We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Dresden as a target

TAMI BIDDLE: I think what happens is they see a line where the Eastern Front battle is taking place. The Red Army is here, the Wehrmacht is here and there’s this line of cities in-between. Refugees are pouring into those cities because they’re moving out of the way of the fight as it moves across Europe. This is causing great administrative headaches for the Germans; if they’re having to take care of lots of people in places like Leipzig, Chemnitz and Dresden as well as fight a war in those areas it causes a lot of problems for them. So by attacking cities where they’ve already got administrative headaches and refugees you’re going to cause more chaos in front of the Russians, and for the Germans behind German lines. By causing chaos behind German lines, it’s going to make it harder for them to move reinforcements and resources up to the Front efficiently and it will allow the Red Army to move more swiftly.

I think that’s sort of where you end up in January when you see a new bombing directive that says oil is still first but the second priority is cities where attacks will cause great administrative chaos for the Germans in their fight with the Russians on the Eastern Front - and those cities include Magdeburg, Dresden, Leipzig, Chemnitz and also Berlin in February of 1945 which are attacked in very brutal ways. The city attack that the Americans carry out on Berlin on the 3rd of February is a huge raid and it is very big and brutal. It’s a centre of the city raid and the Americans were a little bit uneasy about this.

In the Fall something called Thundercloud was first discussed, which was the great attack on the city of Berlin at a key moment when the Third Reich might be close to the edge, maybe close to collapse.  They thought maybe we’ll go in and do a really big raid on Berlin if the moment arrives, and that just might kind of push everything into a surrender, and it might actually create a more organised, cohesive surrender than would be the case if it were fought out, fought out, fought out, which then might end up with pockets of guerrilla activity. People were thinking about war termination at that point and they were thinking about how is this war going to end. Well, maybe if we have one really heavy raid on Berlin it’ll just cause everything to end and that’ll be that.

So this is discussed in the Fall of 1944 and General Spaatz who’s looking at this says that if we have to do this it is not really going to be in line with the kind of bombardment that we’ve been doing in the war when we’ve been trying to do our precision bombing of industrial targets. And he was not entirely comfortable with it. And he goes back to Eisenhower and he says that he’s not really happy with this and Eisenhower said, you know what, you have to be ready to go forward with anything that has any hope of ending this war as quickly as possible, full stop. Well, he was the superior officer and so obviously Spaatz saluted, but before this Berlin raid in February 1945, Doolittle, who was the commander of the 8th Airforce at that point, went back to Spaatz and said, is the centre of the city really our target? I’m not entirely comfortable with that. You know, we always target marshalling yards, I know there is a lot of collateral damage and so on and so forth, but at least we’re specifying that we’re going to a particular target. Here you’re telling me to go to the centre of the city? And Spaatz said yes, I’m telling you to go to the centre of the city. This is a big raid.

As it turned out the weather was fairly decent that day and I think Doolittle tried as hard as he could, because of all the Americans Doolittle was probably the most sensitive about these morality issues. He tried to keep it contained but it was difficult because the airforces were so huge at that point.  My dad was fighting as an infantryman in Europe at this point and he’d say in 1945 we watched bombers fly over our heads for 40-45 minutes, this huge armada of airplanes flying to targets. And so when they got there they would unload the massive stuff of the Anglo-American war effort up to that point in time, which was then immense. Because the Luftwaffe was denuded very badly by this point and because the Germans had been fighting on the Eastern Front so long there really wasn’t much left to defend German cities, and so they were being devastated.

There is this fraught moment in the aftermath of the Battle of The Bulge when everyone is thinking, by God, we’d better get this thing over with or we’ll be fighting into the summer of 1945, into the Fall, God knows, maybe into 1946 if we don’t find some way to end this thing. And for the Americans that’s very troubling because they’ve still got the war in Japan to fight. The Brits are just war weary and everybody’s thinking, you know, how many more Western Union telegrams can go out in America or how many more people can be told that their loved ones are now missing or killed in action? And so I think you have to understand Dresden and understand how you can get these people who in 1939 were saying let’s not bomb civilians at all; how do you get them in the space of five years to the point where they’re specifically going after cities that are full of refugees. How does that happen?

That is a brilliant example of how warfare takes its own trajectory and how once you open the Pandora’s Box, God knows what will fly out. And when you get the downward spiral pulling itself into the depths, then by 1945 it is all out total brutal war where things that ought to raise red flags like a city being full of - all that’s left - are old people and women and children.  And you’re going to attack it?  So as to cause “administrative disruption” for the Wehrmacht? How can you use that kind of language and be so inured to it?  But I think that at a point, whether it’s fear, or the brutalizing effect of 5 years of war, you just don’t hear words and language the way you did before the war started. You’re in a completely different place, you’re in a moment in time that that can’t be replicated or very well understood by people who are reflecting back on it 50 or 60 years later because it’s so different and the calculus is so completely beyond our ken. I think in so many ways when veterans come home from wars and don’t talk about it I think it’s because they can’t figure out how to convey the language. How would you talk about what a battlefield looks like to someone who has never been on a 20th Century battlefield; there’s no language. And I think at some level we’re trying to walk into a world where we almost don’t even have a language to convey how horrific it was.