It has been 75 years since an Allied firebombing campaign, mostly led by the British, reduced the German city of Dresden to rubble. The resulting chaos and destruction took the lives of 25,000 Germans and left most of the city uninhabitable. It was a stunning campaign and one that continues to resonate historically. 

Throughout the Second World War, bombing campaigns of residential and civilian areas became part of the war effort. From Britain to Japan and Germany, these campaigns took hundreds of thousands of lives but some in particular stick out in the collective conscience.

Dresden. Tokyo. Hamburg. London. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. All these campaigns were both destructive and left an indelible mark on the people of those cities and continues to make us question the efficacy of certain decisions made by military forces in conflicts. 

In particular, the firebombing of Dresden, on February 13, 1945, sticks out. Killing an estimated 25,000 people, it wasn’t just the bombs themselves that did the damage, it was the fire that they created that was truly the stuff of nightmares.

The destructive capability of a bomb is determined by a variety of factors, and the bombs that were dropped on Dresden had something unique that was developed for large scale bombing in World War II: phosphorus. This incendiary chemical fed the flames into a monstrous firestorm, a fire so powerful and hot that it created its own wind system.

Needless to say, those that got caught up in the bombing experienced something terribly unique and deadly.

Firestorms, which are extremely rare events in nature, are almost impossible to escape. According to historians and reports, some people had their breath literally ripped from their lungs as the fire searched for oxygen and the canals became so hot that they boiled to death anyone who thought that the water might offer some relief from the flames or the phosphorus. Long after the bombings stopped, the fire kept burning. The city, once called the Florence of the Elbe, was essentially reduced to rubble.

But questions remain about whether the destruction was necessary. Dresden had little strategic significance to the Allied war efforts, and the bombing more likely fits into the general military efforts to crush the German war effort, in part, by destroying the will of the people. There’s some tactical validity to that theory, but it does raise the question. Is it ever necessary to target cities where the civilian casualties will far outweigh any military objective?

In many ways, World War II changed the objective and scale of combat. No longer were casualties limited to combatants but to anyone who resided in the general vicinity and sometimes even remote areas as well. According to the National World War II Museum, there were 15 million military deaths but 45 million civilian deaths. This trend has sadly continued.

Researchers have determined that “eight civilians now perish in war for every solider.” A century ago, that quota was reversed. While we are no longer in a World War, but small, chaotic and violent conflicts happen every day in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. Civilians are not merely casualties of conflict that’s gone out of control, but often directly targeted for destruction by opposition forces. 

The impact of the Dresden bombing goes far beyond the thousands of people who died and the destruction of the city. It’s a reflection of how combat has changed from something that usually occurred on remote battlefields to the direct targeting of densely populated cities. It’s a legacy, left by both the Axis and Allies, that continues to impact us today.


Photo by Cassowary Colorizations