The Firebombing of Dresden: The Terrible Destruction and Its Aftermath

Dresden was not the first, or the last city to burn during World War II, but it would be one of the most controversial. 

By early 1945, there were whispers on the wind that World War II would soon be finished. German forces were exhausted but still defiant, and the Red Army was gaining major ground in Germany.

Fear of the Allies’ brutal bombing campaigns was heavy on the minds of German citizens, but in Dresden, they thought they were safe. After all, Dresden was a cultural hub of historic importance. It housed artists and refugees, not soldiers. 

But by then, with the deaths of millions on the books, none of that mattered. 

The bombing of Dresden would obliterate a city that held little military significance, killing tens of thousands in the process. While some would be outraged by this slaughter of civilians, others would argue that burning Dresden to the ground was a necessary evil in the long game of ending the war. 

So was the bombing of Dresden crucial to shortening World War II, or was it simply the unneeded incineration of civilians? 

Timeline of the Bombing of Dresden 

  • 1944-1945: Allied bombing of strategic military sites increases as World War II begins to come to a close.
  • January 1945: Nazi forces are bombarded by Allied forces all throughout Germany, causing Nazi forces to run thin.
  • February 1945: Stalin’s Red Army makes significant progress on the Eastern Front, ramping tensions in Germany to a fever pitch. Dresden, Germany’s seventh-largest city, had remained mostly unaffected by the war. Considered a cultural and architectural landmark, Dresden had more recently become the home of many wartime industries, increasing its profile for attack. 
  • February 13, 1945: Allied forces are set to begin the bombing of Dresden. The USAAF was tasked with the first round, but weather forced a delay. The RAF instead completed the first round, dropping explosives and incendiaries on the unprepared city.
    • 10 pm: Air raid sirens are heard briefly before the bombs begin to drop. Residents and refugees take shelter. 
  • February 14, 1945: The attack continues into the early morning, causing enormous fires that morph into firestorms. Buildings are destroyed, and the fires deprive the city of oxygen.
    • 1:20 am: The second round of planes arrive, twice the size of the first round. 
    • 12 pm: The USAAF finally arrives. Dresden is so covered in flames and smoke that the Americans struggle to find their targets.
  • February 15, 1945: The fourth and final wave of bombings commence, striking the outskirts of the city as well as residential areas. Casualties are estimated at around 25,000. 

Prelude to Destruction: Why Was Dresden a Target? 

At first glance, Dresden didn’t appear to be an attractive target for an air raid. It was a large city but was full of civilians and refugees, not soldiers. 

On closer examination, though, it becomes clear that Dresden was actually the perfect target. It was a significant rail center, and a number of industries had cropped up in the city during the war. 

These factories were used as proof of Dresden’s suitability as a bombing target. A few examples of this were:

  • Chemische Fabrik Goye and Company, a poison gas company
  • Lehman, an anti-aircraft gun factory 
  • Zeiss Ikon, an optical goods factory

The destruction of Dresden’s deep cultural value to the Germans and its irreplaceable architecture might not thin out the troops that the Allies would have to face, but it would shake the German population’s morale to its core. 

The hope was that by bombing Dresden, travel would be disrupted by the destroyed rail lines and the destruction of the city center.

Since there were already a number of refugees in the city, the displacement of people would be massive, adding to the chaos in the aftermath of the event. All of this was meant to destabilize Germany and force resources to be funneled to Dresden instead of the front lines. 

To summarize, Dresden became a target to accomplish 3 main goals: 

  • Damage morale 
  • Disrupt travel
  • Destroy industrial sites of military importance 

Night of Fire: The Bombing of Dresden 

It was well past dark on February 13, 1945, when the air raid sirens began to sound. 

Above the city, the first of four waves of bombers would appear on the horizon. The Royal Air Force was flying 240 Lancaster heavy bombers, all loaded with thousands of tons of bombs.

Across the rest of Germany, smaller air raids were being carried out–deadly distractions that had the German air forces occupied. This left Dresden nearly defenseless against the RAF, and they were able to make it to the city without any challenge from Axis airfighters.

As the residents of Dresden rushed to seek shelter, the bomb hatches began to open. During these first two waves, the Royal Air Force would drop 2,700 tons of bombs on a beautiful city known as “Florence on the Elbe”. 

The bombs were a devastating blend of explosives and incendiaries. The incendiaries lit the city ablaze, the windy conditions of the evening spreading the fire with ease. 

In no time, the fires changed.

Instead of structure fires, the individual blazes began to coalesce, forming a massive wall of fire being whipped into a frenzy by the wind. These fires swiftly became what’s known as a firestorm, a phenomenon that usually occurs with out-of-control wildfires. A firestorm creates its own winds, drawing in air which feeds the fire in a deadly cycle. 

Dresden’s firestorm did more than just turn the city to ashes. It was so enormous that it sucked the oxygen out of the city, causing a massive amount of death due to suffocation.

Two hours passed, and the second group of RAF Lancaster’s appeared. This squad was twice as large as the first with 550 planes, but just like the first, they showed no mercy. More incendiaries, and more explosives, hit the city. The firestorm reached unimaginable levels. 

Historian Donald Miller is quoted, “People’s shoes melted into the hot asphalt of the streets, and the fire moved so swiftly that many were reduced to atoms before they had time to remove their shoes. The fire melted iron and steel, turned stone into powder, and caused trees to explode from the heat of their own resin. People running from the fire could feel its heat through their backs, burning their lungs.”

February 13 dragged into 14–Valentine’s Day, to us in the United States. Coincidentally, that was the day the United States Air Force arrived, carrying 400 tons of bombs.

The city was so obscured by the smoke from the firestorm, which hung in the air like a terrible veil, that B-17 Flying Fortresses struggled to see Dresden at all. Because of this, a staggering number of residential neighborhoods were struck by the Air Force when they meant to hit oil refineries. 

Finally, the last wave of the bombing of Dresden came on February 15. Dresden wasn’t even the intended target, but when weather made it impossible for the USAAF to carry out a nearby mission, they pivoted and delivered their payload to the already decimated city of Dresden. 

After three days of hell, the bombings were finally over, but Dresden would continue to burn for weeks.

The Aftermath 

When it was all done, the death toll from the bombing of Dresden was around 25,000. 

The city was destroyed almost completely, with only ruins remaining, as the survivors set about the grisly task of collecting the dead. There were so many corpses that it was impossible to bury them one by one, so mass graves and cremation pyres were implemented. 

Surprisingly, it was easy to identify most of the dead. This was because of one horrifying statistic–70% of those killed in the bombing of Dresden died due to suffocation when the firestorm sucked the oxygen from the city. Many of these victims died without fire ever touching them and were simply overwhelmed by CO2 poisoning. 

Since there were many POWs in Dresden, they were also set to work cleaning up bodies. Kurt Vonnegut, the famous author of “Slaughterhouse-Five”, would tell Rolling Stone interviewer, Douglas Brinkley, “…there were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in troops with flamethrowers. All these civilians’ remains were burned to ashes.””

While the citizens of Dresden cleaned up their dead and the ruin of their city, major controversies over the bombing erupted throughout the world.

Most of those who died were women, children, and seniors, and this, combined with the destruction of so many important landmarks, made the bombing of Dresden one of the most controversial air attacks during World War II.

The goals of complicating transportation and lowering German morale had been accomplished, and there was a strong argument for Dresden’s bombing being a crucial, justified action. 

After the war was finished, efforts began to rebuild the city. It was slow going, and while the baroque charm of Dresden was gone forever, the city eventually rose from the ashes.

Important landmarks like the Frauenkirche (a Luthern church) and the Semperoper (an opera house) were able to be reconstructed, while residential areas were rebuilt from the ground up with new buildings in mind. 

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