Dead, dead, dead everywhere ...
13th February 1945 - Dresden following the Allied bombing raids.
'I spent all the daylight hours which followed in the town searching for my fiancé. I looked for him among the dead, because hardly any living beings were to be seen anywhere. What I saw is so horrific that I shall hardly be able to describe it. Dead, dead, dead everywhere. Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched, lying as if they were asleep. Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other.
From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. The static water-tanks were filled up to the top with dead human beings, with large pieces of masonry lying on top of that again. Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies. People whose clothes were still glowing ... I think I was incapable of absorbing the meaning of this cruelty anymore, for there were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated; and all the people lying so close together that it looked as if someone had put them down there, street by street, deliberately' - Eyewitness account by Dresden resident Margrey Freyer.
'Dresden was one experience among many for us. At briefing, we were told it was a communications centre for the Russian Front. I think we knew, and were told, that it was to help, and still more impress, the Russians with the power of Bomber Command. Yalta had just occured. It was deep in, deeper than Berlin, so there was smaller chance of survival. I wished it had been Cologne or even the Ruhr.
The target was lit up a long way ahead, but nothing very special. The weather was good. My main memory is of coming down for a better view. I couldn't identify the aiming point, which must be why I came down to 5,000 feet - just above the blast range of our 4000lb bombs. I can still see one picture distinctly: there was a platz flanked by a fine building, and some gabled houses suggestive of south Germany. There was a mass of smoke (to the east?) and an industrial area (to the west?) clear of smoke. The city was distinctly lit up. I saw people in the streets, I saw a dog rush across a road - and felt sorry for it (is that absurd?). I was busy, keeping the bombing from going away from the main line and allowing for creep back.
The uniqueness of Dresden for me was coming down, because it needed it. I had a good aircraft, there seemed to be no opposition. So coming down, I saw much more; it was more intimate. All these raids were pretty horrifying though.
We went to Dresden with the usual sinking feeling of personal fear, suppressed by busying ourselves with our technical tasks, in the usual ignorance of why our masters chose this target and briefed on the matter only so far as was relevant to destroying what they wanted to destroy' - Eyewitness account by master bomber for the first RAF attack on Dresden, Squadron Leader Peter de Wesselow.
'This strange state of mind which fell upon us for a little while after the guns had been silenced was a vague obscenity. It was the faint, lingering aftertaste of having achieved something monstrous. We had unleashed powers beyond our comprehension. Entire countries lay in waste beneath our hands - and, in the doing of it, our hands were forever stained. It was of no avail to tell ourselves that we what we had done was what we had to do, the only thing we could have done. It was enough to know that we had done it. We had turned the evil of our enemies back upon them a hundredfold, and in so doing, something of our own integrity had been shattered, had been irrevocably lost.
We who had fought this war could feel no pride. Victors and vanquished, all were one. We were one with the crowds moving silently along the boulevards of Paris; the old women hunting through the still ruins of Cologne; the bodies piled like yellow cordwood at Dachau; the dreadful vacant eyes of the beaten German soldiers; the white graves and the black crosses and the haunting melancholy of our hearts. All, all, were one, all were the ghastly horror of what we had known, of what we had helped to do' - Reflections on World War II by Captain Laurence Critchell of the US 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment
The exact death toll from the bombing of Dresden on 13th February 1945 will never be known due to the large numbers of refugees in the city, but official estimates put the figure at more than 25,000. In the whole of the Second World War the death toll on the UK mainland from bombing of cities was 60,595, and in North America it was six.
As well as the human tragedy of Dresden our cultural heritage suffered terrible loss. Among the buildings destroyed by the British and American bombs were the Semper Opera House where eight of Richard Strauss' operas were given first performances, including Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier and Intermezzo, and where Wagner's Rienzi and Flying Dutchman were premiered. Also destroyed were the Königlich Sächsisches Hoftheater where Wagner's Tannhauser was first performed, and the Frauenkirche (above) where Johann Sebastian Bach played in an organ recital in 1736, and where Wagner conducted the first performance of his Biblical scene Das Liebesmahl der Apostel, Op. 69 in 1843.
There are many related resources On An Overgrown Path including Dresden Requiem for eleven young victims + I am a camera - Dresden + For unto us a child is born + Dresden 1945 - London 2005 + The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour + Kurt Vonnegut gets his Dresden facts wrong +
- Combat: The War with Germany edited by Don Congdon (Dell ISBN 0831713356 OP) - The Devil's Tinderbox - Dresden by Alexander McKee (Souvenir Press ISBN 0285635476).
Image credits: Header - BBC News, RAF Lancaster – Air Force Association, Dreden ruins (many other photos on this site) - Library of Congress, Frauenkirche - Frankfurter Rundschau
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