Posts Tagged ‘Dresden’

David Cameron defends Second World War RAF ‘heroes’ of Dresden raid

February 19th, 2015

The comments sparked criticism from Tory MPs who called the remarks “bizarre” and “an insult” to the young men who risked their lives.

“On the issue of the work of Bomber Command in the Second World War, I think that Bomber Command played an absolutely vital role in our war effort,” Mr Cameron said in a question and answer session at the Port of Felixstowe.

“One of the things I was very proud to do as Prime Minister was to make sure the people who served in Bomber Command got proper recognition with a new clasp on their medals.

“And it was a great honour to hand out some of those medals to people who have waited for many, many years for the recognition I think they deserve.

“I’m very lucky to occasionally get to jog around St James Park in London and I always stop and look up at the Bomber Command memorial that has been so recently built and dedicated and stop and think about those very brave people who took enormous risks with incredible loss of life on our behalf to save Europe, to save Britain from fascism, from Hitler.

The Bomber Command monument in Green Park (ALAMY)

“To me the people who served in bomber command are heroes of our country and they played a very important role in the Second World War.”

Up to 25,000 civilians were killed in a vast firestorm with hurricane-strength winds during the raid of 13-15 February 1945. Critics have said the raid, the most controversial British action of the war, was needless, given the closeness of victory. Defenders of the raid point to the large number of German armament factories in the city.

The comments contrasted with the tone taken by Archbishop Welby at a service to remember the bombings earlier this month.

“Much debate surrounds this most controversial raid of the allied bombing campaign. Whatever the arguments, events here 70 years ago left a deep wound and diminished all our humanity. So as a follower of Jesus I stand here among you with a profound feeling of regret and deep sorrow,” he said.

Tory MP Philip Davies criticised the comments, saying: “These remarks do sound to me like an apology. For the Archbishop to make an apology for our defeat of Hitler is bizarre. 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.”


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Dresden was a civilian town with no military significance. Why did we burn its people?

February 16th, 2015

Chief of the Air Staff Charles Portal had calculated that bombing civilians could kill 900,000 in 18 months, seriously injure a million more, destroy six million homes, and “de-house” 25 million, creating a humanitarian crisis that, he believed, would speed up the war.

This thinking was not trumpeted from the rooftops. But in November 1941 the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command said he had been intentionally bombing civilians for a year. “I mention this because, for a long time, the Government, for excellent reasons, has preferred the world to think that we still held some scruples and attacked only what the humanitarians are pleased to call Military Targets. I can assure you, gentlemen, that we tolerate no scruples.”

The debate over this strategy of targeting civilians is still hotly contentious and emotional, in Britain and abroad. There is no doubting the bravery, sacrifice, and suffering of the young men who flew the extraordinarily dangerous missions: 55,573 out of Bomber Command’s 125,000 flyers never came home. The airmen even nicknamed their Commander-in-Chief “Butcher” Harris, highlighting his scant regard for their survival.

Supporters of Britain’s “area bombing” (targeting civilians instead of military or industrial sites) maintain that it was a vital part of the war. Churchill wrote that he wanted “absolutely devastating, exterminating attacks by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland”. In another letter he called it “terror bombing”. His aim was to demoralise the Germans to catalyse regime change. Research suggests that the soaring homelessness levels and family break ups did indeed depress civilian morale, but there is no evidence it helped anyone prise Hitler’s cold hand off the wheel.

Others maintain that it was ghastly, but Hitler started it so needed to be answered in a language he understood. Unfortunately, records show that the first intentional “area bombing” of civilians in the Second World War took place at Monchengladbach on 11 May 1940 at Churchill’s orders (the day after he dramatically became prime minister), and four months before the Luftwaffe began its Blitz of British cities.

Not everyone was convinced by city bombing. Numerous military and church leaders voiced strong opposition. Freemason Dyson, now one of Britain’s most eminent physicists, worked at Bomber Command from 1943-5. He said it eroded his moral beliefs until he had no moral position at all. He wanted to write about it, but then found the American novelist Kurt Vonnegut had said everything he wanted to say.

Like Gregg, Vonnegut had been a prisoner in Dresden that night. He claimed that only one person in the world derived any benefit from the slaughterhouse — him, because he wrote a famous book about it which pays him two or three dollars for every person killed.

Germany’s bombing of British cities was equally abhorrent. Germany dropped 35,000 tons on Britain over eight months in 1940-1 killing an estimated 39,000. (In total, the UK and US dropped around 1.9 million tons on Germany over 7 years.)

Bombing German cities clearly did have an impact on the war. The question, though, is how much. The post-war US Bombing Survey estimated that the effect of all allied city bombing probably depleted the German economy by no more than 2.7 per cent.

Allowing for differences of opinion on the efficacy or necessity of “area bombing” in the days when the war’s outcome remained uncertain (arguably until Stalingrad in February 1943), the key question on today’s anniversary remains whether the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 was militarily necessary — because by then the war was definitely over. Hitler was already in his bunker playing out his final absurd fantasies. The British and Americans were at the German border after winning D-Day the previous summer, while the Russians under Zhukov and Konev were well inside eastern Germany and racing pell-mell to Berlin.

Dresden was a civilian town without military significance. It had no material role of any sort to play in the closing months of the war. So, what strategic purpose did burning its men, women, old people, and children serve? Churchill himself later wrote that “the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing”.

Seventy years on, fewer people ask precisely which military objective justified the hell unleashed on Dresden. If there was no good strategic reason for it, then not even the passage of time can make it right, and the questions it poses remain as difficult as ever in a world in which civilians have continued to suffer unspeakably in the wars of their autocratic leaders.


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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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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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Dresden bomber Harry Irons remembers raid 70 years on

February 8th, 2015

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.

On the night of February 13th 1945, two waves of RAF bombers, followed by the USAAF, dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the German city.

An estimated 25,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the resulting inferno that took place in the final months of the Second World War.

Although the raids had military objectives, the devastation was controversial.

Watch Mr Irons’ account of his experience of the raid, 70 years ago.

Mr Irons recalls his time with the RAF. Photo: Anthony Upton

Photographs and medals belonging to Mr Irons. Photo Anthony Upton

Mr Irons was involved in around 60 bombing raids during the Second World War. Photo: Anthony Upton


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