Book Review: Dresden - The Fire and the Darkness

Book Review: Dresden - The Fire and the Darkness
Hitler in Dresden, 1935: The bombing of the German city in February 1945 killed 20,000 people and hastened the end of the Second World War.

Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness

Sinclair McKay 

Penguin, £15.99

Review: David Kernek

Decades ago,  I  interviewed a retired Royal Air Force officer,  air marshal Arthur Harris, known by Fleet Street’s finest as Bomber Harris, and in RAF mess halls as Butcher Harris. 

He was in a  bad mood when I arrived at his house. That morning,  a German writer had come for an interview. Harris noticed a magazine sticking up out of the German's bag and  Harris read a headline that accused him (and Winston Churchill)  of war crimes.

“There was no interview,”  Harris said. “I told him to f…k off.” Harris appears early in this thorough account of the destruction of Dresden in February 1945. As chief of the RAF’s bomber command, he was  the leading exponent of the raids that in one night and one day killed  20,000 people and crushed the centre of the city known as Florence on the Elbe. 

He had no time for detractors in London and Washington DC, who questioned the justifications for bombing strategies that made no distinction between military and civilian targets; he dismissed them as fifth columnists. He was untroubled  by regret: “If I had to have the same time again, I would do the same again.” 

Other German and Austrian cities were similarly punished, sometimes with no obvious military purpose, but Dresden has become in Europe the enduring synonym for sudden annihilation, and the 70-year debate about its significance (an atrocity or a  necessary operation to hasten the end of a just war?) has yet to conclude. 

The argument will be informed by Sinclair McKay’s history, yet not, I expect, closed by it.

Drawing on interviews with eyewitnesses, hitherto untranslated oral histories and diaries, and RAF archives, McKay presents a  poignant portrait of a once-fine German city celebrated for both its antiquity and modernity, and renowned as a thriving arts and music centre. 

Having had its rich and liberal culture extinguished by a decade of Nazi depredations, it was reduced overnight to glowing embers by an enemy impatient for unconditional surrender.

Could Dresden have been spared? That Germany’s war was over was self-evident by early February 1945, to all but the most deluded Nazis, one of whom was Martin Mutschmann, Saxony’s regional gauleiter. Just days before the raid, he ordered the execution of Dr Margarete Blank, found guilty of ‘defeatist talk’ after a swift people's court trial. 

Her treasonous mistake was to tell a patient the war would be lost. By then, Stalin’s army had crossed the Oder, with its front line 69km from Berlin, the Anglo-American advance from the west was progressing apace, and Franklin D Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin were on their way to Yalta to sort out the post-war governance of Germany and the rest of Europe, and bring the war in the Pacific to an end. 

The plan for the raid had been  signed off before 'the Big Three' left for Yalta, and the RAF had written the case for it in a note given to the bomber command crews on the night of the attack, February 13: “The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind a partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what bomber command can do.” 

The attack was comprised of three waves. The first and second were  Lancasters carrying 1,000lb explosive and incendiary bombs (the latter intended to start electrically-charged firestorms) reaching their target, the city centre, at 1030pm and 1am, respectively. The third wave (USAAF B-17 bombers carrying the same payloads, but instructed to hit railway marshalling yards) set off the next morning and flew over the city shortly after 1pm, when pilots found out that swirling smoke from the firestorms made precise targeting impossible.

The 796 Lancasters and 311 B-17s dropped bombs at a rate of one every seven-and-a-half seconds, resulting in a death toll of  25,000, the destruction of the historic city centre, and the demolition of the typewriter, camera, and bicycle factories that had been converted to war work.  

70,000 apartments in the old city district were rendered uninhabitable. There were no early-raid warnings, not that they would have saved many lives. McKay explains why: “A notable absence in the city’s wartime infrastructure was, with a single exception, the purpose-built air-raid shelter. 

Mutschmann had considered them an unnecessary expense … The exception was, of course, the concrete bunker built for Herr Mutschmann in the grounds of the city residence that he had expropriated from its Jewish owner.” 

Dresdeners had to take their chances in apartment block cellars. There were separate cellars for Aryan Germans and the few Jews left in the city by 1945.

The crews met no serious challenges from the Luftwaffe or ground defences, an indication of the regime’s inability  to protect the city. 

Heavy RAF and US bomber squadron losses were normally colossal; seven planes were lost over Dresden, three of them hit by shells dropped from bombers above them.

McKay relates the stories of the men (Brits, Americans, Poles, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders)  who flew the planes and dropped the bombs, and of those who survived the blitz and raked through the debris for the bodies of those who didn’t.

There was Miles Tripp, a 21-year-old bomb-aimer, who said the seven-man Lancaster crews had an “eighth passenger”: Fear. American and British prisoners-of-war were drafted in from a nearby camp to dig for bodies in the smoking cellars. 

One of them was Kurt Vonnegut, later to become a novelist. The cellars, Vonnegut said, were “corpse mines”, and he was a “corpse miner”. 

A British prisoner-of-war awaiting a death sentence on a charge of sabotage ran for his life when the police station in which he was being held was hit by a bomb. There were men and women searching for each other across the smoking ruins, and teenagers in shock as they learned of the deaths of best friends and favourite teachers.

Anger and philosophy would come later. 

Bomber crews would be called gangsters soon after the night and day of terror, the cry being: Why us? Matthias Griebel, the eight-year-old son of an artist who had been harassed by the Nazis, wrote later that his family’s shelter had been swept by fire, and that “outside was a vision of hell … the bombs had thrown people into the trees … the water mains were broken … the gas pipes were on fire”. 

Sinclair thinks that some of the city’s children would, in the years to come, ask if  Dresden itself had helped to invite its own destruction. “Griebel was later to point to a swastika flag and say: 'A fire went out from Germany and went around the world in a great arc and came back to Germany.’ ” 

As the communists set about rebuilding the city and replacing the Nazi tyranny with their own, the Dresden debate was joined by politicians, clerics, historians, and philosophers. Whether or not the Dresden blitz shortened the war by hastening the Soviet advance on Berlin and Hitler’s suicide can never be known.  

Harris rejected the allegation that he was driven by retribution for the carpet bombing of British cities that killed  40,000 civilians from September 1940  to  May 1941. 

There shouldn’t be a place for maths in moral arguments about life and death, but might he also have whispered, during a moment of reflection and after a glass too many, that bomber command’s air-crew losses were more than double those of Dresden’s. 

In fact, he did more than whisper it. In a speech made not long after the war’s end, McKay reveals, “He placed special emphasis upon the vast sacrifice by those flying through the relentless flak who had to fight ‘with their heads’ rather than their bodies. 

They had shortened the war, he said, and by so doing saved uncountable lives. Out of 125,000 aircrew, some 55,773 had died: Harris made sure these statistics were known.”

In an eloquent concluding chapter, McKay draws a veil over his answer, if he has one, to the enduring question: Was the bombing of Dresden a war crime? 

“We might … after  75 years, say this: ‘War crime’, above all, implies intentionality and rational decision-making, and this raises another possibility. War creates its own nauseous gravity, and towards the end of a six-year conflict, with millions dead, all sides exhausted, could it be that these city bombings were not vengeful or consciously merciless, but ever-more desperate, reflexive attacks launched to make the other side simply stop?” 

Or, perhaps, it was the young Matthias Griebel who drew the only, albeit unsatisfying, conclusion, one with his metaphorical arc of fire. What went around, came around.

More in this section


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up