aircraft was that of an eerie autumn sunset. We were so aghast at the awesome blaze…quite subdued by our imagination of the horror that must be below. We could still see the glare of the [flames] thirty minutes after leaving.”[54]

Quote 2The new attack was heavier and more potent, Victor Gregg, on the ground, recalled.[55] “The new bombs were so big that it was possible to see them falling through the air. Even the incendiaries were…different. Instead of the smallish meter-long sticks that had dropped during the first raid, we were now subjected to huge four-ton objects that hit the ground and exploded so that a ball of fire blossomed from the point of impact, incinerating everything.”[56]

This time, the bulk of the bombs fell on the predominately residential Hauptbahnoff and Südvorstadt districts. Dresdeners scrambled for the supposed safety of the Elbe River and the sprawling Grosser Garten (equivalent to New York’s Central park). Unfortunately, the routes to the Elbe were often blocked by flames and the Grosser Garten was being severely bombed. The garden’s famous zoo, which had been already mauled in the first attack, was virtually destroyed in the second. In what were arguably some of the most heart-rending events of the night, zoo keepers were forced to put down many of their dearly-loved charges using pistols and machineguns.[57]

As RAF planners had hoped, the majority of Dresden’s firefighters and on-duty rescue personnel were killed.[58] More than half of the city police and fireman’s vehicles were destroyed. The units themselves were scarred beyond recognition. One example was a volunteer fire brigade that came down from the nearby town of Bad Schandau and was absolutely destroyed. There was just one survivor.[59]

Then the frightful happened, the fresh bombs joined the fires left by the old and coalesced into a terrifying inferno — a firestorm. Sucking in fresh air from the surrounding area, the 800°C firestorm swept through Central Dresden like a tornado, snatching the old and young alike off the streets and throwing them into the flames.[60] “Huge fragments of material were flying through the air, sucked into the vortex by the hurricane winds,” Gregg later said. “…We could see people being torn from whatever they were hanging onto, picked up by an invisible giant hand and drawn up in to the ever deepening red glow.”[61] In the midst of these sights, the city rang with the blood-curdling screams of those being burned alive. Returning bomber crews would later report that they had felt the heat from the inferno despite being 18,000 ft in the air.

Firestorm 1

Gazing down upon the searing flames, Flight Sgt. Miles Tripp, a bombardier aboard a 218 Squadron Lancaster, was unable to erase what he had heard during the briefing, that the city would be swollen with refugees. Abruptly, the unsettling memory of watching old newsreel footage of German dive-bombers entered his mind. “Forty miles from Dresden fires were reddening the sky ahead … Six miles from the target the other Lancasters were clearly visible; their silhouettes black in the rosy glow. The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets stretched from east to west, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame.”[62]


Aboard another Lancaster, the pilot, Flying Officer Eric Barton of 186 Squadron, called upon his navigator: “Jock, you’ve never seen a target; come and look at this one – you won’t see it again.” The navigator gazed at the sights with tears streaming down his face: “Christ, you poor bastards, you poor bastards,” he cried. “I never want to see that again Skipper; don’t ever show me again … what poor bastards.”[63]

PDF-IconBritish raid planners later denied that their intent had been to spark a firestorm, but the concentration of bombs had fallen in such a way that every opportunity had been presented to trigger that eventuality. Together, the twin British raids had unleashed 1,477.7 tons of high-explosives and 1,181.6 tons of incendiaries. Between them, they had obliterated Dresden and for this feat, the British lost just six aircraft (including one lost on the Bohlen raid). By dawn on February 14, Dresden was a moonscape. Thousands of bodies lay in the streets, and in collapsed shelters and buildings. The devastation did have one silver lining. Using the chaos, the Bulgarian and Hungarian Jews being held in the city had escaped their wards. Those that survived the bombardment, managed to return to their countries.[64]

VonnegutVonnegut and the other POWs were brought out from their shelters to help with the cleanup. The men were blanched white by the scale of destruction and the range of bodies which confronted them. “We saw terrible things,” said a nine-year-old Dresdener, Lothar Metzger. “ Cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people running to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many calling and looking for their children and families and everywhere fire. And all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from. I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them.”[65]

Slaughterhouse-Five BookMeantime, a Karin Busch, a German schoolgirl emerged from her shelter to see the entire city in ruins. “Everything, all the beautiful churches, everything was destroyed,” she said. “We stood on Marshallstrasee (Marshall Street) with its huge houses — now a mass of rubble with a few chimney stacks standing out. When I called out to someone I thought I knew, one of these chimneys stacks fell down just from the echo of my voice. My brother had lost his sight from the heat. One eye recovered later but the other did not. We found our father and older brother by calling out their names and together we went back to the cellar where we had first taken shelter. Inside, I saw a pile of ashes in the shape of a person. You know when you put wood into a furnace and it burns and becomes red hot and it keeps its shape with an inner glow but when you touch it, it disintegrates? That’s what this was – the shape of a person but nothing left of the body. I didn’t know who it was but then I saw a pair of earrings in the ashes. I knew the earrings. It was my mother.”[66]

PrintVonnegut and the other prisoners were put to work, removing corpses from shelters. “Civilians cursed us,” he told his family after returning from the war in July 1945. “They threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”[67] He added to his uncle Alex: “The people of Saxony never had any use for Hitler and that whole gang of S.O.B.s! Hitler came to Dresden only twice. He never got a welcome. And Dresden had practically no air raid shelters. It was assumed that Dresden would not be bombed. Everything is gone. All the Art Galleries — everything!”[68]

But Dresden’s ordeal was far from over. At noon, the arrival of 316 American Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 8th Air Force threw the smoldering city into pandemonium.

Having been told that city had no defenses, American P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft ranged low, at nearly street level, racing over the city with impunity and strafing anything that moved, while the Flying Fortresses rained down bombs upon the marshaling yards.[69] In all, the Americans dropped 782 tons of high-explosives and incendiaries on the already smoldering city. They had strict orders to concentrate their bombs on the city’s marshaling yards but some of the bombs inevitably fell into the surrounding areas.[70] By the 15th, the damage to the city was ten times worse than that which had been inflicted on Hamburg, which had been gutted in a fire raid on 27/28 July 1943. As far as the allies were concerned, “Thunderclap” had been an overwhelming success.

In a space of just 24 hours, the double RAF and USAAF attack had succeeded destroying 1,427 acres of the populated city and rendered more than 300,000 people homeless – a number whose proportions can be appreciated by the presence of tens of thousands of unaccounted refuges who had taken sanctuary in the up till now, untouched city.

Later, the British ORS concluded that the twin British attacks alone had destroyed 85 percent of the city. Rail and Industries may have suffered damage, but Dresden’s old town had been virtually wiped out. In all, at least 58 percent of non-military buildings had been obliterated or seriously damaged with 23 percent of the city’s industrial base also suffering devastation. The inner city had been brutalized, but some of the outskirts escaped fairly unscathed.

The analysis was based on RAF post-action reconnaissance photos, which also showed that the city gasworks had taken heavy damage, as had two tram depots. “The bridges over the Elbe and public buildings were well hit,” the report read on, “[But] barracks and military camps were less troubled, being mostly situated on the outskirts.”[71]

On the night of February 14, Harris sent his bombers against Chemnitz (now Karl-Marx Stadt). Unlike Dresden, Chemnitz was a justifiable military target as it possessed the Siegmar assembly plant which was manufacturing Panzer IV tanks and tank engines, a large locomotive repair depot (one of the Reich’s biggest) and a major textile factory making uniforms. There were also two Luftwaffe kampfgruppen (bomber groups) based in the city’s airfields.

As before, Harris planned a twin blow with many ruse flights. Fortunately, Chemnitz was spared the devastation of Dresden, when, contrary to meteorological forecasts, the raiders encountered thick, unbroken cloud cover over the city. The raiders resorted to “Wanganui” skymarking but the parachute flares quickly disappeared into the depths of cloud. Even though many quarters of the city were hit, the raid was a failure, as was the secondary strike on the Rositz oil plant which only damaged the southern end of the factory.

Dresden 14

“Thunderclap” was resumed at haphazard intervals until April. The American 8th Air Force would fly a further four raids on Dresden, disgorging a total of 3,263 tons of bombs onto the city, killing countless thousands — almost all of them civilians. Outraged, Hitler wanted to kill 40,000 allied POW’s in retaliation. The Reich propaganda minister Josef Goebbels suggested that: “From now one American must be killed for every German.”[72] The German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop had the proposals quietly scrapped.

When the true nature of the destruction at Dresden began to become clear in the west, there were ominous mutterings in allied circles that someone had gone too far. Churchill, who had taken an active part in the planning, now tried to distance himself from the controversy. “The destruction of Dresden,” he said, “remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests rather than that of the enemy.”[73] RAF officers, who remembered countless incidents in the Prime Minister’s office, recalling a far different attitude, were furious.

Privately, Churchill attempted to assuage some of anger thrown his way by writing that the “bombings of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror …should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land.”[74] Years later, he defended himself further, by claiming that, “they [the RAF] never told me we were bombing civilians.”[75] In 1950, when being interviewed for the Official RAF history and when asked about Dresden, Churchill replied apathetically that: “I thought the Americans did it,” and that “Air Chief Marshal Harris would be the person to contact.”[76]

Quote 4More and more, Harris found himself becoming a scapegoat for what was fast becoming a divisive issue. Instead of becoming indignant at the charges of terrorism leveled against him and his command, Harris sought self-justification. “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier,” he declared.[77] It was a tone which would sink his reputation after the war.


The attacks on Dresden were a failure at their most basic, strategic level. The bombing had failed to sever the many “lines of communications” running through the city and just one of the city’s five important bridges had been knocked down.[78]

Although the city’s railways had been badly hit, the damage was not long-lasting and while an important line between the Neustadt and the Hauptbahnoff station had been severed, the Germans managed to restore a single line between the two stations within days.[79] The Neustadt goods station was badly bombed as well, but continued to function.[80] If anything, the bombing of Friedrichstadt marshaling yards was the only decisive success of the raid as the Americans are credited with having destroyed forty-five tracks in the yards alone while the British destroyed 800 coaches and wagons.[81]

As per the RAF’s “area bombing” expectations, any industries caught within the affected area were also destroyed. A German report mentioned that forty-one important factories had been damaged or destroyed.[82] By in large, however, non-military targets such as public buildings, residential centers and homes suffered the most. In keeping with Churchill’s wish to impress the Russians, German authorities estimated that the bombers had destroyed nearly 12,000 homes. Other lost buildings included:

24 banks, 26 insurance buildings, 31 stores and retail house, 647 shops, 64 storage and warehousing facilities, 2 market halls, 31 large hotels, 26 large public houses, 63 administrative buildings, 3 theatres, 18 film theatres, 11 churches, 6 chapels, 5 cultural-historical buildings, 19 hospitals (including private clinics), 39 schools, 5 consulates, 1 zoological garden, 1 water works, 1 train station, 19 postal facilities, 4 tram stations, 19 ships and barges.[83]

Some of those buildings destroyed were the most architecturally beautiful in Germany, if not in Europe. The towering Frauenkirche, a grand Lutheran cathedral towering three hundred feet over the ground, collapsed on the morning of February 15. Dresdeners openly wept at its loss.[84] Its rubble lay in an unkempt heap until after the fall of the Iron Curtain when a unified Germany prepared for its reconstruction in 1994.[85] Kurt Vonnegut wrote a letter to the German government, asking that the church be kept as it was. “I am annoyed that the Frauenkirche, whose spire topped by Virgin Mary survived the calamity, is to be rebuilt,” he told a friend in 1995. “I thought it was a perfect monument to Western Civilization’s efforts to commit suicide in two world wars.”[86]

Frauenkirche 1

Fraunkirche 2

Other equally famous monuments obliterated were: Gottfried Semper’s famed Opera House, the Zwinger Palace (also designed by Semper), the Albertinum, home to a priceless collection of sculptures, the Green Vaults art gallery (designed by famous Prussian architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel), the Dresden Academy of Arts and the famous Circus Sarassani. [87] In 1958, when author Alexander McKee visited the city, Dresden appeared to be little more than a scarcely inhabited wasteland, overgrown with shrubs and weeds. As McKee later wrote: “[From city center], it was possible to see a mile or more in every direction uninterruptedly, the view obstructed only by bushes, for it was clear of buildings.”[88]

Angered by the scale of the destruction, Nazi propagandists initially claimed that between 350,000 and 450,000 people had been killed in the city.[89] A more credible report released in March 1945 by the Dresden Police and the SS, known as “Tagesbefehl Nr 47” (Order of the Day 47), cited a mortality rate of 202,040.[90] In May 1945, the government decided on an official death toll of 39,773, but because of swollen numbers of refugees and entire families who perished in the flames (thus leaving no one to claim the missing), nobody really knows how many people died there. In 1948, an allied European Command study commissioned by the United States and conducted by two German officers, estimated that the death toll may have reached as much as 250,000. However, it is widely believed by historians that the most authorities figures come from a “Final Report,” written by a Colonel Jurk at the behest of the Dresden Commander of Police a few weeks after the bombings.

Jurk’s extensive report (missing until 1965) showed that between 18,000 and 22,000 people had definitely died. Adding to this tally a figure of 35,000 missing brings the total casualty rate to at least fifty thousand.[91] In comparison, casualties at Hiroshima after the atomic bombing in August 1945 amounted to 71,379 killed.

The death toll ensured that the allies achieved at least one of their objectives – the demoralization of Dresden. The survivors were almost certainly dispirited and there were recorded incidents of anger directed against Hitler and symbols of the Nazi government.[92] Yet, to the dismay of allied bomber leaders, the citizens did not go the expected extent of pressuring the government to make peace. In a totalitarian government such as the Reich’s, such expectations were completely unrealistic. But this last failure shattered the last allied hopes for achieving victory by air power alone.

Even less successful was Churchill’s intention to intimidate the Soviets. In retrospect, it is inconceivable how the British Prime Minister ever thought that this was possible, for the Russians were no strangers to wholesale destruction. Few Soviets for one, could forget Stalingrad which had been razed to the ground in a bloody and desperate battle in 1942-43. Furthermore, the Soviets actually succeeded in turning the destruction of Dresden into a propaganda campaign against the west. For decades after the war, Dresdeners were constantly reminded of the terrible Anglo-American conspiracy which had laid waste to their city.[93]

In the west, the bombings became an issue of intense controversy. In recent times, western historians have attempted to justify the bombing, blackballing the excessive civilian casualties as “propaganda” by the occupying Russians. In an ironic twist, however, the Russians tried to do just the opposite. They attempted to downplay the wartime achievements of the allied air forces by downgrading the excessive civilian casualties. For example, the Russians cut the official German death toll (a tentative list compiled by the city’s Bureau of Missing Persons) from the original 135,000 to 35,000, by simply lopping off the first digit.[94]

The destruction of Dresden’s cultural heritage and human losses was felt acutely, because they came at a time when the war was nearly over. On February 4, Russians troops had closed to within a hundred miles of the city, and were poised to capture the place during their renewed drive into the Reich in April. The gutted city ultimately fell to the Soviets in the last days of April.

Kurt Vonnegut, Victor Gregg and several other POWs made contact with the Russians and were eventually shipped home. Vonnegut, however, could never forget the maelstrom of Dresden. In 1989, five years after the 39th anniversary of the bombing during which he had tried to commit suicide on an overdose of sleeping pills and alcohol, he wrote to a fellow American survivor, George Strong, that “maybe my fundamental home is in Dresden, since that is where my great adventure took place, and where one hundred of us selected at random were bonded by tremendous violence into a brotherhood—and then dispersed to hell and gone.”[95]

The resulting fallout over the attacks putrefied the already unsavory reputation of Bomber Command — forged in hard conflict over the years — and would relegate Harris to little more than a figure of notoriety. It is perhaps ironic, that while a succession of German cities had succumbed to the iron jackhammer of Harris and Bomber Command, ultimately, a single city would inflict its own equivalent blow upon the British. Where the bombing was meant to bring the war in Europe to a speedy conclusion, it instead cut short the meteoric career of Arthur Harris.

Although he succeeded in rising to the rank of Marshal of the RAF in 1945, he was denied a peerage at a time when many of his contemporaries were being honored so, until a belated baronetcy in 1953. Far worse, he found himself being distanced by friends and supporters, including Churchill. Ultimately, he decided to leave England, sailing for South Africa in February 1946, not returning home until 1953 to retire as director of a shipping company. He died on 5 April 1983, after spending the remainder of his life in self-imposed isolation. He is still identified today as enemy No. 1 in Dresden. The post-war controversy would ensure that RAF Bomber Command was denied a customary campaign medal in recognition of its services during the war.

It is ironic that while allies used overwhelming use of force as the solution to a problem, the bombing of Dresden instead serves a lesson of restraint in future acts of belligerence.♦

Dresden 1A


[1] David Irving, Apocalypse 1945: The Destruction of Dresden, 94.
[2] Martin Bowman, Reflections of War: Armageddon, 27 September 1944 to May 1945 (London: Pen and Sword, 2013, para 10.3, Ch. 4.
[3] Gregg had been a member of the British 10th Parachute Battalion. (Victor Gregg, Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, loc. 56, Ch. 2, 13% (Kindle)). According to the now-disgraced historian and holocaust denier, David Irving, more than a brigade-worth of British paratroopers were being held within the city limits. This is unlikely. (David Irving, 90)
[4] David Hayman, David Michaelis et al., “Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64,The Paris Review. Issue 69: 55–103. (
[5] Vonnegut’s incarceration under SS guards was unpleasant. He was severely beaten for challenging them on their cruelty to fellow prisoners. On another occasion, a fellow POW named Michael Palaia was caught stealing a can of beans and was forced to sign a document admitting to a “heinous crime.” Palaia had no idea what he was signing. The next morning, Vonnegut and three other POWs, including the condemned man, were taken out with shovels — only they did not know what for. They were digging a grave. Once it was complete, Palia was placed in front of the grave and shot in the back of head. While Vonnegut was recounting this incident to his uncle Alex after the war, he became visibly upset, crying: “The sons of bitches! The sons of bitches!” (Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, loc. 444-451, 7%, Ch. The Forties, (Kindle)). Vonnegut turned Palaia into a character in Slaughterhouse-Five, named Edgar Derby, a 44-year-old English teacher executed for stealing a teapot.
[6] Convinced that the city would be spared horrors, Dresdeners ignored the fact that the city had been already subject to pinprick raids and that the Americans had bombed its Friedrichstadt marshaling yards in October 1944.
[7] The Initial figure was the official population of Dresden in 1939. It is believed that the city “base” population had not varied greatly by 1945. (Kenneth Hewitt, Place Annihilation: Area Bombing and the Fate of Urban Places, 266 & Alexander McKee, Dresden: 1945, 45)
[8] Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, 227.
[9] Ibid., 148.
[10] Ibid., 225.
[11] Ibid., 63.
[12] Phillip S. Meilinger, “Trenchard and ‘Moral’ Bombing: The Evolution of Royal Air Force Doctrine before World War II,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 2 (April 1996): 256, 266.
[13] The notion that a country could be demoralized to a state of capitulation first emerged during the inter-war period but gained prominence in Britain in the early 1930s. Yet wartime experiences showed this premise to be completely false. For example, Britain’s own civilian morale, although battered during the German Blitz of 1940-41 had survived reasonably intact. Even allied experiences over the Germany from 1941-44 had indicated that the decline of civilian morale could not have a significant impact on the outcome of the war.
[14] This is no exaggeration. The limited allied campaign against German oil in 1944 had succeeded in causing a grave fuel crisis in Germany. So much so, that during the famed Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944, German armored and mechanized units had specific orders to capture allied fuel dumps in order to keep moving. Furthermore, the Luftwaffe, which was heavily dependent on high-octane aviation fuel, was virtually grounded for lack of fuel from late 1944 till the end of the war. (For more, refer to US Strategic Bombing Survey, European Theatre of Operations, Oil Report, August 1947)
[15] But the Germans had plans to slowly increase stocks, by switching production to underground factories. Their plan, if successful would have generated 10,000 metric tons of fuel (monthly) by the end of September – heralding the beginning of a sharp climb, well into 1946. (USSBS, Oil Division Final Report, Strategic Air Attack on the German Oil Industry, Figure 26)
[16] In a startling admission, Harris later agreed that analysts had been right and the attacks on the oil industry could have been one of the divisive campaigns of the air war. (Thompson, New Zealanders in the RAF, Vol. II, 397).
[17] In November, for instance the Americans alone dropped 21,500 tons of bombs in a series of consistent attacks on oil targets. (Thompson, New Zealanders in the RAF, Vol. II, 396)
[18] Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox, 100-101.
[19] Taylor, 174.
[20] Ibid., 174.
[21] Ibid., 105-106.
[22] The allies had already decided which German regions would fall under Soviet control after the war. At the Yalta Conference, (4-11 February 1945), US, British and Russian delegates agreed to split a defeated Germany into four occupation zones (Russian, British, American and French) under a unified commission in Berlin. Under this agreement, the Soviets would gain control over nearly all of eastern Germany, including the province of Saxony.
[23] McKee, 64.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Portal was initially an ardent believer of “area attacks,” but changed his mind in late 1944, and asked Harris to tone down indiscriminate attacks on German cities. (“The Logic Behind the Destruction of Dresden,” Der Spiegel,, Accessed 9 July 2018)
[26] Martin Middlebrook, The Berlin Raids, 7-8.
[27] Richard Davis, Spaatz and the Air War in Europe, 496.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Irving, 120.
[30] Lines of Communications: Military terminology for a transportation route or network, including rail-lines, roads and waterways.
[31] Ibid., 127.
[32] Davis, Spaatz and the Air War in Europe, 435.
[33] A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities.
[34] Irving, 91-92.
[35] Webster and Frankland, SAOG, Vol. IV, 112-113.
[36] Irving, Apocalypse 1945, 321.
[37] Historical Analysis of the 14/15 February 1945 Bombings of Dresden, USAF Historical Division, Air University, 1976.
[38] Unlike the RAF, the USAAF practiced a strict doctrine of precision-bombing aimed at industrial and transport targets. It is argued by historians however that by 1945 however, that much of this “precision” had fallen in favor of indiscriminate bombing of populated centers, especially during “Thunderclap.” The official history of the AAF, The Army Air Forces in World War II, for one, testifies that, “[the US attack on Dresden was] frankly aimed at breaking the morale of the German people.” (Ronald Schaffer, American Military Ethics in World War II, 319, 332-333; McKee, 64, 104-105).
It must be noted by the reader that the concept of “morale bombing” is synonymous with “area Bombing”. (Author’s note)
[39] Rolfe, 44-45.
[40] The Mosquitoes were equipped with LORAN (long Range Air Navigation), an American guidance device based on a British innovation, with a maximum plotting range of 700 miles by day and almost 1,500 by night. It was the first time that the device was used operationally by Bomber Command.
[41] In October 1944, almost one-third of the group’s bombers had been fitted with G-H, an extremely accurate blind-bombing device. The group would operate on nights when adverse weather conditions kept the ground shrouded by cloud and when the cloud tops did not extend over 1,000 ft. For operational constraints, the group’s G-H aircraft had their tail fins painted in prominent colors and designs, so as to allow normal aircraft to form up in their wake. Thus even when the formation was badly disjointed in the air, regular aircraft could match up with a G-H aircraft, by identifying the colorful tail designs. (Tail designs and colors varied from squadron to squadron).
[42] Bowman, para 10.24, Ch. 5.
[43] Taylor, 215.
[44] The Albert, the Augustus, the Carola, the Marien and its adjoining rail bridge.
[45] Taylor, 215.
[46] As the British bombed by night, they evolved specialized tactics to identify and mark the target. The “Pathfinders” were at the heart of these tactics, using flares and markers to light up the target for the following “Main Force” of bombers. The pathfinders in question here were 5 Group’s own in-house pathfinders, notably 83 Squadron, equipped with Lancasters.
[47] Sean Feast, The Pathfinder Companion, (London: grub Street, 2012), Paragraph 14.91, Ch. 8 (Kindle).
[48] Taylor, 237, 251.
[49] Ibid., 257.
[50] Irving, 169.
[51] Ibid., 169.
[52] McKee, 149.
[53] Gregg, loc.133, Ch 4.
[54] Irving, 182.
[55] In all, 1,800 tons of bombs were dropped by the second wave. (Feast, para 14.97, Ch. 8)
[56] Gregg, loc.139, Ch. 4.
[57] Irving, 194-197.
[58] Taylor, 296.
[59] Irving, 210.
[60] Average temperatures in the firestorm were 800°C, although a peak temperature of 1,500°C (2,732°F) was recorded in the city center. (McKee, 176).
[61] Gregg, loc.162-168, Ch. 5.
[62] Bowman, para 10.80, Ch.4.
[63] Ibid., para 10.43, Ch. 4.
[64] Rolfe, p.44, Ch 5.
[65] Bowman, para 10.61, Ch. 4.
[66] Ibid., para. 10.55, Ch. 4.
[67] Letter to Kurt Vonnegut Sr and Family, 29 May 1945.
[68] Letter from Alex Vonnegut to Ella Vonnegut Stewart (cousin), 4 July 1945, Vonnegut, Letters, loc.446, Ch. The Forties, 7%.
[69] Gregg, loc.210, Ch 6, 48%.
[70] Here is an anomaly of the American raid. February 14 target orders delivered to senior 8th Air Force officers mentioned the “Dresden Marshalling Yard” as the target. But transcripts from the US 1st Air Division (which carried out the raid) to 8th Air Force HQ declared that the primary target had been the “built up area [of] Dresden”. (Taylor, 318)
[71] Irving, 228.
[72] Ibid., 281.
[73] Ibid., 317.
[74] Letter from Churchill to General Hastings Ismay, 28 March 1945.
[75] Irving, 320.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Letter from Harris to Churchill, 1945.
[78] Just the Carola Bridge was destroyed. (McKee, 243)
[79] Taylor, 356.
[80] McKee, 243-244.
[81] Taylor, 356.
[82] Ibid., 358.
[83] Ibid., 356-358.
[84] Taylor, 342-343.
[85] The German authorities intend to unveil the re-built church in 2006 – the 800th anniversary of the founding of Dresden.
[86] Letter to Peter Reed, 7 April 1995, Kurt Vonnegut, Letters, loc.5450-5458, Ch. The Nineties, 86%. The Russians had the same idea, forbidding the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche to serve as a reminder of the allied deed.
[87] It must be noted that some of the buildings listed were re-built by the 1980s.
[88] McKee, 312.
[89] Taylor, 443.
[90] Ibid., 370.
[91] This figure is backed up by another document found in West German archives in 1966. Dated 22 March 1945, this document: “Situation Reports on Air Raids on Reich No 1404” cites that although 18,375 bodies had been counted, the final death toll may be 25,000, with another 35,000 missing. (Irving, Apocalypse 1945, 289).
[92] McKee, 249; Irving, 256.
[93] Taylor, 392-393. Also see Historical Analysis of the 14-15 February 1945 Bombings of Dresden. Maxwell, AL: USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University.
[94] Irving, 286.
[95] Kurt Vonnegut’s suicide attempt was on 13 February 1984. His son, Mark later described the incident as a “bizarre, surreal incident when he took too many pills and ended up in a psych hospital, but it never felt like he was in any danger. Within a day he was bouncing around the dayroom playing Ping-Pong and making friends. It seemed like he was doing a not very convincing imitation of someone with mental illness.” Kurt Vonnegut, Armageddon in retrospect, Introduction, 2008 & Letter to George Strong, 23 April 1989.





Immediate Interpretation Report No.K.3742, Dresden, 18 February 1945.
Interpretation Report No.K.4171, Dresden, 22 March 1945.


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