The Blood of Dresden
Following is an extract from Armageddon
in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut in which he describes the scenes of ‘obscene
brutality’ he witnessed as a prisoner of war in Dresden which inspired his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five.
Dresden before the allied bombing
It was a routine speech we got during our first day of basic training,
delivered by a wiry little lieutenant: “Men, up to now you’ve been good, clean, American boys with an American’s
love for sportsmanship and fair play. We’re here to change that.
“Our job is to make you the meanest, dirtiest bunch of scrappers in the history
of the world. From now on, you can forget the Marquess of Queensberry rules and every other set of rules. Anything and everything
“Never hit a man
above the belt when you can kick him below it. Make the bastard scream. Kill him any way you can. Kill, kill, kill –
do you understand?”
talk was greeted with nervous laughter and general agreement that he was right. “Didn’t Hitler and Tojo say the
Americans were a bunch of softies? Ha! They’ll find out.”
And of course, Germany and Japan did find out: a toughened-up democracy poured forth
a scalding fury that could not be stopped. It was a war of reason against barbarism, supposedly, with the issues at stake
on such a high plane that most of our feverish fighters had no idea why they were fighting – other than that the enemy
was a bunch of bastards. A new kind of war, with all destruction, all killing approved.
A lot of people relished the idea of total war: it had a modern
ring to it, in keeping with our spectacular technology. To them it was like a football game.
[Back home in America], three small-town merchants’ wives, middle-aged
and plump, gave me a ride when I was hitchhiking home from Camp Atterbury. “Did you kill a lot of them Germans?”
asked the driver, making cheerful small-talk. I told her I didn’t know.
This was taken for modesty. As I was getting out of the car, one of the
ladies patted me on the shoulder in motherly fashion: “I’ll bet you’d like to get over and kill some of
them dirty Japs now, wouldn’t you?”
We exchanged knowing winks. I didn’t tell those simple souls that I had been captured after a week at the
front; and more to the point, what I knew and thought about killing dirty Germans, about total war. The reason for my being
sick at heart then and now has to do with an incident that received cursory treatment in the American newspapers. In February
1945, Dresden, Germany, was destroyed, and with it over 100,000 human beings. I was there. Not many know how tough America
I was among a group of
150 infantry privates, captured in the Bulge breakthrough and put to work in Dresden. Dresden, we were told, was the only
major German city to have escaped bombing so far. That was in January 1945. She owed her good fortune to her unwarlike countenance:
hospitals, breweries, food-processing plants, surgical supply houses, ceramics, musical instrument factories and the like.
Since the war [had started], hospitals had
become her prime concern. Every day hundreds of wounded came into the tranquil sanctuary from the east and west. At night,
we would hear the dull rumble of distant air raids. “Chemnitz is getting it tonight,” we used to say, and speculated
what it might be like to be the bright young men with their dials and cross-hairs.
“Thank heaven we’re in an ‘open city’,” we
thought, and so thought the thousands of refugees – women, children and old men who came in a forlorn stream from
the smouldering wreckage of Berlin, Leipzig, Breslau, Munich. They flooded the city to twice its normal population.
There was no war in Dresden. True, planes
came over nearly every day and the sirens wailed, but the planes were always en route elsewhere. The alarms furnished a
relief period in a tedious work day, a social event, a chance to gossip in the shelters. The shelters, in fact, were not
much more than a gesture, casual recognition of the national emergency: wine cellars and basements with benches in them and
sandbags blocking the windows, for the most part. There were a few more adequate bunkers in the centre of the city, close
to the government offices, but nothing like the staunch subterranean fortress that rendered Berlin impervious to her daily
pounding. Dresden had no reason to prepare for attack – and thereby hangs a beastly tale.
Dresden was surely among the world’s most lovely cities. Her streets
were broad, lined with shade-trees. She was sprinkled with countless little parks and statuary. She had marvellous old churches,
libraries, museums, theatres, art galleries, beer gardens, a zoo and a renowned university.
It was at one time a tourist’s paradise. They would be far better
informed on the city’s delights than am I. But the impression I have is that in Dresden – in the physical city
– were the symbols of the good life; pleasant, honest, intelligent. In the swastika’s shadow, those symbols
of the dignity and hope of mankind stood waiting, monuments to truth. The accumulated treasure of hundreds of years, Dresden
spoke eloquently of those things excellent in European civilisa-tion wherein our debt lies deep.
I was a prisoner, hungry, dirty and full of hate for our captors, but I
loved that city and saw the blessed wonder of her past and the rich promise of her future.
In February 1945, American bombers reduced this treasure to crushed stone
and embers; disembowelled her with high explosives and cremated her with incendiaries.
The atom bomb may represent a fabulous advance, but it is interesting to
note that primitive TNT and thermite managed to exterminate in one bloody night more people than died in the whole London
blitz. Fortress Dresden fired a dozen shots at our airmen. Once back at their bases and sipping hot coffee, they probably
remarked: “Flak unusually light tonight. Well, guess it’s time to turn in.” Captured British pilots from
tactical fighter units (covering frontline troops) used to chide those who had flown heavy bombers on city raids with: “How
on earth did you stand the stink of boiling urine and burning perambulators?”
A perfectly routine piece of news: “Last night our planes attacked
Dresden. All planes returned safely.” The only good German is a dead one: over 100,000 evil men, women, and children
(the able-bodied were at the fronts) forever purged of their sins against humanity. By chance, I met a bombardier who had
taken part in the attack. “We hated to do it,” he told me.
The night they came over, we spent in an underground meat locker in a slaughterhouse.
We were lucky, for it was the best shelter in town. Giants stalked the earth above us. First came the soft murmur of their
dancing on the outskirts, then the grumbling of their plodding towards us, and finally the ear-splitting crashes of their
heels upon us – and thence to the outskirts again. Back and forth they swept: saturation bombing.
“I screamed and I wept and I clawed the walls of our shelter,”
an old lady told me. “I prayed to God to ‘please, please, please, dear God, stop them’. But he didn’t
hear me. No power could stop them. On they came, wave after wave. There was no way we could surrender; no way to tell them
we couldn’t stand it any more. There was nothing anyone could do but sit and wait for morning.” Her daughter
and grandson were killed.
little prison was burnt to the ground. We were to be evacuated to an outlying camp occupied by South African prisoners. Our
guards were a melancholy lot, aged Volkssturmers and disabled veterans. Most of them were Dresden residents and had friends
and families somewhere in the holocaust. A corporal, who had lost an eye after two years on the Russian front, ascertained
before we marched that his wife, his two children and both of his parents had been killed. He had one cigarette. He shared
it with me.
Dresden after the allied bombing
Our march to new quarters took us to the city’s edge. It was impossible
to believe that anyone had survived in its heart. Ordinarily, the day would have been cold, but occasional gusts from the
colossal inferno made us sweat. And ordinarily, the day would have been clear and bright, but an opaque and towering cloud
turned noon to twilight.
procession clogged the outbound highways; people with blackened faces streaked with tears, some bearing wounded, some bearing
dead. They gathered in the fields. No one spoke. A few with Red Cross armbands did what they could for the casualties.
Settled with the South Africans, we enjoyed
a week without work. At the end of it, communications were reestablished with higher headquarters and we were ordered to
hike seven miles to the area hardest hit.
Nothing in the district had escaped the fury. A city of jagged building shells, of splintered statuary and shattered
trees; every vehicle stopped, gnarled and burnt, left to rust or rot in the path of the frenzied might. The only sounds
other than our own were those of falling plaster and their echoes.
I cannot describe the desolation properly, but I can give an idea of how it made
us feel, in the words of a delirious British soldier in a makeshift POW hospital: “It’s frightenin’, I
tell you. I would walk down one of them bloody streets and feel a thousand eyes on the back of me ’ead. I would ’ear
’em whis-perin’ behind me. I would turn around to look at ’em and there wouldn’t be a bloomin’
soul in sight. You can feel ’em and you can ’ear ’em but there’s never anybody there.” We knew
what he said was so.
work, we were divided into small crews, each under a guard. Our ghoulish mission was to search for bodies. It was rich hunting
that day and the many thereafter. We started on a small scale – here a leg, there an arm, and an occasional baby –
but struck a mother lode before noon.
We cut our way through a basement wall to discover a reeking hash of over 100 human beings. Flame must have swept
through before the building’s collapse sealed the exits, because the flesh of those within resembled the texture of
prunes. Our job, it was explained, was to wade into the shambles and bring forth the remains. Encouraged by cuffing and
guttural abuse, wade in we did. We did exactly that, for the floor was covered with an unsavoury broth from burst water mains
A number of victims,
not killed outright, had attempted to escape through a narrow emergency exit. At any rate, there were several bodies packed
tightly into the passageway. Their leader had made it halfway up the steps before he was buried up to his neck in falling
brick and plaster. He was about 15, I think.
It is with some regret that I here besmirch the nobility of our airmen, but, boys, you killed an appalling lot of
women and children. The shelter I have described and innumerable others like it were filled with them. We had to exhume
their bodies and carry them to mass funeral pyres in the parks, so I know.
The funeral pyre technique was abandoned when it became apparent how great was the
toll. There was not enough labour to do it nicely, so a man with a flamethrower was sent down instead, and he cremated them
where they lay. Burnt alive, suffocated, crushed – men, women, and children indiscriminately killed.
the sublimity of the cause for which we fought, we surely created a Belsen of our own. The method was impersonal, but the
result was equally cruel and heartless. That, I am afraid, is a sickening truth.
When we had become used to the darkness, the odour and the carnage, we
began musing as to what each of the corpses had been in life. It was a sordid game: “Rich man, poor man, beggar man,
thief . . .” Some had fat purses and jewellery, others had precious foodstuffs. A boy had his dog still leashed to
Renegade Ukrainians in
German uniform were in charge of our operations in the shelters proper. They were roaring drunk from adjacent wine cellars
and seemed to enjoy their job hugely. It was a profitable one, for they stripped each body of valuables before we carried
it to the street. Death became so commonplace that we could joke about our dismal burdens and cast them about like so much
Not so with the first
of them, especially the young: we had lifted them on to the stretchers with care, laying them out with some semblance of
funeral dignity in their last resting place before the pyre. But our awed and sorrowful propriety gave way, as I said, to
rank callousness. At the end of a grisly day, we would smoke and survey the impressive heap of dead accumulated. One of
us flipped his cigarette butt into the pile: “Hell’s bells,” he said, “I’m ready for Death
any time he wants to come after me.”
days after the raid, the sirens screamed again. The listless and heartsick survivors were showered this time with leaflets.
I lost my copy of the epic, but remember that it ran something like this: “To the people of Dresden: we were forced
to bomb your city because of the heavy military traffic your railroad facilities have been carrying. We realise that we
haven’t always hit our objectives. Destruction of anything other than military objectives was unintentional, unavoidable
fortunes of war.”
explained the slaughter to everyone’s satisfaction, I am sure, but it aroused no little contempt. It is a fact that
48 hours after the last B-17 had droned west for a well-earned rest, labour battalions had swarmed over the damaged rail
yards and restored them to nearly normal service. None of the rail bridges over the Elbe was knocked out of commission.
Bomb-sight manufacturers should blush to know that their marvellous devices laid bombs down as much as three miles wide of
what the military claimed to be aiming for.
The leaflet should have said: “We hit every blessed church, hospital, school, museum, theatre, your university,
the zoo, and every apartment building in town, but we honestly weren’t trying hard to do it. C’est la guerre.
So sorry. Besides, saturation bombing is all the rage these days, you know.”
There was tactical significance: stop the railroads. An excellent manoeuvre,
no doubt, but the technique was horrible. The planes started kicking high explosives and incendiaries through their bomb-bays
at the city limits, and for all the pattern their hits presented, they must have been briefed by a Ouija board.
Tabulate the loss against the gain. Over
100,000 noncombatants and a magnificent city destroyed by bombs dropped wide of the stated objectives: the railroads were
knocked out for roughly two days. The Germans counted it the greatest loss of life suffered in any single raid. The death
of Dresden was a bitter tragedy, needlessly and wilfully executed. The killing of children – “Jerry” children
or “Jap” children, or whatever enemies the future may hold for us – can never be justified.
The facile reply to great groans such as
mine is the most hateful of all clichés, “fortunes of war”, and another: “They asked for it. All
they understand is force.”
asked for it? The only thing who understands is force? Believe me, it is not easy to rationalise the stamping out
of vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored when gathering up babies in bushel baskets or helping a man dig where
he thinks his wife may be buried.
enemy military and industrial installations should have been blown flat, and woe unto those foolish enough to seek shelter
near them. But the “Get Tough America” policy, the spirit of revenge, the approbation of all destruction and
killing, have earned us a name for obscene brutality.
Our leaders had a carte blanche as to what they might or might not destroy. Their mission was to win the war as
quickly as possible; and while they were admirably trained to do just that, their decisions on the fate of certain priceless
world heirlooms – in one case, Dresden – were not always judicious. When, late in the war, with the Wehrmacht
breaking up on all fronts, our planes were sent to destroy this last major city, I doubt if the question was asked: “How
will this tragedy benefit us, and how will that benefit compare with the ill-effects in the long run?”
Dresden, a beautiful city, built in the art
spirit, symbol of an admirable heritage, so antiNazi that Hitler visited it but twice during his whole reign, food and hospital
centre so bitterly needed now – ploughed under and salt strewn in the furrows.
World war two was fought for near-holy motives. But I stand convinced that
the brand of justice in which we dealt, wholesale bombings of civilian populations, was blasphemous. That the enemy did
it first has nothing to do with the moral problem. What I saw of our air war, as the European conflict neared an end, had
the earmarks of being an irrational war for war’s sake. Soft citizens of the American democracy had learnt to kick
a man below the belt and make the bastard scream.
The occupying Russians, when they discovered that we were Americans, embraced us and congratulated us on the complete
desolation our planes had wrought. We accepted their congratulations with good grace and proper modesty, but I felt then
as I feel now, that I would have given my life to save Dresden for the world’s generations to come. That is how everyone
should feel about every city on earth.
© Kurt Vonnegut Jr Trust 2008
1945: The Devil's Tinderbox
- Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox,by Alexander McKee. New York: E.P. Dutton, Inc., 1982, 1984, with maps,
Reviewed by Charles Lutton
of the virtually undefended German city of Dresden by bombers of the Royal Air Force and U.S. Army Air Force, in mid-February,
1945, remains one of the most controversial episodes of the Second World War. In 1963, British historian David Irving published
a pathbreaking study on this topic. Another widely-published British military historian, Alexander McKee, has produced a
new account of the Dresden bombing, based in part upon an examination of official records recently declassified, as well
as interviews from survivors of the attack and Allied airmen who flew in the raids.
McKee had doubts about the efficacy of area bombing
when, as a soldier with the 1st Canadian Army, he witnessed the results of the Allied bombing of "friendly" French
towns. Following visits to the cities of Caen and Lisieux, he wrote in his personal war diary:
"Lisieux and Caen are examples of the inflexibility
of the four-motor heavy bombers: it cannot block a road without bringing down a city. I'm not surprised that our troops
advancing between Caen and Lisiel=c were fired on by French civilians. No doubt many Frenchmen found it hard to be liberated
by a people who seem, by their actions, to specialise in the mass murder of their friends."
McKee was an eye-witness to the final destruction
of the towns of Emmerich and Arnhem. He related that, "In Emmerich I saw no building whatever intact .... This process,
when the town was an Allied one, we referred to with bitter mockery as 'Liberation.' When you said that such-and-such a
place had been 'liberated,' you meant that hardly one stone still stood upon another."
The bombing of urban areas which might contain
targets of military importance was a policy advocated by leading British air strategists long before the outbreak of the
war. McKee reviewed the writings of the air power theorists of the 1920s and 30s, observing that "retreading them now
is like browsing through a British Mein Kampf. The horror to come is all there between the lines. What they are really advocating
is an all-out attack on non-combatants, men, women, and children, as a deliberate policy of terror?"
After sifting through the evidence, the author
refers to these proferred justifications as the "standard white-wash gambit." There was a military barracks in
Dresden, but it was located on the out skirts of the "New Town," miles away from the selected target area. There
were some hutted camps in the city-full of starving refugees who had fled from the advancing Red Terror in the East. The
main road route passed on the west outside the city limits. The railway network led to an important junction, but this,
too, passed outside the center of the "Old City," which was the focal point for the bombing attacks. No railway
stations were on the British target maps, nor, apparently, were bridges, the destruction of which could have impeded German
communications with the Eastern Front. And despite the claims of U.S. Air Force historians, writing in 1978, that "The
Secretary of War had to be appraised of ... the Russian request for its neutralization," the author has unearthed no
evidence of such a Soviet request.
What the author has discovered about the attack is that:
- By the end of Summer, 1944, "there is evidence that the
Western Allies were contemplating some terrible but swift end to the war by committing an atrocity which would terrify the
enemy into instant surrender. Without doubt, the inner truth has still to be prised loose, but the thread of thought can
- "The bomber commanders were not
really interested in any purely military or economic targets .... What they were looking for was a big built-up area which
they could burn .... The attraction Dresden had for Bomber Command was that the centre of the city should burn easily and
magnificentlv: as indeed it was to do."
- At the time
of the attacks on February 13-14, 1945, the inhabitants of Dresden were mostly women and children, many of whom had just
arrived as refugees from the East. There were also large numbers of Allied POWs. Few German males of military age were left
in the city environs. The author cites the official Bomber Command history prepared by Sir Charles Webster and Dr. Noble
Frankland, which reveals that "the unfortunate, frozen, starving civilian refugees were the first object of the attack,
before military movements "
- Dresden was virtually
undefended. Luftwaffe fighters stationed in the general vicinity were grounded for lack of fuel. With the exception of a
few light guns, the anti-aircraft batteries had been dismantled for employment elsewhere. McKee quotes one British participant
in the raid, who reported that "our biggest problem, quite truly, was with the chance of being hit by bombs from other
Lancasters flying above us."
- Targets of genuine
military significance were not hit, and had not even been included on the official list of targets. Among the neglected
military targets was the railway bridge spanning the Elbe River, the destruction of which could have halted rail traffic
for months. The railway marshalling yards in Dresden were also outside the RAF target area. The important autobahn bridge
to the west of the city was not attacked. Rubble from damaged buildings did interrupt the flow of traffic within the city,
"but in terms of the Eastern Front communications network, road transport was virtually unimpaired."
- In the course of the USAF daylight raids, American fighter- bombers strafed
civilians: "Amongst these people who had lost everything in a single night, panic broke out. Women and children were
massacred with cannon and bombs. It was mass murder." American aircraft even attacked animals in the Dresden Zoo. The
USAF was still at it in late April, with Mustangs strafing Allied POWs they discovered working in fields.
- The author concludes that, "Dresden had been bombed for political and
not military reasons; but again, without effect. There was misery, but it did not affect the war." Some have suggested
that the bombing of Dresden was meant to serve as a warning to Stalin of what sort of destruction the Western Powers were
capable of dealing. If that was their intent, it certainly failed to accomplish the objective.
Once word leaked out that the Dresden raids were generally viewed
as terrorist attacks against civilians, those most responsible for ordering the bombings tried to avoid their just share
of the blame. McKee points out that:
"In both the UK and the U.S.A. a high level of sophistication was to be employed in order
to excuse or justify the raids, or to blame them on someone else. It is difficult to think of any other atrocity -- and
there were many in the Second World War -- which has produced such an extraordinary aftermath of unscrupulous and mendacious
Who were the men to blame for the attacks? The author reveals that:
"It was the Prime Minister himself who in effect had signed the
death warrant for Dresden, which had been executed by Harris [chief of RAF Bomber Command]. And it was Churchill, too, who
in the beginning had enthusiastically backed the bomber marshals in carrying out the indiscriminate area bombing policy
in which they all believed. They were all in it together. Portal himself [head of the RAF, Harris of course, Trenchard [British
air theorist] too, and the Prime Minister most of all. And many lesser people."
An aspect of the Dresden bombing that remains
a question today is how many people died during the attacks of February 13-14, 1945. The city was crammed with uncounted
refugees and many POWs in transit. when the raids took place. The exact number of casualties will never be known. McKee
believed that the official figures were understated, and that 35,000 to 45,000 died, though "the figure of 35,000 for
one night's massacre alone might easily be doubled to 70,000 without much fear of exaggeration, I feel."
has written a compelling account of the destruction of Dresden. Although the author served with the British armed forces
during the war, his attitude toward the events he describes reminds this reviewer of McKee's fellow Brit, Royal Navy Captain
Russell Grenfell, who played a key role in the sinking of the battleship Bismarck, but who, after the war, wrote a classic
of modern revisionism, Unconditional Hatred: German War Guilt and the Future of Europe (1953). Likewise, Dresden
1945, deserves a place in any revisionist's library.
From The Journal
of Historical Review, Summer 1985 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pages 247-250.