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Review: Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
Michael Burleigh is won over by Dresden, Frederick Taylor's staunch defence of the bombing raid condemned by others as a war crime
Saturday February 7, 2004
Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945
by Frederick Taylor
544pp, Bloomsbury, £20
At about 6pm on February 13 1945, aircraft from RAF Bomber Command's elite 5 Group took off from Swinderby in Lincolnshire. They included 244 fully laden Lancaster bombers code-named Plate Rack Force. This fleet stacked up an hour later over Reading to form an armada bound for Germany and crossed the French coast shortly before 8pm. Fourteen hundred Allied planes were operational over Germany that night, many involved in diversionary raids to conceal the main target. Complex aerial manoeuvres kept 5 Group's designated target a mystery to the bitter end: German defenders could not determine whether the goal was Berlin, Leipzig, Chemnitz or fuel plants in the south-east. Where should they despatch their depleted fighter forces?
"Controller to Plate Rack Force: Come in and bomb glow of red target indicators as planned. Bomb the glow of red TIs as planned."
Within two minutes this force dropped a range of ordnance, with powerful explosive bombs smashing holes in roofs and walls through which tens of thousands of smaller incendiary devices fell. These worked, since they had been tested back in Britain on replica German houses containing exactly the sort of furnishings in a typical German home. Dresden began to burn brightly with thousands of small fires.
As Dresden's civil defence forces tried to deal with the aftermath of this attack, a larger force of 550 bombers arrived to complete the double punch of such city centre area raids, whereby the civil defence forces would be caught as they went about their desperate business of suppressing fires. Since the centre was already burning brightly enough to be seen from 50 miles away, this second wave decided to widen the arc of destruction, crossing over in fan formation.
Dresden was soon engulfed in an enormous firestorm, its citizens asphyxiated or dissolved into viscous puddles in cellars. At around noon on what was now Ash Wednesday, an armada of US B-17 bombers appeared to pulverise whatever parts of Dresden were not obscured by smoke, although some of them managed to rain bombs on Prague. As a result of these raids, 25,000 people died - that being the minimum estimate - and 13 square miles of Dresden lay in ruins.
Attempts to treat the bombing of Dresden as a war crime perpetrated against the innocent inhabitants of a historic cultural centre of no industrial or military significance began two days after the attack. This was the handiwork of the Nazi propaganda supremo Goebbels, whose "spin doctors" exaggerated the city's population by a factor of four to support the wild claim that two million refugees from the east had been caught by the raids, and who doctored the number of corpses publicly burned (with the help of the SS who had some experience of these tasks) by adding an extra nought to the actual figure of 6,856. A regime that had picked British targets from Baedecker guide books dilated upon the damage to Germany's own cultural heritage.
After a brief hiatus when the East German communist authorities were scared to cast aspersions on any of the Allies - for the bombing of Dresden had largely been designed to relieve pressure on the Red Army - by 1950, a predominantly British raid was being blamed on the Americans, with Truman and then Eisenhower cast as the prime culprits: "Wall Street wanted to make it impossible for the Soviet Union, its supposed ally, to help the German people after the end of the war," in the leaden Marxist argot. Nazi talk of "Anglo-American air gangsters" was recycled in the equally un-free communist press.
Although the raids on Dresden have passed into the annals of Allied obloquy, eclipsed only by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in fact all that was exceptional about the bombing of Dresden was that for contingent reasons the raids went horribly right; the level of destruction visited upon, say, lowly Pforzheim was far greater, since a sixth of its population and 83% of the town were wiped out.
Frederick Taylor's well-researched and unpretentious book is a robust defence of the Dresden raids that counters recent attempts to recast the nation that gave the world Auschwitz as the second world war's principal victims, attempts that stretch back to the time of Goebbels. They continue in the form of criminalising RAF Bomber Command's supremo Bert "Bomber" Harris for a high-level strategy that was largely designed to show Stalin that his western allies were actually fighting if not in, then at least above, Nazi Germany. Vengeance also played a part, given the destruction wreaked upon British cities, not to speak of Belgrade, Rotterdam, Stalingrad or Warsaw, whose devastating bombing by the Luftwaffe has not generated such shelves of literature as the Allied bombing of Germany.
It must be conceded that the book is slightly over-padded with deep historical detail about our ancient Saxon cousins. There are also descriptions of the development of aerial warfare, stretching back to the Italo-Turkish war in Libya, that drone on with the tedium of aircraft engines.
Undoubtedly, the most fascinating theme, which Taylor does successfully develop, is how, and why, targets were acquired by RAF and intelligence planners. He convincingly rebuts - one hesitates to write "demolishes" - the legend that Dresden was purely a cultural centre, since even the (neighbouring) Meissen porcelain manufacturers had been converted to produce military teletypers. In fact, Dresden had considerable light industrial facilities that had been covertly transformed from making cigarettes or squeezable toothpaste into producing such precision military equipment as bomb-sights, fuses and radios, as well as vast quantities of bullets.
Dresden was also an important railhead, used to funnel men and materials from the rest of Nazi-occupied Europe into the fight against the advancing Red Army. Anything that might diminish the ferocious resistance the Russians had encountered at other "fortress" cities met with their enthusiastic approbation. There is no evidence that the raids were designed to impress the Soviets with western airpower. For the Allies, the war was not nearly "over", as the ferocious battles of the Ardennes or in the purlieus of Berlin would prove.
Equally crucially, Britain's Joint Intelligence Committee had already decided that a knockout blow against Berlin was a tall order, given the capital's distance, air defences and urban sprawl, and that therefore Bomber Command should hit more compact eastern cities, expressly to cause chaos. Dresden began to emerge as a possible target. Shortages of high-explosive bombs increased the attractions of virgin objectives that would burn more easily if showered with cheap and plentiful incendiary devices. Anonymous RAF meteorological officers finally sealed Dresden's fate when, on the morning of February 13, they predicted cloud breaks over the city, and good weather over the Lincolnshire bases to which the bombers would return. The final elements of the catastrophe were supplied by Germany's removal of anti-aircraft guns to use in the field against the Russians, and the Dresden Nazi authorities' failure to provide the city with adequate public shelters (although the regional gauleiter had provided his own house with a deep bunker).
Taylor skilfully interweaves various personal accounts of the impact of the raids on the permanent or temporary population of Dresden, including its slave-labour force. But the main thrust of his book is to defend a mission that was merely successful rather than exceptional. It came at the conclusion of a long war that, while generally brutalising and dulling moral sensitivities, also had clear enough justification in the fight between good and evil.
· Michael Burleigh's The Third Reich: A New History is published by Pan.