Archive for February, 2015

Dresden bombings: Thousands form human chain for 70th anniversary

February 14th, 2015

German president Joachim Gauck and Dresden mayor Helma Orosz took part in the chain, after both earlier addressed an audience inside the Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, nearby.

Nazi propaganda from 1945 put the death toll from the raids at 200,000 and after the war some scholars estimated as many as 135,000 thousand were killed.

More than the combined total of those immediately killed by the nuclear blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After neo-Nazis began inflating the figure further, talking of 500,000 to 1 million victims of a “bombing Holocaust,” the city established an expert commission to investigate.

It concluded in 2008 that closer to 25,000 people were killed in the attack.

The firebombing of Dresden: archive footage

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Archbishop of Canterbury speaks of ‘regret’ over bombing of Dresden

February 14th, 2015

“Whatever the arguments, events here seventy years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity,” he said.

His comments have been seen by some as an insult to those who gave their lives to defeat the Nazis.

“These remarks do sound to me like an apology. For the Archbishop to make an apology for our defeat of Hitler is bizarre,” Conservative MP Philip Davies told the Daily Mail.

“I would have thought the last thing we should be doing is apologising. We should be praised for defeating Hitler. These words are an insult to the young men who gave their lives in the defeat of Germany.”

Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth added: “I do not hear Angela Merkel apologising for the Blitz”.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s coverage of Dresden was criticised after one presenter referred to Dresden as a “war crime” and a British prisoner of war said the raids were “demonic” and “evil”.

It is claimed the BBC’s coverage failed to mention the 55,000 airmen who died for Britain during the war, or mention the devastating Nazi bombing raids on London and Coventry.

“It is very unfortunate that the BBC chose on all days to produce such a one-sided account,” Sir Gerald told the Mail. “What about the civilians in London who were bombed out of their homes? What about the bombing in the Blitz?”

A BBC spokesman said: “The bombing of Dresden has always been a controversial episode in the war.

“On Thursday evening the main BBC News bulletins reflected this and featured interviews with British veterans in coverage of preparations for the commemoration.

“On Friday we covered the commemoration ceremony in Dresden, which understandably reflected on the German experience.

“BBC News has covered in greater depth than any other broadcaster many aspects of the commemoration of World War II – both the human cost on all sides and the military action – and will continue to do so.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s words had little immediate impact in Germany, where they were overshadowed by an address by the German President, Joachim Gauck, in which he laid the blame for the atrocities of the war clearly with Germany, and rejected any attempt to compare it with Allied responsibility.

“We know who started the murderous war, we know it,” President Gauck said. “And that’s why we will never forget the victims of German warfare. We do not forget, even as we remember here today the German victims.”

President Gauck spoke at the same memorial service which the Archbishop addressed, and it was clear from his words that the Archbishop came under no pressure from the German side to express regret.

“A country that is responsible for a monstrosity like the Holocaust cannot expect to go unpunished and emerge undamaged from a war that it had provoked,” President Gauck said.

From February 13, 1945, Allied forces unleashed a massive 37-hour bombing raid on Dresden, sparking a firestorm that destroyed much of the city centre.

Previously almost untouched by the Allied air assault on Nazi Germany, the city became a symbol of the horrors of war, even though others, such as the northern port of Hamburg, suffered far worse devastation.

In Dresden, up to 25,000 people died in the raids, which some critics said were strategically unjustified as Hitler’s Germany was already effectively defeated and the bombs appeared to be aimed at civilians rather than military targets.

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Dear Bessie: World War Two letters that started a lifelong love

February 13th, 2015

By Simon Garfield

March 14,1944

Dear Bessie,

I had not expected that my Air Mail letter would travel so quickly, and I am delighted that you should already have it, and have spent some time, probably, in reading it. At the moment, and for the present, there isn’t a shadow of doubt that we are both in the same mutually approving mood, and that if we were within smiling distance of each other, we should soon be doing rather more than that.

If I was a wise guy I would not write you and thus encourage your racing thoughts. I admit to a state of gleaming, dangerous excitement as I read again and again your written words. What a pity that they have just given me my mosquito net for my second summer, and not a ticket for an air journey home. I am writing these particular words at midnight 13.4.44 – I could have breakfast with you on the 14th, if only one or two people would cooperate. It might be a little late, but what matter. Here I am, wondering when I last saw you and what you look like. I wish I could confirm by personal investigation. Do you still smoke? – a bad habit.


Bessie Moore

March 15,1944

Dear Bessie,

I was quite OK before I got your first letter. I was rational, objective. But now that you have my ear – I must give you my heart as well! No doubt it is wrong, certainly it is indiscreet, to blurt out such things when the future laughs that only present conditions make me like this. But I am like this. I am always consulting my diary to see how soon you will get my letters, wondering how soon I will get yours. I feel that you are doing exactly the same, and share my upset.

I find you wonderful, you delight me and thrill me and engross me. But as I said earlier, disregard these purely Spring emotions. I might mean it very much today, but it is tomorrow that matters in such affairs, and I am certain to revoke a dozen times in the long tomorrow. This is a real sane note to end on, as I sit here, hot-faced and desirous, ready for you as you are ready for me.

I am but a miserable sinner!


Chris Barker in Libya in 1945

April 13,1944

Dear Bessie,

I think we are so near to each other that our reactions to similar occurrences are very much, if not exactly, the same. So that you know the excitement I felt when I saw your handwriting on the LC my brother handed me.

I could read it only once, and then had to put it in my pocket, while my poor old head tried to cope with its contents as far as I could remember. You have come at me with such a terrific rush of warmth, and I am so very much in need of you.

Well, I washed and made my bed (it was six o’clock before I received your letter) and fidgeted around. Then I thought: “I must read it again before I sleep” – so I pushed off to the latrine (where the humblest may be sure of privacy) and read your words again. The comic expression “It shakes me” is true in a serious sense about this deeply thrilling state of wellbeing that you have caused or created.

Back in the tent, and to bed. How impossible to sleep with thought and wonder of you hot within me. As I toss and turn and wriggle and writhe I think of you, probably doing the same. Isn’t it blooming awful? I know that if I think of you, I will not sleep; yet I keep on thinking of you, and get hotter and hotter. Phew – I could do with a couple of ice-blocks around me. Finally, to sleep. Up in the morning, my first thoughts, of your nearness and your distance from me, and the hope that I can race off these first six pages, to post this afternoon.

Chris (front row, third from left) with comrades in Rome in 1945

Unfortunately, there is no likelihood of my early return. I must be another year, I may be another three or four. Relax, my girl, or you’ll be a physical wreck in no time. Regard me as what you will, but don’t altogether forget circumstance, distance, environment.

I wonder what you look like (don’t have a special photograph taken). I know you haven’t a bus-back face but I have never looked at you as now I would. I wonder how many times I have seen you, and how many we have been alone. Now my foolish pulse races at the thought that you even have a figure. I want, very much, to touch you, to feel you, to see you as you naturally are, to hear you. I want to sleep and awaken with you. I want to live with you.

Let me know if you think I’m mad. When my signature dries I am going to kiss it. If you do the same, that will be a complete (unhygienic) circuit!



December 1945

Six months later, not long after Chris moved from Alexandria to Athens, he is taken prisoner by the Greek People’s Liberation Army. In London at the beginning of December 1944, with rockets falling, Bessie Moore waits for news.


So very worried about what is happening in Greece. On the news tonight it spoke of it spreading and seems to have become a battle, my worst suspicions of what the British Army went to Greece for are fulfilled. I don’t know how this is affecting you and whether the ordinary people are involved.

Darling, I have no complaints about your letters, I am too happy that it is my body that you want, that occupies your thoughts. If you didn’t write and tell me these things, I should suspect you of being interested in somebody else’s body.

Well, I am glad you have four blankets to keep you warm – if I was there you wouldn’t want any, you’d be hot enough.

It isn’t easy to express these things in words, but you have done it, you have moved me, right down, down to the foundations, you have accomplished what I shouldn’t have thought was possible, you have opened a vision of a new world, a new experience for me, I cannot help but be so very, very grateful to you.

I had to giggle about my “bravery” in bombed London. I live here, work here, and there isn’t anything else to do but live here and work here, and like most things up to a point, you get used to it. It’s one’s low resources that one has to be brave about, all one’s usual aches and pains get you down easily, any extra effort tires you out, but as we are all in the same boat, that isn’t so bad as it sounds, it’s communal you know, makes a difference, besides the battle fronts sound so much worse, I concentrate on that when I feel pathetic.

Am just listening to the 9 o’clock news and it’s most disheartening, it says it’s spreading not slackening. Oh! Dear! Christopher! I really can’t think of anything else, Darling, I do really want to be cheerful, but it’s so blooming difficult, Xmas! And you out there. I love you, I love you, I love you, and my heart is aching, it is so lonely and desolate without you.

Keep calm is my motto. But I do wish I knew how things were with you.

I Love You.


Chris and Bessie together

January 1945

At the end of January 1945, after two months of waiting, Bessie finally gets a telegram.

My Darling,

This is so wonderful. Oh Gosh! Christopher, I have just received your telegram – how can I tell you how beautiful the world is, contact again with you, contact with life.

Oh, darling of my heart, I did not realise what a benumbed state I had been reduced to. It took about a quarter of an hour to sink in. I did not whoop or prance but my knees went weak, my tummy turned over, since when I have been grinning happily to myself with a beautiful inward pleasure.

FREE, FIT and WELL, such wonderful words, the relief from these last weeks of possible sickness, you Blessed Darling, I just haven’t any words, no words Christopher, just all bubbles and tremblings.

I have not been able to look at your photos or read your letters, much too painful, but I have now, I have now. You have been with me in all these bad days. You are there, you are alive. You are in this world with me, we are together, we, we, we, US. Deep breath here!

Darling, I suppose there isn’t any chance of you coming home. I thought there might be a possibility, for Churchill said something about the prisoners coming home – don’t know whether that could mean all of you, or just the sick and wounded. Coo – just supposing.

Dearie me, things are looking up, though this business of Germany fighting to the last ditch sounds rather appalling. Some silly blighter, an MP too, was asking for indiscriminate bombing of Germany, I should have thought what was happening now was grim enough to satisfy even the most bloodthirsty.

I Love You.


Chris and Bessie married after the war, had two sons and lived long, happy lives together

January 29,1945

My Dearest One,

I have just heard the news that all the Army men taken POW are to return to their homes. Because of the shipping situation we may not commence to go before the end of February, but can probably count on being in England sometime in March. It may be sooner. It has made me very warm inside. It is terrific, wonderful, shattering.

I don’t know what to say, and I cannot think. The delay is nothing, the decision is everything. Now I am confirming in my head the little decisions I have made when contemplating just the possibility. I must spend the first days at home, I must see Deb and her Mother. I must consider giving a party somewhere. Above all, I must be with you. I must warm you, surround you, love you and be kind to you.

Tell me anything that is in your mind, write tons and tons and tons, and plan our time. I would prefer not to get married, but want you to agree on the point. In the battle, I was afraid. For you. For my Mother. For myself. Wait we must, my love and my darling. Let us meet, let us be, let us know, but do not let us, now, make any mistakes. I am anxious, very anxious, that you should not misunderstand what I have said. Say what you think – but – please agree, and remember I was afraid, and I am still afraid.

How good for us to see each other before I am completely bald! I have some fine little wisps of hair on the top of my head.

I love you.


February 6,1945

Darling, Darling, Darling,

This is what I have been waiting for, your freedom left me dumb and choked up, but now, oh now, I feel released. Oh Christopher, my dear, dear man, it is so, so wonderful. You are coming home. Golly, I shall have to be careful, all this excitement is almost too much for my body.

I must pinch myself, is it true? Yes, your LC says so, and now I have such a funny photo of you, with a little beard, but you look a little grim, as if you need loving, as if you need tenderness.

Marriage my sweet, yes I agree, what you wish, I wish. I want you to be happy in this darling, want to make you happy.

I Love You.


My Dear Bessie by Simon Garfield (Canongate £8.99) is available to order from Telegraph Books at £8.54 + £1.95 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or visit

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Pictures of the day: 12 February 2015

February 12th, 2015

Nasa astronaut Terry Virts tweeted this astonishingly beautiful photo of the British Isles with the aurora borealis glowing over ScotlandPicture: @astroterry

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A history of the world in funny puns

February 12th, 2015

For many of us, it’s a punderful life (pun: a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word or the fact that there are words which sound alike but have different meanings) and to mark the UK Pun championships, we present a history of the world in puns.

So here goes. Once a pun a time . . . it all started with THE BIG BANG, a theory which describes how the Universe began in a rapid expansion about 13.7 billion years ago. It is thought that all of space was created in this first moment. Expert and scientist Stephen Hawking (and who can put down his book about anti-gravity?) has even appeared in a cameo for American sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Here are some space puns:

  How does the Solar System hold up its trousers? With an asteroid belt

 What kinds of music do planets sing? Neptunes

 An astronaut broke the law of gravity and earned a suspended sentence

 That was a poor joke about infinity – it didn’t have an ending

Gallery compiled by Martin Chilton

Picture: Alamy

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Pictures of the day: 11 February 2015

February 11th, 2015

Tigger the pony and Joker the dog have become best friends.

Great dane Joker and miniature pony Tigger’s friendship blossomed when their owner Ronnie Jones introduced them at her stables. And now, despite getting unusual looks when Ronnie takes them for a walk, the pair are rarely separated.Picture: MIKE THOMAS / CATERS NEWS

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Top secret D-Day plans found hidden under hotel’s floorboards

February 10th, 2015

“They are quite detailed and specific orders to be followed by troops on the ground.”

The hotel caught fire in the 1970s, but miraculously the documents survived the huge blaze. One refers to ‘D-Day 1′ 7 July 1944 and mentioned difficulties in setting up a 10-mile telephone cable as troops advanced into France.

The Balmer Lawn Hotel as it looked during the Second World War (M&Y News)

A hotel spokesman said: “We are still in the process of evaluating the papers but some seem to include code on while others are more to do with the day-to-day organisation of the soldiers. One includes an invite to all personnel to attend a musical variety show.

“Perhaps of most interest are the documents that refer to the D-Day landings.

“One document refers to D-Day1 – June 7 1944 – and mentions difficulties in setting up a ten-mile telephone cable as troops continued advancing into northern France.”

The documents were dusty, dirty and in bad shape but still readable.

Some of the newly discovered secret documents relating to the D-Day landings (M&Y News)

Chris added: “They’re in a delicate condition and unscrunching them will have to be done very carefully. After that I imagine we’ll put them on display.”

The hotel’s military history pre-dates WWII. It was built as a private house and hunting lodge in 1800 and extended in 1850.

During the WWI it was used as a field hospital, with injured soldiers being wheeled there on luggage trolleys from Brockenhurst station.

During the 1940s conflict it transformed into an army staff college. Some of the orders for the D-Day invasion were issued from the hotel ahead of the landings on June 6 1944.

Famous people who visited the hotel during the two wars included King George V, Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower.

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Pictures of the day: 10 February 2015

February 10th, 2015

Rieke lies on a dipper changing table at the zoo in Berlin. The baby female orangutan was born on 12 January 2015, weighing 2.290 grammes.Picture: Ralf Hirschberger/Picture Alliance/Photoshot

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Pictures of the day: 9 February 2015

February 9th, 2015

And you are? A pride of lions come face to prickly face as they surround a porcupine in South Africa’s Kalahari DesertPicture: Philip Eglise/Hot Spot Media

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Dresden: The wounds have healed but the scars still show

February 8th, 2015

The city was quickly rebuilt. On Feb 13 1955, the restored Church of the Holy Cross (Kreuzkirche) was packed for its reconsecration. Thirty years later, a crowd of 200,000 gathered for the inauguration of the rebuilt opera house. And, 60 years after its ruins had become an icon of the city’s destruction, in 2005, the Frauenkirche reopened.

The contrast between the blackened original stones and their fresh, white counterparts serves as a permanent memorial. “Its wounds have healed,” says Rev Sebastian Feydt, pastor of the church. “But the scars still show.”

Wounded pride takes longer to heal. The flames that skipped through Dresden have long since died out, but the passions sparked that night burn on. As the city prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the raid on Friday, official talk is of reconciliation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, will deliver a sermon in the Frauenkirche, and the Duke of Kent will be presented with a prize for his efforts to reunite the old enemies.

Away from the town hall, some Dresdeners recoil from these overtures. Where once February 13 was a day of quiet contemplation, it has now become a violent clash of historical interpretations. Thousands of neo-Nazis march across the city, hijacking the anniversary to claim moral equivalence between the bombing and the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Even larger crowds of Left-wing activists throng the streets in turn, trying to blockade the fascists’ advance.

“We will sit down in the street to stop them demonstrating,” says Frank Kohler, a 19-year-old student who will take part in this week’s blockade for the third year running. “They can’t be allowed to abuse this date.”

Ursula Elsner at home in Comenius Strasse, Dresden with her husband Helmut (Craig Stennett/The Telegraph)

The commemorations have become so charged that editors of a local newspaper supplement charting the raids have spent days debating their choice of pictures. “Everything is political,” says Oliver Reinhard, heritage correspondent of the paper, Sächsische Zeitung. “If we just used pictures of the bombing, some people would ask ‘why don’t you show what the Nazis did, too?’?”

Dresden was never intended to become such a contested chapter of the Second World War. Many more civilians had died during a raid on Hamburg in July 1943, and by the time Dresden was bombed, most other German cities had already been targeted.

For Harry Irons, a rear gunner who flew 60 raids, the city was “just another target”. “It was nothing out of the ordinary,” says WO Irons, now 91, who lives in Romford. “I was used to seeing German cities going up in flames and losing my comrades night after night. What went through our minds was just to get there and to get back – we couldn’t have any feelings about it.”

Dresden bomber Harry Irons remembers raid 70 years on

Listening as I read out his comments, Mrs Elsner, who is now 84 but has never moved from Dresden, stays silent. At last, she nods. “From his perspective, of course,” she says. “But for me, that was the worst night of my life. The whole city became one enormous morgue.”

She and her seven-year-old brother, Dieter, had been celebrating Shrove Tuesday, and Dieter was still in fancy dress as a tomahawk-toting cowboy when the air-raid sirens began to sound. They sheltered in their cellar but when they began to be sprinkled with ash, they leapt over a burning timber to hurtle outside, Dieter still clutching his teddy bear.

In the street, sparks singed their hair and hands, but they survived: the families who remained in the cellar all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

“Everywhere around me was death and destruction,” says Mrs Elsner. “I most recall seeing the prams – the babies weren’t moving any more.”

Yet, even though she remembers that night every day, she is happy to forgive WO Irons and the rest of Bomber Command. “It was war,” she says. “We can’t talk about blame.”

The British veteran plans to fly to the city for the first time since 1945 later this year, and Mrs Elsner says she would happily invite him in for a cup of tea: there they might sit, with the Frauenkirche between them, the bomber and the bombed. “It’s difficult to be angry,” she says. “What good does it do to hold a grudge?”

Mrs Elsner is typical of many of the remaining survivors, who have reconciled themselves with their former enemy.

Warrant Officer Harry Irons, DFC, joined the RAF in 1940 at the age of 16 as a rear gunner, flying in Lancasters with No. 9 Squadron (Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph)

But their efforts to make peace with the past are being threatened by a younger generation determined to exploit the legacy of that night. The neo-Nazi march has been an annual fixture of the commemorations since the Nineties, so that the city that was destroyed in the battle against fascism is now the epicentre of its revival.

“They’re young and they don’t know what fascism is really like,” says Mrs Elsner. “The day is becoming more and more political. There’s the Right-wing here and the Left-wing there: the idea of remembrance is getting lost.”

WO Irons is also depressed by the sloganising that surrounds Dresden. The far-Right’s claim that the raid was a “bombing Holocaust”, an Allied war crime on a par with the Final Solution, used to trouble him.

“I had second thoughts about Dresden for years,” he says. “But last year I went to visit Auschwitz myself. Now I’ve seen it, my conscience is clear. We killed many civilians but we lost many men too. That was war – but Auschwitz was something else.”

The neo-Nazis are far from the only group seeking to exploit the sense of loss that pervades Dresden. Pegida, a far-Right movement of “patriotic Europeans” that began to target disenchanted Germans last year, has shied away from overt references to the bombing, but few think the choice of Dresden for its regular marches is coincidental.

“It ties in with the victimhood running through the city,” says Frederick Taylor, the historian and author of Dresden. “The unresolved trauma of 1945 provides a fertile ground for those kinds of feelings.”

This exploitation began even as the embers glowed. Nazi propagandists seized on the raid to paint a dark picture of the bombing campaign. Helped by its self-styled image as a “Florence on the Elbe”, they claimed the city as an innocent victim of a war crime, omitting to mention the 70,000 workers there who toiled in factories supplying the war effort, or the city’s significance as a centre of the railway network and a sizeable barracks.

This fiction continued under the communist regime of East Germany, which used the raid as a useful shorthand for Western aggression, and branded the bombers “air-raid gangsters”.

Such blatant propaganda fooled few, but some of the misinformation it generated has proved far more pervasive. Seven decades on, the death toll is still disputed, after years in which Nazi and GDR politicians, helped by revisionist British historians such as David Irving, claimed that as many as 500,000 Dresdeners died that night.

Even after an official commission of historians settled on the far lower figure of 25,000, the number is still contested, and government press releases about the commemorations explain their workings in lengthy footnotes.

“There are still a lot of people who say it must have been higher – it must have been 100,000,” says Matthias Rogg, of the Dresden Military History Museum. When he quoted the true figure in a newspaper interview to publicise a new exhibition about the bombing, he received hundreds of furious letters.

“I don’t think this will ever become just history,” he says, detailing the emotions still stirred by any reference to the raid. “The debate will never end.”

One uncomfortable truth is sometimes overlooked in all the furore.

“You have to ask the question of responsibility,” says Col Rogg, pointing to a skyline that once again resembles the landscape in Ursula Elsner’s apartment. “The war started in Germany. And, that night, it came back to us.”

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