My Life-Long Quest for my World War II Airman Father

The title "Carrying Fire" is taken from Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, in which Sheriff Ed Tom Bell talks about his own father. “I had two dreams about him after he died. I don’t remember the first one all that well. But the second one it was like we was both back in older times and I was on horseback goin through the mountains of a night. Goin through this pass in the mountains. It was cold and there was snow on the ground and he rode past me and kept on goin. Never said nothing. He just rode on past and he had this blanket wrapped around him and he had his head down and when he rode past I seen that he was carryin fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. About the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin on ahead and that he was fixin to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there.”

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Dresden, February 13, 1945

RAF Lancaster

In early 1945, following the Battle of the Bulge, Allied ground forces were still recovering from the German assault and were not immediately ready to continue their march to the Rhine. Eighth Air Force and RAF planners therefore decided their best course in further weakening Germany was to bomb enemy positions along the Eastern Front in support of the Russian ground offensive since it seemed to have the best chance of ending the war by spring. Otherwise, many feared, the conflict might drag on until the end of the year. Selected bombing targets included Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz, and Dresden, all major rail centers close to the Eastern Front. Attacks on all of these cities, not just Dresden, were made with the full understanding that they were filled with refugees from the east and that the bombings would cause great dislocation, clogged roads and railways, and high human casualties as well.

Churchill and Air Marshall Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris had long pressed for making eastern German cities high-priority targets, and now USAAF General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz waswilling to oblige and ordered the Eighth to strike Berlin on February 3rd. But this time the target was not the railroad marshalling yards, but the city center, the heart of the Reich and an area of high civilian population.

8th Air Force Commander General Jimmie Doolittle protested. American officials had long been sensitive about bombing civilian targets. In a long-running debate among AAF commanders Doolittle remained opposed to terror bombing on both military and moral grounds. He felt that bombing a population into submission had little chance of success and that it violated “the basic American principle of precision bombing of targets of strictly military significance for which our tactics were designed and our crews trained and indoctrinated.” [Donald Miller Masters Of the Air, p. 419] Certainly “precision bombing” rarely occurred and many American bombs fell on German civilians, often because of bad weather and inadequate technology, but Doolittle felt the intention should remain on strategic targets. Spaatz overruled Doolittle and insisted the attack proceed. On February 3, nearly 1000 bombers hit Berlin causing 3000 deaths and making 120,000 homeless. 23 bombers were downed by flak.

The next big city bombed was Dresden on February 13-15. Some have argued that Dresden had no military significance as a bombing target, but that is simply untrue. Sometimes called Florence on the Elbe, Dresden was a beautiful city known for its architecture, china ware, and spacious parks. But it was also a key transportation hub, the nexus of three important rail lines with twenty-eight trains carrying 20,000 troops a day toward the east. For this reason the city’s Friedrichbahn marshalling yards were considered one of the most important strategic transportation targets. In addition, Dresden was a manufacturing center for radar equipment, bomb fuses, gun sights, electronic components, and poison gas. An American POW in Dresden, Col. Harold E. Cook, confirmed, “I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics towards the east to meet the Russians.” [Miller p.435] The city and the roads leading into it were also clogged with over a half million refugees fleeing the Eastern Front, so bombing roads, bridges, and rail lines there would cause much confusion and further hinder the movement of German troops and materiel.

The Eighth had bombed Dresden twice before, on October 7, 1944, and January 16, 1945, both times targeting industry and rail lines near the marshalling yards, but sparing the city’s historic core. The February ’45 attacks were planned as a combined RAF-Eighth Air Force assault. This time the RAF would have the first shot on February 13. The Eighth was to follow up with daylight raids the following two days.

Dresden Before

On the night of February 13, two waves of over 800 RAF Lancasters dropped 2,700 tons of bombs on the city center, a combination of explosive and incendiary devices, creating a firestorm that incinerated or suffocated over 35,000 people, soldiers and civilians, and turned much of the city to ash. This attack was not much different from British tactics against other cities, but this time unusual weather conditions of low humidity and cold, dry air provided ideal conditions for a firestorm.
Dresden After

“Bomber” Harris had long been an advocate of area bombing of German cities to punish and demoralize both the enemy’s military and civilian populations. Some have tried to label Harris a war criminal for his attacks on cities and civilian populations but I find it difficult to place much moral blame on him; this was the type of air war England and Germany had been fighting from the beginning. In 1940-41, after losing the Battle of Britain in the air, Hitler unleashed “the Blitz,” a nighttime bombing campaign against English cities intended to destroy, demoralize, and terrorize the civilian population. Over 30,000 Londoners were killed in these attacks and over 50,000 injured. Coventry, a non-military target, was largely destroyed and several other cities damaged and thousands more civilians killed or injured. Harris responded with many of his own attacks against German cities, including the 1943 firebombing of Hamburg which killed at least 11,000 more people than the Dresden raid. And even as Dresden was being bombed that February 13, German V-1 and V-2 rockets were still raining down on civilians in English cities and towns.

Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris

The blame for the destruction of German cities ultimately lies with Hitler and his insane orders to fight to the finish, no matter the cost to the German people. By 1945 the American military command became convinced of the need for a hard war to destroy the Reich. The Germans had started two world wars (at least the Western Front in WWI) and must be thoroughly defeated. FDR agreed: “It is of the utmost importance that every person in Germany should realize that this time Germany is a defeated nation. [That fact] collectively and individually, must be so impressed upon them that they will hesitate to start any new war. Too many people here and in England hold to the view that the German people as a whole are not responsible for what has taken place—that only a few Nazi leaders are responsible. That unfortunately is not based on fact. The German people as a whole must have it driven home to them that the whole nation has been engaged in a lawless conspiracy against the decencies of modern civilization.” [Miller p.416]  


The Eighth bombed Dresden again the two days following the February 13th British raid. On February 14, over 300 B-17s appeared over the city, targeting mainly the marshalling yards and adjacent industrial areas, although many bombs fell on other parts of the beleaguered city as well. The damage might have been worse but three bomb groups, led by the 398th, became disoriented due to bad weather, PFF radar failure, and navigational error, and bombed Prague, Czechoslovakia by mistake. This snafu and the failure of most 398th planes to make it back to base that day set the stage for Don Christensen’s first combat mission the next day on February 15.  To read more about the Prague bombing, click here.

Kurt Vonnegut

For many of my generation the firebombing of Dresden was made infamous by Kurt Vonnegut in his novel Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut and other American infantrymen captured in the Battle of the Bulge were in Dresden as part of a forced work detail and were housed in a concrete shelter for pigs about to be slaughtered with the number five over the door. He thought Dresden was “the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen.” When he and his fellow prisoners were let out of the slaughterhouse the day following the firestorm, he wrote, “Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.” [Vonnegut p. 227] Unfortunately he did not place this in the context of the larger war. It is understandable that he only experienced this event through his own experience on the ground, but it has influenced many people to believe that the bombing of Dresden was nothing but a war crime perpetuated by the Allies.

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