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.

Targeting Dresden

TAMI BIDDLE: Bombers flew in to do illuminator marking where they would literally drop flares and illuminate the city. The Brits had Mosquito target indicators where they would fly in at very low levels, at 1000 or 500 feet, and drop bombs that would burst and create a big red spot so all the subsequent Lancasters would fly over the city and say there’s the bullseye, we’re going to drop right there. Well, the target marking for Dresden in that first flight was so tight, it just concentrated so that everybody was able to fly in and see exactly where that beacon was and drop their bombs right there. And the intensity of that fire was then huge. On a different night where the target indicator bombs get spread out over many locations you can’t figure where the real target is. I mean, they’ve got some over here, some over here and some over here, which one should I drop on? You probably don’t get a firestorm out of that because you don’t get the same kind of intensity. Or if you’ve got cloud cover and you’re trying to bomb through it, you don’t actually see what you’re bombing.

What you might do is have flying sky marking where they’d illuminate the clouds and the airplanes flying in would see that they were in the place where they should be dropping their bombs even though they couldn’t see anything below them. They’d say I know this is the right place because the clouds are illuminated around me. But this is never as accurate or as effective as taking those target indicator bombs down low and getting them right on top of one another, and that’s exactly what happened at Dresden. Dresden for Bomber Command was kind of a perfect storm - in a good sense - in that they got this very tight target indicator bombing, they had feints that worked and electronic jamming. The electronic jamming caused a lot of German fighters that were trying to track where the main force was going to follow a feint force.

There were also Mosquitoes that were targeting and dropping bombs on other areas and they were pulling German defenders off of Dresden so it wasn’t until very late that Dresden was a dual raid, one raid was at about ten at night and another raid was at one in the morning. In neither case did the Germans really understand that Dresden was the target of that main force because the feints were working. There were ‘window’ screens that were in operation and it was the full sophisticated array of tools that Bomber Command had come to develop by 1945, all in operation simultaneously, and all operating pretty damn effectively on that night. So the German defending forces were really, really spread out and therefore you get concentrated bombing.

The same night Bomber Command also went to Bohlen which was an oil facility. The cloud cover was bad and so they didn’t get nearly the same result that they got at Dresden where they were able to get this little break in the clouds and get this tremendously concentrated indicator bomb drop right on the old part of the city which drew in everybody as they could see the beacon. But again so much of this is understanding that these are big, sophisticated forces at this point in time, and so when Bomber Command goes to a city and everything goes well it’s just devastating. And they only lost literally a handful of airplanes on this raid, out of the thirteen hundred airplanes that flew over Germany that night, seven, eight maybe went down, which is a very, very low rate. Again, it’s Bomber Command operating at peak efficiency.

The Americans, who were scheduled to attack Dresden first but were delayed because of bad weather over the target, come in during the aftermath of the two Bomber Command raids and hit it a third time and then a raid takes place the next day after that on the fifteenth. It isn’t able to find it’s primary target and goes to Dresden as a secondary. So Dresden is actually hit four times in the space of three days, but it was the first raid that caused the firestorm. And then when the second, the one o’clock in the morning raid came, that raid just managed to spread the fires in all directions because it was actually fairly scattered bombing because there was so much smoke from the fires of the first raid.

The fires of the second raid weren’t very concentrated but they just caused chaos all over the city. It was a devastating raid. It could only have happened in that moment in time because Bomber Command was that sophisticated, and Germany was on its knees at that point. The other thing I think that’s critical is that before the D Day landing, before we had moved so far across Europe, bombers had to fly over occupied territory. But by this point in the war in 1945 they’re flying over friendly territory for a great deal of that distance where previously it had been enemy territory. So it was less dangerous to fly that deep into Germany, and also they could do things like keep their navigation lights on as far as, say, Luxembourg, whereas prior to that they couldn’t afford to do it as they would give themselves away. And with no navigation lights you have accidents, people crash into each other, I mean, just the number of flying accidents that occur in this air campaign is staggering. Because it’s so dangerous, it’s so hard, dangerous, and taxing on the crews, it’s amazing that they can do this night after night or day after day. I’ve told friends of mine that the only way I can explain this is that essentially 19 year old boys will do anything. You tell them try this, we’ll put them in uniform and they’ll try anything. But it’s very, very, very hard.

On the other hand, you know, for the people who are on the receiving end it’s horrific, it’s absolutely horrendous what they’re having to go through.  To read descriptions of the Hamburg raid or the Dresden raid….sometimes when I’m flying over cities, because of what I study, I look out the window and I see all the lights and I think, God, you know, all these vulnerable people down below, and these were people who in 1944-45 were victims of airplanes.