Platerack: 13 February 1945

Today marks a somber anniversary. Seventy years ago this evening, at just around 10:14 p.m. local time, the bombardiers of RAF Bomber Command pressed the release keys and several hundred tons of thermite and high explosive bombs began to rain down on a medieval city in the far east of Germany.

Dresden – the name Drežd´any originates in the Old Sorbian tongue, and means “forest swamp dwellers” – had not been visited by the war thus far, or at least not much. As the capital city of Saxony (Bach had visited and played there from time to time) it was a major traffic center, a place where the Elbe, still navigable year-round that far inland, was crossed by major rail and road lines. The traffic that was crossing at Dresden in February, 1945 was to a large measure decidedly non-commercial, and in fact not even military. Because by then what Dresden mostly trafficked in was what the U.S. came to label “DPs,” or displaced persons.  In February, 1945 they were streaming through the east of Germany by the hundreds of thousands.

From Prussia, West and East, Pomerania, Mecklenburg, Saxony, what had once been Poland (and before that Prussia and before that Poland and . . . well hell, you get the point) they came. On foot, in ox-carts, pushing prams, hand-carts, kids’ wagons, anything with wheels, in trucks scrounging rides from sympathetic soldiers, and by train. Any way they could, in fact, manage to escape the Red Army and its vengeance. I have an aunt (by marriage). Her home town is so far in East Prussia it ended up in the Soviet Union after the war. Their father had already been killed on the Eastern Front. He commanded an anti-tank squad, armed with what we called a bazooka and they knew as the Panzerfaust (“armored fist”). In a – successful – effort to avoid a friendly fire incident he deflected the launcher at the moment of launch, and the back blast blew his guts out. Or at least that’s what the family was told. That left their mother and four daughters, the youngest only three or so. To make a long story short, they escaped their town on the last plane to make it out of the airfield, on the way to catch which they were strafed by a Soviet fighter.  During the ride there the oldest sister looked through the rear window of the staff car they were in, and as she described it to me years later, the entire horizon was lined with nearly biblical pillars of smoke and flame from burning farms and villages. A friend of their mother’s didn’t escape. When the Soviets came, she was raped up to 20 times. Per night.

Of course, as the Germans themselves had discovered and exploited wherever they went, a terrorized population getting underway en masse, with no idea of where it’s going or how to get there, plugging the roads and bridges with swarms of desperate humanity, makes a marvelous tool of strategy. Plays all kinds of hell with troop movements, food supply, demands on medical care (just because you’re eight months pregnant doesn’t mean the Red Army is going to slow up by a single pace), lodging (hint: this was in 1945, before George Bush invented global warming, and it got not just cold, but colder than it had in generations . . . and the next winter it got worse), in short, with everything.

The Western allies were concerned with the Soviets’ progress for any number of reasons, not the least of which was the suspicion, already entertained by Churchill in the form of dead certainty, and more-or-less with understanding by at least those who weren’t Stalin’s dupes (e.g., Roosevelt, who to his death thought Stalin was just another ward boss from New Jersey whom he could wheel-deal out of what his soldiers had won and were prepared to defend to the death), that wherever the Red Army stood on the day Germany surrendered was where the borders were going to be drawn. Stalin knew exactly what his military was capable of doing, and thanks to sundry American traitors he had a real good idea of what the Americans were shortly to be capable of.

But of especially the British Stalin would have nurtured scarce other than contempt. A tired, clapped-out, proudly imperialist power, only enjoying the position it did because it drew (“sucked” is the verb Joe would have used) on the manpower and wealth of a good portion of the human population? Stalin could do sums as well as anyone (like how many Ukrainians he could starve to death in any single year), and he would have known precisely how bankrupt Britain was and how negligible a factor it would be in the post-war carving-up of the world (a carving-up Stalin had every intention of seeing happen, no matter what nonsense about One World his acolytes surrounding Roosevelt might think). This was an understanding communicated pretty plainly to Churchill at Yalta. All of which is to say that for the British at least the question of demonstrating itself still to be a puissant world power was very much an issue by early 1945. This realization by the British should not be dismissed as an influence on their decision-making. It was the same reason that in 1914 Austria-Hungary reacted as it did to Franz Ferdinand’s assassination – the convenient removal of someone whom virtually no one in any position of influence in the empire was the least sorry to see laid out on a slab was seized upon as a pretext to “crush the Serbian viper” and prove to the world that a crumbling, imploding, clapped-out, bankrupt, once-glorious empire was still a Player.

So what does all this have to do with Dresden? By early 1945 the Allies had bombed to rubble almost every significant center of manufacturing that could be reached by air, which is to say pretty much all of it. We’d destroyed about as thoroughly as you can with dumb bombs (interesting to contemplate what might have been done with smart ordnance). On the other hand, as Albert Speer showed, unless you hit an industrial machine directly, it’s not all that hard to get it back up and running. Running electrical cable, steam lines, and hydraulic lines isn’t hard. Even re-building rail lines isn’t hard, as long as you’ve got milled rail (which is why Sherman took care to heat and twist them on his marches – “Sherman’s neckties” they called them, and they made the rails useless without being re-milled). Filling holes in roads is something you can do with the rubble of the buildings beside the road. You can bomb the factory until the rubble bounces and unless you destroy the machines – or kill the men who operate them – you’ve not really made all that much a dent on your enemy’s productive capacity. And in fact in Exhibit A, Essen and the Gußstahlfabrik of Krupp, which first the British and then the Americans and then both together, as often as they could gas up the planes and load the bombs to do it, production increased steadily until the last months of the war. What finally ground Krupp to a halt was not the “precision” bombing of the 8th Army Air Force or the carpet-bombing of Bomber Command, but rather that the Ruhr choked on its own production. We destroyed enough dams, canals, bridges, and tunnels that they couldn’t move – physically move – their output any more. William Manchester tells the story brilliantly (and movingly; the book is dedicated to Krupp’s smallest victims, the infants buried in Buschmannshof, in Voerde-bei-Dinslaken, who until after his book “no other memorial”) in The Arms of Krupp.

What about Dresden, though? As you might suspect, as capital of Saxony Dresden did have some manufacturing capacity, mostly what we’d describe as light industry – optics and so forth. But it was all located in the suburbs. The core of Dresden had not been changed all that much since the 18th Century, and in quite a number of neighborhoods even longer. It had been a Residenzstadt, the official seat of the Electors of Saxony (and later, when August the Strong was elected to the job in 1697, the King of Poland), and as such most of the downtown area was given over to the kinds of activities that monarchy and its hangers-on generate. Nowadays we’d call it a service economy, with cottage industry (luxury smithing, tailoring, and so forth) mixed in. The key thing to remember is that with two exceptions there were more or less zero military targets in downtown Dresden. There were no factories to speak of, no barracks, no facilities for what we could call “C-3” – command, control, and communications – no major political nodes like in central Berlin.

The two exceptions were the bridges over the Elbe, rail and road, and the main train station, the Hauptbahnhof. Destroy those and you really put a crimp in the Wehrmacht’s ability to move troops and supplies to the front, and to get those damned civilians (and casualties) to the rear. Leave those operational and you’ve done no more than create a large garbage-disposal job for prisoners of war carrying shovels, brooms, and crowbars.

Let’s summarize through date: We have a largely untouched city, built of wood and stone (and that wood would have been centuries dried, wouldn’t it?), with no targets of any military value in the urban core, but with two sets of targets of great value, both easily identified from the air. And in February, 1945 it was — and was known to be — choked with civilian refugees, unfamiliar with the city and its environs, not knowing where the air raid shelters were (to the extent there were any . . . the local Gauleiter wasn’t among the more competent, and for most of the city the only air raid protection was the cellar of the building that was being bombed over its head), hungry, sick, stricken with frostbite, and above all numbed by shock and misery. And the Western Allies had a point to prove to Stalin.

In the end, the temptation proved too great.

Let us now take a brief digression to contemplate the mechanics of destruction. Ordnance can generically be categorized as being suited either to soft targets or hard targets. “Hard” targets are of course things that are specifically armored, such as tanks, battleships, bunkers, pillboxes, and other things that are built of materials which resist penetration. Like concrete, stone, and metal. “Soft” targets are everything else. Wood, glass, and so forth. Flesh. Clothing. Ordnance for use against hard targets has to be larger, carry a greater explosive charge, and be itself constructed of materials able to penetrate the target. I’m 6’4″ tall, and somewhere I have a picture of myself standing beside a 16″ shell as administered by USS Alabama during the war. That shell comes up to my eye socket. The “tall boy” bombs which finally sank Tirpitz in 1944 were 21 feet long, tipped the scales at 12,000 pounds, and carried a charge of 5,200 pounds of Torpex. Her sister Bismarck had absorbed 14″ and 16″ armor-piercing rounds by the fistful in 1941 but was finally sunk when her own crew opened the seacocks; two tall boy hits capsized Tirpitz. Ordnance for soft targets can be much smaller (so its deployment systems can be smaller, faster, more mobile, and cheaper to build; think “Saturday night special”) and the projectile can carry a far greater proportion of its own weight in explosive payload. Anti-personnel rounds have thin walls and are packed with explosive and shrapnel.

Among the more common civilian hard targets are railroad facilities and stone, concrete, or steel bridges. Why are they “hard”? Well, because unless you actually strike and obliterate the substance of their construction, it’s really easy to get them back up and fulfilling their function. You can vaporize the ticket booths, the train sheds, the platforms, the benches, the arrival and departure boards, the restaurants and restrooms, but unless you actually so damage the rails, ties, and switches as to render them impossible of further use, you really haven’t done any meaningful harm to a railroad station. As long as trains can arrive, load, unload, and depart in the desired sequence, you’ve still got a working railroad station, even though you have to shovel the dead bodies out of the way to do it. By like token, you can blow the bridge deck to hell and gone, but unless you sever the supports from which the deck is suspended, or destroy the piers on which those supports rest, a few hours with some cutting torches, welders, lumber, and basic steel frame members will have the bridge able to accept normal traffic in a day or two. In contrast, a hospital that is blown apart cannot be used as a hospital any more. It must be completely re-built, which is to say replaced. An apartment building once burned out – with as little as a can of kerosene and a single match – is useless.

You can tell what any mission is targetting by the kind of ordnance that is loaded. If you are carrying ordnance which physically cannot destroy a specific sort of target, then you may not ask me to accept that you were really aiming for that kind of target. Kindly do not insult my intelligence.

Which is why, when we ponder the data point that the bomb load which Bomber Command carried on its two missions over Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, consisted of overwhelmingly (by number of bombs) thermite bombs weighing right at 30 pounds, we are not obliged to accept at face value the statement that the attack on Dresden was intended to take out the few military targets in that city.  In the first wave of the attack there were roughly 500 tons of high explosive dropped, in bombs weighing from 500 to 2,000 pounds each.  If you go with the light end that’s 1,000 bombs.  That first wave also dropped 375 tons of incendiaries; at 30 pounds each that comes to 25,000 bombs, more or less.

We are even less obliged to accept the suggestion that something other than the civilians of Dresden were the specific target of the mission when we observe where the Mosquitoes (very light, built of plywood, extremely fast planes whose mission was to drop marker lights on the target aim point for Bomber Command missions — the British did not go in for daylight bombing; that was a fatuity of the USAAF) were ordered to drop their markers: directly over the center of the old city. The train station was (and is today) well outside the central downtown district; the bridges are over the river.

No, the attack on Dresden was planned and executed to see how many civilians we could kill in the course of an evening.  The RAF even admitted as much, at the time.  In its briefing memo to the aircrew on the night of the attack, it pointed out, “In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward 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.”  The answer to the question of how many can be bagged at once has never been entirely established. So many of them had just got to the city that day or in the preceding few days. They weren’t registered anywhere; no one even would have known their names, or the fact that they were there. Their relatives would at most have known that they’d left their homes in the east, and sometime around mid-February they vanished, somewhere. Maybe buried in a shallow grave hacked into the frozen ground beside a road somewhere. Maybe reduced to ash in a cellar in Dresden. Maybe shot out of hand by the Soviets and just left for the crows and other wild animals to pick clean. Once they were here; now they are not. I’ve seen guesses – and that’s all they can be – from 25,000 on the low end to upwards of 200,000 at the high end. That upper end number is commonly accepted as bunk now, put about by, among others, the notorious Holocaust denier David Irving (who wrote one of the earlier books about the bombing of Dresden; I have a copy of it, in German, at home). But that 25,000 figure also seems suspect, too low.

Why? Can’t you just count the corpses, after all? Well, after your usual conventional air raid you might be able to do that. Count the skulls you find; one skull per body produces the total dead. But what if you can’t get an accurate count of the skulls? In a nuclear attack you have victims who are simply vaporized; there’s nothing left to gather up.

Dresden was a conventional attack, not a nuclear one. But in Dresden Bomber Command managed to hit a sweet spot which was something of a technical feat. They produced a “firestorm.” Now, “firestorm” is a word that remains in common currency today. When some idiot like an NBC newsreader claims to have been in a Chinook which was shot down, but was really nowhere near it, showing up only an hour or so after the crew had succeeded in landing it, we say his dishonesty and his employer’s defense of that dishonesty is producing a “firestorm of criticism.” By that we mean that a lot of people are more or less simultaneously expressing outrage that an organization supposedly in the very business of propagating the truth about observable facts would knowingly harbor as the face it presents to the world a man who is a serial fabulist about his news-gathering activities.

But O! Gentle Reader, a “firestorm” is a very specific physical manifestation. It occurs when you ignite a highly dense concentration of very combustible facilities – apartment buildings, stores, and offices will do very nicely – over a wide area and within an extremely compressed space of time. When you do that the heat of the conflagration develops massive up-drafts which generate tornado-force winds, winds which will pick a streetcar train up and hurl it the length of a boulevard. The winds also propagate the flames horizontally, not only by blowing them – say, across 100 feet of main thoroughfare – but by fanning their own flames to an intensity which will spontaneously combust nearby fuel sources that haven’t themselves been hit. Remember that the heat of a fire is a function of how much energy is released and over what period of time. High-energy fuels like coal or petroleum will generate good heat even at fairly low rates of fuel consumption because they are so energy-dense. Wood (and human flesh) is much less energy-dense and so at normal rates of combustion simply won’t generate heat that is much more sufficient than to keep the fire itself burning. But when you produce a firestorm, Gentle Reader, you turn an entire city’s downtown into a blast furnace, and then you can generate heat and destruction of an entirely different order. Think of a firestorm as being a non-volcanic pyroclastic flow and you won’t be too far wide of the mark.

The first modern firestorm was produced over Hamburg in 1943, during the course of several nights’ consecutive missions. We managed to take out something like 46,000 civilians, which is pretty stout. In fact, even producing a firestorm in Hamburg was something of a technical achievement, given how much of that city is water. Not even Bomber Harris could light off water (and he would have given it a try if he’d thought he could). As I recall, we managed another over Braunschweig. Wikipedia lists some other attacks which may have generated firestorms (the deadliest being Tokyo, with something like 100,000 dead, although it’s not confirmed to what extent it was a “genuine” firestorm . . . as if that mattered to the dead).

Dresden was Bomber Command’s masterpiece. Everything came together just perfectly. The weather over Central Europe, which sucks at that time of year, produced a gap in cloud cover just over the city, just at the right time of night. The city’s defenses had long since been stripped to bare minimum, to free 88mm batteries for the Eastern Front. The city was full to bursting with ignorant civilian refugees. And it was very densely built and tinder-dry. The RAF’s tactics, honed to perfection over the rest of Germany, worked like a finely-tuned machine.

First came the Pathfinders, dropping the strings of colored flares which the Germans knew as “Christmas trees” over the old town, the Altstadt.  Then came the Mosquitoes to drop specific marker bombs.  Within minutes the Lancasters were overhead, decanting tons upon tons of thermite bombs down onto the city. There was some high explosive mixed in, to break water pipes and so forth, the better to hinder firefighting, but the big thing was to get the fires started. Because then, roughly three hours later, came the topping: a second wave of Lancasters. Why the delay? Why not a steady stream of aircraft? Because, Gentle Reader, you have to give time for the organic firefighting forces to deploy, and for the resources of the surrounding district to arrive and get into the fight. So that your second wave not only fully blooms your firestorm, but also kills as many as possible of the people trying to put the thing out.

And so it came to pass. The fires of Dresden so lit the night sky that the bomber crews could read by their glow . . . over 100 miles away. I forget how many corpses they gathered together over the ensuing days, but on the Altmarkt, the old market square, there’s an outline in red paving stone, several yards long and several wide. There’s melted metal drizzled between some of the stones inside the outline, with the inscription that over 6,800 corpses were burned on that spot alone. There were many such places throughout the city. And with the heat generated by a firestorm, human bodies vanish, reduced to ash. So we’ll never get a reliable body count from Dresden.

The next morning the 8th Air Force, not to be outdone, showed up to make the rubble bounce. By that time in the war it went on missions escorted by phalanxes of P-51 Mustangs, among the very best propeller-driven combat planes ever built. While the B-17s added of their plenty, the fighters dropped down low to strafe.

At this link the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung has an article, with some pictures, of what Dresden looked like by February 15, 1945.

I first visited Dresden in February, 1986. They’d re-built the Zwinger and a few other of the baroque jewels of the city. Whatever other sins must be taxed to the commies of East Germany, when they went to re-build a place like Dresden they did it right. The Hofkirche was still, if memory serves, a shell, and several of the other major landmarks were likewise as they’d been left in 1945. The Frauenkirche was still a pile of rubble with a couple of chunks of blackened wall protruding.

I next went there in 2011, by which time the Hofkirche, the Semperoper, the Schloß, and the Kreuzkirche had been re-built, the latter only to a limited extent. What I’d really gone to see, however, was the Frauenkirche, re-built from 1993 to 2005, in painstaking exactitude, and with something like 35-40% original stones. I’d not realized it when I first saw it in 1986, but it was the largest dome structure north of the Alps, and exceeded anywhere only by very few buildings (such as St. Peter’s in Rome).

So what to make of the attack today? Was it “unnecessary” in either a tactical or strategic sense? Was it a “war crime”? The first question is much the easier to answer. It did close to nothing at all to hasten the war’s end or alter the circumstances of its ending, or to facilitate any other significant military operation, or to avoid any knowable casualties to the Allies. If Bomber Command and the USAAF had dropped their payloads into the North Sea and flown home they would have done precisely as much good for the Allied war effort. If it was meant to impress Joe Stalin it couldn’t have fallen more flat. This was, after all, a man who slaughtered his own people by the million, and who had observed what the Germans themselves had done to his country on their advance and on their retreat.

The second question is one which I confess I can’t answer. You’ve got so many imponderables to factor in, from the civilians who shouted and rejoiced and voted the Nazis into power, who managed not to notice as their Jewish neighbors disappeared, family by family (except when several thousand at once were rounded up and marched through downtown to the train station), who congratulated each other as their soldiers marched across a continent, one harmless nation at a time. On the other hand it’s hard to tar the children with that brush. You’ve got the feedback loop of total war, where every blow is its own purpose, its own justification; it’s no easier to explain than why climb a mountain. You are enemy; your homes are enemy; your churches are enemy; your fields and forests are enemy; your land itself is enemy. Whether I can put a number to it or not, all that harms you — however it harms you — is by definition part and parcel of my objective.

Maybe the best way to frame the questions to oneself, all in a lump, is to ask whether, knowing then what we know now, one would be willing to accept a bomb-for-bomb repetition of the attack, under the circumstances that existed and with the government in power that Germany had then.  Remember that cultural recollections of events like Dresden is a large part of why Germany so thoroughly abandoned the militarism and aggressive nationalism that had characterized it since Friedrich Wilhelm proclaimed himself King of Prusssia in the early 18th Century.  And this is where contemplation gets uncomfortable for me. As much as thinking about the city’s destruction, and all the dead civilians, and the horror of their deaths, and the wanton destruction of beauty can move me to tears (and it can, literally), if the price of destroying Nazi Germany, or any of its analogues of today, or even inducing another would-be conqueror to think twice, is the annihilation of a Dresden, then I have to confess to myself that I would more likely than not give the launch order. All over again.

Maybe that’s why we need to remember what happened in the skies over Dresden, 70 years ago today. It reminds us what we are capable of doing to each other, and why, and those are truths that are never reassuring to confront.  We can “promise” ourselves “never again,” but that’s not really a promise, is it?  It’s more in the nature of a hope, a prayer, the pronouncement of a totemic name — actually it’s a paraphrastic — by the speaking of which that primitive part of our brains which seems to run an awful lot of how we behave to each other somehow expects to exorcise the demon.  To borrow a line from Lincoln, fondly to we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war will never again visit us.

Realizing that hope, that prayer, must start within each of us.  Therefore we remember Dresden.

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