“It is well that war is so terrible – lest we should grow too fond of it.”
– Robert E. Lee, after the Battle of Fredericksburg,
“I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. Suppress it! You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”
– William Tecumseh Sherman, Graduation address,
Michigan Military Academy, June 1879.
“The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw, and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.”
– Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, RAF, reflecting on
the bombing raids over London, September 1940.
This past June 28, at Green Park near Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth unveiled a memorial to the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. Prince Phillip and Prince Charles, both wearing the dress uniforms of Air Chief Marshals, along with surviving veterans of World War II watched.
It has been 67 years since the end of that terrible war, and a good many believe that it is high time the service of 125,000 airmen is recognized. After all, 55,573 died in action – a higher percentage than those who served in the trenches of World War I. There are those, however, who believe such a memorial is misplaced, after all Bomber Command was responsible for more than 600,000 civilian deaths in Nazi Germany and its allied and occupied nations.
The British air raids, along with the U.S. Army 8th Air Force, wreaked unprecedented devastation on German cities. The British pioneered what came to be known as area, or carpet bombing. Massive fleets of aircraft would target an area that contained strategic facilities and attempt to saturate that area with bombs. Some raids included more than 1000 bombers that rained high explosive and incendiary bombs on cities causing massive firestorms with deadly consequences. Hamburg, an important port and manufacturing center, was almost totally destroyed. Berlin was reduced to a pile of blackened rubble (what the British and American bombs didn’t blast into pieces, Russian tanks and artillery, as well as those of its defenders, did). The collateral damage, that is, civilian casualties, was immense, and there are critics who say that the civilian deaths were not collateral at all, but part of a purposeful campaign of terror.
The most criticized raid of the War was the February 13th & 14th 1945 bombing of Dresden in eastern Germany. The Altstadt, Dresden’s old central city, was known as the Florence on the Elbe because of its art and architecture that was some finest example of the Baroque style. The raids almost completely destroyed the Altstadt, including the magnificent Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), built in the time of Bach and Pachelbel, and killed more than 25,000 men, women, and children. Moreover, Dresden was bombed less than three months before the German surrender, while the British, American, and Soviet forces were on large parts of German soil and rapidly closing in. An obvious and unnecessary exercise in overkill?
It would seem that these horrific results perpetrated by Bomber Command, led by Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, with Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s approval and encouragement, should have been prosecuted as war crimes, or at the very least, allowed to fade into obscurity. After all, the German Luftwaffe attacked cities in Poland, Russia, the Low Countries, and others. The surviving Nazis were tried as criminals, and many were hanged, for such offenses. The Nazi bombing of Coventry in 1940, for example, killed 500 civilians, as well as destroying the cathedral there, many more civilians were killed in London and elsewhere. The destruction and casualties of the 1940 Nazi blitz would pale in comparison to what Harris and his airmen would accomplish. The British raids on Hamburg in 1943 killed 50,000. And that was just the beginning; over tenfold more would die before it was over. Perhaps, as General Sherman might have concluded, the winner in war is the one who best plays the part of the devil.
Nevertheless, I am afraid I cannot agree with the critics. Sadly, the British were justified in sending the bombers to do what they did.
Area bombing in Europe was destructive and deadly. Did it win or hasten the end of the war? Did it have any salutary effect at all? Was the loss of civilian life and the ruining of historic structures and artifices worth the cost? Was there any justification to continue the bombing after late 1944 in Germany or after mid-1945 in Japan when the war was all but won? For one thing, the Nazis were the first to target cities. Furthermore, the bombing in Germany was not carried out wantonly against a defenseless people. The German military fought back ferociously. As previously noted, more than 50,000 British airmen were casualties of the campaign and thousands of aircraft were shot down. Until the United States geared up sufficiently to help in Europe (remember, the U.S. had its hands full with Japan in the two years of the Pacific war, and the Russians were reeling from a withering German offensive until the 1942-43 winter) Britain was essentially alone. It had been subjected to a terror bombing campaign from May 1940 through June 1941 that was halted only when Hitler turned his attention to the Soviet Union. The British fought the only way they could. Given the technology of the time, and the European weather conditions, nighttime area bombing was the only method that could be remotely effective. The most important immediate objective the British had was to keep the Nazi bombers from coming back. The diversion of resources to air defense, particularly after the Cologne raid of 1942 and Operation Gomorrah over Hamburg in 1943, surely kept the German air force from making further raids on Britain. Moreover, this surely hindered the effort on the Russian front.
As for Dresden, at the time of the February 1945 attacks, it was an important transportation hub and command center for the German eastern front. After the successful D-Day invasion and the liberation of most of France by September 1944, combined with Russian drives into Poland by that time, one could believe that Germany was defeated, and all was over but the shouting. This is hindsight; it was not all that apparent at the time. In September, the Anglo-American forces were dealt a severe setback in Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, and in December the German army launched a fierce offensive in the Battle of the Bulge. All the while, Great Britain was again subjected to air raids, this time by the unmanned V-1 and V-2 missiles, the latter being supersonic and striking without warning of any kind. Even after the Bulge, the Anglo-American forces were opposed every step of the way as they invaded Germany, and continued to suffer many casualties. The Soviet Army in the East was even more ferociously opposed. The Russians suffered over a half million casualties in the final drive to Berlin, and had to fight for the city block by block. Britain and the U.S. had to use everything at their disposal to end and win the European War. Britain has lost too many men, and as Arthur Harris said in February 1945: “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.” Many British families who had lost men killed in action surely shared his sentiment.
Winston Churchill observed that World War II was a struggle for civilization, Western Civilization as it had advanced in its highest and finest order. One of its finest exemplars had been hijacked by evil forces that harken back to barbarism, superstition, and savagery. These reasons that happened are the subject of a surfeit of writings with many more to doubtless follow. That evil had to be defeated, at whatever cost, for civilization to survive.
Moralists, philosophers and politicians of all stripes are fond of observing that two wrongs don’t make a right, and there was no justification for sinking to the same moral level as the Nazis. That is true enough, but beside the point. When someone manifests an intent to kill you, has the apparent means to do it, and tries mightily, you employ whatever means you have to defend against that. The concept of a “disproportionate response” toward an aggressor exists only in the lexicon of fools. Furthermore, consider this. Winning the war was one thing; maintaining a peace afterward is quite another. Twenty-two centuries prior the Romans concluded a third war of defending against the aggression of rival city-state Carthage by totally destroying the city, killing all the men, selling the women and children into slavery throughout the Mediterranean world, and sowing the fields with salt so nothing would grow again. Rome never had any trouble from that place again. It was the Carthaginian peace. For sixty-seven years after World War II ended, the world has not been troubled by military aggression emanating from Germany, or Japan, which was similarly devastated with conventional, and ultimately, nuclear, bombs. Perhaps, at least in two corners of the earth, Arthur Harris’ whirlwind uprooted the grapes of wrath.
I have had the opportunity to visit Dresden three times. The first in 1983 may not really count, because I was on a train from Prague to Berlin after dark, and didn’t see much. The only thing I recall was peering out a window toward where I thought the Altstadt was located as the train crossed the Elbe. This visit was before the fall of the wall. I asked a fellow passenger, a young man wearing the uniform of the East German navy, if I was looking in the right direction. He looked away, apparently not understanding my German (which would have been unsurprising) or not inclined to be seen talking to someone who was obviously an American.
My second visit was in 1995. I saw quite a bit more. At that time, a great deal of progress had been made in restoration of the Altstadt. The Frauenkirche, however, was still a pile of rubble, and the only thisng standing in the plaza were a few charred pieces of the exterior wall, and a statue of Martin Luther that survived the bombing more or less intact. The Soviet puppet government had decided to leave it that way as a reminder of the war. After the Soviet collapse and reunification of Germany, plans by a private foundation and other donors were in the works. A major part of the plan was to use as much of the original stones as possible, so the pieces were in the process of being identified and catalogued to be assembled more or less like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Prior to my most recent visit in 2010, the puzzle had been assembled, albeit with quite a bit of new materials, and with modern infrastructure. The exterior is nearly identical to the church as it was before the bombing; the sanctuary, as well as other parts of the interior, are faithful to the original. The famous dome again graces Dresden’s skyline, now with a new cross. The original cross, still bent and blackened, is displayed in the sanctuary, as a reminder, perhaps.
There has been some discussion about the Frauenkirche’s restoration. Artistic purists do not like restorations, I know. They would rather have an original work in damaged conditions, than one maintained and restored to its original beauty – not sure why. There are also those who believe the restoration of the Frauenkirche, as well as other war damaged buildings and cities, is akin to trying to forget the war ever happened. In England, the ruins of the Coventry Cathedral, mostly destroyed by bombs in 1940, have been preserved in their damaged state next to a new church adjacent to it. Berlin’s Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) was rebuilt much like Coventry Cathedral, an ultra-modern sanctuary and bell tower around the damaged spire of the old building. Dresden, and other cities, notably Nuremberg, have opted for restoration of structures mostly as they were.
One writer has complained that the Dresden restoration demonstrates the city’s refusal to confront its past (see George Packer’s essay, “Embers” <http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2010-02-01# ). This is collectivist nonsense. What that author’s beef is that citizens of Dresden, like so many other German citizens, were enthusiastic supports of National Socialism, and their children, grandchildren, and perhaps progeny to the end of time must say mea culpas for the Nazi aberration, in which they had no part. It is more fitting that they rebuild a beautiful and architecturally significant accomplishment of a long past century that would have been lost to future generations had it not been restored to what it was. Those re-builders have rejected the wallowing in guilt that was not theirs. They created instead a triumph of spirit. Witness!