The date was Feb. 13, 1945, 60 years ago, and the British Royal Air Force Bomber Command conducted a brutal, fiery raid on Dresden, Germany. Almost annually, but particularly this year, attention is focused on the controversial sortie with harsh charges about how inhumane, vindictive and needless it was. We have read and heard a number of such observations of late. But there are many other facets to this powerful story to be considered as 60th anniversary observances occur. Let's start with this lead item in a past London Daily Mail dispatch from Dresden by Tony Rennell:
"For years, the British mass bombing of this 'innocent' city has been condemned as a shameful war crime. Newly discovered documents tell a totally different story."
The Dresden raid, at least up to now, made pariahs of RAF raiders, and their commander was branded a mass murderer. At the time, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was one of the first to turn against the fliers. The bitterness has continued through the years.
Writes correspondent Tony Rennell: "With the 60th anniversary of the raid ... there seem certain to be (regular) calls for Britain to admit blame and shame. But to do so would be a travesty of history, according to a penetrating new study of the Dresden attack by British historian Frederick Taylor. There is no reason to feel guilt, he argues. The city was not targeted in a vengeful attempt to smash German culture (a common indictment). It was chosen for the simple reason it had a vital strategic role in the final maneuverings of the war on the Eastern front."
Rennell observes that much of the outrage about the attack has been based on the assumption that Dresden was "innocent" -- that it had no military significance and contained only light industry which contributed nothing to the war. Historian Taylor dug up other evidence which shows the people of Dresden "were kidding themselves about their city's peaceful nature. It housed 127 factories which residents were led to believe were turning out consumer goods and luxury items."
According to Taylor, Zeiss, the biggest manufacturer, had long since ceased making cameras for tourists in favor of bomb-aiming apparatus and time fuses. A manufacturer of typewriters was turning out armaments. A company that once made waffle and marzipan machines was producing torpedoes for the German navy. Even an arts and crafts workshop was producing wooden tail assemblies for V-1 flying bombs. Machine guns, searchlights, aircraft parts, field telephones and two-way radios were just some of the war goods being made in Dresden.
At the start of 1945, as the Russian army advanced onto German soil from the east, Dresden was designated a military strong point by the German High Command. The order from Berlin was that Dresden was to be defended at all costs. But what truly may have sealed its fate even beyond the war factory presence was that it remained a vital link in the German rail network.
The goal of the allies was to dismember and disarm the German war effort as quickly as possible to prevent even more devastation and carnage.
All this does not deny the ghastly fact that more than 25,000 people in Dresden died in the horrendous firestorm created by the RAF. Comments the London Daily Telegraph after reading and reviewing Taylor's book, "Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945," -- The weighing up of German civilian deaths against military advances will always be an unscientific exercise but history suggests the raid was justified."
That does not reflect the "innocence" that the longtime critics of the RAF bombing choose to overemphasize.