The bombing of Dresden in WWII has become regarded as one of the most questionable, problematic and infamous events of the war. As will be discussed in this essay, the bombing needs to be regarded within the wider context of the Allied campaign against Germany, in which Britain and America had long used the tactic of "area bombing"…
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It also, in the long run at least, exposed the fact that the Allied forces culminated WWII using the very tactics that they had once condemned.
An analysis of whether the bombing of Dresden was "justified" needs to start with an examination of whether the whole concept of "area bombing" was justified. Area bombing was first suggested by Charles Portal, of the British Air Staff, in 1941. The destruction of whole cities was thought to be an effective manner of quickly breaking civilian morale. Among cities that had been attacked since 1942 included Bremen, Frankfurt and Cologne. One method to effectively destroy large cities was the dropping of bombs filled with highly flammable materials such as magnesium, phosphorus and petroleum jelly - the so-called incendiary bomb. The area would catch fire, hot air rose rapidly and colder air form outside created gale force winds that would literally suck people into the flames.
The justification for such tactics, both in general, and in particular with Dresden, was based upon a kind of moral relativism in which a country involved in a Total War against an implacable enemy would adopt any tactics necessary in order to win. The same 'morality' was involved in the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan with Atomic weapons. Within the general milieu of WWII the bombing of Dresden was no different from any of these other firebombing campaigns. The military justification for the bombing was formulated as early as January, 1945 in the following memo:
Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest unbombed built-up the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium. The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance, and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
A close reading of this memo is revealing. The opening sentence seems to be trying to provide a reason for the bombing through stressing the fact that Dresden is not much smaller than Manchester, and that it is one of the last German cities that had not been bombed.
As a city it represents a place that, the memo admits "refugees" are flocking towards as they fled the rapidly advancing Russians. The fact that soldiers may be going there too seems almost an afterthought. The triptych of reasons for the coming bombing seems almost light-hearted in the manner in which it moves from one motivation to another. The last one, that the bombing will show the Russians what the combined British and US air forces are capable of (as if they didn't already know) seems utterly callous, and makes Dresden merely a pawn in one of the precursors to the coming Cold War. This memo seems to be searching for a motivation rather than providing a balanced analysis of whether Dresden should be bombed or not. As such, it would seem to suggest that the actual people who undertook the bombing, the RAF, had little justification themselves.
In his autobiography, written after WWII was over, Arthur Harris provided both a specific and general explanation for the bomb
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