(The following is from my book, Hellstorm—The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947. It describes one of the greatest crimes of World War Two and perhaps the largest one-day massacre ever recorded. )
Fashing is an annual German event similar to the Latin celebration of Mardi Gras. On this particular evening of “Shrove Tuesday,” normally staid, reserved Teutons don outlandish costumes, join friends or complete strangers, swarm into bars, restaurants and theaters, then partake for several hours in pointless, yet harmless, merry-making. Because of the exigencies of war, however, the celebration, like most else in the devastated Reich, had been all but abandoned. In only one city did the Fashing tradition continue much in the manner it always had, and on the night of February 13, women and children, along with the few remaining men, flooded its streets to celebrate.
Dresden was truly one of the world’s great cultural treasures. Known as the “Florence on the Elbe,” the ancient showcase in the heart of Saxony was a virtual time-capsule of Gothic architecture and medieval culture. At every turn on every narrow, cobbled street of the old town was an ornate palace, a museum, an art gallery, or a towering, centuries-old cathedral. Like Paris, Rome and Venice, Dresden was both beautiful, romantic and enduring. For decades, the city had been one of the “must stops” for continental travelers, especially those from Britain and America.
Welcome as it was, the fact that a city the size of Dresden had survived when all else was destroyed, mystified some residents and troubled others. Since only two tiny daylight raids had occurred during five years of war, many assumed Dresden’s salvation was due to its reputation as an “art city”; that as a priceless, irreplaceable gem of Western culture even “terror-bombers” lacked hatred sufficient to efface such beauty. Others surmised that since Dresden had almost no heavy industry—and what little it did have had no bearing on the war—the enemy simply did not deem the city a viable target. When skeptics pointed out that many other beautiful German towns with little or no industry had been systematically obliterated, rumors invented new reasons for Dresden’s miraculous survival.
One belief embraced by many stated that an aunt of Churchill’s lived in Dresden. Another hinted that the town was spared because of huge American investments. The fact that Dresden had become a “hospital city” with numerous medical facilities seemed a rational explanation to others. To some, the twenty-six thousand Allied POWs interred in the town appeared a more logical answer. Among many Dresdeners, however, perhaps the greatest explanation as to why their city lived when all else died was that undoubtedly a spark of mercy yet burned in the hearts of British and American flyers. Of all the many names it was known by, nothing better described Dresden in February, 1945, than “refugee city.”
Since the Soviet invasion in January, millions of terrified trekkers, desperate to put as much space between themselves and the Red Army as possible, had fled through Dresden in trains, cars, wagons, or afoot. Hundreds of thousands more, though—injured, wounded, starving, or simply separated from their families—washed up in Dresden like castaways on an island. At the main train station, a city within a city had sprang up wherein thousands of people, many of them lost or orphaned children, lived a semi-permanent existence. A seventeen-year-old Red Cross worker, Eva Beyer, offers a glimpse at the heart-rending agony:
Children were searching for their parents, parents were searching for their children, there was constant calling and asking. A boy of about nine years of age, holding his little four-year-old sister by the hand, asked me for food. When I asked him where his parents were, the boy said to me: “Grandma and grandpa are lying dead in the carriage and Mummy is lost.” The children had no tears any more. . . . In one compartment we found a woman. She had twenty-three children with her, and not one of them was her own. She had buried her own child three weeks ago. Her child had died of cold and tonsillitis. I asked her where all those other children came from, and she told me that all these were children whose parents were lost or dead. “After all, somebody has got to take care of them,” she said. . . . [T]hose children’s faces were not the faces of children any more. They were the faces of people who have gone through hell. Starving, wounded, lice-ridden, in rags. And the most treasured thing they had, security and the love of their parents, they had lost.
As truly appalling as the situation at the railroad station was, conditions were little better in the surrounding city. From a normal population of 600,000, Dresden had swollen by the night of February 13 to perhaps double that figure. Every which way residents turned they found frightened, ragged refugees.
“[E]ach restaurant, cafe, pub, and bar . . . was crammed full of people with suitcases, rucksacks and bundles,” a woman wrote. “You literally fell over these people and their possessions. It was so bad that you did not like to watch it, and it spoiled all the usual happy atmosphere of the Fashing.”
Nevertheless, in spite of the crowds and the fact that the Russians were a mere seventy miles away, thousands of Dresdeners were determined to take to the streets and celebrate what was certain to be the last Fashing of the war.
Just before ten p.m. the Dresden sirens sounded. There was no panic. Most residents simply ignored the sounds. Even had there been any public air raid shelters few would have fled to them for there seemed little doubt on this cold, yet cheery night, that like the 171 false alarms that preceded it, this warning too would end in nothing. Instead of the “All Clear” siren, however, seconds later Dresden heard another sound.
“Suddenly,” said one startled woman, “a thundering and roaring which made the whole earth tremble. An earthquake?”
Almost before this lady and others could guess the answer, the black sky above Dresden turned brilliant. Many spectators were dazzled by the colored lights and stared in awe. “It’s getting light, it’s getting light, it’s bright as day outside!” shouted an incredulous friend to young Gotz Bergander who was indoors listening to his radio.
Weary Red Cross worker, Eva Beyer, had just awakened moments earlier and paid a visit to the restroom:
I saw a green light shine through the window. What was this? When I opened the door, I could see what it was. The “Christmas Trees” were in the sky. . . . I went to warn the other people in the building. . . . I ran through the whole house, calling out: “Alarm! Alarm!” and waking everyone up. . . . Another five families lived in this building and together we totaled eleven women, six children, and one man—Kurt, the wounded ex-soldier. Then I went back to the flat and fetched the children from their beds. . . . [T]hey started to scream because they didn’t know what was happening and there was no time to explain anything to them. We all went down into the cellar and I put just a blanket round each child, because there was no time for anything else. I myself was only in my nightgown, but I didn’t even feel the cold.
At the railroad station, Gisela-Alexandra Moeltgen was standing at the window of an idle train talking to her husband on the platform when the chilling lights showered down.
Many optimists stayed in order to secure a good seat, but I broke the window—it was only made of cardboard—grabbed the handbag in which I carried my jewelry, grabbed my fur, too, and got through the window. The others followed suit. We ran along the completely blacked-out platform in the dark and found that all the barriers were closed. Over the barriers, then! The police wanted us to go into the already overcrowded air raid shelter at the station, but we had only one urge—out, and away from the station!
We ran across the road to the Technical High School where, it was claimed, there was a good cellar. And above us—very low—the planes. Masses of people were already in the cellar when we arrived, and I collapsed then. It was my heart.
I was still very weak and all the running had exhausted me completely. Somebody asked us to move on, further into the crush in the cellar, and we did so.
“Air raid warning!” grumbled an indignant SS officer, Claus von Fehrentheil, as he lay in a military hospital with half his hip shot away. “After all, we understood we were in an open city, world-famous for its art, undefended, declared a ‘hospital town.’ ”
Only after very intensive efforts urging us to shelter, did we concede to go into the cellar. . . . For one thing, we regarded the whole affair as probably a mistake at this time. Then also, a soldier who had been on the Front felt too restricted in a cellar, a place where he could not dodge any threatening dangers. . . . So we stood in the passages and on the staircases outside the air raid shelter.
“Get dressed, get dressed! Quickly, get down to the cellar,” cried nuns in the hospital where twenty-year-old Annemarie Waehmann was a patient. “Bedridden patients were put into push-chairs, and there was nothing but hurrying and rushing about. We had hardly been in the cellar for five minutes when [the bombs fell]. . . . This is the end, we thought. . . . Many screamed in fear, and prayed, and we crept trembling under the beds.”
“All hell broke loose over us so suddenly that no one really had a chance to perceive what was actually going to happen,” recalled Erika Simon, whose parents had only seconds before whisked the little girl and her brother and sister to the cellar. “I remember I had my head in my mother’s lap under a blanket and was putting both hands over my ears in an attempt to blot out the horrific noise.”
As wave after wave of RAF bombers appeared overhead, ton upon ton of bombs tumbled down. “It was as if a huge noisy conveyor belt was rolling over us,” Gotz Bergander thought when he heard the strange, terrifying noise, “a noise punctuated with detonations and tremors.”
Added to the normal payload of high explosives, hundreds of two- and four-ton “Block-busters” slammed into Dresden, effacing entire neighborhoods. Centuries-old cathedrals, palaces, museums, and homes were reduced to rubble in seconds. At the railroad station, those hundreds of individuals on the trains who had refused to leave their coveted seats were blown to bits. At the huge indoor circus, spectators, performers and animals were slaughtered by blast and hissing shrapnel. In the streets, on the sidewalks, atop the bridges over the Elbe, costumed revelers with nowhere to run were slain by the thousands. Without let-up, the massacre continued.
Because Dresden lacked any sort of anti-aircraft weapons, enemy planes were able to fly so low that victims could be seen running through the streets. Despite this, and the fact that night was “as bright as day,” the numerous hospitals were not spared.
“We patients,” Claus von Fehrentheil recalled, “had been reassured that even the smallest hospital had the distinctive red cross on a white background painted on its roof. It seemed to us as the night went on that these served as excellent markers for the bombs of the English.”
Said Annemarie Waehmann from her own hospital: “There was crashing and thundering, whistling and howling. The walls trembled, swayed by the impact of the bombs. This is the end, we thought. . . . Then some of the doctors screamed: ‘Everyone out of the cellar, the whole building is going to collapse!’ I too ran for my life into the next building. . . . Everyone was in such a panic that all we wanted was to save our naked lives.”
Elsewhere, as the bombing rose in fury, horror-struck Dresdeners huddled against the onslaught. “Time and again I gazed at the ceiling, expecting everything to collapse on us,” confessed Margret Freyer from a cellar containing forty-three women. “Somehow I had switched off and was expecting the final catastrophe; it must have been for this reason that I did not join in the weeping and praying of the totally terrified women, but tried to calm them down as best I could.”
“The attack continued and the mood among us reached panic pitch,” remembered Gisela-Alexandra Moeltgen from the crowded high school basement. “Then a shout—‘At once, everyone leave, there is danger of collapse!’ Out through the narrow cellar windows we went, flames whipping down the staircase, the whole building alight. . . . Flames, flames wherever one looked.”
“I can see my father leaning against this wall,” reminisced Erika Simon, “and I felt that the walls were coming towards us and that my father was trying to stop them from falling down on us.”
“And then,” said the surprised little girl, “suddenly, the noise ceased.”
“There was absolute quiet,” another listener added.
Several minutes later, the welcome silence was broken by the even more welcome sound of the “All Clear” signal. Those who had clocks or watches and thought to look were stunned—what had seemed an all night trial by fire had actually occurred in just under half an hour. In those thirty minutes, however, one of the world’s most beautiful treasures had all but vanished. As the people stumbled from their holes they were stunned at the strange sight that greeted them.
“[C]oming out of the cellar was unforgettable,” wrote teenager Gotz Bergander. “[T]he night sky was illuminated with pink and red. The houses were black silhouettes, and a red cloud of smoke hovered over everything…. People ran toward us totally distraught, smeared with ash, and with wet blankets wrapped around their heads. All we heard was, ‘Everything’s gone, everything’s on fire.’ ”
“I saw only burning houses and screaming people . . . ,” added Margret Freyer when she entered the street. “It was frightening—I found myself completely alone, and all I could hear was the roaring of the fires. I could hardly see, due to the flying sparks, the flames and the smoke.”
Those who managed to reach the streets found their way almost entirely blocked by fallen trees, poles, wires, and collapsed buildings.
As the dazed survivors scrambled for safety, fire brigades arrived from outlying communities to battle the blaze. Red Cross workers also appeared and began pulling victims from the rubble.
Meanwhile, at the great city park in the center of town, another type of rescue was in progress. Like everything else in Dresden, the magnificent zoo had been heavily damaged. Remembered Otto Sailer-Jackson, the sixty-year-old zoo inspector:
The elephants gave spine-chilling screams. Their house was still standing but an explosive bomb of terrific force had landed behind it, lifted the dome of the house, turned it around, and put it back again. The heavy iron doors had been completely bent and the huge iron sliding doors which shut off the house from the terraces had been lifted off their hinges. When I and some of the other men . . . managed to break in to the elephant house, we found the stable empty. For a moment we stood helpless, but then the elephants told us where they were by their heart-breaking trumpeting. We rushed out on to the terrace again. The baby cow elephant was lying in the narrow barrier-moat on her back, her legs up to the sky. She had suffered severe stomach injuries and could not move. A cow elephant had been flung clear across the barrier moat and the fence by some terrific blast wave, and just stood there trembling. We had no choice but to leave those animals to their fate for the moment.
In other areas of the zoo, cages had been blown open and frantic animals had escaped to the park. When Sailer-Jackson approached a monkey, the terrified little animal reached to him for help. To the old man’s horror, he saw that the monkey had only bloody stumps for arms. Drawing his pistol, Sailor-Jackson sadly put the poor creature out of its misery.
As rescue work continued into the early morning of February 14, those in Dresden whose homes had escaped the flames began to mechanically sweep the glass and plaster from their beds and floors or fasten cardboard over windows to keep out the returning cold. “My God, the work was pointless!” admitted one woman, “but it calmed their nerves and their conscience.”
As shattering as the destruction of their beautiful city had been, no one in the stricken town was emotionally prepared for what came next. At 1:30 a.m., the earth began to shake again.
“[S]omeone yelled, ‘They’re coming back, they’re coming back,’” young Gotz Bergander recalled:
Sure enough, through the general confusion we heard the alarm sirens go off again. The alarm system in the city had ceased to function, but we could hear the sirens from the neighboring villages warning of a second attack. That’s when I was overcome with panic, and I’m also speaking for the rest of my family and those who lived in our house. It was sheer panic! We thought this couldn’t be possible, that they wouldn’t do such a .thing. They wouldn’t drop more bombs on a city that was already an inferno. . . . We rushed into the cellar
Margret Freyer was equally stunned: “[M]y friend and I looked at each other, terrified—surely it wasn’t possible? Are they coming a second time? I just caught the radio announcer’s message: ‘Several bomber units are approaching Dresden.’ The voice of the announcer was anything but steady. I felt sick—so they were coming a second time. Knees shaking, we went down into the cellar.”
Once more, the pathetic patients at Claus von Fehrentheil’s military hospital hobbled, crawled or were carried to shelter below. “From the sound of the engines,” noted the SS officer, “we could hear that this time a very large number of aircraft were taking part, definitely more than in the first wave.”
Yet again, as more than a thousand bombers roared overhead, a veritable rain of death showered down on Dresden. In addition to the usual payload of explosives, the second wave brought thousands of incendiary bombs. “[A] non-stop hail of bombs . . . ,” thought a terrified Margret Freyer. “The walls shook, the ground shook, the light went out and our heavy iron door was forced open by [a] blast. In the cellar now, there were the same scenes as had occurred before . . . a crowd of crying, screaming, or praying women, throwing themselves on top of each other.”
“This was hell, hell itself … ,” said Gisela-Alexandra Moeltgen. “I thought: ‘Surely this will have to stop some time.’ ”
I had the feeling that each individual plane tried to hit our house, because it was not on fire yet but brilliantly lit up by the burning house next to it. The planes flew just across the roofs, or at least, that is what it sounded like. I kept shouting: “Open your mouths!” The sound of the bombs—“bschi-bum, bschi-bum”—came wave after wave. There was no end to it. . . . The house seemed to come crashing down and shook continuously. When the direct hit came, no one noticed it, for the whistling noise of the bombs drowned all other noises. In any case, it was the others who confirmed that the house was on fire. From that moment on I felt a little calmer. My feeling was: “Thank God they have hit it at last and yet we are still alive.”
Unbeknownst to Gisela-Alexandra and thousands more, many of the bombs they heard hitting their homes were phosphorous. While Eva Beyer and the other women and children in her cellar huddled in terror, the wounded ex-soldier, Kurt, disappeared briefly.
Suddenly Kurt was beside me as I crouched. He whispered very quietly into my ear: “We have fire bombs in the coal cellar, come quick and help me throw the things out!” I gathered all my courage and went with him. Three incendiaries lay there, and we managed to throw out two. The third one we could only throw sand over because it had already started to smoke, and then there was supposed to be only thirty seconds before the thing would explode like a firework.
In a matter of minutes, the thousands of fire bombs ignited the debris in Dresden and a racing furnace of flame erupted. Unfamiliar with bombing raids and fire storms, most Dresdeners reacted slowly. Erika Simon and the nuns at a military hospital stood frozen in terror.
So there we were, paralyzed by horror and fear, clinging to the Sister in a corridor amongst the dead, the wounded, and soldiers who had just had their legs amputated and were now lying on stretchers, helpless amongst the chaos. Gruesome . . . [were] the Catholic Sisters constantly saying their prayers, murmur ing over their rosaries. I am sure nobody bothered to save the screaming soldiers.
One patient who had no intention of being broiled alive was the severely wounded officer, Claus von Fehrentheil.
Now I was in the open, no longer surrounded by walls, but by flames instead. . . . No path was recognizable between the buildings, no obvious path of escape, because walls were collapsing and adding to the heaps of rubble. The suction of the flames was . . . strong. . . . Even the pieces of clothing which I had hurriedly picked up and thrown over myself began to smolder. Because of the flying sparks my eyes became useless. I was blind. Small holes must have been burnt into the cornea, which were incredibly painful. They made it impossible for me to open my eyes even briefly, just to see where I was.
Another person determined to escape was Margret Freyer:
Out of here—nothing but out! Three women went up the stairs in front of us, only to come rushing down again, wringing their hands. “We can’t get out of here! Everything outside is burning!” they cried. . . . Then we tried the “Break-through” which had been installed in each cellar, so people could exit from one cellar to the other. But here we met only thick smoke which made it impossible to breathe. So we went upstairs. The back door, which opened on to the back yard and was made partly of glass, was completely on fire. It would have been madness to touch it. And at the front entrance, flames a metre and a half high came licking at short intervals into the hall.
In spite of this, it was clear that we could not stay in the building unless we wanted to suffocate. So we went downstairs again and picked up our suitcases. I put two handfuls of handkerchiefs into a water tub and stuffed them soaking wet into my coat pocket. . . . I made a last attempt to convince everyone in the cellar to leave, because they would suffocate if they did not; but they didn’t want to. And so I left alone. . . .
I stood by the entrance and waited until no flames came licking in, then I quickly slipped through and out into the street.
“[S]omebody screamed: ‘Everyone out of here, the place is on fire!’ ” Maria Rosenberger recalled. “When we arrived upstairs we saw that the street was on fire. . . . Burning curtain material was flying towards us and glowing pieces of wood came flying down on us from above. . . . Now everyone started to make a run for the outskirts in order to reach some open space.”
As with Maria and her companions, once in the streets victims did everything they could to escape the ancient inner city where the fire storm seemed centered. Here, in the heart of old Dresden, temperatures reached upwards of 3,000 degrees. Metal roofs, copper cupolas, glass, even sandstone, liquefied in the furious heat and poured down like lava. A hurricane of smoke, flame and dust roared toward the vortex from all directions as the cold air beyond Dresden was drawn in by the fire ball. Many disoriented victims, especially the thousands of refugees, took wrong turns on strange streets and were swept like feathers into the furnace.
“The whole of Dresden was an inferno,” said one teenage boy. “In the street below people were wandering about helplessly. I saw my aunt there. She had wrapped herself in a damp blanket and, seeing me, called out. . . . The sound of the rising fire-storm strangled her last words. A house wall collapsed with a roar, burying several people in the debris. A thick cloud of dust arose and mingling with the smoke made it impossible for me to see.”
“[I]t was like ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ ” remembered Eva Beyer. “People came crawling on their hands and knees, so as to be near the ground and be able to breathe better, but not knowing, as they crawled, whether they were really getting away from the fire-storm or merely heading into other burning areas of the city.”
As he groped blindly through the holocaust, Claus von Fehrentheil well knew he was only seconds from death:
One could forecast what must happen next: the oxygen in the air becomes completely burnt away, so one becomes unconscious and hardly notices that one is burning to death. Blind, I accepted that this must happen. Suddenly, someone touched my shoulder and asked me to come along. He had found a way through the rubble to the outside. And so, holding on to the arm of a comrade, I was led through burning Dresden.
Like von Fehrentheil and his timely guide, others were desperately trying to reach the huge city park or the open spaces along the Elbe River. The trials of twenty-four-year-old Margret Freyer were the trials of many:
Because of flying sparks and the fire-storm I couldn’t see anything at first. . . . no street, only rubble nearly a metre high, glass, girders, stones, craters. I tried to get rid of the sparks by constantly patting them off my coat. It was useless. . . . I took off the coat and dropped it. Next to me a woman was screaming continually: “My den’s burning down, my den’s burning down,” and dancing in the street. As I go on I can still hear her screaming but I don’t see her again. I run, I stumble, anywhere. I don’t even know where I am any more. I’ve lost all sense of direction because all I can see is three steps ahead.
Suddenly I fall into a big hole—a bomb crater, about six metres wide and two metres deep, and I end up down there lying on top of three women. I shake them by their clothes and start to scream at them, telling them that they must get out of here—but they don’t move any more. . . . Quickly, I climbed across the women, pulled my suitcase after me, and crawled on all fours out of the crater. To my left I suddenly see a woman. . . . She carries a bundle in her arms. It is a baby. She runs, she falls, and the child flies in an arc into the fire. It’s only my eyes which take this in; I myself feel nothing. The woman remains lying on the ground, completely still. . . .
[T]here are calls for help and screams from somewhere but all around is one single inferno. I hold another wet handkerchief in front of my mouth, my hands and my face are burning; it feels as if the skin is hanging down in strips. On my right I see a big, burnt-out shop where lots of people are standing. I join them, but think: “No, I can’t stay here either, this place is completely surrounded by fire.” I leave all these people behind, and stumble on. . . . In front of me is something that might be a street, filled with a hellish rain of sparks which look like enormous rings of fire when they hit the ground. I have no choice. I must go through. I press another wet handkerchief to my mouth and almost get through, but I fall and am convinced that I cannot go on. It’s hot. Hot! My hands are burning like fire. . . .I am past caring, and too weak. . . .
Suddenly, I saw people again, right in front of me. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then—to my utter horror and amazement—I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground.
I fall then, stumbling over a fallen woman and as I lie right next to her I see how her clothes are burning away. Insane fear grips me and from then on I repeat one simple sentence to myself continuously: “I don’t want to burn to death— no, no burning—I don’t want to burn!” Once more I fall down and feel that I am not going to be able to get up again, but the fear of being burnt pulls me to my feet. Crawling, stumbling, my last handkerchief pressed to my mouth . . . I do not know how many people I fell over. I knew only one feeling: that I must not burn. . . .
I try once more to get up on my feet, but I can only manage to crawl forward on all fours. I can still feel my body, I know I’m still alive. Suddenly, I’m standing up, but there’s something wrong, everything seems so far away and I can’t hear or see properly any more. . . . I was suffering from lack of oxygen. I must have stumbled forwards roughly ten paces when I all at once inhaled fresh air. There’s a breeze! I take another breath, inhale deeply, and my senses clear.
Through sheer will, some, like Margret, did succeed in reaching safety—but most did not. Standing alone on the far hills outside Dresden, one viewer stared in silent awe at the fiery massacre.
I did not understand what my eyes were seeing. I stood in the darkness, paralyzed, numbed, with my eardrums aching from the hellish uproar. . . . It was simply beyond comprehension, beyond the wildest imagination. It seemed actually unreal….I saw the rising of a flaming sea which . . . inundated the entire city in one huge glowing wave. . . . [T]he entire area was in flames. Huge red and yellow tongues of fire were roaring toward the sky. Streaming, trembling, madly onrushing clouds . . . intermingled with brilliant white, red, and yellow explosions out of which the big bombers seemed to rise like flocks of giant birds.
Without ever having been through a big air raid before, I knew at once that here something quite different was happening.
The view from above was even more compelling. “Dresden was a city with every street etched in fire,” said one RAF navigator.
“At 20,000 feet,” a comrade added, “we could see details in the unearthly blaze that had never been visible before.”
For those planes which ventured down, the view quickly became more personal. “I saw people in the streets,” admitted one crewman. “I saw a dog run across a road—and felt sorry for it.”
“Oh God,” one airman muttered over and over again, “those poor people.”
After half an hour or so, the bombers broke off the attack and banked for home. Equipped with a movie camera, a single aircraft remained to record the drama:
There was a sea of fire covering in my estimation some 40 square miles. The heat striking up from the furnace below could be felt in my cockpit. The sky was vivid in hues of scarlet and white, and the light inside the aircraft was that of an eerie autumn sunset. We were so aghast at the awesome blaze that although alone over the city we flew around in a stand-off position for many minutes before turning for home, quite subdued by our imagination of the horror that must be below. We could still see the glare of the holocaust thirty minutes after leaving.
It was on that dark return flight home, when crewmen had a chance to ponder, that some first came to realize that the war had gone “a step too far.”
“[F]or the first time in many operations,” a Jewish pilot confessed, “I felt sorry for the population below.”
“I was sickened,” echoed a comrade simply.
With the merciful departure of the planes, rescue teams soon began inching toward the center of town. “Because of the fire-storm, at first it was possible to give help only at the periphery of the fires,” explained one worker. “I had to look on, helpless, as people who were clinging to iron railings were seized mercilessly by the suction and plucked off into the flames. And not human beings only, but all sorts of things, even prams, were seized by this force and sucked into the sea of fire.”
When the inferno finally abated later that morning, rescuers and relatives entered the still flaming city to search for survivors.
What we saw . . . was indescribable, horrible. Thick smoke everywhere. As we climbed with great effort over large pieces of walls and roofs which had collapsed and fallen into the street, we could hear behind us, beside us, and in front of us, burnt ruins collapsing with dull crashes. The nearer we came to the town center, the worse it became. It looked like a crater landscape, and then we saw the dead.
“Dead, dead, dead everywhere,” gasped Margret Freyer as she stumbled through the ruins.
Some completely black like charcoal. Others completely untouched. . . . Women in aprons, women with children sitting in the trams as if they had just nodded off. Many women, many young girls, many small children, soldiers who were only identifiable as such by the metal buckles on their belts, almost all of them naked. Some clinging to each other in groups as if they were clawing at each other. From some of the debris poked arms, heads, legs, shattered skulls. . . . Most people looked as if they had been inflated, with large yellow and brown stains on their bodies…. [T]here were also so many little babies, terribly mutilated.
“Never would I have thought that death could come to so many people in so many different ways,” noted a stunned rescue worker.
[S]ometimes the victims looked like ordinary people apparently peacefully sleeping; the faces of others were racked with pain, the bodies stripped almost naked by the tornado; there were wretched refugees from the East clad only in rags, and people from the Opera in all their finery; here the victim was a shapeless slab, there a layer of ashes. . . . Across the city, along the streets wafted the unmistakable stench of decaying flesh.
Indeed, of all the hideous scents wafting through Dresden—sulfur, gas, sewage—the heavy, sweet stench of cooked flesh blanketed all. “There is nothing like it; nothing smells so,” one nauseous woman wrote. What were at first mistaken to be thousands of burnt, blackened logs scattered about the streets were soon found to be charred corpses, each reduced to roughly three feet. “All the way across the city,” said a horrified rescuer, “we could see [these] victims lying face down, literally glued to the tarmac, which had softened and melted in the enormous heat.”
“The thin and elderly victims took longer to catch fire than the fat or young ones,” observed another witness.
Horribly, many frantic relatives were compelled to examine countless such bodies in hopes of identifying loved ones. “I can still see my mother,” remembered eleven-year-old Erika Simon, “bending down and turning over dead children, or bits of dead children, for she was still desperately searching for my little brother.”
“One shape I will never forget,” a rescue worker recalled, “was the remains of what had apparently been a mother and child. They had shriveled and charred into one piece, and had been stuck rigidly to the asphalt. They had just been prised up. The child must have been underneath the mother, because you could still clearly see its shape, with its mother’s arms clasped around it.”
At every turn, a new nightmare awaited. When she kicked from her path what seemed a burnt piece of wood and discovered it was not, young Eva Beyer ran screaming round a corner. Once there, she froze in horror: Hanging with claw-like hands from a metal fence, like so many blackened rats, were those—men, women and children—who had vainly tried to scale the barrier to safety. The sight was too much; Eva vomited on the spot.
Wrote another witness:
In the middle of the square lay an old man, with two dead horses. Hundreds of corpses, completely naked, were scattered round him. . . . Next to the tram-shelter was a public lavatory of corrugated iron. At the entrance to this was a woman, about thirty years old, completely nude, lying face-down on a fur-coat. . . . A few yards further on lay two young boys aged about eight and ten clinging tightly to each other; their faces were buried in the ground. They too were stark naked. Their legs were stiff and twisted into the air.
Curiously, while most victims had been burned to cinders in the streets, others, according to one viewer, “sat stiff in the streetcars, bags in hand, open eyes, dead, with but a slight trickle of blood having run down their noses or coming from their closed lips.”
“One woman was still sitting in a destroyed tramcar as if she had merely forgotten to get out,” recorded Maria Rosenberger. Another victim, she continued, was a completely shriveled corpse of a man, naked, his skin like brown leather, but with his beard and hair in tact.
Adding even more horror to the scene, terribly burned and mutilated zoo animals screamed in pain amid the rubble.
At the main railroad station, where thousands upon thousands were sheltered prior to the attack, few escaped. In the vast basement under the station, no one survived. Unlike those above, victims below died from smoke and carbon monoxide poisoning. “What I saw,” said one who entered the tomb, “was a nightmare, lit as it was only by the dim light of the railwayman’s lantern. The whole of the basement was covered with several layers of people, all very dead.” Added another who witnessed the scene: “What we noticed . . . were not so much dead bodies as people who had apparently fallen asleep, slumped against the station walls.”
Aware that those in the old city would flee the flames to the open spaces, the RAF had hurled tons of high explosive bombs into the huge central park. Here, the slaughter was ghastly. “I could see torn-off arms and legs, mutilated torsos, and heads which had been wrenched off their bodies and rolled away,” commented a Swiss visitor who attempted to cross the park. “In places the corpses were still lying so densely that I had to clear a path through them in order not to tread on arms and legs.”
At the numerous hospitals in Dresden, the survival rate was naturally much lower and many wretched victims could only lay helpless as they slowly burned to death. When Eva Beyer passed a women’s clinic she made the mistake of glancing over as clean-up crews brought out victims.
“I went down on my knees, trembled and cried . . . ,” the young Red Cross worker recounted. “Several women lay there with their bellies burst open . . . and one could see the babies for they were hanging half outside. Many of the babies were mutilated. . . . Scenes like that one saw everywhere and very slowly one became numbed. One acted like a zombie.”
Later that morning, recalled Erika Simon,
the news spread in a most mysterious way, that all those people who were walking about lost and helpless should assemble in the [city park]. Thus a gray mass of people began to move along in a line. One had ceased to be an individual and was only part of a suffering mass. The gray line of people climbed over debris and over the dead. One’s feet stepped on burnt corpses and one didn’t even think about it.
As the stunned survivors assembled at the park and along the grassy banks of the Elbe, some found missing loved ones. Most, however, did not. Absorbed as they were with the hell all about, few were aware of their own condition. When Margret Freyer asked for a mirror, she was staggered by what she saw: “I . . . did not recognize myself any more. My face was a mass of blisters and so were my hands. My eyes were narrow slits and puffed up, my whole body was covered in little black, pitted marks.” Others suddenly realized that they themselves were seriously injured, or that their hair and much of their clothing had been burned away.
By noon, February 14, a strange silence settled over what once was Dresden. “The city was absolutely quiet,” Gotz Bergander remembered. “The sound of the fires had died out. The rising smoke created a dirty, gray pall which hung over the entire city. The wind had calmed, but a slight breeze was blowing westward, away from us.”
And then, shattering the calm, came the sounds. “I suddenly thought I could hear sirens again,” continues Bergander. “And sure enough, there they were. I shouted, and by then we could already hear the distant whine of engines. . . . The roar of the engines grew louder and louder.”
As US bombers began blasting the rubble to dust, American fighter planes zeroed in on the thousands of refugees at the park, along the river and in other open spaces. Recalled Annemarie Waehmann:
We looked up and saw how they flew lower and lower. “They’re coming here. . . ,” we screamed. A few men took over and gave commands: “Split up! Scatter! Run into the fields! Down on your faces!” While we were lying in the dirt, our hands clawing at the earth as if we wanted to crawl inside it, they came after us, wave after wave, circling, flying low, shooting with their machine-guns into the defenseless people. Popping noises right and left, clods of earth flying up, screams. Like everyone else, I expect, I prayed: Dear God, please protect me. A few seconds’ pause, as the planes circled in order to come back at us again. The men screamed: “Up, up! Run on! Run towards the trees!” But again that popping noise as they fired without mercy into the people, and screams and clods of earth flying around. . . . I took Hilde by the hand and without turning round once, without even looking to see how many people did not get up again, we ran.
“[P]anic broke out,” said fifteen-year-old Gerhard Kuhnemund. “Women and children were massacred with cannon and bombs. It was mass murder. . . . While we literally clawed ourselves into the grass, I personally saw at least five American fighter-bombers, which from an altitude of approximately 120–150 metres opened fire with their cannon on the masses of civilians. My companion . . . was killed beside me in this attack. There was a hole in his back the size of a palm.”
Near the park, zoo-keeper Otto Sailer-Jackson watched in stunned disbelief as one American pilot mowed down people running in the street. “He attacked several times, flying very low, firing from cannon and machine-guns into the refugees. Then he flew low over the Zoo and made several firing runs at anything he could see that was still alive. In this way our last giraffe met her death. Many stags and other animals which we had managed to save, became the victims of this hero.”
Although the raid lasted only ten minutes, the Americans returned the next day, and the next, and the next, seemingly determined that not a single living thing should survive in Dresden. “There seemed to be no end to the horror,” said Eva Beyer.
Desperate to prevent epidemics, the survivors of Dresden scurried between raids to dispose of the corpses. With thousands of bodies littering the streets and parks, the task initially seemed simple. “They had to pitchfork shriveled bodies onto trucks and wagons and cart them to shallow graves on the outskirts of the city,” a British POW engaged in the cleanup observed. As the ghastly work continued, however, it soon became clear that in no way could such a slow process handle the enormous amount of bodies. Hence, huge grills were fashioned from girders in various parts of town and corpses were stacked on them like logs. When the piles reached roughly ten feet high and thirty feet wide, flame throwers were used to ignite the mass. Elsewhere, workers simply built great mounds. Eva Beyer watched in horror as men poured gasoline over a large pile composed entirely of heads, legs and other body parts. While that mound was ablaze trucks arrived and dumped more such loads.
As the recovery continued and workers entered the ruins, even greater horrors were in store. Acting like vast ovens, super-heated cellars had rendered their victims into liquid fat.
“[R]escuers were walking about up to their ankles in sludge,” recounted Margret Freyer.
With his father, ten-year-old Thomas Weyersberg entered the basement of his family’s business to salvage from the ruins. In spite of the horror already experienced, neither father or son was prepared for what they found. “We literally waded into the pit of hell,” the boy said, “carrying out fat-soaked documents, company books, stationery[,] even some typewriters. . . . The walls . . . were still warm when we progressed . . . wading ankle-deep in the fried human drippings.”
Despite Dresden’s frenzied efforts to recover the dead, ten days after the raids, “mountains of bodies” still awaited disposal and for weeks workers with carts and trucks hauled thousands of corpses through the streets. Clearly, the dead in Dresden outnumbered the living.
One month after the massacre, the Dresden Chief of Police reported that over 200,000 bodies had been recovered from the ruins. The official added that the toll might possibly reach 250,000. Later, the International Red Cross estimated that 275,000 had died in the raids. Because of the incredible density of Dresden’s population on the night of February 13–14, because thousands of victims were refugees with no records, because many bodies either lay buried forever in the ruins or had simply melted like wax, other estimates that place the death toll at 300,000 to 400,000 may well be closer to the mark.
As news from Dresden spread slowly throughout the rest of the Reich, there was shock and horror, but mostly their was anguish. “Dresden was a glorious city. . . ,” wrote Ruth Andreas-Friedrich in her diary. “It’s a little hard getting used to the idea that Dresden, too, no longer exists. I almost feel like crying.” And Rudolf Semmler, aide to the propaganda minister, also took note that public facades of strength and courage could easily crumble in private: “For the first time I saw Goebbels lose control of himself when two days ago, he was given the stark reports of the disaster in Dresden. The tears came into his eyes with grief and rage and shock. Twenty minutes later I saw him again. He was still crying and looked a broken man.”
When word of the Dresden bombing first reached Great Britain there was initial joy. That the seventh largest city in Germany should be scorched from the map was “wondrous news,” trumpeted the British press; that hundreds of thousands of women and children should be burnt to cinders in the process was also “an unexpected and fortunate bonus.” Cabinet minister, Sir Archibald Sinclair, heartily agreed with this attitude and lyrically termed the firestorm a “crescendo of destruction.”
As more facts and information from neutral Swiss and Swedish sources began to arrive, however, many throughout the world were horrified. For the first time in the war, those in England, America and elsewhere learned what Germans had known for three years—the Allies were engaged in “deliberate terror-bombing.” Angered and shamed by such a course when the war was clearly on its last leg, Richard Stokes lashed out in the House of Commons: “What happened on the evening of 13th February? There were a million people in Dresden, including 600,000 bombed-out evacuees and refugees from the East. . . . When I heard the Minister speak of the ‘crescendo of destruction,’ I thought: What a magnificent expression for a Cabinet Minister of Great Britain at this stage of the war.”
Most outrage, high and low, was directed at Arthur Harris, Chief of Bomber Command.
“[W]e were told at the briefing that there were many thousands of Panzer troops in the streets [of Dresden], either going to or coming back from the Russian Front,” one angry RAF crewman later explained. “My personal feeling is, that if we’d been told the truth at the briefing, some of us wouldn’t have gone.”
“To just fly over it without opposition felt like murder,” added a comrade. “I felt it was a cowardly war.”
Once known affectionately by many of his men as “Bomber” Harris, after Dresden the air marshal earned a new nickname—“Butcher.”
“Butcher Harris didn’t give a damn how many men he lost as long as he was pounding the shit out of German civilians,” growled one British airman.
Meanwhile, the man directly responsible for the Dresden massacre began to publicly distance himself from both Harris and terror bombing. Winston Churchill:
It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. . . . I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives . . . rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.
Public pronouncements to the contrary, the air terror continued unabated. Lost almost entirely in the furor over Dresden was the February 23 leveling of Pforzheim in western Germany. Although much smaller than Dresden, in nineteen minutes the city was utterly destroyed with nearly 20,000 dead. A short time later, the “hospital city” of Wurzburg was likewise incinerated. Additionally, in what appeared an attempt to broaden the war, American planes struck neutral Switzerland, raiding Schaffhausen in late February and striking Basel and Zurich on March 4.