The most destructive war in history entered its final, apocalyptic phase in January 1945, with another four months of hard fighting yet remaining before Allied forces could declare victory in Europe. In the west, the “Battle of the Bulge” was ended, the last great effort of German armed forces spent and driven back beyond original lines. In the east, the once mighty German military contracted in on itself, in the face of a massive Soviet advance.
Dozens of German divisions hurried east to meet the threat. Allied intelligence believed the war could be over in April, if the major cities to the east were destroyed. Dresden. Leipzig. Chemnitz. Letting these places stand to serve as bases for retreating German forces, could drag the war out until November.
Sir Charles Portal, British Chief of the Air Staff, put the problem succinctly: “We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”
With its baroque and rococo city center, the capital city of Dresden was long described as the “Jewel Box” of the Free State of Saxony, family seat to the Polish monarchs and royal residence to the Electors and Kings of Saxony. Dresden was the seventh-largest city in Germany in 1945, home to 127 medium-to-large sized factories supplying the German war machine, and the largest built-up area in the “thousand-year Reich”, yet to be bombed.
For Victor Klemperer, the 13th of February, 1945, was the most terrifying and depressing experience, of a lifetime. Once home to well over 6,000 Jews, Dresden now contained but forty-one. Klemperer’s marriage to an “Aryan” wife had thus far protected him from the “final solution”, despite the yellow Juden star, he was forced to wear on his coat. It was now Victor’s task to hand out official letters, ordering those who remained to report for “deportation”. There wasn’t one among them, who didn’t understand what that meant.
Three hundred miles away, bad weather hampered operations for the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). The first wave in the fire bombing of Dresden, would be a Royal Air Force (RAF) operation.
The first group of Lancaster bombers arrived in the skies over Dresden two hours before midnight, February 13. These were the pathfinders, their job to find the place and drop magnesium parachute flares, to light up the target. Then came the marker planes, Mosquito bombers whose job it was to drop 1,000-pound target indicators, their red glare providing something to aim at. Then came the first wave, 254 Lancaster bombers dropping 500 tons of high explosive ranging from 500-pounders to massive, 4,000-pound “blockbusters”. Next came 200,000 incendiary or “fire bombs”.
This thing was just getting started.
The second wave came in the small hours of February 14, just as rescue operations, were getting underway. By now thousands of fires were burning, with smoke rising 15,000 feet into the air. You could see it from the air, for five hundred miles.
That’s when another 529 Lancasters, dropped another 1,800 tons of bombs.
The USAAF arrived over the target on the afternoon of February 14, the 317 B-17 “Flying Fortresses” of the “Mighty 8th” delivering another 771 tons, of bombs.
Tens of thousands of fires enveloped the city, growing into a great, howling firestorm. A shrieking, all-but living demon beast from the blackest pits of hell, devouring all in its path. A firestorm of this size develops its own weather, fire tornadoes reaching into the sky as pyrocumulonimbus clouds hurl lightning bolts back to earth, starting new fires. Gale force winds scream into the vortex from all points of the compass, powerful enough to hurl grown adults opening doors in an effort to flee, off their feet and back into the flames.
Lothar Metzger was ten at the time. He brings us one of the few eyewitness accounts of the fire bombing of Dresden, as seen from the ground:
“It is not possible to describe! Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe. It was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon, luggage was left or snatched up out of our hands by rescuers. The basket with our twins covered with wet cloths was snatched up out of my mother’s hands and we were pushed upstairs by the people behind us. We saw the burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm. My mother covered us with wet blankets and coats she found in a water tub.
We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death, burning people ran to and fro, burnt coaches filled with civilian refugees, dead rescuers and soldiers, many were calling and looking for their children and families, and fire everywhere, everywhere fire, and all the time the hot wind of the firestorm threw people back into the burning houses they were trying to escape from.
I cannot forget these terrible details. I can never forget them”.
For Victor Klemperer, the fire bombing of Dresden was a last minute reprieve. He would survive the attack, and live to see the end of the war.
Official death tolls from the burned out city are estimated at 18,500 to 25,000. The real number will never be known. Refugees and military forces in the tens of thousands were streaming through the area at this point in the war. Estimates range as high as 200,000. The number if true, is more than death tolls resulting from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined.