Dresden was a Baroque German city and dubbed the “Florence on the Elbe”. It’s Central European mystique was rivaled only by Vienna and Prague. In early 1945, it had little military significance and fewer anti aircraft defenses. 900,000 civilians, mostly refugees fleeing Soviet atrocities, swelled the city.
On the night of 12-13 February 1945, 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers struck the city with incendiaries solely to break the German civilian will to continue the war. The mission was the brainchild of British Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, a disciple of Giullo Douhet, the influential Italian pre war air centric strategic bombing enthusiast who believed that ground troops were obsolete. By late 1944, the “thousand bomber raids” of the British Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force were having significant economic impact on Germany’s ability to carry on the war. Harris wanted to go further and “break the will” of the German people. That “the Blitz” on London and other British cities did not do so in 1940 was of no concern to him: the Germans just simply didn’t drop enough bombs. Harris saw no need for ground troops and that air power alone could win the war. According to Harris, every day that his bombers supported ground attacks was “another day in the life of Nazi Germany.”
The bombing of Dresden on the night of 12/13 February 1945 created a firestorm that demolished the city. A “firestorm” is a fire that burns so hot it consumes oxygen at such a furious pace that it creates a tornado-like windstorm around the fire to feed it. The firestorm demolished 90% of Dresden’s inner city and killed upwards of 40,000 German civilians… in one night.
It was the largest single loss of life in the shortest period of time in the war. The two atomic bombs dropped months later on Japan weren’t nearly as destructive.
The American Eighth Air Force bombed Dresden’s rail yards the next night but the damage was already done. Because of Dresden, Churchill would call off Harris’ Bomber Command’s nighttime area “terror bombings” of civilian targets.
The bombing of Dresden tarnished the sacrifices of the American and British bomber crews and the real economic and military impact the bomber campaigns had during the war. Harris would escape war crimes charges (because the Allies won) but public opinion would force him to emigrate to South Africa after the war