Well, it’s been a week…actually, longer than that. But sometimes things just work out that way. We’ve covered half the month of February, and I’ve written just two times. The “calendar of events” is, except for two days, completely full for the remainder of the month. So I’ll see how many I can get churned out.
Max Hastings is a brilliant historian. At least I think he is. And by the number of books he’s sold, a great many people agree with me. The last two books of his that I read (Armageddon and Retribution) are what I would call “personal” history…telling a larger story while focusing on individuals who were intimately involved with it, making it more tangible and real for the reader. Maybe his long experience as a journalist honed his skills, or maybe he possessed the ability from the get-go. Whichever, it works.
The city of Dresden, Germany was bombed by the Allies as the Second World War was winding down in Europe. But “bombed” is the 20,000-foot view. Hastings’ “man-on-the-street” for this event, which began on February 13, 1945, was Gotz Bergander. For much of the last war’s last months, rumor had come to Bergander (and the other Dresdeners) that their city would be spared due to the tremendous cultural value it possessed. There was even talk of it being used as the occupation capital.
Shortly after 9:00pm, all the talk and all the rumors were drowned out by the wailing of the air-raid sirens. Young Bergander and his family descended to the reinforced shelter in the basement (his father’s office comprised the ground floor of the building where they lived) and waited, enduring 25 minutes worth of pounding. They came out to find that no bombs had fallen in their neighborhood. Gotz climbed to the roof of the home/factory and put out a couple small fires started by burning debris, and looked out to see everything on the horizon burning.
The residents of Dresden barely had time to collect their wits when the alarms sounded again. The 244 Avro Lancasters from the first raid had been merely an appetizer to the main course…529 Lancasters. And as you may remember from eons ago, Lancasters weren’t tremendously fast, but they carried a substantial payload. Forty minutes later, Gotz Bergander emerged again from his shelter to find his home just about the only undamaged building he could see amidst a massive firestorm.
But it still wasn’t over. The next day, as survivors were getting a view of the charred remains of their devastated city, destruction rained down again, this time courtesy of 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF. And through it all, the Berganders survived a bombing and subsequent firestorm that killed 35,000 of their fellow residents.
As an old man, Bergander looked back on the events with sixty years of perspective, and Hasting records his words. “The bombing of Dresden was an extravagance. Even in war, the ends must relate to the means. Here, the means seemed wildly out of proportion to the ends. I will not say that Dresden should not have been bombed-it was a rail centre, and thus an important target. I will not say Dresden was an exceptional case as compared to other German cities. But I do not understand why it had to be done on such a huge scale.” His words are especially weighty when compared with post-attack photos of the railways, which were mostly undamaged and running again within a couple days.
The debate over Dresden, and quite frankly, the bombing of many of the other German (and Japanese) cities in 1945, has consumed enormous amounts of ink. Germany was clearly beaten. Her offensive capabilities had been reduced to burning hulks and rotting corpses in the west and, in greater numbers, to the east. Her defensive capabilities and wartime production had been pulverized from the air. The fact that the Allies were attacking with massed formations in broad daylight is a testament not only to the power the Allies possessed, but also to the lack of resistance from their enemy.
In 2009, we talked about the idea of “sowing the wind, and reaping the whirlwind“. I believe this is clearly a continuation in that theme. London had been bombed heavily earlier in the war and, now that the Allies were firmly in control, their response would not only equal what had been done to them, but far outweigh it. For Air Marshal Arthur Harris, Dresden was just another instance of payback, called by Hastings a target on “his notorious schedule of unfinished business in Germany.”
Recommended Reading: Armageddon: The Battle For Germany, 1944-1945