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Western Front13th February 1945

The bombing of Dresden

Why was the bombing of Dresden so controversial?
The morality of the Allied bombing campaign during the Second World War is still hotly debated. What should we feel about the decision to attack Dresden?

Video Transcript

Commentary: The historic city of Dresden in the east of Germany – known as the Florence on the Elbe. A city of culture, famous for its architecture. It wasn’t an industrial centre like the cities in the Ruhr, nor an important political centre like Berlin. So why in February 1945 did the Allies decide to try and destroy this place with a series of massive bombing raids?

Professor Tami Biddle: After this moment of very high optimism in the summer there’s a great plunge in December and January and that’s when you start to see people saying, ‘We’ve really got to end this, and we’d better use every tool we’ve got.’ So what tool is left? Well, the bombers. Let’s use the bombers to help the Russians in their attempt to break out against the Germans in their winter offensive. And, oh by the way, this might just prove to the Russians the thing we’ve been trying to prove to them all along, which is the bombers really have had an impact.

Commentary: And so the Allies resolved to attack Dresden, a city now teeming with refugees who had retreated in the face of the Soviet advance.

Professor Tami Biddle: And by 1945 it is all-out, total, brutal war. Where things that ought to raise red flags like, by the way this city is full of old people and women and children, the city is full of them. And you’re going to go and 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 they’re at a point, where it’s fear and it’s the brutalising effect of five years of war, where you just don’t hear words and you don’t hear language the way you did before the war started. 

Commentary: And it wasn’t only going to be British bombers that attacked Dresden. The Americans, who said their policy was only to use precision bombing, would also take part.

Dr Conrad Crane: There are a number of American raids when you go through it and look at the mission reports where they target the centre of cities. As the war goes on the acceptance of civilian casualties grows. You’ve got more and more bombers, you’re hitting more and more targets, you’re getting less and less precise. 

Commentary: But it was to be the British who bombed Dresden first. On the night of the 13th February 1945 more than 750 Lancaster bombers attacked the city in two waves, several hours apart. From the Allied point of view the operation was a huge success.

Words of Miles Tripp (British bomber crew): The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle. Blazing streets stretched from east to west, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame. I was completely awed by the spectacle.1

Professor Tami Biddle: The target marking for Dresden in that first flight was so tight, it just concentrated, and 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. 

Commentary: As a result of the British attacks and an American raid the next day around 35,000 people were killed in Dresden. The vast majority of them civilians.

Words of Margret Freyer (Dresden resident): From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, and shattered skulls. The static water-tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies.2

Commentary: The planes of British Bomber Command, based at airfields like this, had taken the major role in the attack on Dresden. And it was in Britain that the attack first became controversial, with journalists questioning why such a place had been bombed. On February 16th an Associated Press report, after an RAF press briefing, claimed that Dresden was evidence that the Allies had a policy of terror bombing. Churchill had supported the bombing of German cities – including Dresden. But he now wrote an extraordinary memo, contradicting what he had previously said.

Words of Winston Churchill (memo to Chiefs of Staff, 28th March 1945): It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we shall come into control of an utterly ruined land. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.3

Professor Tami Biddle: Churchill realises things very often before everybody realises them - he’s very prescient. He understands the way things are going to look when we look back on them, he’s brilliant at that. And I think he gets very nervous and he gets very uneasy. And I think he then, maybe in a childish way, starts to try to blame other people.

Commentary: Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, was outraged when he heard about Churchill’s memo, and in the end Churchill withdrew it. Many others in Bomber Command were also incensed when they heard of Churchill’s criticisms. After all, Bomber Command had suffered one of the highest casualty rates of any branch of the military. More than 55,000 bomber aircrew were killed during the war. But still the questions about the morality of the Dresden raid would not go away.

Professor Tami Biddle: I’m very uncomfortable trying to judge the people who made this decision. But I do look back and I think to myself, ‘By god, this is what war does.’ Whenever we make a decision to go to war we’d better be well-aware, and keep our eyes wide open about what kind of a Pandora’s box we’re opening, and what kind of suffering can come out of this. Even unintentionally, even at the hand of people who are convinced they’re fighting a just war, who are convinced that they’re doing the right thing, and who just short years earlier were insisting to themselves that they would not attack civilians.

Commentary: Despite the controversy surrounding the attack on Dresden, Allied bombing policy did not change. With the British, in particular, targeting German cities until the end of the war against the Nazis.


1 Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945, Bloomsbury, 2005, p. 322

2 Ibid., p. 339

3 Ibid., p. 430