The destruction of Dresden by aerial bombardment on the night of 13th/14th February 1945 ranks as one of the most terrible events of the Second World War. The matter has been written up and argued over so much that it would be surprising if I, who was just one year old at the time, should have anything to add. Nevertheless, it is just possible that I do.
The fact is that a force of 1,200 British and United States aircraft attacked Dresden in response to a Soviet request to deprive the Germans of the city's railway facilities. In the process, they created a firestorm that killed many thousand civilians and destroyed one of the jewels of Western Civilisation, the former capital of Saxony.
Historians have argued that the Allies deliberately set out to destroy the city. Churchill, though, was so horrified that he withheld from Bomber Command the recognition that was accorded to the rest of our armed forces. Bomber Command lost 55,000 men in action; the only force that had proportionately greater losses in the war was the submarine branch of the Kriegsmarine. Efforts to erect a public memorial to Bomber Harris, who ordered the assault, met with official obstruction until a few years ago, when most of the protagonists were dead, and even then it was funded entirely by public subscription. Bishop Bell of Chichester, who spoke out against the policy of bombing civilian targets on the grounds that it offended against the very civilised values that we claimed to be protecting, was vilified at the time. Even today, there are pro and anti Bishop Bell factions. The former agree that Dresden was a hideous war crime, and the latter try to prove that Bell was a paedophile, this being one of the fashionable accusations to bring against anybody one disagrees with.
Some historians have argued that the bombing of Germany was the best we could achieve, before D-Day, towards opening a Second Front. It made the Germans divert thousands of Krupp 88mm guns, aircraft and personnel that would otherwise have been sent to the Eastern Front. Possibly that was enough to give the Soviets the edge. Arguing historical what-ifs is entertaining, educational, but in the end unconstructive.
A further political observation is that Stalin was constantly afraid that the Western Allies would double-cross him and make a separate peace with the Nazis, so as to hold up the expected Communist domination of central Europe. Stalin had a point: as one of history's greatest double-crossers, he could be expected to judge Roosevelt and Churchill by his own abysmal standards. In this view, Dresden was an assurance that the West would press on until the Nazi régime was utterly extirpated.
Dresden was first brought to my attention in around 1957. The German assistant at my school at the time came from Dresden. He described watching a man start to cross the road, exposing himself to the direct heat of the firestorm. The man melted there and then and his fat ran down the gutter. An unforgettable image. Subsequently German friends and acquaintances have raised the question: why was it done?
One answer came in the course of a television interview with one of the bomber pilots, who said: “My orders were to bomb the marshalling yards, and that is what I did. Probably some sparks crossed the tracks and started a blaze in the city. Following aircraft must have used the blaze as a marker and dropped their bombs on it. The prevailing wind did the rest.” What this pilot said may well have been true to the best of his knowledge. Against it, on the other hand, can be set Bomber Harris's previous attempts to create firestorms in other cities, for example Hamburg. Churchill's biblical quotation “They have sown the wind; they have reaped the whirlwind”, though he did not say it in relation to Dresden, may have resonated.
I do have another comment to make that is never going to be backed up in any official history. In my teens, between leaving school and taking up my university place, I worked with a former RAF pilot. This man had operated in the Balkans during the war, and this is what he told me. There were two Yugoslav armies fighting the Germans: the Nationalists under Mihailović and the Partisans under Tito. The British initially supported Mihailović and supplied him with weapons. But certain RAF officers, including my informant, gained the impression that Mihailović was more interested in fighting internecine wars and that he was prepared to collaborate with the Germans in order to pursue those aims. The RAF crews therefore, in contravention of orders, dropped their munitions on Tito's side. [Eventually Churchill sent Fitzroy Maclean on a fact-finding expedition and he reported back as those RAF officers had suspected. As a result the British switched their support to Tito.]
What I am saying is that those generals who write the official accounts, from Xenophon and Julius Caesar to the present day, always make out that their assessment of the situation was perfect, they gave their orders, their orders were carried out to the letter, and their brilliant leadership brought victory. Where they exist, the memoirs of ordinary soldiers and sailors often conflict with the official published accounts.
Let us apply these comments to Dresden. Of course my comments can only be surmise. For a start, the British and German newspaper headlines were the same; “Dresden Coventried” and “Dresden gekoventriert”. Here is an image of retribution. Now remember that both the RAF and the USAAF were staffed by a multiplicity of nationalities. There were English from Coventry, Dutch from Rotterdam, Poles from Warsaw, ...and Jews. Even if the persons giving the orders did not have retribution in mind, same of the actual aircrew may well have done.