Dresden. 70 years ago 13 square miles of the city lay in smouldering ruins. Something like 25,000 people lay dead. Many died from lack of oxygen as the fire storm swept through the city; others were simply burned alive.
I heard a couple of interviews with a survivor this week – Victor Gregg. He was a tough old bloke, a British paratrooper who has seen quite a lot of action before being captured at Arnhem. As a prisoner of war he was sent to Dresden on some sort of punishment work detail. The bombing killed many around him (some burned alive by the phosphorous in the incendiaries) but a blast bomb opened a hole in a wall and allowed him to escape. He did his best to describe the indescribable. He said he had coped with six years of war from the Middle East, Italy and Arnhem itself. But nothing had prepared him for seeing how the howling winds caused by the fire would literally sweep women and children, burning alive in flames, high into the air before dropping them to their deaths. At one point he described how a group of people trying to run from the flames across a road “got stuck”, trapped in the melting tar. The fiery winds consumed them. They collapsed then burst into flames and then, he said, they simply exploded. He helped with clearing up after the raids were over, co-opted into a work group. He described cellars full of bones and fat where those sheltering had effectively been cremated; others where the dead had been suffocated by the lack of oxygen as the fires consumed all around. He made it plain that the horror has caused him mental problems ever since. An article and interview can be found via The Independent here:
There is, of course, a huge debate about whether the raid was justified, or even necessary. I understand Dresden was an important manufacturing centre and was being used as a marshalling station for troops heading to the Eastern front to fend off the advancing Russians. There is a succinct and very well written summary of the raids and the debates to be found on the ever helpful Wikipedia here:
From that entry, this distressing quote by another survivor:
‘To my left I suddenly see a woman. I can see her to this day and shall never forget it. She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. (Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen). They fainted and then burnt to cinders. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: “I don’t want to burn to death”. I do not know how many people I fell over. I know only one thing: that I must not burn.’ — Margaret Freyer
Was it a “war crime”? People bandy such terms around a lot without too much in the way of intellectual discipline. It is not a question I propose to answer as such. I am not an expert on strategy; nor had I lived through more than five years of total war, in which my own cities, like London and Coventry, had suffered grievously from heavy raids. Nor did I have responsibility for bringing the war to the earliest possible conclusion, thus saving the lives of my own citizens. However, my sense is that it had more than a whiff of viciousness about it, and went beyond what was just, even in the course of a justified total war. I certainly don’t blame the pilots – they had their orders and their duty to do, and faced terrible peril. Ultimately, Churchill authorised it. But I suspect that he soon developed grave misgivings about it.
On 28 March, in a memo sent by telegram to General Ismay for the British Chiefs of Staff and the Chief of the Air Staff, he wrote:
“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land… The destruction of Dresden 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 than that of the enemy. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive”
In his subsequent six volume memoir “The Second World War” the bombing received a terse two lines to the following effect: Dresden was bombed, and the war continued. It was a dreadful event, and reminder of the horror of war. Today, as you probably know, Dresden is twinned with Coventry, which of course suffered grievously too. That is a great symbol of reconciliation. There is hope.
PS: Wolf Hall
I have been watching ‘Wolf Hall’. There is some very fine acting; magnificently detailed costumes; great settings; someone seems to be playing the dulcimer or possibly a lute. I don’t know. That nice woman from “Call the Midwife” turned up this week, and she must be a very good actress because she was particularly nasty, hard eyed and hatchet faced in a world which seems to have been full of nasty, hard eyed and hatchet faced women.
I only have one problem. I don’t know what the hell is going on!!
Gildas the Monk