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Monday, May 16, 2005

Dresden: a Signal for Uncle Joe

by Jacques R Pauwels

Chapter 12 of The Myth of the Good War: America in the Second World War (James Lorimer & Company, 2002)

By the end of January 1945, the Western Allies were still recuperating from the perils of the Battle of the Bulge, and they had not yet reached, let alone crossed, the Rhine. At the same time, the Soviets were penetrating deep into Germany had reached the Oder, and found themselves within striking distance of Berlin. This situation caused some discomfort to Churchill and Roosevelt, who were about to leave for Yalta and could have no idea that at that conference Stalin would turn out to be a complaisant host. Considering the spectacular recent successes of the Red Army, they probably expected him to be cocky and difficult to deal with. In order to bring him down to earth somewhat and thus to make him more manageable at Yalta, the British and American leaders were eager to make it clear to him that in spite of recent setbacks their military prowess was not to be underestimated. The Red Army admittedly disposed of huge masses of infantry, excellent tanks, and a potent artillery. The Western Allies, however, held in their hands a military trump for which the Soviets had no equivalent, a trump that enabled the Americans and the British to strike a devastating blow even at a great distance from their own lines. That trump was their air force, the most impressive fleet of bombers the world had ever seen.

Washington and London wanted to ensure that Stalin was aware of this. In order to show him what sort of things could be achieved with a fleet of Lancasters, Liberators and Flying Fortresses, the RAF and the USAAF together decided to bomb the capital of Saxony, Dresden. This operation had been planned for February 4 1945, precisely on the day that the Yalta Conference got underway; the fireworks in Dresden would thus have offered Stalin some food for thought at a critical moment. However, as a result of inclement weather conditions the bombing raid had to be postponed until the night of February 13. <126>

On that fateful night between Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, 1945, the ancient Saxon capital and famous art city, the "German Florence", as Dresden is sometimes called, was showered with 750,000 incendiary bombs. As intended, this caused a firestorm, which totally incinerated the old town, and which has been described by the British journalist and historian Phillip Knightley as

... an artificial tornado in which air is sucked into the fire centre at an ever-increasing speed. At Dresden, winds approaching 100 miles an hour swept debris and people into a fire centre where the temperature exceeded 1,000 degrees centigrade. The flames ate everything organic, everything that would burn. People died by the thousands, cooked, incinerated, or asphyxiated. The American planes came the next day to machine-gun survivors as they strug gled to the banks ofthe Elbe.

A huge number of city inhabitants as well as refugees, of whom tens of thousands happened to be in Dresden, lost their lives, but we will probably never know with certainty how many. The figure of approximately 30,000 dead has often been mentioned, but it appears to refer to identified bodies, a small fraction of the total number of victims, which according to a secret report of the local police may have been somewhere between 200,000 and a quarter of a million. In any event, these statistics really do not matter much. It suffices to know that in Dresden a great number of people died a terrible death in a seemingly senseless slaughter. <127>

The American historian Michael S Sherry writes that from a military and strategic standpoint, Dresden with its "marginal war industries, [which] were not even targeted" was too insignificant an objective to justify such an inordinate American-British undertaking. Neither did the attack on Dresden make sense as retribution for earlier German bombing raids on cities such as Rotterdam and Coventry. For the destruction of these cities, which had been bombed terribly by the Luftwaffe in 1940, Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, and countless German cities big and small had already paid dearly in 1942, 1943, and 1944. The raid on Dresden did achieve some good, because as a result of the chaos of the bombing, a number of Jews and members of the local anti-fascist resistance, who would otherwise almost certainly have been executed, managed to escape. However, the operation had obviously not been planned for that purpose. <128>

An explanation frequently given - also to the bomber crews who were sent on the mission to Dresden - was that the Saxon capital was bombed in order to make it easier for the Red Army to advance. This too is utter nonsense. First, because the Red Army had never asked for, or had never been offered, this kind of assistance, and the Soviets had not even provided their Western allies with precise information about the direction of their troop movements. Second, because the Americans and the British felt that the Soviets were already advancing fast enough, much too fast, in fact, in the direction of Berlin. Even if Stalin had acknowledged Dresden to be in the Red Army's line of advance and had asked for British-American assistance from the air, they would undoubtedly have thought of an excuse not to provide it, or they might have provided some token assistance instead of the massive and unprecedented combined RAF-USAAF operation that the Dresden bombing turned out to be. <129>

The Soviets did in fact have something to do with Dresden. The massive bombing raid was a demonstration of British-American destructive power that was supposed to bring them down to earth after their recent military successes. The Red Army's lines were separated from the Saxon capital by a distance of less than one hundred kilometres, so that on the nocturnal horizon they could admire the shining light of the Dresden inferno, which was reportedly visible as far as three hundred kilometres away. In addition, the British and American commanders had anticipated that the Red Army was about to make further progress in the direction of the "German Florence", so that the Soviets would soon be able to ascertain in situ the magnitude of the devastation. However, contrary to those expectations, the Red Army was to enter the city only much later, namely on May 8 1945.

The Dresden bombing was not a tragic mistake; it did make sense, it did serve a purpose. Years later, a Canadian member of a bomber crew who had participated in this raid hit the nail on the head when he was questioned about the mission's goal:

What I think really happened was that the Russians were moving very rapidly and the Allies decided they would show the Russians that even though we had a tremendous army, we also had a tremendous air force, so don't get too cocky, you guys, or we'll show you what we could do to Russian cities. This was Churchill and the rest. This was a calculated atrocity, no question in my mind. <130>

The bombing of Dresden does appear to have originated at the very highest levels. In his autobiography, "Bomber Harris" claimed that the attack on Dresden had been deemed necessary "by much more important people than myself". Quite obviously, only people of Churchill's calibre would have been able to impose their will on the czar of strategic bombing. It is known that the British prime minister took a special interest in the Dresden operation and viewed it far less as a means to bring about the defeat of Germany than as a tool to intimidate Stalin.

"Churchill", writes the historian Alexander McKee, "intended to write [a] lesson on the night sky [of Dresden]" for the benefit of the Soviets. An internal Royal Air Force memorandum reflected this thinking when it frankly acknowledged that the raid purported not merely to "hit the [German] enemy [but also] to show the Russians when they arrive [in Dresden] what Bomber Command can do". As for Churchill's partners at the top of the American political and military hierarchy, they shared his objective; they too were captivated, as McKee writes, by the prospect of "intimidating the [Soviet] communists by terrorising the Nazis". <131>

Dresden was wiped off the face of the earth in order to intimidate the Soviets with a demonstration of the enormous "firepower", to use an appropriate term from the American military jargon, which allowed the RAF and USAAF bombers to unleash death and destruction hundreds of kilometres away from their bases, possibly also behind Red Army lines and in the USSR itself. The bombing of Dresden was a show of force that purported to demonstrate that in their air force the Western Allies had a weapon which the Red Army, no matter how strong and successful against the Germans, could not match, and against which it had no adequate defences.

When viewed in this light, the timing of the Dresden bombing also makes sense. If Dresden had been destroyed as originally planned on February 4, the day on which the Yalta Conference got underway, then Churchill and Roosevelt could have expected Stalin, buoyed by the successes of the Red Army and enjoying the "home game advantage" vis-a-vis his Western partners, to be sobered by the ominous writing on the wall and therefore to be a less confident and more agreeable interlocutor at the conference table. The deputy chief of air staff at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), General David M Shlatter, admitted as much when, a week before the start of the Yalta Conference and well before the bombers took off on their apocalyptic mission to Dresden, he stated:

I feel that our air forces are the blue chips with which we will approach the post-war treaty table, and that this operation [the planned bombing of Dresden and/or Berlin] will add immeasurably to their strength, or rather to the Russian knowledge of their strength. <132>

As mentioned earlier, the bombing had to be postponed because of bad weather. However, a demonstration of military potency remained psychologically useful even after the end of the conference in the Crimea. It was still expected that the Soviets would soon enter Dresden and be able to survey the damage. Afterwards, when the agreements made at Yalta would have to be put into practice, they would surely remember what they had seen and draw useful conclusions from their observations. Toward the end of the hostilities, American troops had a chance to reach Dresden before the Soviets. Churchill, who was actually eager for the British-Americans to occupy as much German territory as possible, as we will see later, urged Eisenhower not to permit this. Even at that late stage, the British prime minister apparently wanted the Soviets to witness the destruction first-hand.

The bombing of the Saxon capital, therefore, had nothing whatsoever to do with the war against Nazi Germany, a war which was virtually over at that time. It had nothing to do with the German men, women, old folks, and children of Dresden itself, nor with the countless German and Eastern European refugees who had sought shelter in, or who were passing through, that city. Dresden was simply an American-British signal for Uncle Joe, a signal that cost the lives of tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people.

During the Cold War era it was often suggested that at the end ofthe Second World War the Red Army was poised to overrun all of Europe, and that it would certainly have done so had the Americans and their British partner not prevented such a scenario. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Soviet Union had only survived the Nazi attack on its territory thanks to superhuman efforts and huge sacrifices. According to the most recent estimates, almost thirty million Soviet soldiers and civilians - approximately fifteen per cent of the pre-war population - lost their lives during the Second World War, and much of the country was totally destroyed. With their country in such condition, it would have amounted to absolute insanity for its leaders to immediately unleash a new war, a war of conquest no less, to be fought thousands of kilometres away from home base, and this against former allies whose air force alone could have done ten times as much damage to the USSR as it had done to Dresden.

Stalin was not insane. There is overwhelming evidence that the Soviet leader was keenly aware that it was already an enormous achievement for his country to have survived the Nazi aggression and to have emerged from a terrible war with an enlarged territory, as well as unprecedented influence and prestige. He understood only too well that the Red Army was no match for the combined forces ofthe British and the Americans with their powerful air weapon, and a little later with their nuclear bomb, so that it was far better not to antagonize them at all, but instead to seek their favour by being accommodating and by making concessions. The Americans themselves actually knew very well that militarily the Soviets constituted no real threat to themselves; in early 1945, their army's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) reported that the Soviet Union had overwhelming reasons to "avoid conflict with Great Britain and the United States". The proposition that in 1945 the Soviets stood ready to overrun all of Europe is nothing but a fairy tale, one of the many fables ofthe lush mythology of the Cold War era. <133>


126 Strength of the American-British air force: Parenti (1989), page 147; Irving, page 92. Date of bombing of Dresden postponed: Dahms, page 187.

127 Description of firestorm: Knightley, page 313. Refugees in Dresden: Georgi, pages 56-64. Estimates of number of victims: Irving, page 225; critical remarks in Bergander, chapter 12, and especially pages 210 ff, 218-19, 229.

128 Dresden unimportant as military target: Sherry (1987), page 260; Irving, page 231. Jews, anti-fascists escape in the chaos: Spoo, page 369-70.

129 Aid for the Red Army?: Broadfoot, page 269; McKee, pages 264-65; Irving, pages 101, 115, 229-30; Bergander, page 302; Maier, page 61.

130 Intimidating the Soviets: McCullough, page 393; Irving, pages 104, 114, 224, 249; Maddox (1992), page 264; McKee, page 105; Sherry (1987), pages 260-61. Canadian crew member quoted in Broadfoot, page 269.

131 Operations originates at highest levels: McKee, pages 46, 105, 271.

132 General Shlatter quoted in Schaffer, page 330.

133 Soviet intentions and losses: Parenti (1989), pages 146-47; Simpson (1988), pages 55-56; Loth (1994), page 14; Millar (1985), page 284; Horowitz (1965), pages 51-52, footnote 3; Leffner (1992), page 5. Americans did not expect or fear Soviet aggression: Simpson (1988), pages 55-56; Leffner (1992), pages 5-6; Williams (1962), pages 230-31; Dieterich, pages 122-24; JCS-quotation: Poole, page 12.

Bill Totten


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