World War II: The Bombing of Dresden

Ruins of Dresden
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-Z0309-310 / G. Beyer

The Bombing of Dresden took place Feb. 13-15, 1945, during World War II (1939-1945).

By the beginning of 1945, German fortunes looked bleak. Though checked at the Battle of the Bulge in the west and with the Soviets pressing hard on the Eastern Front, the Third Reich continued to mount a stubborn defense. As the two fronts began to near, the Western Allies began to consider plans for using strategic bombing to assist the Soviet advance. In January 1945, the Royal Air Force began to consider plans for the widespread bombing of cities in eastern Germany. When consulted, the head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris, recommended attacks against Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz.

Pressed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal Sir Charles Portal, agreed that cities should be bombed with the goal of disrupting German communications, transportation, and troop movements, but stipulated that these operations should be secondary to strategic attacks on factories, refineries, and shipyards. As a result of the discussions, Harris was ordered to prepare attacks on Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz as soon as weather conditions allowed. With planning moving forward, further discussion of attacks in eastern Germany occurred at the Yalta Conference in early February.

During talks in Yalta, the Deputy Chief of the Soviet General Staff, General Aleksei Antonov, inquired about the possibility of using the bombing to hinder German troop movements through hubs in eastern Germany. Among the list of targets discussed by Portal and Antonov were Berlin and Dresden. In Britain, planning for the Dresden attack moved forward with the operation calling for daylight bombing by the US Eighth Air Force followed by night strikes by Bomber Command. Though much of Dresden's industry was in suburban areas, planners targeted the city center with the goal crippling its infrastructure and causing chaos.

Allied Commanders

Why Dresden

The largest remaining unbombed city in the Third Reich, Dresden was Germany's seventh-largest city and a cultural center known as the "Florence on the Elbe." Though a center for the arts, it was also one of Germany's largest remaining industrial sites and contained over 100 factories of various sizes. Among these were facilities for producing poison gas, artillery, and aircraft components. In addition, it was a key rail hub with lines running north-south to Berlin, Prague, and Vienna as well as east-west Munich and Breslau (Wroclaw) and Leipzig and Hamburg.

Dresden Attacked

The initial strikes against Dresden were to have been flown by the Eighth Air Force on February 13. These were called off due to poor weather and it was left to Bomber Command to open the campaign that night. To support the attack, Bomber Command dispatched several diversionary raids designed to confuse the German air defenses. These struck targets in Bonn, Magdeburg, Nuremberg, and Misburg. For Dresden, the attack was to come in two waves with the second three hours after the first. This approach was designed to catch German emergency response teams exposed and increase casualties.

This first group of aircraft to depart was a flight of Avro Lancaster bombers from 83 Squadron, No. 5 Group which were to serve as the Pathfinders and were tasked with finding and lighting the target area. They were followed by a group of De Havilland Mosquitoes which dropped 1000 lb. target indicators to mark the aiming points for the raid. The main bomber force, consisting of 254 Lancasters, departed next with a mixed load of 500 tons of high explosives and 375 tons of incendiaries. Dubbed "Plate Rock," this force crossed into Germany near Cologne.

As the British bombers approached, air raid sirens began sounding in Dresden at 9:51 PM. As the city lacked adequate bomb shelters, many civilians hid in their basements. Arriving over Dresden, Plate Rock began dropping its bombs at 10:14 PM. With the exception of one aircraft, all of the bombs were dropped within two minutes. Though a night fighter group at Klotzsche airfield had scrambled, they were unable to be in position for thirty minutes and the city was essentially undefended as the bombers struck. Landing in a fan-shaped area over a mile long, the bombs ignited a firestorm in the city center.

Subsequent Attacks

Approaching Dresden three hours later, Pathfinders for the 529-bomber second wave decided to expand the target area and dropped their markers on both sides of the firestorm. Areas hit by the second wave include the Großer Garten park and the city's main train station, Hauptbahnhof. Fire consumed the city through the night. The next day, 316 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses from the Eighth Air Force attacked Dresden. While some groups were able to aim visually, others found their targets obscured and were forced to attack using H2X radar. As a result, the bombs were widely dispersed over the city.

The next day, American bombers again returned to Dresden. Departing on February 15, the Eighth Air Force's 1st Bombardment Division intended to strike the synthetic oil works near Leipzig. Finding the target clouded over, it proceeded to its secondary target which was Dresden. As Dresden was also covered by clouds, the bombers attacked using H2X scattering their bombs over the southeastern suburbs and two nearby towns.

Aftermath of Dresden

The attacks on Dresden effectively destroyed over 12,000 buildings in the city's old town and inner eastern suburbs. Among the military targets destroyed were the Wehrmacht's headquarters and several military hospitals. In addition, several factories were badly damaged or destroyed. Civilian deaths numbered between 22,700 and 25,000. Responding to the Dresden bombing, the Germans expressed outrage stating that it was a city of culture and that no war industries were present. In addition, they claimed that over 200,000 civilians had been killed.

The German propaganda proved effective in influencing attitudes in neutral countries and led some in Parliament to question the policy of area bombing. Unable to confirm or refute the German claims, senior Allied officials distanced themselves from the attack and began to debate the necessity of continuing area bombing. Though the operation caused fewer casualties than the 1943 bombing of Hamburg, the timing was called into question as the Germans were clearly heading towards defeat. In the years after the war, the necessity of the Dresden bombing was officially investigated and widely debated by leaders and historians. An inquiry conducted by US Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall found that the raid was justified based on the intelligence available. Regardless, the debate over the attack continues and it is viewed as one of the more controversial actions of World War II.


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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The Bombing of Dresden." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: The Bombing of Dresden. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: The Bombing of Dresden." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).