The Day Dresden Perished

PETER and ANN FROST tell the story of the destruction of Dresden – one of the worst incidents of World War II – and their inspiring visit to the city many years later (Morning Star)

DresdenTHE carpet-bombing of Dresden 70 years ago this weekend and just four months before the end of the war remains one of the most controversial events of WWII.

On the nights of the February 13-15 1945 Allied bombers launched four raids on Dresden. In those three days 722 RAF bombers and 527 US aircraft dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the city.

The resulting firestorm destroyed over 1,600 acres of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. 

Estimates of just how many people were killed vary widely. Figures ranging between 25,000 and leading nazi Hermann Goering’s claim of 250,000 have been argued about ever since.

The most accepted figure in the 70 years since the war has been 100,000 to 120,000 dead. Modern historians tend to use a figure of 25,000 — perhaps to underplay the accusations that this was a war crime.

Even this revised total needs to be compared with figures from some other bombing raids.

The Blitz on Coventry much earlier in the war killed 600. Fifty-seven consecutive nights of Luftwaffe bombing of various British cities starting on 7 September 1940 killed 40,000 civilians, 28,000 of them in London. 

The two nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 150,000. Many more would die later of radiation disease.

The famous Dam Buster raids on German hydroelectric dams drowned 15,000. Raids on Hamburg killed 40,000. 

So why was Dresden, totally untouched until this point late in the war, chosen for such an enormous and destructive raid? It was known for making fine ceramics and cigarettes rather than armaments.

Was it, as some historians have suggested, a cruel experiment ordered by Churchill to create a huge firestorm so as to calculate the awesome destructive forces that nuclear weapons might unleash?

Was it simply the action of an out-of-control Arthur “Bomber” Harris — Britain’s head of RAF Bomber Command — and his desire to destroy anything German whatever the price in brave young British bomber crews’ lives?

Or was it a cynical propaganda stunt by Churchill to threaten Joseph Stalin and show him what forces might be brought to bear when Britain and the Soviet Union ceased to be allies after victory over Germany? Certainly the briefing notes issued to RAF crews just before the raid seems to suggest exactly that.

The official note spelt it out: “The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most … and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.”

Historically, Dresden, Saxony, had been northern Germany’s cultural centre — a city filled with museums and historic buildings. The Zwinger Palace and the Frauenkirche Cathedral were world famous. Dresden was known as Elbflorenz — Florence on the Elbe.

By February 1945, Dresden was filled with refugees fleeing as the Red Army approached the German border. Nazi anti-Bolshevik propaganda was full of horror stories of what to expect if the Red Army reached Germany. 

Officially, the city’s population was 350,000. Refugees had swelled it to nearer a million and a half. This huge and unregulated population was one of the main reasons we have no accurate estimate of casualty figures. 

Many of the bombs that were dropped were phosphorus incendiary bombs. These created a huge firestorm. As the city burned more oxygen was sucked in. Temperatures reached 1,000°C, totally cremating human bodies. 

After the raid, nazi troops spent two weeks burning heaps of bodies and body parts in the city’s Old Square. 

Rebuilding of the city began in the 1950s. 

Twenty years after the raid, in 1965, Ann Frost — then Ann Westbury — joined a Challenge Magazine Young Communist League (YCL) working holiday to Dresden to help with the rebuilding. The holiday group were part of an international reconciliation movement that developed around the destruction of the city.

We set off on the boat train from London and then on across Europe. Our train reached East Berlin where we got off to have our papers checked on this, one of Europe’s most contentious border crossings. The US troops guarding the border could not believe that we wanted to visit the communist East.

Each of us YCL members had paid £25 for the three-week working holiday. That included the train fare. We actually received a small amount of pocket money from our German hosts.

We worked on what would become building sites. In the firestorm the city had lost all its documents, maps, plans and details of underground services. Our job was to carefully dig, uncovering this subterranean infrastructure.

We stayed in a huge sports college with amazing medical facilities — they gave every one of us a full medical. I had my blood pressure taken for the very first time and slept under a duvet. I had never seen one before. 

We got up early and worked all morning only pausing for that popular German custom, the second breakfast. I discovered German bread and sausage — both excellent — and this was in the days before Lidl! 

Afternoons were for relaxing, perhaps beside the pretty lake near the college grounds, or we would be taken to a place of interest.

We visited the spectacular mountain eyries of Saxon Switzerland, a collective farm and the already totally rebuilt Zwinger Palace. It was a glorious summer and outdoor beer garden visits were popular too. 

Our hosts also took us to some pretty beech woods where, between 1937 and 1944, the nazis had played out a series of disgraceful social experiments and political travesties.

You may know these beech woods better by their German translated name, Buchenwald. This was one of the first and largest concentration camps established by the nazis.

Most of the early inmates at Buchenwald were communists and other political prisoners. After Kristallnacht in 1938 10,000 Jews were also sent there.

In 1944, nazi doctor Carl Vaernet began experiments at the camp. He claimed he could cure homosexual inmates. Other medical experiments involved giving prisoners contagious diseases. Most died. 

We discovered that in August 1944 Ernst Thaelmann, a former chairman of the Communist Party of Germany, had been murdered at Buchenwald. 

Our evenings were spent in various workers’ clubs. The hospitality was amazing. We drank vast quantities of wonderful German beer from huge glass boots. They fed us on all kinds of local delicacies. In return we sang them — not too well I’m afraid — our best efforts at Beatles songs.

My husband Peter and I have been back to Dresden a number of times since. It’s a fabulous city with so much to see and do. Fine buildings, elegant fountains, handsome churches, paddle steamers on the Elbe, zither players on street corners and curious funiculars that climb through the town. 

Around the town there are narrow-gauge steam railways that trundle you to the ski slopes or the summer nude bathing lakes. More lakes and endless forests with wild harvests of mushrooms and berries are on the doorstep.

Today we find Germans hospitality as incredible as ever, but sadly neonazi groups like Pegida still march through Dresden streets. 

A very few Germans, it seems, have learnt nothing. Neither East nor West really dealt with the nation’s responsibility and guilt for nazi horrors.

Despite that, Dresden is still worth a visit. It’s so positive, so cultural, so exciting. The streets are full of life, love, music and laughter. 

Oh yes, and did I mention? I helped to rebuild this wonderful place!

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