"There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true." ～Winston ChurchillAmong the so-called "war crimes" of World War II, one of the worst is undoubtedly the terror bombing of the German city of Dresden by the Royal Air Force on the night of the 13th and 14th February, 1945, exactly seventy-two years ago today.
Much has been said about this horrific event, and many theories, explanations, and even justifications have been given. But in, essence, the attack was more a sign of the decline of Britain and the bitterness that this engendered than anything else.
Other countries also committed horrendous "war crimes" – the Germans, Russians, Americans, and Japanese all stand out in this respect, and provide too many examples to consider. But there is a powerfully astringent taste to this one act of the British.
|Our noble allies.|
There are still history nerds who will make a case for the bombing on "military grounds;" while others will point to the Blitz and the use of V2 rockets against London as suitable excuses. These views almost deserve to be ignored with contempt, but not quite.
From a military point of view there was at least a case for bombing Dresden. Despite its role as a city of great cultural importance – the "Florence of the North" – it was also an important rail junction. Bombing its railway marshalling yards would disrupt the German war economy and the movement of troops, even if it also had disastrous effects on the broader civilian population (and the large number of people in German concentration camps) by disrupting food supplies.
|Important military target.|
As with any American attacks, there would be lots of confusion and collateral damage (the marshalling yards were, after all, close to the Friedrichstadt Hospital), but at least the Americans had the fig leaf excuse of attacking in daylight and focusing on what could be described as a military target. The British night-time bombing of the city centre was a different matter. This involved dropping 1,477 tonnes of high explosives, which were designed to blow off roofs and doors and improve the ventilation of air for the firestorm that would follow when the next wave of bombs –1,181 tonnes of incendiaries – were dropped.
After the war, Dresden became twin towns with Coventry, the British city that is considered to have been the worst victim of German bombing in WWII. The worst attack was on the night of 14th November 1940. This town twinning implies a kind of equivalence between the two events, but in reality there is no comparison.
- Coventry was attacked when both countries were still fully fighting fit; but Dresden was attacked when the German army was in full retreat and the German state was collapsing.
- The targets in Coventry were its machine tool and other factories, supplying vital war materials for the RAF, not residential areas as in Dresden.
- The casualties were of a completely different magnitude: 568 people were killed in Coventry, but at least 25,000 were killed in Dresden, and probably many more.
“Throughout January and February, our bombers continued to attack, and we made a heavy raid in the latter month on Dresden, then a centre of communications of Germany’s Eastern front. The enemy air was fading. As our troops advanced the airfields of the Lutwaffe were more and more squeezed into a diminishing area, and provided excellent targets. I felt the time had come to reconsider our policy of bombing industrial areas. Victory was close and we had to think ahead. ‘If we come into control of an entirely ruined land,’ I wrote on April 1, ‘there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our Allies. We must see to it that our attacks do not do more harm to ourselves than they do to the enemy’s immediate war effort.’” Triumph and Tragedy: The Second World War, Volume SixThis passage is interesting because it mixes callousness with guilt and evasiveness. The only reason for not bombing, it implies, is so that Red Army rapists might have a roof over their heads in the defeated Germany. But how interesting that as soon as he mentions Dresden, he also starts talking about the need to stop bombing, while making efforts to cloak his guilt by referring to the city as an "industrial area" and "centre of communications of Germany’s Eastern front."
But what Churchill’s prose really seeks to hide is the fact that by 1945, Britain had shrunk from its formerly dominant world position to being a second-rate power and indeed a province of its economic overlord the US Empire. His use of pronouns, possessive pronouns, and the capitalized word "Allies”" is revealing: "As our troops advanced," "our policy of bombing industrial areas," etc.
|The victors of World War Two.|
Just prior to the Dresden bombing, the infamous Yalta Conference had been held (4th – 11th February). This was supposed to have been Churchill’s big moment on the World stage: the British Lion, the last man standing of the great continent of Europe, would be at the centre, flanked by the ascendant but still peripheral powers of the European fringe. These would, of course, rely on the wisdom of the elder and wiser empire in constructing the New World Order.
Instead Churchill was roughly shunted aside as the irrelevant leader of a morally and financially burnt-out husk by the two new superpowers. The clearest sign of this was the fate of Poland. This had been Britain’s declared reason for getting involved in the war, so the fate of Poland was a barometer of Britain’s position. At Yalta it was handed over to Stalin. Not only would the Soviet Union keep the territories seized from Poland in 1939, but the Lublin Government, set up and controlled by Stalin, would be placed in effective control of the country.
The humiliation this represented was clear to the Polish pilots fighting in the RAF. Once the decisions of Yalta had been made public, they were so incensed that an order was sent out to remove their side arms. Despite fears of a rebellion, they were nevertheless commanded to participate in the bombing raid on Dresden.
When Churchill returned from Yalta, this sense of Britain having been tossed aside on the dust heap of history no doubt rankled within his breast. His long career had merely traced the line of descent from the apogee of British power to its nadir. The very act for which he was most celebrated – bravely standing up to Hitler – was the same act that had condemned Britain to becoming a province of the American Empire – "Airstrip One" as Orwell so pertinently called it.
When Churchill signed off on the order to bomb tens of thousands of German civilians into a holocaust of fiery death, he was making a last, totemic gesture of imperial power, one that also embodied his rage and impotence. He would punish the Germans while also destroying a city that would either fall into the hands of the advancing Russians or Americans (the Red Army rapists won that race).
In bombing Dresden, he was in a sense bombing America and Russia as well as Germany – the three powers that had ensured the future impotence of the British Empire. That is the astringent taste of Dresden, and it is a taste worth spitting out.
|A last great display of Imperial power.|
Originally published here in February 2015.