Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945 by Frederick Taylor. HarperCollins (http://www.harpercollins.com/hc), 10 East 53d Street, New York, New York 10022, 2004, 544 pages, $26.95 (hardcover), $15.95 (softcover).
Oftentimes, if a lie is presented repeatedly as the truth, people will accept it as truthful. Such is the case with information surrounding the Allied bombing raids of Dresden, Germany, in February 1945. Just the mention of the city’s name in the context of World War II conjures images of a raging firestorm; hundreds of thousands of people killed by asphyxiation or burns; the destruction of a beautiful, peaceful city with no war industry to speak of; and atrocities of Allied fighters strafing terrorized civilian refugees after the bombing raids. Dresden’s raging firestorm is true—and the city is indeed beautiful. However, until the publication of Frederick Taylor’s book, we knew precious little of the facts surrounding its war industry, its importance to Germany’s war effort, and—most of all—the disposition of its population during and immediately after the bombing.
For many centuries, Dresden has held a place of political and military importance. It was the seat of Saxon kings for over 800 years. Drezdzány, as the collection of houses and families was first called, served as the first easily navigable crossing over the Elbe River. Here, the land was fertile and the climate mild—a place where the Saxons prospered. Dresden entered the history books in 1270 when Count Henry the Illustrious moved his seat of governance 12 miles upriver from Meissen. From then on, it has served in many ways as both capital and military strongpoint.
Taylor discusses how Dresden has suffered several prior Phoenix-like episodes in which invaders razed the town and the locals rebuilt. Most notable are the Czech attack in 1429; the great fire of 1694, which destroyed many areas of the city; and the Prussian and Austrian occupations and plunderings, starting in 1745, which culminated in the Prussian siege of Austrian-held Dresden in 1760.
The author also visits Dresden’s history as the seat of many firsts and inventions. Dresdnerin Fräulein Christine Hardt invented the brassiere in 1889. The city lays claim as the first place in Europe to manufacture the cigarette, coffee filter, tea bag, and latex condom—as well as squeezable toothpaste. The concept of zoned development has its origins in Dresden. Additionally, it became a key center of the camera and typewriter industries (p. 33). By the early twentieth century, Dresden had become affluent, popular with tourists from Europe and America (known as the “Florence on the Elbe”), and a center of precision engineering and technical industries that served the world.
But allegations that Dresden was solely a city of peaceful culture, blessed with “special status” due to its cultural distinction—as one often hears in references to the 1945 bombing—are completely false. Through the latter half of World War II, Dresden was home to many wartime industries and served as a crucial transportation center for traffic channeling to and from Germany’s Eastern Front. In fact, according to the 1942 edition of the Dresdner Jarhbuch (Dresden Yearbook), “Anyone who knows Dresden only as a cultural city, with its immortal architectural monuments and unique landscape environment, would rightly be very surprised to be made aware of the extensive and versatile industrial activity, with all its varied ramifications, that make Dresden . . . one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich” (p. 148). Wartime industry included radios, aircraft instrumentation, lenses and optics for use in sights, torpedo tails, ammunition casings, and a host of other specialties that fed into these key programs (pp. 148–53). Rail traffic constantly made its way through the Dresden marshalling yards—military traffic headed for the Eastern Front and boxcars of people destined for extermination camps in Poland. The main roads into and out of Dresden stayed equally busy, not only with military traffic headed east but also, by late 1944, with refugee traffic going west.
On 1 January 1945, the German high command had secretly declared Dresden a “defensive area” (i.e., a temporary fortification). In a sign of the times, though, the once-plentiful flak defenses were moved west to the higher-priority Ruhr industrial area. Also lending credence to the city’s illusory special status was a telling lack of air-raid shelters. Dresden had the obligatory sirens, but many residents were forced to rely on basements of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings for shelter. Due to a swelling of refugees, not only from the east but also from previously bombed-out areas in western Germany, Dresden experienced a severe shortage of lodging and a corresponding paucity of air-raid shelters.
Taylor draws upon British war records to recount that the Russians had requested Allied bombing of German lines of communications and had mentioned Dresden by name as one of the targets. He also points out that Allied intelligence agencies had correctly identified the military-related industry in and around Dresden, sometimes down to the company name and street address.
The fall of the Iron Curtain allowed Taylor to exhaustively research records in the former East Germany. These documents have helped to shatter the alleged “truth” about Dresden and its population’s fate. In fact, differences between actual casualty figures and the oft-repeated numbers alleged as true death tolls vary by a factor of 10—about 25,000 versus 250,000, respectively. These formerly inaccessible records also show that Dresden had at least 127 different companies directly contributing to the war effort, not to mention untold other smaller companies that the Nazi government had not registered. Additionally, Taylor makes extensive use of interviews of Dresden citizens who survived the attack to glean truthful impressions of the events of 13–15 February 1945.
But Taylor doesn’t stop with interviews and local records regarding the attack. His research of records and interviews with personnel from Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command who had a hand in the planning and execution of the raid provides a balanced look from the attacker’s point of view. Taylor points out that for the RAF crews, Dresden represented “just another raid.” For the RAF operations and intelligence staffers, it was another target to assign for bombing. For Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, chief of Bomber Command, Dresden stood as another city on the list of German locales slated for destruction.
Taylor makes his book something more than simply a recounting of history by examining the raid’s effect on the conscience of RAF members and British leaders. Time and again, Dresden citizens questioned why the Allies bombed their city (few knew of its extensive military contributions) and how far this Allied “terror bombing campaign” would go. After sifting through records, Taylor shows clearly that the Soviet Union was bent on using Dresden as a propaganda tool against the West by inflating the casualty figures (by a factor of 10) and by promoting a variety of stories—many having some small shred of truth.
Dresden takes the story yet one step further, bringing to the reader a human side of life in the city and the raid’s impact on survivors. In sidebars that directly relate to the overall story, Taylor looks at the lives of local Jews, some of whom worked in the factories and lived in houses that were bombed. He explores the courage it took to face the raging inferno and relates how people, some of them no older than 10 or 11, simply succumbed to the flames and heat while others made their way to safety. With this personal touch (complete with 16 pages of pictures), Taylor gives much more meaning to this retelling of history.
Readers immediately become aware of the importance and influence of an active and deliberate information-operations campaign. Taylor brings to life the Nazi propaganda effort and the Soviet follow-through, the success of which is obvious (see above). Readers also perceive the struggle of proportionality in an air operation—issues we continue to deal with.
The author best summarizes what occurred in Dresden by describing it as a “raid which went horribly right” (p. 416). The RAF carried out its orders to burn and destroy an enemy industrial center. His book lays to rest many misconceptions about Dresden’s fate in those bleak February days. Taylor also does a fantastic job of making us think about proportionality in combat by presenting firsthand results of aerial bombardment in an urban environment. As a clear illustration of a previously cloudy subject, Dresden has my vote as a must read!
Maj Paul Niesen, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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