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This month in history: The firebombing of Dresden

ELLSWORTH AFB, S.D. -- One of the most controversial series of attacks in the entire conflict spanning World War II was carried out in February, 1945, on the culturally significant and ancient German city of Dresden.

Four bombing raids conducted by British and American air power dropped nearly 4,000 tons of conventional and incendiary bombs on the German city and eventually destroyed 15 square miles of the city center and caused between 25,000 - 35,000 casualties.
The raids have long since been a contentious subject between analysts and military historians.

"Several historians and human rights advocates contend the bombing of Dresden was on par with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan," said Ryan Warner, 28th Bomb Wing historian. "Some insist it was a war crime, while others contend it was in the same arena as the Jewish Holocaust.

"The interesting issue is that this bombing campaign receives just as much, if not more, historical debate than the atomic bombs in Japan."

Mr. Warner said one of the main reasons for the controversy was the recent development of a tactic called "firestorms," which involved filling a bomb canister with magnesium, phosphorous and petroleum jelly.

This was essentially the forerunner of napalm.

"The chemistry and physics involved in 'firestorm' tactics are especially horrendous," Mr. Warner said. "The air above the target became an inferno and the heat caused the air to rise.

"Meanwhile, cold air rushed in from the ground. The concentration of high buildings in Dresden and the large amount of bombers churning up the air above the city produced a 'tornado' effect. There are actually eyewitness accounts of people being plucked from the ground and sucked into the flames," Mr. Warner said.

One survivor shared her story with British historians on just such an occurrence.

According to a British Web site dedicated to military historical research, a Dresden resident, Margaret Freyer, said she recalled seeing a woman to her left, fleeing the attack and carrying "a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire."

Despite the horrors of war inflicted on Dresden, and the debates and controversy that followed, Ellsworth's historian explained the attacks did help end a world war.

"Air Force historians researched and analyzed the bombing of Dresden and concluded it was a military necessity to bomb the city," said Mr. Warner. "Exigent military circumstances brought about legitimate ends; German military units were sufficiently close and the city was considered defended."

Mr. Warner said the Dresden raids were comparable, in historical terms, to other massive and destructive air raids at the time. Despite the horrors of the firebombing tactic in a metropolitan area, the military objectives were achieved and the city, despite its ancient architecture and cultural importance, was a legitimate target by 1944 standards.

"One hundred-ten factories in the city supported the Nazi war machine," Mr. Warner explained. "Industrial capabilities included facilities for manufacturing bomb sights, anti-aircraft guns, small arms, poison gas, aircraft engines, as well as several mechanical parts."

Dresden was certainly not alone in it being a target of Allied bombers trying to end the most destructive war in history.

"The bombing of Dresden was commensurate with other attacks on Axis powers and no excessive means were brought about exclusively for this mission," Mr. Warner said. "Several other attacks on German and Japanese cities produced exponentially more casualties than the bombing of the city of Dresden.

"For instance, a raid on Tokyo on March 9, 1945, inflicted over 100,000 civilian casualties."

The Dresden raids have long been the subject of historical debate and Mr. Warner said he estimates the debates will continue.

More information from the British accounts of these bombing raids can be found at Further details from this period of American bomber heritage can be obtained by contacting the 28th Bomb Wing Historian's office by calling (605) 385-6430.