The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945 by Sinclair McKay

An American socialite who was being “finished” in Europe in 1909 recorded that Dresden impressed her more than any other city, and was “infinitely superior to Paris or Berlin so far as climate, pretty surroundings, opportunity for artistic and musical education”. More sophisticated folk conferred less banal praise, recalling that Hamlet was first performed in Dresden just 10 years after Shakespeare’s death; that its baroque churches and Old Master collections ranked among the finest in the world; and that 20th-century painters such as Emil Nolde and Otto Dix had incubated their genius there. Dresden-born Erich Kastner, author of the children’s classic Emil and the Detectives, wrote of it: “History, art and nature intermingled in town and valley in an incomparable accord.”

By 1945, however, even before the bombers came, spectres were haunting the city. Its Jewish population had shrunk from 6,000 to 198, among whom was the peerless diarist Victor Klemperer. Factories feeding the Nazi war machine were sustained by slave labour, including that of the American PoW Kurt Vonnegut, later the author of Slaughterhouse-Five. On February 8, Margarete Blank, a 43-year-old country doctor, was guillotined in the city’s courthouse yard: while treating an officer’s children, she had expressed scepticism about Germany’s prospects of winning the war.

Out with a Bang

The first 70 pages of Sinclair McKay’s narrative offer a lyrical vision of Dresden, both light and shade, on the morning of February 13, 1945, before more than 1,000 British and American aircraft opened their bomb doors over the city. The author, who achieved bestsellerdom with his earlier account of Bletchley Park’s codebreakers, has here written a much more troubled and troubling book, about one of the most controversial events of the Second World War.

He quotes the January 18, 1945, memorandum of RAF Bomber Command’s chieftain Sir Arthur Harris, who was obsessed with completing the incineration of Germany before peace brought the expiration of his licence to burn: “The next three months will be our last opportunity to knock out the central and eastern industrial areas” — Dresden and Leipzig notable among them. “The consummation of three years’ work depends on achieving their destruction. It is our last chance, and it would have more effect on the war than anything else.”

Name of the game: Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris in the bombing-interpretation room.

This was almost deranged nonsense. It was wildly implausible that continuing to wreck German cities could influence the last gasps of the Nazi war effort. But McKay’s otherwise powerful book says little about the forces that allowed Harris to continue on his unswervingly brutal course. The first of those forces was industrial determinism: the fact that, as a result of decisions taken four years earlier, in wholly different circumstances, Britain now possessed a vast heavy-bomber force. While Germans were still resisting desperately, killing allied soldiers, not to mention Jews and a host of others, it was unthinkable to stand down Harris’s squadrons.

It was wildly implausible that continuing to wreck German cities could influence the last gasps of the Nazi war effort.

More than five years of war, together with the unspeakable crimes of the Nazis in which millions of Germans were complicit, had coarsened the sensitivities of allied leaders, who had come to regard the bomber offensive as the new normal. Winston Churchill urged more raids in the east, to impress the Russians.

As for the allied aircrew, McKay writes: “Dresden’s attackers were young men who had been granted the most extraordinary power, although it did not feel to them like that… They did not see themselves as avengers. Perhaps after flying so many missions and facing so much enemy fire, and inexplicably surviving where so many friends and comrades had been consumed in molten explosions — perhaps after all that, the capability to imagine all those people thousands of feet below as living individuals had simply been cauterised.”

Dresden’s Ruin

McKay focuses on what Dresden was before February 13-15, and what it became thereafter. He says relatively little about the detail of the raids — USAAF Flying Fortresses followed the RAF’s Lancasters in four attacks, dropping 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, and unleashing a firestorm that engulfed its centre — correctly judging that there is nothing fresh to say. But there is rage in his ink, as he describes the destruction of the 18th-century Catholic cathedral, whose crypts contained the remains of Saxon kings and princes: “This was not a factory producing optical equipment, or spare parts for planes or tanks. This was a holy place that had held onto its own unique life even through the coming of Hitler. The effect of its destruction — upon those left to see it — would be that of simple despair and fury as opposed to crushed morale.”

Residents start the first cleanup work after the bombing. Despite the thousands of lives lost, Harris never expressed regret for the attack.

Some 25,000 people perished in the firestorm that raged through the city. I have never seen it better described. McKay writes of the fate of the magnificent domed Lutheran Frauenkirche on the evening of February 14, amid “the fires that had washed through the city… As dusk fell the soot-blackened sandstone could in places be seen glowing with a dull ruby light… There was a sound like that of an old ship creaking and yawing, as though swaying in the night”, until at last the entire structure collapsed.

More than five years of war, together with the unspeakable crimes of the Nazis, had coarsened the sensitivities of allied leaders.

McKay’s book grips by its passion and originality — there is no “wizard prang stuff” here. I wrote more than 40 years ago that Dresden’s destruction was unjustified, and many people in Britain displayed an unprecedented horror in the aftermath of the attack. Harris, however, remained impenitent and indeed defiant. In March 1945 he penned a furious letter to the supreme allied commander General Dwight Eisenhower, complaining that Bomber Command was being denied rightful credit for the devastation it had encompassed: “We have virtually destroyed some 63 amongst the leading industrial towns in Germany and vastly damaged a great many more.” He expressed disgust that some war correspondents were attributing to artillery fire the mountains of rubble they encountered. He asserted that his crews felt “considerable bitterness” about the alleged lack of appreciation for their achievement.

Every society that engages in a war becomes morally compromised. This befell the allies in the Second World War, and the fate of Dresden represented a significant portion of their fall from grace. Harris should have been sacked in 1944, for flouting repeated instructions to shift his force to precision targets. Yet I have more sympathy than does the author for the judgments and errors made by war leaders in desperate circumstances. War is hideous, total war supremely so. It sounds flippant to say that Dresden was destroyed because it had become easy to destroy, but this is so. For four years, Bomber Command had been attempting to inflict the same fate on scores of other urban centres. Posterity recoils, but we should not allow an air campaign sincerely intended to hasten allied victory — the liberation of Europe — to be weighed in any moral balance against the genocidal crimes of the Nazis.