Years ago I had a discussion with an English friend, who also happened to be a Cambridge educated historian, on the reasoning behind Britain’s strategic bombing campaign, specifically the firebombing of Dresden. His historical focus was not on military history or World War II, BUT he had been born during the war. His mother was forced to take him into an air raid shelter several times when he was a baby. Of course he did not remember these traumatic experiences, but what he could recall were two things. One memory was of the four monuments on his street marking where German bombs had struck. The second, was that no one in the 1950’s talked about whether the bombing campaign was strategic or not. It was chiefly about one thing, “revenge”. He said that word with such brutal force and searing vigor that it startled me. At the time of our discussion many decades had passed since the end of World War II. Yet time had not moderated his opinion or assuaged his anger. I had the feeling that nothing ever would.
Beyond Recovery – The Irreplaceable City
Dresden. That name usually denotes one thing and one thing only in the English language, destruction of a beautiful, historic city by Allied bombers in the winter of 1944. To Germans it was a needless act of wanton destruction, to the Allies it was the targeting of a large and important city that was contributing to the German war effort. Was it revenge or good strategy? Perhaps an infernal combination of both? Another issue arises when the subject concerns the destruction of Dresden, the city seems to stand as a proxy for all other German cities bombed into smoldering ruins by the Allies. Other historic cities in Germany suffered grievous damage to irreplaceable architectural and cultural treasures, not to mention the horrific loss of human life by multiple bombings. And unlike Dresden some of these places would never be rebuilt or recover. Take for instance the historic city of Konigsberg, coronation site of Prussian kings and home to the Albertina, one of the most revered universities in Europe. After British bombing raids on August 26th-27th and August 29th -30th, the city would never be the same again. These bombings set the stage for the city’s apocalyptic destruction at the hands of the Red Army seven months later.
World War II had been ongoing in Eastern Europe since the conflict had begun with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 For most of the next five and a half years a war of unprecedented violence raged beyond the eastern frontiers of Germany. In a strange paradox, the conflict left Germany’s easternmost province of East Prussia relatively untouched. In its largest city of Konigsberg life went on much as before, except for the city’s mentally ill and its Jewish inhabitants who were deported and subsequently murdered. The greatest hardship incurred by the ethnic German population of Konigsberg had been shortages of food and certain goods. There were complaints, but compared with the suffering of other large German cities, such as Cologne and Hamburg – that had been intensely targeted by British and American bombers, the citizens of Konigsberg had little cause for grievance until a firestorm from hell was dropped from the skies and onto the city.
Falling From The Sky – Zero Hour
It was late August 1944, summer in the northern part of East Prussia was slowly coming to an end. The days were getting shorter and the nights longer. The German Army was retreating on all fronts. The prospect of a Red Army breakthrough into German territory looked like a near certainty by the start of 1945. At the same time, British and American bombers were intensifying their bombardment of German cities. The citizens of Konigsberg were more worried about the looming Soviet threat on the eastern horizon. The city had not been immune from aerial attack, but such raids had done little damage. These attacks had come from the east. Soviet bombers had targeted the city on five separate occasions with minimal success. A bombing run by British or American bombers had seemed unlikely due to the distances involved. It was 950 miles one way from Britain to Konigsberg. Nevertheless, on August 26th-27th, as Saturday gave way to the first hours of Sunday morning, 174 British Lancasters began to be heard in the distance as they flew towards the city. The air raid sirens soon let loose their screaming wails.
The citizens of Konigsberg jumped out of bed and hurried into air raid shelters. It was a crystal clear night, perfect for targeting. The entire city was lit up by flares and anti-aircraft fire. Only a handful of Lancasters were shot down, most were able to drop their bombs. These ended up a bit off target, striking the eastern part of the city. There was a great deal of damage in the neighborhoods that were struck. Casualties were light though. This was because many people were on the Baltic coast, enjoying the last bit of summer at the seaside. Those returning to the city on Sunday had narrowly escaped injury or worse. They would not have to wait long for the next attack
An Hour After Midnight – From The Ground Below
A mere three nights later the whine of engines could once again be heard in the near distance. Konigsberg’s citizen were roused from their sleep an hour after midnight and made their way to the shelters. It was a cloudy night, so much so that the bombers nearly abandoned the run. They had to wait a good twenty minutes before there was a sufficient break in the clouds. This time there were 189 Lancasters with 480 tons of bombs zeroing in on the heart of Konigsberg. Four different aiming points were selected for their infernal payload. This bombing run was quick and efficient. Those in the shelters could only sit and wait in mortal terror. The booms, shockwaves from explosions and thunderous roar that vibrated through to them was horrifying in the extreme. If they were not in hell, than they were pretty close to it. For what must have what seemed like forever, a rain of terror fell upon the city. Then after an hour the bombers were suddenly gone, so too was much of Konigsberg, as those leaving the shelters would soon discover.