The Barbarity Behind the Bombing

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Review of ’Dresden‘, Frederick Taylor, Bloomsbury £20

At the heart of Frederick Taylor‘s new book on the attack on Dresden lies a very simple argument: the bombing of Dresden was justified. For all the pages of new research a very old message lies beneath. It‘s the same message that was put across by Winston Churchill and ’Bomber‘ Harris, the man held chiefly responsible for the attack.

Taylor‘s book is part of a wave of revisionist histories of the Second World War. The war is seen as a moral certainty, a fight between good and evil. But the truth is that the Dresden raid, along with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, is clear evidence that the Allies were capable of war crimes too.

Reading Taylor‘s account of the destruction of Dresden is a sobering experience. He brings the attack on the city to life with devastating effect. On Tuesday 13 February 1945 hundreds of British, and then US bombers pounded Dresden, starting a ’firestorm‘ that killed tens of thousands of people.

The real questions for Taylor are, why was Dresden attacked on such a large scale with the end of the war in sight? And how many really died in the flames?

For many the destruction of Dresden was made all the more horrific by its image as a ’peaceful‘ city, packed with art treasures and great monuments. Taylor argues that this picture is wholly inaccurate, that by 1945 the city contained key parts of Germany‘s war production. As such he sees Dresden and its population as a ’legitimate target‘ (at one stage arguing that pro-Nazi areas had been hit hardest by the bombing!). Would he say the same thing about the bombing of Coventry and London?

The Dresden raid was by no means exceptional. It went according to the usual Allied plan. By this stage in the war the RAF had turned ’area bombing‘ into an art form. An exact mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs was used to start the kind of fires that burned Dresden. Such bombing was as much about cracking ’morale‘ by killing civilians and destroying a city‘s infrastructure as it was about destroying German factories. This was terror bombing - no matter what spin you try to put on it. Even the US‘s so called ’precision‘ attacks would cost thousands of lives through what they described as ’spillage‘.

Taylor rubbishes the argument that the bombing was carried out in the knowledge that the end of the war was in sight. Many Allied leaders believed the war with Germany could drag on for months. Therefore they saw a ’military logic‘ to the bombing. But Taylor does admit that by this stage of the war the sheer amount of money invested in the bomber force had created its own logic. Millions had been spent on building the bomber fleets and training the crews. So why not carry on bombing?

This rationale led the US airforces to continue to bomb Japan until they had all but run out of targets that were still standing!

Some have claimed that up to a quarter of a million people died in the raid on Dresden, making it the ’German Hiroshima‘. The Holocaust-denying ’historian‘ David Irving used the Nazi regime‘s propaganda figures as evidence of a hidden ’German holocaust‘. The Communist East German government used the same figures in its Cold War battle with the West. They argued that the apocalyptic death toll was a warning to the Russians about what Allied air power could do to Russia‘s cities.

Taylor goes on to argue that the raid was not a ’warning‘ to the Russians but was in fact probably carried out in cooperation with them. Using newly disclosed records Taylor comes to a figure of between 25,000 and 40,000 killed. The figure is far removed from that quoted by Irving but still a massacre in anyone‘s terms.

The raid was part of a bombing campaign that all but destroyed cities across Germany. Ordinary workers were just a part of the war machine that the Allies were out to destroy. As such they were not even seen as ’collateral damage‘ but as ’legitimate targets‘.

The Second World War wasn’t just a war about destroying German fascism. The Allies were out to destroy the German regime in order to control the postwar world. They were prepared to divert huge military resources into shaping that postwar world even if it meant weakening the fight against Germany. Britain sent thousands of troops into Greece to prevent the left wing resistance movement seizing power, and with the US rushed to disarm the left wing movements that had fought the Nazis in France and Italy. But notoriously the Allies, for all their huge air power, were not prepared to divert resources to bomb the railway lines that led to Auschwitz. They could stop Greek Communists but not the death trains.

Taylor’s book is well worth reading. Many of the survivors of the bombing speak out in its pages. The interviews with Allied aircrew are fascinating - many of the young men had real doubts about what they were doing. But at the heart of the book is the moral ambiguity of a bombing campaign designed to destroy German fascism that targeted the innocent. For this was not a ‘good war’ against Hitler. It was a conflict between major powers who were out to dominate the globe.

The bombing of major cities did not contribute the ‘knockout blow’ that bombing planners like Harris promised. The bombing campaign began as revenge for attacks on cities like London and Coventry. The British military wanted to show it could hit back. But area bombing raids targeted civilians. And the raids came no closer to destroying the German ‘will to fight’ than did German raids on British cities.

In such a war of revenge attacks ordinary people in enemy countries were not seen as potential allies. They were not seen as an important force that could potentially undermine totalitarian regimes from within. They were legitimate targets. And at the end of that line of logic came Hiroshima and Nagasaki.