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World War II
A Narrative History

"Death Descends on Dresden"
John Toland
The Last 100 Days (1966)

Dresden in the aftermath

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur T. Harris was a chunky, forceful and energetic man of fifty-three ... who headed Bomber Command, and that night his men were scheduled to launch an attack on Dresden; this was to be the first in a series of large bombing raids on the principal cities of eastern Germany, designed to deliver the final blows to German morale. Operation "Thunderclap," the code name for all the raids, was just another step in the British War Cabinet's planned campaign of area bombing -- to Harris, the best way to end the war. He was popularly known as Bomber Harris, a nickname he didn't mind at all, and a few newspapermen referred to him as "Butcher" Harris, which he ignored. It was his job, he felt, to wipe out German war production and for this to be accomplished, cities had to be destroyed and people killed, but the plan to do so was not his.
....On the morning of February 13 ... just before nine o' clock Harris ordered No. 5 Group to attack Dresden that night, to be followed closely by a second strike of a combined force from four groups. Early in the morning American Flying Fortresses would hit the city a third time.
....Because of the weather, success depended on split-second timing. The first planes to reach Dresden would be the primary markers, two squadrons of Lancaster bombers. At 10:04 PM, they would drop green parachute flares and green indicator bombs to mark out the general position of the city. A few minutes later, eight Mosquitos would follow, and guided by the green markers, would drop red indicator bombs on the sports stadium which was right next to the main target -- the railroad yards. Finally at zero hour, 10:15 PM, the main force -- with the call name "Plate Rack" -- would arrive to bomb the target outlined in red.
....Though Dresden was not an open city, it had experienced only two relatively small air raids, one on October 7, 1944, when 30 US bombers hit the railroad yards, killing 435, and again on January 16, 1945, when 133 US Liberators attacked almost the same target and killed 376. Subsequently there were several alerts, but since they all turned out to be false alarms, the feeling was prevalent that a secret agreement had been made with the Allies: if Oxford was spared, Dresden would not be attacked. After all, the city had little military value and its numerous museums, churches and other baroque buildings were recognized as a world treasure of architecture.
A rumor -- false, of course -- was abroad that leaflets had been dropped by the Allies promising that Dresden would not be bombed, since it was to be the capital of postwar Germany. All this had lulled the 630,000 permanent inhabitants to complacency ....
....This feeling of security of the citizens had spread to the hundreds of thousands of refugees from the east as well as those from Berlin and west Germany. The railroad waiting rooms were filled with these nomads and their piles of property. Public buildings were crowded with makeshift sleeping accommodations. The overflow was so great that the city's lovely Grosser Garten -- about the size of New York's Central Park -- was dotted with tents and hastily constructed shacks for about 200,000 refugees and slave laborers.
The station was jammed with the last trains from the east, but the roads from the front were still black with refugees on foot, in horse-drawn carts, cars, trucks; the city was becoming more swollen with every hour and there were now about 1,300,000 human beings in Dresden, including hundreds of American and British prisoners of war.
The city's air defense was pitiful. The fearsome-looking flak guns, showily mounted on the surrounding hills, were only papier-mache. The real guns had been commandeered for the eastern and western fronts, and only their empty concrete pads remained.
....The 1st Fighter Division, stationed at Klotzsche a few miles north of Dresden, was prepared to defend the city, but since the Germans did not know where to send their few fighters, they had to wait until a definite pattern emerged. Only after the 244 Lancasters had bypassed Leipzig and turned directly toward Dresden were the defenders able to commit themselves, and it wasn't until 9:55 PM that the 1st Fighter Division got orders to scramble its night-fighter squadron. By the time these planes were airborne, it was too late. The primary markers had already dropped their green flares.
....It was not until 10:09 PM that a Dresden radio announcer cried, "Achtung, Achtung, Achtung! An attack is coming! Go to your cellars at once!" The citizens did as they were told, but reluctantly, for most even doubted that this was a real raid. At the Old Town railroad station all lights had been extinguished. Most of the peasants from the east had never heard an alarm and were milling around in confusion, trying to find shelters ....
....Fourteen miles to the northwest, fifteen-year-old Bodo Baumann, a student in the cadet school at Meissen, watched the "Christmas trees" -- red flares -- falling while masses of bombers roared overhead, their exhausts spitting fire. He had experienced two heavy bombings in Berlin, but he had a feeling this was going to be the largest of them all. Even from Meissen, young Bodo could see great flames leap up. The windowpanes in a nearby building shook violently, and the entire horizon was crimson and violet. At first Bodo could distinguish single bombs exploding into a small cone, but in a minute there were so many explosions that everything became a reddish blur. The earth shook under Bodo and he stood transfixed. The city is doomed, he told himself, and nobody can come out alive.
....Hans Kohler, fourteen, was on duty at the Altstadt police station as assistant to a lieutenant whose job it was to dispatch some reserve fire engines and those from several nearby towns to the biggest fires. The lieutenant was supposed to wait in the police station cellar until the raid was over before driving up to the reserve engines which were parked on a hill several miles away, but the bombing was so tremendous that he knew a dozen fires must have started already. "We might be able to make it to the engines," he told Hans.
....At 10:21 PM the Master Bomber saw the Old Town engulfed in flames. He called one of the Lancasters and told him to relay the following radio message to England:
A few minutes later the great bomber formation wheeled west, dropping great quantities of metal-foil strips to jam radar. Then they ceased this "windowing" and quickly descended to 6000 feet, just under the horizon of the German radar system.
The second wave -- 529 Lancasters, more than twice the size of the first -- was already well on its way. When the crews had first learned the destination, there was general uneasiness. It was a long trip, about as far as a Lancaster could go .... Intelligence officers gave various explanations to various groups: they were attacking German Army headquarters; destroying a German arms-and-supply dump; knocking out an important industrial area; wiping out a large poison-gas plant.
On the way to the target the temperature dropped so precipitously that many planes began to ice up; others were forced to fly by manual control, their automatic pilots out of order. Heavy clouds protected the raiders until they neared Chemnitz, then the skies abruptly cleared and flak guns picked off three Lancasters. By now the primary markers for the second wave could already see blazing Dresden. The city was so illuminated that they had no trouble dumping flares across the aiming point at 1:23 AM, but by the time their Master Bomber arrived five minutes later, heavy smoke had blotted out all of east Dresden and the Old Town was a solid mass of leaping flames.
A fire storm, like that in Hamburg, had generated. This was a meteorological phenomenon caused when many fires abruptly joined to heat the air to a temperature as high as 1100 degrees Fahrenheit. The fantastic heat created a violent updraft which sucked fresh air into the center of the fire, and this suction, in turn, created a wind of tremendous velocity. The final result was a roaring inferno.
The Master Bomber realized that it was impossible to bomb with any accuracy, so he decided to concentrate on those areas not covered by Plate Rack. He radioed his main force, "Press On," to bomb left, then right, and finally directly over the section already ablaze. A few minutes later, bombs began to drop. Unlike the first attack, blockbusters were now used to spread the fires and keep the fire wardens under cover; then 650,000 incendiaries, including 4-lb. thermites, were scattered over the city, and the fire storm increased to incredible ferocity. The bombers watched in awe; never before had they seen such clear details. It was fantastic, unearthly; a shocking sight, with entire streets etched in fire.
The eighteen German night fighters from Klotzsche who had taken off too late to stop the first attack were sitting in their cockpits, eagerly waiting for word to go after the next wave of attackers .... As time passed and the bombs rained on Dresden, the fighter pilots' anxiety turned to frustration and rage. Was it sabotage? Defeatism? Why weren't they allowed to get up and at least try to defend Dresden? The base commander was just as frustrated. All radio and telephone communications were out and he had not yet been able to get permission from Central Control in Berlin to send up the fighters.
Young Bodo Baumann was in a rescue convoy just entering Dresden with 200 other students of his school when the second attack started. The trucks stopped and the boys ran for shelter. Bodo jumped behind a stone wall. Between explosion he could hear the eery [sic] road of the burning city. The ground was shaking as in an earthquake.
When the bombing stopped, the boys continued on foot toward the center of town until they came to burning buildings and falling debris. They reached a bridge crossing the Elbe to Old Town -- now an eleven-square-mile furnace. Even on Bodo's side of the river the heat was tremendous. The boys had orders to get people out of their cellars before they died of suffocation, so they held hands and moved single file to the middle of the bridge, then edged cautiously forward. Suddenly the man leading the human chain screamed -- and was sucked into the voracious flames. The boy behind him grabbed for something so he wouldn't be dragged in. The fire roared like a cannon, the wind shrieked, and the dust and smoke swirled furiously around them.
The boys stumbled back across the bridge, found a rope, and using it as a life line, again tried to cross, but the heat was too intense and they fell back a second time. Bodo saw dead firemen lying in the street, their clothes smoldering. Clouds of black smoke drove the boys to the river, where they soaked handkerchiefs and put them over their faces.
On the other side of the burning city Hans Kohler was walking back to the fire engines on the hill when he heard the sirens warn of the second raid. He found a bicycle and began pedaling to his destination. Halfway there he saw the primary flares dropping .... He heard the banshee screech of falling bombs and dived into a ditch. There was a shattering explosion 100 yards away. He looked up and saw the apple trees which had lined the road gone as if by magic. He ran across the road to an apartment house. As he was going downstairs to the cellar another bomb struck. He felt himself being picked up, flung to the floor ....
....The roar of engines was shattering as the bombers passed overhead. Then there was abrupt silence except for the crackle of flames and the crash of falling walls. Back outside in the street, Hans became aware of a distant, unearthly moan, unlike anything he had ever heard. He looked down at the Old Town; it was a solid sheet of flames ....
....[M]ost people still huddled in their cellars, not realizing that the oxygen would soon be gone. Some who had tried to escape in between raids were caught in the open by bombs; others tried to find shelter inside the round metal advertising kiosks but were literally roasted to death.
Circus Sarassini was aflame. The alarm for the first raid had come in the midst of a gala performance while clowns were riding donkeys. Now much of the audience was still trapped in the big cellars under the arena, and the famed Arab horses wearing colorful trappings were milling in terror outside the building. Not far away, in the Grosser Garten, the zoo animals were out of their damaged cages and ranged wildly around the park, but only the vultures were to escape with their lives.
The huge crowd of refugees in the Grosser Garten was just as helpless. In a desperate attempt to escape the unbearable, suffocating heat, they scrambled frantically into the large water tanks kept in reserve to help combat air-raid fires. They were saved from the flames, but drowned like rats in the deep water.
The Central Station at the edge of the Old Town had only been lightly damaged by the first raid, after which railway officials immediately began loading all the trains for evacuation, giving children priority. However, before any of these trains could move out of the station, the markers for the second raid began dropping, followed by clusters of incendiaries which smashed through the glass station roof, and the entire structure burst into flames. Rescue workers fought their way into the fiery building. Hundreds of people were slumped along the station walls as if asleep, but they had been suffocated by carbon monoxide. The children in the trains were found huddled in heaps; they too were dead. In the cellars where thousands had rushed for shelter, the floors were covered with lifeless bodies.
At 4:00 AM, crews of the US Eighth Air Force were briefed on their two major targets: Dresden and Chemnitz. The 1st Air Division was assigned Dresden: 450 Flying Fortresses would hit the marshaling yards and the Neustadt railroad station on the north side of the Elbe. The navigators were told to set course for the city of Torgau and then merely go up the Elbe River for another fifty miles: the next big city would be Dresden. The crews were in their planes by 6:40 AM, but word came for them to hold, and it wasn't until 8 o'clock that the first Fortress took off.
The bombers were joined by 288 P-51 Mustangs over the Zuyder Zee. Half of these fighters were to stay with the bombers to stave off Luftwaffe attacks while the rest went down on the deck at Dresden to strafe targets of opportunity. Bombardiers wondered, as they flew over Germany, if visual bombing would be possible. There wasn't much cloud cover above, but the undercast was almost complete. Because of these clouds the entire 298th Bombardment Group got lost and at noon was about to bomb Prague, 75 air miles to the southeast.
And so only 316 Flying Fortresses were approaching Dresden and almost half of these, the 457th Bombardment Group, were slightly off course and missed the IP....
....The Mustangs, looking for targets of opportunity, dived at the crowds fleeing along the banks of the Elbe. Youngsters recognizing their silhouette shouted "Jabos!" and scrambled for cover, but their elders kept running in the open and many were cut down by machine-gun bullets. Other Mustangs swooped down on trucks, carts and masses of refugees streaming out of town on the main highways.
....Hans Kohler and his father were ... pushing a cart filled with family belongings rescued from their gutted apartment. Hans suddenly stopped and said he really ought to stay on duty with the fire engines. His father approved.
.... At last [Hans] came to the Old Town itself. Something out of a fairy tale before, it was now a chaos of charred wreckage giving off a sickening smell. The famous opera house -- where Tannhauser had first been produced -- was only a glowing shell; the Zwinger Palace, one of the world's most beautiful examples of baroque architecture, a smoldering ruin; as were the castle and the Hofkirche. Only the Kreuzkirche, its dome shrouded in smoke, by some miracle seemed almost intact.
....He found the Lindenauplatz littered with naked corpses, their clothes burned or blown off. Near the entrance of a public toilet he saw a nude woman lying on a fur coat; a few yards away were the bodies of two young boys, also naked, clinging to each other. Near the Seidnitzerplatz several hundred people were slumped in a shallow pool -- all dead.
A woman staggered toward Hans, dragging something in a white sheet. Inside, he saw the charred remains of a man, probably a husband. As she passed, a leg and two arms fell out. She laughed. He could hear her still laughing when he ran away.
He saw others carrying loved ones, looking distractedly for a place to bury them. Finally he came to the Grosser Garten. Some of the biggest trees had been uprooted; others had burst apart or were snapped in two like matchsticks. The lawns were covered with bodies. Many looked as if they were sleeping, but all were dead. When rescuers lifted them their limbs moved around like windmills. Scattered among the people were dead animals from the zoo. A leopard was draped over the top of a small tree, suspended over two naked women. Dazed and suddenly exhausted, the boy started back toward the wreckage of his own home. Behind him lay 1600 square acres of complete devastation -- almost three times the damage done to London during the entire war.
Since there was no communication between Dresden and the outside world, details of the ghastly story did not reach Berlin until later in the day. The preliminary official report stated that at least 100,000* people and probably many more had been killed in two successive air raids and that one of the most ancient and revered cities of the Reich was utterly destroyed. At first Goebbels refused to believe the report. Then he began to weep uncontrollably ....
.... Goebbels was able to use the holocaust at Dresden to engender a feeling of moral indignation in Switzerland, Sweden and other neutral countries. But the bombings represented more than an opportunity for propaganda.  At a conference with his department chiefs on February 18 he declared emotionally that the Geneva Convention "has lost all meaning when enemy pilots can kill a hundred thousand noncombatants in two hours." Because of the Convention, the Germans could not take reprisals on enemy air crews for their "terror tactics" but if it were invalidated, he argued, they could prevent another Dresden simply by executing all British and American Air Force prisoners on the charge that they had "murdered civilians."
Most of his listeners objected, particularly Rudolf Semmler, who cautioned against the "enormous risks that we would run by such an act and of the reprisals which might fall on our own men in enemy hands." Goebbels ignored their monitions and told his press officer to find out how many Allied airmen were in German hands and how many German airmen in Allied hands. Semmler started to protest again, but Goebbel's adjutant kicked him under the table and he closed his mouth.
That evening Goebbels took the matter to the Fuhrer, who agreed in principle but decided to wait before making the final decision. Fortunately Ribbentrop and others were able to dissuade him.

* US Air Force historians estimate the dead at 25,000 to 30,000. In The Destruction of Dresden, David Irving places the number at 135,000. Irving's figure seems far more realistic. -- Tolan

The Last 100 Days is available from AMAZON
 Harris, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur
Lancaster bomber