Sixty years ago Sunday, Allied bombers attacked Dresden and the thousands of residents and refugees who lived there. Traces of the militarily dubious decision to bomb the city remain visible today.
The new cross atop the rebuilt Frauenkirche is a British donation
On the evening of Feb. 13, 1945, nine Mosquito fighter planes and 244 Lancaster bombers from the Royal Air Force's 5th fleet took off from their base in the south of England. Dresden's air raid sirens started to wail at 9:39 p.m. Around 20 minutes later the first target-marking bombs fell on the stadium just outside of the city center. The first air raid lasted about 30 minutes and was so dense that the entire inner city was engulfed by a firestorm.
"There, between exploded trams, I saw the first scorched dead, charred, shrunken, some of them just brushed by the flames but still asphyxiated," a soldier recounted. "Women, children, men -- the horrible death had taken them all."
The Allies didn't just attack Dresden to break the civilians' morale; the idea was also to cut off communication lines to the front.
August Schreitmüller's sandstone sculpture "The Goodness" from the Townhall Tower overlooking the city in 1945 and 2005
The second air attack took place between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. on Feb. 14. More than 500 planes bombed 15 square kilometers (9 square miles) of the city. All told, 650,000 firebombs, air mines and 1,800 demolition bombs were dropped on Dresden in the first two air raids. They totally destroyed the densely inhabited historic city center, mainly hitting residential buildings, churches, offices and museums.
"Our house was hit many times during the second attack," a survivor said. "We all threw ourselves on the floor and my husband said, 'It's burning, it smells like fire.' And he opened the first door and the flames were already blazing. There was nothing to do to save our lives but run through the flames."
Strategic after all?
The military's Albertstadt, the industrial areas and the airport where barracks were located, remained largely untouched. In the next raid, around noon, the US Air Force targeted the transportation infrastructure.
Though the bombing of Dresden has for years generally been viewed merely as pointless destruction, British historian Frederick Taylor claimed that the city was strategically important after all. Taylor's book "Dresden: February 13, 1945" has caused controversy in the city itself.
The Frauenkirche in 1945
"There was a train junction, a garrison, troops came and went as in any other German city near the front," Taylor said. "The English planners wanted to prevent the replenishment of supplies to the eastern front. The attack was not exclusively directed against Dresden; it was also against Chemnitz and Berlin."
But similarly large carpet bomb attacks on Chemnitz, Plauen or Leipzig killed far fewer people, because thousands of people had taken refuge in Dresden at the time of the air raids. Though there's no way knowing exactly how many people died, the official death toll is 35,000, and the city has become a symbol of World War II aerial warfare.
Raids saved Jews
Aside from the suffering and destruction they caused, the air raids saved the last 175 Dresden Jews. On the morning of Feb. 13, orders were dispatched to deport them. During the bombing though, many of the Jews were able to go underground, including the family of Heinz Joachim Aris, today head of Saxony state's Jewish community.
A combo of two photos shows the inner courtyard at the Zwinger art galleries in central Dresden lying in ruins slightly more than a year after the Allied firebombing in a file photo taken March 12, 1946, left, and a similar view of the same wing of the building being under restoration on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005
"I was born in Dresden and this city's ruin and the endless suffering of many innocent citizens was dreadful," Aris said. "One must simply see it in the context of cause and effect."
For, Aris added, the Semper Synagogue was burned down on Nov. 9, 1938, and six years later the entire city followed. The Dresden inferno was part and parcel of a horrible war that included the destruction of cities like Rotterdam, Coventry and Leningrad.
Dresden's residents showed an immense willingness to rebuild their devastated home after the war. Their determination is exemplified by the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady. For nearly 50 years, the church's ruins evoked destruction and death.
But after German reunification in 1990, the Frauenkirche was rebuilt thanks to generous donations -- also from the partnership with the city of Coventry. The new cross atop the church was donated by Britain's "Dresden Trust" and forged by the son of one of the bomber pilots.