Can The Bombing Of Dresden Be Justified?

Beginning on 13 February 1945, the attack on Dresden reduced this beautiful city to ruins. Were the Allies justified in doing it?

Dresden ruins

YES

The facts about Dresden are stark and ugly. This was one of Germany's cultural capitals, a city renowned for its elegant architecture and regal atmosphere, yet in February 1945 the Allies dropped almost 4,000 tonnes of explosives, laying waste to the iconic cityscape and killing tens of thousands of people. It's a bombing campaign that's aroused heated controversy ever since.

Many have argued the bombing was an act of unnecessary and gratuitous violence on a civilian population, and on a city that was irrelevant to Hitler's war machine. But this just wasn't the case. Historian Frederick Taylor, author of Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945, faces the uncomfortable truths head on.

"I personally find the attack on Dresden horrific," he says. "But there is no reason to pretend that it was completely irrational on the part of the Allies. Dresden had war industries and was a major transportation hub."

In the aftermath of the bombing, the Reich tried to "spin" the story, massively inflating the numbers of the dead. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels deliberately put out misinformation about the victims of the attack, which led to even the US media calling it a "terror bombing". As Taylor damningly reveals, "much of what has been thought and said about Dresden since its destruction owes a great deal to the efforts of... Nazi propagandists."

The fact is, Dresden was NOT some innocent, idyllic city far removed from the brutality of war. According to the Nazis' own files, it had almost 130 factories supplying the German army with materials, from poison gas to anti-aircraft guns. Dresden was also of strategic importance for funnelling Nazi troops to take on the advancing forces of the Red Army.

Adolf Hitler - leader of Nazi Germany.

Adolf Hitler - leader of Nazi Germany.

In other words, Dresden - described in an official German guide as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich" - was indeed a legitimate military target.

An American POW named Colonel Harold E. Cook, who was held in Dresden at the time, reported that "I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics towards the east to meet the Russians".

Besides claiming the city was some kind of neutral civilian hub, the other popular argument against the bombing is that it was late in the war, and Hitler was on the verge of defeat anyway. But this is to apply the benefit of hindsight. At the time, the war was as vicious and desperate as ever, with the Germans having only recently pushed back against the Allies with the Ardennes offensive, also known as the Battle of the Bulge.

As a contemporary report described the Bulge, "its suddenness, its underrated force, sent the Americans reeling like a boxer who has taken a terrific punch to the solar plexus". Hitler had proven he wasn't on the verge of surrendering, and the Dresden bombing - horrible as it was - was one of the many necessary campaigns used to vanquish one of the most evil regimes ever to blight the world.

NO

It wasn't just the Nazis who thought of Dresden as an act of terror. Who else did? A certain Winston Churchill, who also wrote that the "destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing." Now that's a red flag, if ever you needed one.

Winston Churchill - Prime Minister of United Kingdom during WWII.

Winston Churchill - Prime Minister of United Kingdom during WWII.

And this was coming from the man who had previously called for "devastating, exterminating attacks" on Germany. Clearly Dresden was just an exterminating attack too far, and any accounts you might read of just what happened will make that clear.

The citizens of Dresden weren't just blown to bits. Many literally burned to death. Those who tried to escape the firestorm by jumping into the river were boiled to death. Those who huddled in air raid shelters were asphyxiated. Bodies melted in the heat. Children were reduced to ashes.

As eyewitness Lothar Metzger described it, "We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death".

This was what the Allies had done to the city known as the "Florence of the Elbe", thanks to its ravishing beauty. And for what? Historian Alexander McKee, author of Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox puts it in stark terms.

"The bomber commanders were not really interested in any purely military or economic targets, which was just as well, for they knew very little about Dresden," he says. "The RAF even lacked proper maps of the city. What they were looking for was a big built up area which they could burn, and that Dresden possessed in full measure."

Yes, pedantic arguments can be made about Dresden's technical role in the war. But really, the overwhelming, blood-soaked context is the real point here. The attack was nothing more or less than another awful episode in the tit-for-tat civilian bombings of the war. We rained down hell on Dresden for the same reasons the Nazis rained down hell on London and other British cities - to terrorise and demoralise the nation. In that, we succeeded. But the morality of doing so applies as much to the Allies as anyone else.