Share This Article

Reviewed by Richard R. Muller
By Frederick Taylor
Harper Collins, New York, 2004

On the night of February 13, 1945, nearly 800 heavy bombers of Royal Air Force Bomber Command attacked the beautiful old German city of Dresden, known before the war as “Florence on the Elbe,” in two waves. The second wave ignited a firestorm of terrible proportions. Tens of thousands of civilians died, most either burned or asphyxiated. A U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) attack on the shattered city the following day added to the carnage.

By any measure the human cost of the raid was horrifying. Yet in the years since 1945, a certain mythology has grown up around the destruction of Dresden. Coming as it did less than three months before the German surrender in May 1945, to many the raid seemed in retrospect to be an example of promiscuous Allied vengeance, a cruel attack against a virtually undefended city of no military value. Casualty figures of 135,000 (or even 250,000) dead were widely accepted. American and British aircraft were reported to have strafed columns of terrified refugees. Nazi propagandists, Western peace movements and East German Communists alike appropriated the tragedy of Dresden for their own ends.

Frederick Taylor has taken on the task of completely reexamining the Dresden raid. While by no means minimizing the human suffering of the population, he is not satisfied with simplistic portrayals of the bombing as an Allied war crime. He holds each aspect of the Dresden story up to critical scrutiny. Relying on both extensive original research and recent works by German scholars, Taylor sketches a complex portrait of the city, its social and political history and its role in the German war economy. He notes that, far from being an open city devoid of strategic significance, Dresden actually contained many installations of considerable military value. Numerous factories turned out precision instruments for the Third Reich’s war effort, while the city served as a key rail junction in eastern Germany. He also notes that Dresden was a hotbed of Nazi sympathy and anti-Semitism, epitomized by its Gauleiter (provincial governor) Martin Mutschmann, who constructed an elaborate air raid shelter for himself while completely neglecting the needs of the population at large.

Dresden provides a thorough description of the Allied decision-making process—involving not only Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris and the other “bomber barons” but the Allied heads of state as well—that placed Dresden on the target list. He gives a fascinating account of the RAF night raid that set the city alight. Bomber Command by 1945 had evolved into a formidable instrument of war. Taylor clinically describes the procedures of navigation, target marking and incendiary bombing that razed the heart of the old city to the ground. He contrasts this portrait of operational effectiveness with the near-impotence of the German defenses that night—the RAF lost only six bombers.

Taylor does not overlook the human dimensions of the tragedy. Relying on personal accounts and interviews with survivors, he captures the experiences of ordinary Germans—a Jewish teenager employed as a forced laborer, a wounded soldier recuperating at home, women and children. His descriptions of events at the heart of the firestorm are chilling without being sensational.

Typical of Taylor’s careful scholarship are two important appendixes to the book. The first deals with an account, widely circulated in Germany after the war and still repeated today, that USAAF escort fighters strafed thousands of refugees after the raid. Taylor reveals the so-called “Massacre on the Elbe Meadows” to be pure fiction, based on a fanciful account that did not appear until 1952. The second is a thorough analysis of the competing casualty figures. Taylor concludes that the actual death toll was in the neighborhood of 25,000 to 40,000. He concludes: “None of this is to minimize the appalling reality of such a vast number of dead, snatched from this life within the space of a few hours, or to forget that most of them were women, children and the elderly. Wild guesstimates—especially those exploited for political gain—neither dignify nor do justice to what must count, by any standards, as one of the most terrible single actions of the Second World War.”

Taylor presents the story of the raid and its aftermath in all its complexity. His book is a must read for all those interested in the history of aerial operations in World War II.