The night the innocents diedJudy Dempsey, Financial Times, 11/12th February 1995, page 1, Section 3
Allied bombing flattened Dresden exactly 50 years ago. Judy Dempsey asks survivors what it was all for
“It was my father's birthday,” recalled Ernst Hirsch of the night of February 13 1945, the night British and American aircraft bombed Dresden.
“We lived on Johann-Georgen-Allee in the city's innenstadt [centre],” said Hirsch, then eight years old. “For safety, children were already being sent to the countryside. But I was allowed to spend the day in Dresden. We were going to have a small celebration for my father. It was his 55th birthday.”
During that February evening 50 years ago, there had been several air-raid alarms - nothing new for the city's 630,000 population which had swelled during the war as many refugees sought refuge in Dresden after fleeing the fighting in the east. Many were living in the cellars of churches and houses; 300 were in the bowels of the Frauenkirche, in the heart of the city.
“At 9pm I was sent to bed,” recalls Hirsch. “I was sleeping in the cellar. Soon, I felt the whole house shake. It was the first bombing raid. My mother wanted to go upstairs to get more bedding. But the house was already burning.” The raid, which started at 10.03pm, lasted 25 minutes.
As happened when Hamburg was bombed in the summer of 1943, the first raid over Dresden created a firestorm in which super-heated air rose explosively, pulling in cool air from the periphery in hurricane force winds which fed the central blaze. Within minutes, more than 15 sq kms of the city's elegant buildings, streets, museums, churches, and art galleries were engulfed in the flames.
Three hours later, at 1.23am, there was another raid.
“We had managed to get out before it started. The entire street was in flames. We rushed, like so many other people, to the Grosser Garten, [the city's public gardens]. We thought we would be safe in the open. But they dropped bombs there as well. We were so afraid.”
In the course of the two Allied raids, 772 Lancaster bombers had dropped 1,477 tonnes of mines and explosives, and 1,181 tonnes of incendiary bombs. Almost all the 7,400 homes and public buildings in the Innenstadt were destroyed. Nearly 39,000 people were killed.
“The next day, I could hardly see the sun. It was so dark. Almost covered in ash. Everything I saw had been destroyed,” said Hirsch.
“The Red Army arrived in Dresden on May 7 1945. We were occupied,” Hirsch continued “Those times were frightening. During the month of April 1946, very early in the morning, three men knocked on our door. We were living on the outskirts of the city. My mother was out working in the fields, like so many other women, trying to feed the city. My father was taken away. I never saw him again.”
Who took him away?
“My father had been a judge. He had been in the [Nazi] Party. But he never prosecuted any Jews. He stayed in east Germany after the war, unlike many other judges who went to west Germany. They took him away because he belonged to a bourgeois family.”
Did you ever find out what happened to him?
“We tried. We wrote to the authorities.”
Did you ever get a reply?
“There was no information about his whereabouts. No record of a trial. No details about his imprisonment or death. No recourse to the law. Nothing. It was like what you read in Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.”
Hirsch paused to show me photos of inter-war Dresden, once called the Florence of the North. “I was playing in the street the day they told my mother that Father had disappeared.”
He was not allowed into the Gymnasium, or secondary school. “That was for working-class children.” Instead, he joined the Zeiss-Ikon optics factory. in Dresden, eventually becoming a photographer and cameraman for the local television service. He never joined the East German Socialist Unity, or communist party. He lost his job in 1968 when he refused to support the Soviet- led Invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Only once was he allowed to travel to the West - in 1986 - to film. “I went to Italy. It was marvellous. The freedom to travel. The colours. The light. When I returned, my wife and I applied to emigrate. We finally got permission. On October 3 1989, just as things were beginning to change. Nevertheless, we left.”
Hirsch, who returned to Dresden in 1993, is now responsible for the film and documentary archives of the Frauenkirche. The church is being rebuilt as a symbol of Dresden's former glory, and the destruction of war.
As you collect old film and photographs about the Frauenkirche and the city, what do you feel about the bombing of Dresden?
“It was total war. Aimed at demoralising the people.”
Did that strategy succeed?
“It had no affect whatsoever. It was too late.”
* * *
“I can still feel the intense heat of the fire.”
Ursula Schinck, aged 71, was sitting in the study of her home which is perched high over Dresden.
On December 23 1944, she
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had married her husband, Horst, who had been serving in the German airforce in the northern region of Mecklenburg.
“We wanted to have a little party to celebrate our marriage because Gerhard, my brother, had been on the Front for that occasion. He finally managed to get leave for a few hours on February 13. He was going to come through Dresden so we could have a family get-together,” recalls Ursula.
Sister and brother met in the family home at Stephanienstrasse 22, in the Johannstadt district, north-east of the Innenstadt. “It was an enormous, sandstone house. We lived on the second floor,” she said. They had not expected an air-raid, despite the alarms. “Besides, what strategic value had Dresden?” she asked.
As soon as Gerhard arrived the house was rocked by the first raid. “It was then so calm. Gerhard said we had to get out. We ran upstairs to help bring down a pregnant mother with three small children. We got extra bedding. We then rushed out on to the street. It was so hot. We went in the direction of the Grosser Garten. It was so difficult to breathe. We did not know that the gardens would be bombed as well,” said Ursula.
Gerhard never made it to the street. He, Ursula's mother-in-law, and 14 residents of Stephanienstrasse 22, including the pregnant mother and her children, were burnt to death in the cellar. “Gerhard was only 18 years old,” she said.
What did you feel at the time?
“The great sense of loss at my brother's death.”
Did the bombing of Dresden demoralise the population?
“I hated the war. I was against Hitler. It killed my brother. It took away my husband to a prisoner-of- war camp for several years.”
Did you express your resistance to Hitler, the war, or the deportation of the Jews?
“It was an inner resistance. There was no chance to get organised. We had no connection with the resistance.”
Horst explained: “You must understand that we did not know what was happening to the Jews. Listening to the BBC was forbidden. The papers and radio were censored. We were young at the time. All we knew was that the front was getting closer.”
“It was war,” interrupted Ursula. “Total war. Hitler was a dictator. But the Allies unjustifiably killed women, citizens and children. I still can't understand that strategy. None of the oil or chemical works near Leipzig and none of the railway lines were destroyed.”
“We could not resist. The people were finished. If you had been bombed so much, how could you resist? We lost everything. We were so down.”
After the war, when Horst returned from the French PoW camp in late 1948, he and Ursula joined the east German communist party. “We wanted to believe. We wanted an Ideal. A new hope,” said Ursula.
“We had peace then,” said Horst, now aged 74. “But we did not know that we did not have freedom. We are all products of history.”
The heavy rain continued to obscure the wonderful view of the River Elbe, which flows through Dresden.
* * *
History has made Harold Nash “truly ashamed for what happened” in Dresden.
Born in 1923 in Birmingham, in the English Midlands, Nash was 18 when the Royal Air Force called him up in 1941. “I was so excited. I came from a very humble family. The RAF was the elite at that time,” he said.
Nash was soon carrying out bombing raids over Germany. “We did 13 [bombing] operations. Twice in Berlin, twice over Nuremberg, and over the Ruhr.”
“When the Bomber Command made its decision to attack the cities, we were never told we would be bombing women and children. But it was clear. We had to aim the bombs on the flares we dropped. We were sitting up there in the skies. In the depths of darkness. We had the benefit of distance. We did not see, so it enabled us to do it. The only contact with the human beings below was when we saw the huge velvet mats of flames from the bombs.”
Nash, a retired teacher of French and German, who in December 1993 was awarded the Order of Merit by the Republic of Germany for his attempts at reconciliation, recalls the day when he realised the aim of Britain's Bomber Command.
“We had just bombed a target in the Ruhr. We had received a brief to move elsewhere. But then, this young, blond intelligence officer, who was laughing, said that as a result of our raid, people were fleeing to the neighbouring town. We were told to change target and go after and attack these people. I laughed along with my peers.”
In 1943, Nash was shot down near Hanover. “Two of our group of seven survived. I tried to make my way to Holland but was picked up and put on a train to a PoW camp.”
That train trip greatly influenced Nash's outlook on war.
“I was sitting opposite three German women. They were dressed in black. I was unshaven, unkempt, in my shabby uniform. The train was travelling through the Ruhr. I could see only ruins. Then, all of a sudden, the women offered me a piece of bread, to someone, who, five nights before, had been trying to kill them. And I thought, what did these women have to do with Hitler or the concentration camps.”
Nash believes the Bomber Command strategy did not demoralise the Germans. “I could understand the early stages of the strategy. Britain was desperate. The Front was being rolled back, so it resorted to terrorist methods. I think it is widely accepted that it did not have that effect. It was as if the survivors were saying, ‘Don't let the buggers get us down’.”
* * *
“The bombing of the German civilian population into total demoralisation did not work,” said Canon Paul Oestreicher from Coventry Cathedral in England.
Oestreicher had been a veteran peace campaigner during the cold war era, and over the years had forged close contacts with the more dissident voices among east Germany's Lutheran Church. He has been invited to attend the 50th anniversary commemorations in Dresden next week.
Is his view the officially accepted view today?
“Even Churchill admitted as much in his memoirs. He wrote that the campaign had been militarily wrong, psychologically ineffective, and morally dubious. I agree with him.”
What do the people of Coventry think, given that it was one of the first British cities to be bombed by German aircraft?
“The commemorations have completely taken over Coventry, and in the spirit of reconciliation. But you can't compare what happened in Coventry to Dresden.” About 1,200 people were killed during the German air “Blitz” over Coventry in April 1941.
What does Dresden mean to you personally?
“I can't claim that the bombing of Dresden means all that much. But the memory is important. Born in 1931, I was a child of German refugees. My father was Jewish. His entire family was killed in the concentration camps. I was hidden in a cellar in Berlin while my parents tried to get asylum papers. I spent part of my childhood in New Zealand.”
“My job is reconciliation of east and west. The Germans brought it on themselves. They started the bloody war. The 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, is, among other things, supposed to teach us to avoid another Dresden.”
What do you think was the strategy behind Bomber Command?
“It had been a deliberate Allied policy to destroy the cities of Germany and demoralise the population.”
Was the policy supposed to have anything to do with saving the Jews?
“Not at all. The war was not fought to save the Jews. It has been already proved that the BBC received instructions from the Ministry of Information not to highlight the persecution of the Jews. It would have created sympathy for Germany because of latent anti-semitism in England. To cut off the railway lines to Auschwitz would have been technically the easiest thing in the world.”
But what makes Dresden so special, so different when you consider the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the destruction of Warsaw and other cities?
“History creates symbols. Dresden is a symbol for all the cities which had been bombed during the war.”
Clarion NotesClarion took the above article directly from a printed newspaper.
- Book excerpt: Photos of Hamburg after British bombing in 1943 "The Night Hamburg Died", Martin Caidin, Four Square/New English Library, London, 1966
- A television documentary on RAF bombing of civilians in 1920s and 1930s "Birds of Death", Director George Case, a Wall to Wall television production for Channel 4, 1992
- Guardian article: Baghdad and British bombers David Omissi, The Guardian, 19 January 1991
- Statue of chief of WW2 Bomber Command in central London - photos 2017, The Strand