Review by Dick Herman
Firestorm: Allied Airpower and the Destruction of Dresden br>
Marshall De Bruhl br>
Every August, there are somber public anniversaries in Japan and the United States. Candles are prayerfully lit. Paper swans are released to float on peaceful waters. Bells intone. The events once more mark the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its 71,379 direct casualties. Only days later during that unhappy August 62 years ago, the same lethal, one-bomb fate was visited on Nagasaki. We all recognize that the world has never been quite the same.
If there are comparable annual observances of the most notorious bombing of World War II in Europe, such affairs must be low key and relatively provincial. We don't hear of them. Do the Dutch toll the terror-torching of Rotterdam? It was the worst, for a time. What happened, subsequently, to cities in the Soviet Union deserves recounting.
But in the history books of destruction on the Continent, the firestorm that engulfed the German city of Dresden Feb. 13-14, 1945, as a consequence of three waves of bomber attacks will ever have a place, a controversial place. Was the deliberate Allied raid on what was considered a defenseless city necessary? Did it speed the end of the war? How greatly did it assist Russian combat forces slugging out, at no great distance away, to reach Berlin? The Russians had been urging bombing of everything ahead of their advance-uniformed German forces, columns of refugees trying to escape, arms and war material.
In a very general way, the collective consciousness of Americans today-if they have any of such events-about Dresden was malformed years ago. Mainly, two books shaped us, Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel Slaughterhouse-Five
and David Irving's The Destruction of Dresden
. Irving's work was the first really celebrated nonfictional account of the firestorm, stoking misjudgments that linger still. What Marshall De Bruhl here supplies serious readers is a much more comprehensive, more accurate and more balanced account of the Great Raid, the wartime strategies, and the pressures on political and uniformed leaders in England and the United States. For anyone building a personal library about airpower at killing levels in World War II, this would be a preferred single volume.
Planning in 1944 for Operation Thunderclap contemplated Berlin as the target of nonstop saturation raids. By then all restraints against bombing civilians in terror attacks, by all sides, had crumbled.
German attacks on undefended British cities, such as Coventry, came early on. They were followed up by punishing, civilian-killing incendiary raids on London and finally V-1 (Buzz Bomb) attacks from across the Nazi-protected English Channel. Central London survived, but the capital's east end was ravaged. Understandably, revenge against the Germans was not a negligible element in Winston Churchill's Great Britain.
But would Hitler have surrendered if his population centers were smashed by Allied bombers, the Royal Air Force at night and the U.S. Air Force during daylight hours? The long view stretching across the years tells us that didn't do the trick. Knocking out enemy oil facilities and communication centers made a greater strategic sense.
American B-17s and B-24s had engaged in attacking Berlin from the air when circumstances made such morale-lifting missions possible. And Dresden itself was bombed in October 1944 and January 1945, but only because the primary tactical targets of those particular 8th Air Force missions were missed, and the bomb loads had to be dropped somewhere.
As planned, the first wave of Operation Thunderclap was supposed to be a daylight strike by the Amer?icans. Weather changed the national batting order. Two hundred and forty-four nocturnal British Lan?casters, with 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries, went first. Precisely three hours later came the second RAF wave, freighting tons of high explosives and incendiaries. Dresden already was a pillar of flame and smoke when the USAir Corps B-17s arrived in the morning, adding emphasis to the firestorm.
De Bruhl makes a reasonable argument that the death toll in Desden was around 35,000, not the emotionally inflated totals first claimed by David Irving. We shall never know the true sum. Whatever it was, the number is ghastly.
An involuntary American witness on the horrific scene was Indiana-raised Kurt Vonnegut. He and other GIs, captured in the Battle of the Bulge, had been imprisoned in Dresden's below-ground meat lockers; hence, the "slaughterhouse."
If Vonnegut earlier had not been such a profound critic of the madness of war, along the scathing line of Mark Twain, the incredible experience of coming up from that Dresden prison and being ordered to help stack bodies would have been a life-searing time.
Did that single, signal event make Vonnegut the iconoclastic novelist he became in our post-war years? Maybe not, but it certainly had to contribute.
In the 21st century, a bloody and depressing venue that is our home, sky-filling bomber fleets of World War II (and even Vietnam to some degree) are only museum pieces. You can visit them between Lincoln and Omaha. There are no more gaudy, active-duty legends such as General Curtis Lemay and Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris. There's no need for them. Not when Shock and Awe can be pinpointed and delivered from a distance by remote control, killing dozens, killing hundreds, killing thousands.