Dresden, Germany February 13, 1945

On this night in 1945, Fat (or Shrove) Tuesday, and over the next day, Ash Wednesday, some 1,300 Brit­ish and Amer­i­can bombers appeared over largely un­touched Dres­den in East­ern Ger­many. A city of 642,000 (1939) swelled by 300,000 ref­u­gees fleeing from fighting on the East­ern Front, Dres­den, 120 miles south of Berlin, was the ancient capital of the German state of Saxony and the Third Reich’s seventh largest city. In three suc­ces­sive waves the bombers delivered a mas­sive on­slaught of almost 4,000 tons of ord­nance—high explo­sives followed by incen­di­aries—on the city long known as the “Florence of the Elbe” on account of its churches, concert halls, beautiful palaces, and public gardens.

The Dresden raid had originally been intended to tar­get sub­urban in­dus­tries, rail­road classi­fi­cation (or marshaling) yards, and bridges over which more than 20 German troop trains passed to and from the East­ern Front nearly every day in early Febru­ary. In­stead the bombs fell on the cen­turies-old baroque city center. Fires started by the first wave of Brit­ish bombers were aug­mented by incen­di­aries dropped by the second. The flames quickly com­bined to form a raging ter­ror storm that con­sumed more than 12 square miles, set the Elbe River on fire, and burned, blew apart, or as­phyx­i­ated roughly 25,000 people as they huddled in base­ments and bomb shelters. Shortly after noon on Febru­ary 14, heavy bombers of the U.S. Eighth Air Force, which had set up shop in Britain in 1942, swept in, targeting Dresden’s rail yards and western neighbor­hoods and suburbs. About 380,000 people were made home­less in the three Allied air raids, while roughly 78,000 buildings were destroyed and tens of thousands more damaged.

Six years before, on September 25, 1939, the German Luftwaffe had intro­duced the con­cept of fire­bombing major pop­u­la­tion centers by dropping incen­diary and high-explo­sive bombs on the Polish capi­tal, Warsaw. (See photo essay below.) Less than a year later, on May 14, 1940, the Luft­waffe bombed the Dutch city of Rotter­dam, igniting a fire­storm that killed nearly 900 civil­ians and left 30,000 home­less. The Luft­waffe carried out fire­bombing raids on an ever-larger scale with night­time attacks on the British capital, London, and other British cities in 1940–1941 (Blitz).

On July 24, 1943, a British bomber fleet over the North German city of Hamburg upped the ante when it dropped high-explo­sive bombs, followed by incen­di­aries, for a total of five times the ord­nance of any Ger­man raid on London. The fire­storm in the third wave of Oper­a­tion Gomorrah killed 45,000 Ham­burg resi­dents and refugees. Out of a pop­u­lace of one million, 800,000 were rendered home­less when 12 square miles of the city were com­pletely leveled, causing an enor­mous humani­tarian crisis. A German offi­cial described Hamburg as “beyond all human recog­ni­tion.” The Japa­nese capi­tal, Tokyo, was the worst-ravaged city of any fire­bombing when on March 9–10, 1945, 90,000 civil­ians were killed and 40,000 more swept up as the con­fla­gra­tion spread. How­ever, the Dresden bombing, coming in the last three months of the war, emerged as one of the most controversial episodes of World War II.

I found Patrick Bishop’s superbly written Bomber Boys: Fighting Back, 1940–1945 to be a riveting and sensitive account of the brave men in Britain’s Royal Air Force Bomber Com­mand and the risks they took (often ending in their injury or death) to help end World War II in Europe. Bishop describes the major RAF air cam­paigns against Nazi Germany, often at great length (Cologne, Ham­burg, Dresden among the most lurid), both from the per­spective of the air­men (nearly a half million) and from the millions who were their victims. The tragic toll of dead and wounded com­batants and civilians (including resi­dents of Great Britain) from aerial bombard­ments boggled my mind, especially as I learned that by the end of 1943 the notion of propor­tionality with respect to civilian casual­ties (a grizzly quid pro quo) had dis­appeared and grew ever stronger in the Allies’ favor. Bishop points out that the air­men of the RAF, almost to a man, were con­vinced of the correct­ness of their war­time mission, as it was explained to them, to hasten Ger­many’s surrender. Of course it took boots on the ground from June 1944 onwards to move that into high gear, but punching holes in the roof of Adolf Hitler’s Thou­sand Year Reich and laying waste to manu­fac­turing and popu­lation centers inside its walls were stra­tegic com­ponents in defeating the enemy in May 1945. Sadly for the “bomber boys” their war­time contri­bution faded from national memory. This fine book aims to reverse that.—Norm Haskett

Inflicting Material Destruction from the Air: German and Allied Examples

Warsaw following Luftwaffe raids, 1939Rotterdam’s destroyed city center, 1940

Left: On September 10, 1939 (“Bloody Sunday”), the Luft­waffe launched 17 air raids on Warsaw, Poland’s capital. On Septem­ber 25, “Black Monday,” 1,200 sorties dropped 500 tons of bombs that gener­ated raging fires, as the city’s water mains had been badly damaged. Smoke from the infer­no rose 10,000 ft into the air and was visible 70 miles away. Never was such a vio­lent com­bi­na­tion of aerial and artil­lery bom­bard­ment inflicted on a Euro­pean city in the space of a month. By Octo­ber Warsaw, whose origi­nal 3 mil­lion resi­dents were reduced by 50–60,000 deaths, resembled a city of the dead.
Right: On May 14, 1940, German bombers razed Rotterdam’s medie­val city center to the ground in less than an hour, killing nearly 900 inhab­i­­tants, destroying 25,000 homes, 24 churches, and 62 schools. Roughly 80,000 resi­dents were rendered home­less not only by the after­noon’s bombing but also by the fires that raged after the bom­bard­ment, ravaging the city for weeks. Photo was taken after the removal of the debris.

London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, December 29, 1940Dresden firebombing: Dresden’s city center in mid-February 1945

Left: The Great Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, undamaged, ringed by clouds of smoke rising from the burning city of London. John Topham’s iconic photo­graph was taken on Decem­ber 29, 1940, the 114th night of the London Blitz. The Luft­waffe dropped more than 24,000 high-explo­sive bombs and 100,000 incen­diary bombs on the British capital that day and the next. For 57 con­sec­u­tive nights heavy German raids damaged or destroyed more than a million buildings. About 20,000 Londoners died in the raids.

Right: The ruins of Dresden’s city center (“Altstadt”). Despite being home to 127 medium-to-large fac­tories and work­shops that sup­plied the German Army with matériel (per the German Wea­pons Office), such as air­craft engines, machine tools, small arms, optical instru­ments, and poison gas, and employed 50,000 workers, Dres­den was woe­fully unpre­pared for a major aerial attack. Some 1,249 British and Amer­i­can bombers un­loaded more than 3,900 tons of incen­di­ary and high-explo­sive bombs on the center of the city, causing a fire­storm that incin­er­ated 15 square miles and between 22,700 and 25,000 peo­ple. Temper­a­tures inside Dresden’s famous cathedral, the 18th-century Frauen­kirche (Church of Our Lady), reached an estimated 1,832°F (1,000°C) before the 300‑ft‑tall church collapsed. Later the U.S. Eighth Air Force dropped 2,800 more tons of bombs on Dresden in three other attacks before the war’s end.

Tokyo in August or September 1945Victims of March 1945 Tokyo air raid

Above: Tokyo after the March 9–10, 1945, firebombing by 334 U.S. B‑29 Super­for­tresses stationed in the Marianas. The Dante-esque raid, known as Operation Meeting­house (“Meeting­house” being a code term for the urban area of the Japa­nese capital), proved the single-most destruc­tive bombing raid in history: 267,000 mostly wooden buildings in a 16‑square-mile area were devoured by raging fires and an esti­mated 100,000 killed—the highest loss of life of any aerial bom­bard­ment of the war. The Super­forts’ pri­mary wea­pon was the finned 500‑pound E‑46 “aim­able cluster” bomb, typically 40 bombs to a plane. Each bomb con­tained 47 small napalm- (jelled gasoline-) filled bomb­lets, called M‑69s (nick­named “Tokyo Calling Cards”). The M‑69s were packed inside the E‑46 mother bomb, which was designed to open and scatter its lethal contents at 2,000 or 2,500 ft above ground. Upon colliding with an object, the M‑69 timing fuse burned for 3–5 seconds and then a white phos­phorus charge ignited and propelled the incen­diary up to 100 ft in several flaming sticky globs, instantly starting multiple intense fires. Other weapons in the March raid were the E‑28 incen­diary cluster bomb and the M‑47 petroleum-based bomb.

Dresden Firebombing: “Florence of the Elbe” Bombed and Rebuilt