Symbolically, Dresden ended what began in Coventry. Early 1945 was getting towards the end of World War II. The Russians had broken the German army in the east; the British and Americans were at the Rhine and now the Allies wanted to end the war quickly. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had long followed a policy of area bombing, targeting entire cities to destroy civilian morale – just as Germany had done early in the war (one devastating raid obliterated Coventry and its medieval cathedral). Hoping for a knockout blow, the RAF chose to make an example of Dresden – the magnificent, baroque ‘Florence-on-the-Elbe’, Germany’s pride and the only major German city still unscathed by bombing. Swollen with troops retreating from the eastern front and packed with refugees, Dresden contained nearly a million people instead of its usual 650,000.
The firestorm was planned; 773 Lancaster bombers alternated high explosive (to ‘open’ roofs, windows and walls) with thousands of small incendiaries and phosphorus bombs. The concentration of so many big fires among so many tall buildings super-heated the air above, drawing the flames together into an explosive fireball. On the scale of a city as big as Dresden the superheated fireball developed the up rushing power of a tornado with an air temperature so high people spontaneously combusted, or just melted. Thousands suffocated in cellars as oxygen was sucked from the atmosphere. Thousands more went insane as their skin bubbled and tore off in shreds. Wave after wave of aircraft left no respite, and the USAF fed the destruction for two more days with daylight raids by B-17 Flying Fortresses. Germany felt its soul had been seared and ripped out – as Britain had felt about Coventry. But the raid was not revenge. The destruction of Dresden was psychologically shrewd. However horrific, it shortened the war.
When was the Dresden Firestorm: February 13-14 1945
Where was the Dresden Firestorm: Dresden, Germany
What was the Dresden Firestorm death toll: Estimates of the dead differ widely, from 40,000 to 100,000. Nobody had any idea how many people were in the city at the time, and thousands of bodies simply disappeared. Even more were terribly injured.
You should know: Arguments about the morality of mounting such a raid have reverberated ever since; but Dresden wasn’t the only city of grace and culture to be annihilated, nor its people alone in the nature of their agonizing, unspeakable suffering. The moral horror of Dresden is perhaps the face of war itself. Happily,
Dresden eventually became a symbol of reconciliation in 2004 when H M the Queen presented the city with a golden cross for the spire of its rebuilt baroque masterpiece, the Frauenkirche; and ministers from both Dresden and Coventry shared the consecration service.