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Dresden Civilian Firebombing

“Lest we forget”. and “Those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it.”

Once upon a time Europe, except neutral Switzerland, was embroiled in a bitter World War, known as World War II. Even though World War I had been called “The war to end all wars”, World War II became known as the deadliest War in history. An estimated total of 70–85 million people perished, which was about 3% of the 1940 world population (est. 2.3 billion).

By the time that 1945 rolled around, after 6 years of war, some people thought it was time to step up their game and use civilians to achieve their goals of ending a bloody war. The ends would justify the means. The tactic was called “area bombing” or “saturation bombing”, which meant obliterating civilian targets, such as hospitals, refugee treks and orphanages in order to ravage the German economy, break the morale of the German people and force an early surrender. In Dresden, it was known as “Operation Thunderclap”.

I will try to tell the story using words from various survivors:

Victor Gregg: “Then came the evening of the 13 February, 1945 – 68 years ago this week. I was a prisoner of war held in Dresden. At about 10.30pm that night, the air raid sirens started their mournful wailing and because this happened every night no notice was taken. The place was full up with old people. People who couldn’t be used in the war. Refugees, women and kids.”

Where was Dresden in Germany? Dresden is in East Germany, about a 2.5 hour drive south of Berlin. Dresden was the royal residence for the Kings of Saxony, who for centuries furnished the city with cultural and artistic splendor, and the city was known as the Jewel Box, because of its baroque and rococo architecture. It was also called “The Florence of the Elbe (River).”

During the war, there were 19 hospitals and more than a million East German refugees camped around the city. Germans who had escaped from the Russians and were now feeling deceptively “safe”. There were also 26,620 prisoners of war including almost 3000 from the US.

From the book “Dresden” “By 1945, the German early-warning chain along the Channel coast had long fallen into allied hands. German radar would detect the enemy bombers approaching low across the Allied lines only as they came within range inside the Reich.”

Who was responsible? Air Marshall Sir Arthur Travers Harris, 1st Baronet, who said, and I quote, “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.” For this and other reasons, he was also known as “Bomber Harris” or “Butcher Harris”.

How did the evening start? February 13th was at the beginning of Fasching, the German carnival, and people were doing their best to celebrate, even in war time. When the air raid sirens went off, people ignored them. But at 10:15 pm on Tuesday, February 13th, it got serious. It didn’t take long for 235 RAF Bombers to drop 900 highly explosive bombs within 25 minutes on a city that had no defenses.

The East German refugees were in horse-drawn wagons, mostly led by women or seniors, completely vulnerable to fire from the skies. Some had lost everything when they had to escape and run for their lives and lacked even a wagon. They were sitting in open field and gardens, with nowhere to go; nowhere to run.

But that was just the first wave.

From the book “Dresden” Air Chief Marshal Harris calculated that within three hours the fires should have gained a good grip on the centre of the city, provided that there was a strong enough ground wind and that the incendiary loads were well concentrated; three hours would give sufficient time for the fire brigades from most of the big cities of central Germany to come to the assistance of the burning Dresden and to penetrate to the heart of the Old City.

They came back again at 1:25 am, just as people were beginning to relax again and this time with 524 Lancaster Airplanes carrying 1500 tons of incendiary bombs. These were deadly and destructive, burning down a lot of the city. The second component of Harris’ double-blow tactics was about to be enforced: the annihilation not only of the passive defences of Dresden, but of a large number of rescue forces summoned from surrounding cities. (Dresden book)

Then the US sent between 311 American B-17’s to continue on Feb 14th. Altogether it was 3,300 tonnes of bombs. We were in Lenne Strasse just by the Grosser Garten,’ related one woman, evacuated with her ministry from Berlin to Dresden. ‘I and one or two others were able to save ourselves beneath some wooden benches. The fighter aircraft came right down and a woman near us suddenly screamed out, shot in the stomach. There were no cars or doctors; they came along afterwards and took her away on a hand cart. Long after she was out of sight we could still hear the woman screaming.

What were the results? Of 28,410 houses in central Dresden, 24,866 were destroyed.  15 sq km totally demolished—of which there were: 14-thousand homes, 72 schools, 22 hospitals, 19 churches, 5 theaters, 50 banks, 31 dept stores, 31 hotels, 62 administrative buildings. 

“Dresden burned, as one British prisoner of war in the city noted day by day in his diary, for seven days and eight nights.” Imagine the carnage. The first wave had already knocked out most of the fire rescue equipment. The second wave had set the entire city centre on fire. The third wave killed those who were attempting to help Dresden from other cities in Germany. And the next wave was to go after any surviving Refugees (women, children, elderly) who might have made it to a city close by called Chemnitz.

Survivor Götz Begander says “‘We heard the bombs, the sound of them exploding. Afterwards I came out to see the cigarette factory burning. It was fascinating and different somehow, but also terrible. The sky was filled with thousands of sparks in the air. Wherever they settled, there was a glow. “

Survivor Else Schmidt “The temperatures of the fire storm were so high that it made even steel melt – pulverizing even human teeth, and, on the other hand people in basements were cooked and changed literally into some kind or jelly;”

Survivor Matthias Griebel “”The bombs had thrown people into the trees,” he said. “The streets had broken up. The water mains had broken. The gas pipes were on fire. It was how you would imagine hell.”

“Even in the cellar we weren’t safe because the 1,000 straw mattresses for the refugees all caught fire above us,” said survivor Mrs. Siewers. “Because of the fire, we had to get out with all 750 refugees. We were heading for the Elbe when the second attack came and we took shelter again.”

Margret Freyer said “I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then – to my utter horror and amazement – I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders.

Author Isaev Maxim wrote “In the city centre the temperature reached 2,000 degrees: the iron was melting and flowing on the streets, the walls were turning into sand because of the heat and were crumbling to pieces in the wind.

Survivor Anna-Maria Waymann “While we were hardly crossing huge piles of collapsed walls and roofs, charred buildings around us continued to fall. The nearer we came to the town center, the worse it became.  It looked like a crater landscape, and then we saw the dead. Charred or carbonised corpses shrank to half of their normal size. Oh, dear God!. Several people were sitting on the ground. But why did not they move?  Having come closer, we understood why. They were dead. Their lungs burst from the shock wave.«

Author Tami David Biddle “As the bombs fell, tens of thousands crammed into shelters and basements, while others fled to the lower levels of public buildings, including the overcrowded main train station. Many of them found no safety. The firestorm sucked oxygen out of shelters and replaced it with carbon monoxide, causing mass suffocation. Crowds rushing to escape the fires faced smoke, noxious fumes, collapsing buildings, thickets of downed electrical wires, showers of burning embers and lethal walls of superheated air surging ahead of the flames.

Victor Gregg, British Airman: “Four incendiaries burst through the heavy glass roof, turning men into human torches. Nothing could be done to help them, it was impossible to extinguish the flames, and so the screaming of those who were being burned alive was added to the cries of others.”

Air Marshall Harris didn’t just want to bomb Dresden, he also got up his fighters the next morning and briefed them on his reasons for now bombing Chemnitz:

Chemnitz is a town some thirty miles west of Dresden and a much smaller target. Your reasons for going there tonight are to finish off any refugees who may have escaped from Dresden. You’ll be carrying the same bomb loads and if to-night’s attack is as successful as the last, you will not be paying many more visits to the Russian front.

Hanns Voigt, director of the VNZ dead person’s section in Dresden said “Never had I expected to see people buried in that state: burnt, cremated, torn and crushed to death. Never would I have thought that death could come to people in so many different ways. Sometimes the victims looked like ordinary people apparently peacefully sleeping, the faces of others were racked with pain, the bodies stripped almost naked by the tornado. There were wretched refugees from the east clad only in rags, and people from the opera in all their finery. Here, the victim was a shapeless lump, there a layer of ashes shovelled into a zinc tub.”

On April 19, Voigt set up a filing system to help identify unknown victims. There are four types:

a. Garment-Cards – where they pasted inch square samples of all clothing found on unidentified bodies; they were able to clear up well over one thousand missing person cases
b. Filing Cards – misc. personal effects
c. Alphabetical register of bodies definitely identified by identity cards or other personal papers – one of the shortest lists
d. List of wedding or engagement rings recovered from the bodies, as German custom required the initials of the wearer to be engraved inside each ring; by May they had collected around 20,000 gold rings

Note: Some people just disappeared in the flames, were turned into sludge or were instantly annihilated and could never be identified. Numbers are disputed and are anything from 25,000 to 1 million total victims, since some people had completely dissapeared.

The last mortal remains of 28.746 victims found their last resting place on the Heidefriedhof cemetery outside the city, where the principal monument to them, a simple stone slab, stands to this day.

Now annually church bells chime on February 13, 2020 at 10:15 P.M., when the first Lancasters dropped their bombs over the city. Since reunification, most of the city center—the great churches; the Zwinger and Albertinum museums; the Semperoper; the royal palace, known as the Schloss—have been restored.

In 2019, around 11,500 people stood hand-in-hand to form a human chain around Dresden’s old town on Wednesday commemorate the 74th anniversary of an allied bombing in 1945 during World War II. Since 2010, thousands have traditionally gathered in Dresden every year on February 13 to form a human chain around the old town, where most of the destruction occurred, to symbolically protect it.

German President Joachim Gauck in 2015: “Bombs and fire indiscriminately annihilated both guilty and innocent, party members and small children, war criminals and nuns, guards and forced laborers, combat soldiers and refugees who had left their homes to save their lives and believed themselves to be in a safe place,” he said.

Yaël Ossowski, a Canadian journalist living in Vienna, Austria: Despite the wishes of politically correct historians or hate-hungry fascists, the purpose of history is to document accurately the many happenings of the past into a single narrative that will provide some type of lessons and enlightenment today.

What can Dresden teach us? Never again. To quote: “Never again war, never again the clash of arms, never again so much suffering,” Pope Francis said after a moment of silence for the victims of Hiroshima.”

Peace.

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