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Firestorm at Dresden remains controversial

Dresden lies in ruins after the Allied bombing raid in 1945.
Operation Thunderclap was well named, both for its terrifying effect on the German city of Dresden during the Second World War and for reverberations heard through decades since.

In raids on Feb. 14-15, 1945, about 1,200 Allied planes bombed the city of Dresden. In the first attack, about 1,350 tonnes of high-explosive bombs blew roofs off buildings, exposing timbers which were subsequently set aflame by 1,090 tonnes of incendiary bombs. More attacks followed.

The result was a firestorm reaching more than 1,500°C. The superheated air rose so quickly it created a vacuum at ground level that sucked people into the conflagration. Others died of suffocation.

More than 14,000 homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches and scores of businesses and government buildings were destroyed.

A German commission in 2008 determined up to 25,000 of Dresden’s 600,000 population were killed, but the true toll will never be known because tens of thousands of refugees were in the city, fleeing the Russian advance.

Radio broadcasts of the day said that like all German cities, “its industry is devoted almost totally to war work.” They mentioned that it was the rail connection that could be used to ship German reinforcements to the eastern front, and the city was home to marshalling yards, a harbour, chemical and munition plants, an aviation oil refinery, aircraft engine shops and naval armament works. German records subsequently showed it housed 130 factories supplying the German army.

View from the city hall (Rathaus) over Dresden in 1945.
Richard Peter
“I doubt if it will ever get up off its knees in time to do Hitler any good,” Canadian gunner Sergeant Frank Branley said after the raid. “From what I could see, everyone grouped their bombs around the targets.”

But were those military targets, or were civilians also targeted as a means of both terrorizing the enemy and taking retribution for bombing raids on London and other British cities?

Critics argue that Dresden, considered prior to the war as one of the most beautiful cities due to its architectural and art treasures, could have been spared this late in the war. It was neither an important industrial centre, nor important to German wartime production and Hitler’s territory was shrinking with attacks by Allies from the west and by the Russians from the east.

Others argue it helped shorten the war by eroding German morale, cutting off relief supplies to the eastern front, and easing the way for the approaching Soviet army.

The debate continues to this day.


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