Review

Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox

  • Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox,by Alexander McKee. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1982, 1984, with maps, photographs, index.

Reviewed by Charles Lutton

The destruction of the virtually undefended German city of Dresden by bombers of the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force, in mid-February, 1945, remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Second World War. In 1963, British historian David Irving published a pathbreaking study on this topic. Another widely-published British military historian, Alexander McKee, has produced a new account of the Dresden bombing, based in part upon an examination of official records recently declassified, as well as interviews from survivors of the attack and Allied airmen who flew in the raids.

McKee had doubts about the efficacy of area bombing when, as a soldier with the 1st Canadian Army, he witnessed the results of the Allied bombing of "friendly" French towns. Following visits to the cities of Caen and Lisieux, he wrote in his personal war diary:

"Lisieux and Caen are examples of the inflexibility of the four-motor heavy bombers: it cannot block a road without bringing down a city. I'm not surprised that our troops advancing between Caen and Lisiel=c were fired on by French civilians. No doubt many Frenchmen found it hard to be liberated by a people who seem, by their actions, to specialise in the mass murder of their friends."

McKee was an eye-witness to the final destruction of the towns of Emmerich and Arnhem. He related that, "In Emmerich I saw no building whatever intact .... This process, when the town was an Allied one, we referred to with bitter mockery as 'Liberation.' When you said that such-and-such a place had been 'liberated,' you meant that hardly one stone still stood upon another."

The bombing of urban areas which might contain targets of military importance was a policy advocated by leading British air strategists long before the outbreak of the war. McKee reviewed the writings of the air power theorists of the 1920s and 30s, observing that "retreading them now is like browsing through a British Mein Kampf. The horror to come is all there between the lines. What they are really advocating is an all-out attack on non-combatants, men, women, and children, as a deliberate policy of terror?"

After sifting through the evidence, the author refers to these proferred justifications as the "standard white-wash gambit." There was a military barracks in Dresden, but it was located on the out skirts of the "New Town," miles away from the selected target area. There were some hutted camps in the city-full of starving refugees who had fled from the advancing Red Terror in the East. The main road route passed on the west outside the city limits. The railway network led to an important junction, but this, too, passed outside the center of the "Old City," which was the focal point for the bombing attacks. No railway stations were on the British target maps, nor, apparently, were bridges, the destruction of which could have impeded German communications with the Eastern Front. And despite the claims of U.S. Air Force historians, writing in 1978, that "The Secretary of War had to be appraised of ... the Russian request for its neutralization," the author has unearthed no evidence of such a Soviet request.

What the author has discovered about the attack is that:

  • By the end of Summer, 1944, "there is evidence that the Western Allies were contemplating some terrible but swift end to the war by committing an atrocity which would terrify the enemy into instant surrender. Without doubt, the inner truth has still to be prised loose, but the thread of thought can be discerned."
  • "The bomber commanders were not really interested in any purely military or economic targets .... What they were looking for was a big built-up area which they could burn .... The attraction Dresden had for Bomber Command was that the centre of the city should burn easily and magnificentlv: as indeed it was to do."
  • At the time of the attacks on February 13-14, 1945, the inhabitants of Dresden were mostly women and children, many of whom had just arrived as refugees from the East. There were also large numbers of Allied POWs. Few German males of military age were left in the city environs. The author cites the official Bomber Command history prepared by Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble Frankland, which reveals that "the unfortunate, frozen, starving civilian refugees were the first object of the attack, before military movements "
  • Dresden was virtually undefended. Luftwaffe fighters stationed in the general vicinity were grounded for lack of fuel. With the exception of a few light guns, the anti-aircraft batteries had been dismantled for employment elsewhere. McKee quotes one British participant in the raid, who reported that "our biggest problem, quite truly, was with the chance of being hit by bombs from other Lancasters flying above us."
  • Targets of genuine military significance were not hit, and had not even been included on the official list of targets. Among the neglected military targets was the railway bridge spanning the Elbe River, the destruction of which could have halted rail traffic for months. The railway marshalling yards in Dresden were also outside the RAF target area. The important autobahn bridge to the west of the city was not attacked. Rubble from damaged buildings did interrupt the flow of traffic within the city, "but in terms of the Eastern Front communications network, road transport was virtually unimpaired."
  • In the course of the USAF daylight raids, American fighter- bombers strafed civilians: "Amongst these people who had lost everything in a single night, panic broke out. Women and children were massacred with cannon and bombs. It was mass murder." American aircraft even attacked animals in the Dresden Zoo. The USAF was still at it in late April, with Mustangs strafing Allied POWs they discovered working in fields.
  • The author concludes that, "Dresden had been bombed for political and not military reasons; but again, without effect. There was misery, but it did not affect the war." Some have suggested that the bombing of Dresden was meant to serve as a warning to Stalin of what sort of destruction the Western Powers were capable of dealing. If that was their intent, it certainly failed to accomplish the objective.

Once word leaked out that the Dresden raids were generally viewed as terrorist attacks against civilians, those most responsible for ordering the bombings tried to avoid their just share of the blame. McKee points out that:

"In both the UK and the U.S.A. a high level of sophistication was to be employed in order to excuse or justify the raids, or to blame them on someone else. It is difficult to think of any other atrocity -- and there were many in the Second World War -- which has produced such an extraordinary aftermath of unscrupulous and mendacious polemics."

Who were the men to blame for the attacks? The author reveals that:

"It was the Prime Minister himself who in effect had signed the death warrant for Dresden, which had been executed by Harris [chief of RAF Bomber Command]. And it was Churchill, too, who in the beginning had enthusiastically backed the bomber marshals in carrying out the indiscriminate area bombing policy in which they all believed. They were all in it together. Portal himself [head of the RAF, Harris of course, Trenchard [British air theorist] too, and the Prime Minister most of all. And many lesser people."

An aspect of the Dresden bombing that remains a question today is how many people died during the attacks of February 13-14, 1945. The city was crammed with uncounted refugees and many POWs in transit. when the raids took place. The exact number of casualties will never be known. McKee believed that the official figures were understated, and that 35,000 to 45,000 died, though "the figure of 35,000 for one night's massacre alone might easily be doubled to 70,000 without much fear of exaggeration, I feel."

Alexander McKee has written a compelling account of the destruction of Dresden. Although the author served with the British armed forces during the war, his attitude toward the events he describes reminds this reviewer of McKee's fellow Brit, Royal Navy Captain Russell Grenfell, who played a key role in the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, but who, after the war, wrote a classic of modern revisionism, Unconditional Hatred: German War Guilt and the Future of Europe (1953). Likewise, Dresden 1945, deserves a place in any revisionist's library.


From The Journal of Historical Review, Summer 1985 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pages 247-250.