imperial city of Dresden with its six hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants had been the capital of the kingdom of Saxony until the year 1918. The seat of power of the Majesties, its architectural splendour led many to liken the city to the magnificence of Florence.
Ten weeks before Germany’s capitulation, more than one million two hundred thousand people have found a home in this “Florence on the Elbe”. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, many presumably without personal possessions, have sought sanctuary in this “safe” city, even though, just one hundred and thirty kilometres away, the roar of gunfire from the frontline can already be heard when the wind blows from the east.
For many weeks, thousands had been fleeing from the Russians - leaving behind everything they owned in their haste. They had made it to Dresden “at last!”. Here they hoped to reunite with those lost en route and consider their next move - for the Russians, they assumed, were bound to soon also take the Saxon capital.
Most casualties from the frontline (which moves ever closer and closer) are sent on to Dresden, which now houses the largest number of military hospitals in the Reich. The hospitals are so overcrowded that the sick lie in the corridors. To remedy the desperate situation, several school buildings have been commandeered, but even these temporary hospitals are rapidly filled.
On Shrove Tuesday, 13 February 1945, the streets of the Saxon metropolis are covered in snow. In spite of the approaching threat from the East and the general desperation and scarcity, many are celebrating today’s Grand carnival finale by dressing up in all manner of colourful costumes. It is as if the perilous situation could be forgotten or even overcome by creating a make-believe reality. Yes, people long to be distracted from their worries. For this reason, the opera house, the circus Sarrassani and all the cinemas and theatres are full. No-one, it seems, could accept that with the dwindling of the Reich, Germany’s demise must now also be near at hand.
What will happen to us all? - Don’t think about the future! - Laugh at the clowns as they fool around or at the slapstick on the silver screen. - We are safe for the moment! - After all, the Russians haven’t arrived yet. Perhaps the Western Powers will suddenly change their minds and fight with us to overcome the ‘communist threat’? - Perhaps ... ? - Perhaps ... ?
When the sirens suddenly begin to wail at around a quarter to ten in the evening, only the recently arrived refugees prick up their ears in horror. Most of the inhabitants are not particularly disturbed by the event, after all, the sirens have already sounded more than one hundred false alarms. Apart from a few bombers targeting suburban armament plants last month, we’ve never been bothered by enemy aircraft. The enemy knows full well that Dresden is a “military hospital city” and crammed with refugees to boot.
It is only when the sound of aircraft engines can be heard and enemy “Christmas trees” start tumbling from the sky to illuminate the city, that a stampede sets in toward the basements and the “safe” shelters.
The RAF reconnaissance team is surprised by the lack of German resistance - no flak or anti-aircraft fire. Without any interference, they mark the city centre with flares for the intended carpet bombing by the advancing Lancaster bombers. Over his radio, the team commander gives the go-ahead for the ‘gentlemen’ in the two hundred and forty heavy bombers to drop their explosive loads in the precise formations so often practised.
The bays of the four and eight thousand pound high-explosive bombs are opened first. Their task is to unroof the houses and break windowpanes and doors. They are followed by a hundred thousand incendiary bombs which rain down upon the roofless apartments to create an inferno blaze.
To ease the flight crew’s conscience, they had been informed at the last moment that this unexpected sortie upon the “fortress town” of Dresden was only to target the railway network, the industrial area, the “major munitions factory” and the large “poison gas plant”. As is often the case, the men fighting the "just cause" of "defending their land", were lied to by the highest authorities who concealed their true murderous intentions (which had been planned down to the last detail) or passed off their actions as inevitable. The Nazi and the communist propagandasswas particularly adept at this. In all nations, the “gentlemen” lapped up the fairy stories served to them from “above” only too eagerly - after all, they helped to keep one’s conscience “clear” and to acquit oneself of all responsibility after the event.
The reconnaissance crew had marked out the terrain. After all, they had to know, hadn’t they, where the “Gestapo building” and the factories “crucial for the outcome of the war” were supposed to lie. Consequently, the bombers would bomb the terrain marked by the red flares. We have only done our duty and carried out our orders. We are guiltless.
At thirteen minutes past ten in the evening, the first bombs are exploding. We discover Monika with her six-month-old daughter sitting on a bench in a cramped coal cellar, together with the tenants and refugees living in the house. Whenever a large bomb strikes the immediate vicinity, the entire basement appears to rock from side to side. The plaster is falling from the ceiling. Suddenly the light goes out. In the rush to the shelter, no-one had of course thought to bring a candle along. Fortunately, one of the eleven adults has brought a torch. Nobody says a word. Occasionally someone lets out a scream when an explosion is heard. Two children are howling and someone can be heard muttering what sounds like the Lord’s Prayer.
Do they really intend to turn our whole city into a heap of rubble? - I'm scared! Will the next bomb hit our house, could it even fall through as far as here? Anything but that! - But they told us in Breslau that it would be best for us to go to Dresden, since it's the ‘safest air-raid shelter in the Reich’. - These airborne barbarians! They want to exterminate us to the last man. Perhaps Goebbels’s propagandasslies were right after all. They said that Morgenthau plans to turn Germany into a potato field for the nations of Europe. - What on earth have we done to them to make them want to wipe us out? - Why on earth did we ever entrust ourselves to Hitler? Now we are all going to 'buy it'.
How on earth can this be possible? Dresden can hardly be considered an important industrial target like Chemnitz for instance. We all thought we'd be safe from bombs here. Our houses were probably the only ones in a German city to still have unbroken window panes. At night we never needed to black out the windows, even during air-raid warnings. Why this sudden U-turn? - And I am still sitting here in my carnival costume! Oh yes, this is truly a grand finale, the enemy wants to prepare us our last dance today. - I do hope Hitler completes his wonder weapon soon! It can’t be delayed a single day more. Then we’ll get our own back on those Yanks and Englishmen, those scrupleless mass murderers.
Monika: Bang! They’ve just hit the neighbours' house. Two of us have fallen from our benches. I just managed to hold onto a hook on the wall.
...Now suddenly everything seems to have come to an end. No, not yet. There was another bang. Perhaps it was just delayed-action explosives. Yes, it seems to be all over. Some people from the basement next door are pounding against the wall. I can hear them screaming. Now there are stones falling out of the wall, I can hear voices.
Help! We're suffocating! We can’t get out! Our entrance is blocked with rubble! We aren’t getting any air! Help us!
A woman from Cologne to Monika: Now on top of it they are making a big hole! We’ll also suffocate then. The first raid is over, but the second won’t be long in coming. It’s always even worse than the first one. I've been through it all before. Come! Grab your little one. We have to get out of here as quickly as possible before we suffocate or burn. And when you’re in the open, run for all you're worth out of the city centre. Best to keep to the banks along the Elbe, it should be the least hot of all there.
Everyone is now rushing upstairs along with those who have clambered through the hole. But when they reach the hall, they discover both the front and rear exits are fiercely burning. Through the smouldering remains of the doors, they can see that the building next door is completely ablaze. - We must go back! Back!! - No, we’ve got to get out! Our house will burn any minute too! We’ll burn in the cellar! But there is no way out!
Woman from Cologne to Monika: Do as I do. Dip your coat into that bucket of water. Then cover yourself and the little one and run through the flames of the front door. And then off you run towards the Elbe! Understand? Let’s get going!
Monika does as she is told. She safely reaches the street where she joins several others running towards the Elbe, dodging the flames which burst from every second building. On the road and pavements, fire bombs continue to spray their fatal load here and there - to no avail since they are unable to reach anything inflammable. Monika, her baby in her arms, is running after the others. It’s so hot. Don’t stop on any account! There’s a fountain over there. I can quickly dip the coat again, and then onward! The Opera House is on fire! Even the church and the castle! Onward! Don’t look back!
As the flames continue to consume more and more buildings from within, Monika is among those who manage to escape the burning city centre. Within forty-five minutes, the heart of the city is engulfed by a mighty swirling firestorm. Roaring like a waterfall, it sucks up anything lighter than iron or stone that is not firmly attached to the ground and sends lighter materials aloft into the cloudless night in an immense gyrating plume.
Those fleeing through the streets who fail to secure themselves are at once sucked into the flaming vortex. Meanwhile the asphalt-covered roads have begun to boil. Those who attempt to cross the street, find themselves trapped in the bubbling tar and are quickly overcome by the blistering heat.
Chairs, laundry, doors, prams, animals and thousands of other objects are drawn aloft by the vortex of fire, only to be dropped to the ground in tatters several kilometres away to the south-east. In fact, during the next few days people were to find thousands of police and other official documents up to 30 kilometres away. Untouched or only half-destroyed, they had been carried up hundreds of metres into the air and then carried by the wind.
It is now Ash Wednesday and a new airborne armadassis approaching from England. The pilots can make out the brightly shining target from a distance of three hundred and twenty kilometres. At exactly twenty-three minutes past one, the Royal Air Force begins its second raid, this time lasting twenty minutes and employing more than twice as many aircraft and bombs. Goodbye, Florence of the North!
Since the city is without power, it won’t be possible to use sirens to give advance warning this time. No German anti-aircraft defences oppose the bombers. Dresden is being raped. The central railway station, so far spared, is now being heavily bombed as well. Thousands of people - among them a very large number of children - are meeting their fate here.
Just ten hours later, formations of American aircraft arrive to drop their deadly loads onto the untouched city outskirts. Meanwhile, Mustang fighter planes buzz the streets, spraying machine gun fire at anything seen to move. They reap a particularly rich harvest along the banks of the Elbe, where thousands of refugees, following great difficulty, have managed to find safety from the still burning city. The following day sees yet another raid, this time by the American ”Liberator” fleet. To cut a long story short, the four bombing raids on Dresden are the heaviest and, in terms of civilian casualties and the murderous lust expressed, also the most “successful” air-raid in history.
Six hundred and fifty thousands bombs - one bomb for each inhabitant! - are dropped on Dresden. What remains, is a mass of rubble - eleven truckloads of debris per resident. Seventy-five thousand apartments have been destroyed and one hundred and fifty thousand people have met their fate. The Florence upon the Elbe has turned into a 'Sodom and Gomorrha'.