REVIEW – Dresden: the fire and the darkness

6 mins read
Sinclair McKay
Viking, £20 (hbk)
ISBN 978-0241389683

The Allied bombing of the German city of Dresden over the period 13-15 February 1945 was almost certainly the most controversial conventional bombing attack of the Second World War, although it did not bring about the greatest number of casualties, either in absolute terms or as a percentage of population. In fact, Pforzheim, attacked even later in the war than Dresden, suffered a greater number of casualties per head of population – an often-overlooked fact.

Sinclair McKay’s well-researched, detailed, and all-embracing book is the first major study of the bombing of Dresden to be published for 15 years, and covers equally the pre-war history of the city – ‘The Florence of Germany’ – the horrors of the RAF and USAAF attacks, and the mainly Stalinist-style rebuilding prior to German reunification.

The book’s main narrative begins by reviewing buildings and life in the city from just after the Great War and waxes lyrical on the beauty of Dresden, with its world-famous cathedrals, opera houses, and public buildings.

It then moves on to the days immediately prior to the bombardments and tells of the air of normality prevailing, but it also tells the reader of the secret production of war material that the city – often using slave labour (from the Flossenbürg, Auschwitz, and Ravensbrück camps) – was involved in at sites adjacent to its centre.

Dresden had since the 1920s been famous for its optical goods, with its precision-produced lenses and the like now being used by all three branches of the Nazi armed forces. Range-finders were a speciality.

It is also revealed that the massive raids that lay ahead were not, as is often stated, the first air raids on Dresden, for the USAAF had carried out attacks in October 1944 and January 1945, with significant casualties on both occasions.

Neither was Dresden a bastion of anti-Nazi sentiment: its burgomaster was but one of the high-ranking party officials who had aggressively persecuted the local Jewish population, including by his active participation in Kristallnacht.


McKay next introduces Air Chief Marshal (‘Bomber’ or ‘Butcher’) Arthur Harris, Air-Officer-Commanding-in-Chief (AOCinC) of RAF Bomber Command, who was ultimately responsible for the British and Commonwealth air forces’ element in the bombing of Dresden.

Harris’s role as AOCinC has, particularly in post-war years, become almost as controversial as the bombing of Dresden itself, for he was an unflinching advocate of area bombing rather than precision bombing, and equally of large blast bombs as a natural progression from the 250lb general-purpose bomb that had been the main weapon of Bomber Command when he became AOCinC. In his memoirs, he points out that the Luftwaffe had sought fire typhoons in Coventry and London, although in the latter this had never been achieved.

Harris’s superior was Marshal of the Air Force Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, who as early as 1941 acknowledged that the RAF’s bombing tactics needed to change from precision bombing to area bombing, and was thus broadly in agreement with the tactics employed on the Dresden raids. Bomber Command followed a particular line of logic in its campaign: the belief that the conflict could be won from the air.

There was often friction between Portal and Harris, and Harris sailed so ‘close to the wind’, especially during the build up to D-Day, that he might have been relieved of his command.

The USAAF in Europe, under the command of General Carl Spaatz, adopted a different bombing philosophy – that of precision daylight attacks on specific, single targets, such as oil refineries, ball-bearing works, and railway marshalling yards – which Harris dismissed, quite incorrectly, for many of these exacting raids, when successful, caused great damage to the Nazi war-effort.

The aircrew in both forces shared a host of similar views and scares, but – as McKay evocatively shows – had widely different opinions on what we would now call ‘collateral damage’. The USAAF earnestly believed that its policy of pinpoint targeting would reduce the number of civilian casualties, while Harris considered such urban civilians to be factory workers involved in war work and therefore legitimate targets.

In the late autumn of 1944, Harris made a direct plea that cities such as Dresden (which was on the Ministry of Economic Warfare’s target list) should be targeted, considering that the three months ahead would be critical in knocking out the remaining centres of German industrial might, a modus operandi agreed on at the Yalta Conference earlier in February.

As the fateful night approached, the citizens of the city enjoyed Shrove Tuesday, totally unaware of the horrors that lay ahead. The book recounts stories of schoolchildren, some going home to change into their Hitler Youth uniforms for evening duties, refugees fleeing the fast-approaching Soviet forces, army personnel, deserters, and those involved in both war work and public services.

We also read of a young Englishman in jail awaiting execution for sabotaging machinery at a soap works. Meanwhile, far to the west, the first wave of RAF Lancaster bombers was preparing to take off for its night’s work.


In this section of his book, as everywhere else throughout the pages, the personal actions, words spoken, and sentiments encountered, now 75 years since the events occurred, are brought to us by McKay in enormous detail, bringing out the innocence of the resident and nomadic population as dusk turned into night and the city’s efficient blackout manifested itself.

At 9.40pm, the city’s air-raid sirens were sounded and strident announcements were made on the radio of ‘Anglo-American bombers approaching’. There was an orderly rush for the cellars, for purpose-built shelters were few and far between, save for the concrete bunker built for Martin Mutschmann, the Nazi Governor of Saxony.

Caption: The ruins of Dresden following the Allied bombing in February 1945. Around 25,000 people were killed.
The ruins of Dresden following the Allied bombing in February 1945. Around 25,000 people were killed.

The book, which goes into such detail as to make it impossible to review all aspects of the work, turns – as the first wave of aircraft, both Lancasters and Mosquitoes, approach their target – to look at the mindset of the young aircrews in the bitterly cold and fear-filled skies above, commenting that theirs was not a desire for retaliation, and that such thoughts would have been masked by the discomforts of being cold, cramped, and full of tension, especially as Dresden was so far east and involved long flights across enemy territory.

The first overt signs to the citizens below was that of the hypnotically bright target-markers, which were in contrast to the lack of searchlights and anti-aircraft fire, for these had been transported to the East.

Next came the bombs – incendiaries and massive ‘blockbusters’ – and the carnage started, graphically brought to life by McKay. Fire and fumes filled the cellars, revealing their inadequacy as shelters, molten glass poured down, and even brickwork melted. Yet tales are told of lucky survivors.

Then, with the city still ablaze, 311 B-17 Flying Fortresses arrived after daybreak to inflict additional horror, followed by two further, but smaller raids.

The dreadful scene at and below ground level is graphically described, ‘a manifestation of physical force and a manipulation of physics’ and ‘corpse mines’, playing horrifically on the minds of those still alive, with patently untrue memories even being recalled of those escaping being strafed by USAAF fighters. The final death toll was in the order of 25,000.


The book’s pages reveal that true Teutonic resilience and organisational aptitude were quickly to the fore as city workers strove to bring basic services back online, while great funeral pyres were constructed to dispose of the dead and the civic authorities made every effort to obtain an accurate body count.

McKay’s magnificent mastery of the English language, both here and throughout the book, portrays the scenes of horror in such a way that the reader can almost feel present amid the carnage.

Shortly after the attack, polarised views became apparent on both the moral and the military effectiveness of the raids, with those opposed to what had happened making accusations of terror bombing and supporters highlighting the necessity of hindering German troops making for the Eastern Front and opening up the terrain for the fast-approaching Russian forces, now but 60 miles away.

McKay writes, without bias, of both points of view, carefully not coming down in favour of either argument. The controversy, of course, continues to this day. The book’s final pages recount the recovery of Dresden from virtually complete destruction, and it goes into some detail on the effects of the Russian occupation and, post-Potsdam, the city becoming part of the German Democratic Republic, and then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a proud member of reunified Germany. As Sinclair McKay concludes, visiting today ‘you are never more than a few steps from the past’.

Despite the book’s title and cover pictures, which hint otherwise, this is not a book solely on the horrific attacks on Dresden in the final months of the war, but is rather a book about the city of Dresden throughout its history, with the air-raids of February 1945 covered as a seminal part of that history. A good read, but not quite what I had expected!

Review by Colin Pomeroy

This article was published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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