Vir Cantium

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Dresden: Here We Go Again

The Express reports:

RAF veterans were furious last night after German politicians called for Britain to scrap plans for a £3.5million memorial to Bomber Command.

The row broke out as the mayor of Dresden arrived in the UK to open an exhibition showing the devastation caused by the blitzing of her city and London and Coventry during the Second World War.

Dresden Liberal party councillor Holger Zastrow said: “This memorial injures the feelings of Dresdeners and is utterly tasteless.”

And Bild ran a story yesterday with the English headline: “Please Say No”.

It was almost a matter of hours after the Dresden raids that political correctness, 1945-style, raised its head. Many people who had supported Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’ strategy of bombing German cities suddenly took a step back and hung Bomber Command out to dry. The overall campaign that Harris (and his US counterparts) undertook became the only major theatre of the war not to have been recognised with a campaign medal. The efforts of 125,000 airmen and their supporting crews had clearly helped to bring about the defeat of the Nazis – as the atom bombs would do for the equally brutal Japanese Empire in the Pacific months later (and followed by similar hand-wringing). Yet it even went unmarked by a memorial to the near half of that number who never came back.

That is soon to change, thankfully, with the plans for the Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park.

Now there could be a case that Harris, his crews having proved how far (relative to the times) the accuracy of bombing had advanced during the run-up to D-day, could have been more efficient in how he used his precious bombers and crews after the Normandy landings. The advances in technology had started to render one of the main arguments for area bombing – that taking out the whole town was the only way to be sure of hitting your specific targets within – somewhat outdated. It may be that such a change in strategy could have hastened the advance of allied troops and thus shortened the war even more than the bombing campaign did anyway.

Yet this is supposition and we can never be sure, especially now we are making these judgements from the comfort of an armchair (or office swivel chair) sixty five years on, and being familiar with bombs that can be delivered almost literally onto the enemy’s doormat. In any case it is a debate over tactics, whereas many critics today try to argue that going anywhere near civilian targets was unjustified.

Accuracy was not the only justification for area bombing. The fact was that the Luftwaffe and parts of the Wehrmacht were tied up in home aerial defence as a result of the bombing, rather than resisting the Allied land forces. Nazi war production was affected; for just one example, take the Messerschmitt Me262 – the Nazi’s and world’s first operational jet fighter – could have played havoc with the Allied offensive, but the efforts of Bomber Command and the USAAF were undoubtedly responsible for the shortages of fuel and material that prevented its wider deployment.

There is also no doubt that, until Dresden, the media was behind Harris and the area bombing strategy. Revenge? Yes, but can you blame them? ‘De-housing’ German civilians or worse would have seemed perfectly reasonable if you were reading the newspaper among the remains of your former home in Coventry having buried your loved ones. Historic German cities with far less military significance were bombed earlier in the campaign – Lübeck, Bonn, Freiburg – with very few adverse noises from the public or press in the Commonwealth or US.

However, let’s suppose that things had gone the way this armchair Air Marshall might suggest; that Harris had followed orders and proceeded to target the oil, transport and other war infrastructure targets after D-day. Even without a ‘carpet bombing’ strategy, Dresden would still have been hit; the city was a key centre for the Nazi party, it contained over a hundred factories contributing to the Nazi war effort and it was a key transport node. There would still have been significant civilian casualties. No doubt, then, there would still be those today who would condemn the raid as a war crime.

Yet even as political correctness found its feet in the aftermath of the raid, and Goebbels enjoyed one of his last great propaganda victories, among some of those who had suffered most at the hands of the Nazis, the view was very different. A Jewish prisoner held near Dresden recalled*:

The fires in the sky, a huge red glow  –  it was like heaven for us. We knew the end of the war must be near.

More surprisingly, perhaps, from the other side of the fence, one Reichsmarshall Herman Goering admitted that Dresden was the most demoralising raid of the war.

It was total war. Up to 80 million people died – that was probably about 79,999,900-ish too many. The views of the Mayor of modern Dresden are understandable, but while we must continue to build bridges even now, and work to prevent it happening again, it would be immoral to not recognise the 55,000 men who never came back from a campaign that, for Bomber Command at least, proportionately cost more Allied lives than the Battle of the Somme.
* From Leo McKinstry’s book on the history of the Lancaster bomber – an excellent and dispassionate account of the campaign.

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