The firebombing of Dresden, which took place in February 1945, is one of the deadliest bombings in human history, outdone only by the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It carried an estimated death toll of 35,000-135,000. However, what really distinguishes the Dresden bombing from other deadly conflicts in WWII is its brutality.
Some consider the attack a war crime, perpetrated largely against the innocent civilians of an all but defeated nation. Few military targets were hit, and Dresden was not of any strategic importance. Exactly why the Allies chose to attack Dresden is a complicated question, as there was no shortage of viable military targets available at the time. To this day, it's a contentious issue. While there are likely no clear answers on the morality of the bombing, learning more about it can help us appreciate the complexity of the war itself - and its human toll.
Only 500 yards of open land separated us from the heart of the first raid. We could feel the terrible heat, our bodies shook as the ground vibrated. And as if this was not enough, another terror was making its presence felt: not really what you would call a wind; rather, the air being drawn in to feed the inferno was like a solid object, so great was its force. The second raid had been in progress for about 15 minutes when, further down the line, the ground erupted in huge clouds of smoke and flame, and after the blasts came the enormous pull as air rushed into the vacuum...
Everything was in flames, even the roads, which were burning rivers of bubbling and hissing tar. Huge fragments of material flew through the air, sucked into the vortex. We could see people being torn from whatever they were hanging on to and drawn into the ever-deepening red glow less than 200 yards away.
As bombs explode, they push the air away with enormous force, creating a vacuum. A vacuum cannot exist for long in Earth's atmosphere, so the air all comes rushing back to the still-burning enter of the explosion. This phenomenon is also the reason for a mushroom cloud's unusual shape.
At the outer edges of the bombing, people suffocated and burned alive. Many near the city center were cremated instantly, their bodies discovered later in brittle, fragmented form. According to survivor Lothar Metzger:
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.
Götz Bergander was a German flak trooper stationed in Dresden during the bombing. He recalls the citizens thinking Dresden would be spared, as it was a hospital city and it was filled with so many refugees. Ultimately, that wasn't the case. As the bombing began, everyone did their best to hide. When they came out, they assumed the worst was over:
Everyone talked at once until someone yelled, "They're coming back, they're coming back!"... That's when I was overcome with panic, and I'm also speaking for the rest of my family and those who lived in our house. It was sheer panic! We thought this couldn't be possible, that they wouldn't do such a thing. They wouldn't drop more bombs on a city that was already an inferno. We were a target not even the worst shot could miss. We rushed into the cellar, and the second attack began just like the first one.
This continued for two days, until the Allied planes finally flew away and left the city a smoldering ruin.
At the time of the bombing, Dresden was an ancient city and cultural center that prided itself on its preservation of German culture. As such, many of its buildings were old and a lot of the housing was made of wood. This created a crisis when the bombs started dropping, as terrified civilians ran to the sturdiest basement they could find. Survivor Lothar Metzger recalled:
We fled into another cellar overcrowded with injured and distraught men women and children shouting, crying and praying. No light except some electric torches... Many, so many, desperate people came in from the streets. lt 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. lt became more and more difficult to breathe. lt was dark and all of us tried to leave this cellar with inconceivable panic. Dead and dying people were trampled upon... 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.
Metzger was 9 years old at the time. He was preparing to celebrate his birthday in three days.