Anniversary of the bombing of Dresden

February 13, 2006 |

This day in 1945 773 British Avro Lancaster bombers dropped 2,500 tons of bombs onto Dresden’s city centre.  It left 135,000 dead and the capital of Saxony, nicknamed the Florence on the Elbe, a smoking ruin.  In a war full of excesses in the name of strategic or tactical advantage, the shelling of Monte Casino, the bombing of Cleves to mention but a few, the bombing of Dresden stands out. The critisism of Harris was so strong that he moved to South Africa after the war.

I think Harris got a bad wrap.  World War II, like World War I and the wars of the preceding half centures were total wars between the people.  It wasn’t a war involving small armies marching till they met each other, engaged in a day or two long battle and then maneuvered again until one side sought an armistace.  Sherman’s march to the sea during the US Civil War was aimted at breaking the South’s economy and will to fight . As his army marched through Georgia he burnt plantations and did whatever he could to “make Georgia howl.” It worked.  In the later stages of 1864 and 1865 desertions in the Confederate armies were endemic as soldiers rushed back to their homes.  What Harris did was a logical next step from what had been done before and he did it with the knowledge and blessing of his political masters. 

International jurisprudence has sought to make total war a thing of the past.  There has been enough lip service but no real test.  We haven’t had a war involving major powers on either side and big enough stakes to see whether they will exercise restraint when the chips are down.  Wars are about winning and to win you need to fight and to fight you need to kill.  If attacking your opponents cities and cowing their populace is what is required then that will probably happen. 

Interestingly city bombing didn’t work on morale in World War II as expected.  If anything it strengthened resolve until the overall war situation got really bad and then it pushed morale into free fall.  What it did do well was  dislocating industry and soak up huge resources in anti aircraft defences. 

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