When infernal visions of hell rained from the night sky

Firestorm - Among the Dead Cities
June 23, 2006

The Allies' 'terror bombing' of civilian targets in the Second World War could be seen as war crimes. Brendan Simms examines the evidence

In early 1945, after five years of war, Dresden, a city of some 600,000 inhabitants, remained largely intact. As the medieval glories of Cologne, Lubeck and Nuremberg and the baroque splendour of Darmstadt and Mainz collapsed in ruin, some dared to believe that Dresden, the "Florence of the Elbe", might just get away with it. Then, during the night of February 13-14, two waves of Royal Air Force bombers pulverised the city in a calculated act of mass destruction and state-sponsored terror. More than 2,500 tons of high explosives, incendiaries and other lethal ordnance were dropped on the city from nearly 800 aircraft. Dresden's priceless cultural treasures, including the Frauenkirche, the Zwinger and the Semper Oper, were flattened.

Three years ago, the Centre for Second World War Studies, Edinburgh, hosted a conference on the bombing of Dresden. The resultant compilation, Firestorm, edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang, provides an authoritative, stimulating and compact guide to the often-disputed facts.

Contrary to popular belief, the death toll did not run into the hundreds of thousands, but it was still not less than a staggering 25,000 people, the vast majority civilians. As Soenke Neitzel shows in his chapter, the figure was increased by wholly inadequate air-raid preparations in a city that the authorities believed to be too economically insignificant to warrant a massive air raid. There were very few anti-aircraft guns, and the Luftwaffe fighter cover was pitiful. Cologne and Essen, which were much better protected, survived similar poundings with far fewer casualties.

As Sebastian Cox, himself a qualified defender of the operation, shows, the attack was planned in meticulous detail. A "master bomber" was assigned to co-ordinate the various phases of the assault, in which showers of incendiaries alternated with high explosives to fan the flames and disrupt the rescue services. Very soon, however, smoke obscured whatever minimal visibility was permitted by the night sky, and all attempts to mark targets visually were abandoned; the bombs were dropped "blind".

Several authors cite graphic accounts of the impact on the ground, which quickly resembled an inferno. The Daily Telegraph described a similar raid - on Hamburg in 1943 - thus: "The terrific heat (of the fires started by the bombing) causes a vacuum of air in the bombed districts and air rushes from other parts of the town. In this way regular tornadoes arise. They are so strong that people were thrown flat on the ground, and the fire brigades cannot get to the blitzed area with their equipment. These violent currents of air help to spread the fire to surrounding districts... A number of people there died through lack of oxygen caused by the terrible heat... it was found on opening some (air raid shelters) that though (the shelters) were undamaged, many people had died from suffocation."

It is no surprise that "terror bombing", a term that has since been appropriated by the extreme German Right, was a contemporary phrase in use by Allied reporters and even by RAF spokesmen.

Dresden proved to be a turning point. Churchill, hitherto an ardent supporter, turned against the whole concept of area bombing. Now he argued that "the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing". What was needed, he continued, was "more precise concentration on military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction, however impressive". The head of Bomber Command, and the architect of the air campaign over the Reich, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, was unrepentant. "The feeling over Dresden," he opined, "could easily be explained by any psychiatrist." It was all to do, he suggested, "with German brass bands and Dresden (china) shepherdesses".

In some ways, Harris's irritation was understandable. Dresden was no aberration, but the culmination of Bomber Command's systematic campaign to kill, maim or demoralise civilians and thereby to paralyse both the German war economy and domestic morale.

The outlines of this strategy are well known, and the moral issues it raises have been aired before, but in Among the Dead Cities the philosopher and "public intellectual" A. C. Grayling subjects the whole policy to another searching ethical, intellectual and strategic audit. He argues that the strategy was unjustified, disproportionate and militarily inefficient into the bargain and concludes that, in today's world, Harris and probably Churchill himself would have found themselves arraigned before the International Criminal Court.

If this sounds anachronistic, it should be stressed that most of Grayling's argument is couched in historical terms. After all, before 1939 British statesmen had repeatedly condemned the use of airpower for anything other than strictly military purposes. The leaders of the young RAF angrily rejected any suggestion that they were in the business of killing civilians, or at least European civilians; small-scale bombing of recalcitrant villagers formed an effective staple of colonial policing in the 1920s and 1930s. In the early stages of the Second World War, even at the height of the invasion scare in 1940, Bomber Command was given clear instructions to target German war-making capacity rather than civilians.

The move to indiscriminate area bombing by night in early 1942 thus marked a radical new departure. In part, it was driven by necessity. There was no other way of bringing the war home to the German population; existing technology rendered accurate bombing fictional anyway; and the strength of fighter and anti-aircraft defences made flying by day extremely hazardous.

As it was, Bomber Command continued to suffer terrible casualties throughout the war - nearly 55,000 fatalities, or about one sixth of the British military total for the whole war.

Crucially, the growing strength of Bomber Command in 1943-44, and the development of more accurate bomb-sights, did not lead Harris to revise his strategy. He resisted all demands from critics within the Allied high command to abandon area bombing. There was some attempt to justify specific raids in terms of key industries, but this was largely euphemism. The language of strategy and propaganda in Bomber Command was quite clearly that of mass and indiscriminate destruction. Thus Harris called for "the maximum force of bombers on a single and extremely important town in Germany, with a view to wiping it out in one night".

Later on, after Dresden, the press were told that allied strategy was one of "deliberate terror bombing of German population centres as a ruthless expedient of hastening Hitler's doom".

None of this, of course, remotely puts Bomber Command on a par with the perpetrators of Auschwitz, as wilder critics suggest. Donald Bloxham firmly states in his excellent chapter of Firestorm that the bombing campaign may have been a war crime, but it was not genocide. It was aimed at breaking the will of the civilian population, not at its complete physical extermination.

The heroes of the air war over Germany were the Americans of the USAAF. They were firm believers in the value of "precision bombing" of targets of clear strategic value, such as communication nodes, oil refineries and munitions factories. This was a highly hazardous business: to improve accuracy, the raids had to be conducted by daylight against fierce opposition. More time over the target was needed than for area bombing. At times, it verged on the suicidal, such as at Schweinfurt in August and October 1943, when more than 100 US bombers were massacred by German fighters and anti-aircraft fire. But the damage inflicted on the German war economy, though far from decisive, was impressive. Moreover, by drawing out the Luftwaffe into open combat, the American long-range fighter escorts eventually established complete Allied air superiority over the Reich. By the end, their adversaries were almost completely bereft of aviation fuel, which had been bombed at source or en route. All in all, the USAAF contributed far more to the diversion of German resources, the decimation of German aircraft and the disruption of the German war economy, and thus to the defeat of Hitler, than "Bomber" Harris.

In the Pacific it was different. Here the Americans came within striking distance of Japan itself only in the final months of the war and embarked on an RAF-style battering of civilian targets. Much of Tokyo was obliterated by incendiaries in the spring and summer of 1945. And, of course, the dropping of the atom bomb on the civilian population of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was simply the policy of "terror bombing" carried to its logical extreme. Now it was the turn of the American commanders to be puzzled by the outcry: as the USAAF general Curtis Le May pointed out, he had boiled or burned as many civilians in the Tokyo raids as the atom bomb had in Hiroshima.

All this goes to show that passion and aerial warfare do not mix, and that bad strategy will drive out good.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945

Editor - Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang
Publisher - Pimlico
Pages - 260
Price - £8.99
ISBN - 1 84413 928 X

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