The RAF’s saturation bombing of Dresden kills tens of thousands
13 February 1945
On the night of 13 February 1945, as Nazi Germany was collapsing during the last weeks of the Second World War, three hundred Lancaster heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force set off on the first of four air strikes, involving a total of 796 Lancasters and 311 American B-17 flying fortresses. Over the next twenty four hours, all the bombers had just one target, the German city of Dresden.
The planners of Britain’s Bomber Command knew that it was packed with refugees fleeing the advancing Russian armies and that it possessed little, if any, strategic importance.1 The few potential strategic assets that existed, such as the autobahn bridge to the west of the city, the railway bridge across the Elbe and the military barracks, were neither targeted nor damaged in the raid which focused on Dresden’s civilian population. The goal was simple, to incite terror by inflicting indiscriminate death and destruction.
The first wave of Lancasters dropped a mixture of high explosive and incendiary bombs over the city’s medieval old town, which was densely populated and included many timber buildings. A second wave followed three hours later so as to strike once the German rescue crews had been fully deployed. By then, the huge fires from the city could be seen by incoming aircraft from over sixty miles away and smoke from them rose to over 15,000 feet. In total, the two Lancaster raids dropped a total of 2,660 tons of bombs, including 650,000 incendiaries.2
As had occurred in previous RAF raids on Hamburg and Kassel, the initial fires quickly merged into one enormous inferno. When American B-17s attacked the following day, dropping 1,116 tons during two raids, their vision was obstructed by vast clouds of smoke and by the end of that day the Allied bombing had burned down 75,000 homes and 15 square miles of the city, while killing at least 25,000 and by some estimates up to 50,000 of the city’s inhabitants.3
Two days later an RAF officer at a news conference explained that German cities were now being bombed with the aim of ‘causing panic and destroying morale.’4 As ‘an aviation authority’ explained in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, ‘bombing from now on becomes less a matter of reducing the enemy’s future strength in the field by raids on his production centres and more a matter of bombing for the knock out.’5 Other newspapers justified the targeting of German civilians, in the words of the Gloucestershire Echo as ‘a penance for their immeasurable crimes,’ insisting that ‘they deserve all they get because they believed, as we believed, that modern warfare inevitably would produce the condition to which only now the war is reducing its victims.’6
- Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945, Allen Lane, London, 2013. pp. 394-395 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945, Pen and Sword Aviation, Barnsley, 2019, p. 663.
- ‘650,000 incendiaries on Dresden in One Raid,’ The Daily Herald, 15 February 1945, p. 1 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt op. cit., p. 663.
- Richard Overy, op. cit., p. 395 and Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt op. cit., p. 663.
- Richard Overy, op. cit., p. 395.
- Walt Whitman, ‘Bombing for the Final Knock Out,’ The Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 28 February 1945, p. 2.
- Argus, ‘Way of the War: Germany’s Wagnerian Heroics Delay the End,’ The Gloucestershire Echo, 24 February 1945, p. 3.
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