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Firebombing (Germany & Japan)
National Archives 208-AA-40L-2
A B-17 bomber returns with wounded.
Firebombing (Germany & Japan)
(13-15 February & 9-10 March 1945)
Dresden, Air Attack on
(13-15 February 1945)


Allied strategic bombing raid against the German city of Dresden. This operation, conducted 13-15 February 1945, has become the most commonly evoked image to illustrate the excesses and horror of conventional bombing of cities. The firestorm caused by Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command on the night of 13 February rivaled that of the raid on Hamburg of 27 July 1943. The immediate controversy about the raid contributed to the end of Allied strategic bombing. Cold War rhetoric and sensationalist presentations in history books and movies have clouded the facts ever since.

At the Yalta Conference on 4 February 1945, the Soviets asked for Allied air attacks on communication centers to prevent the shifting of German troops to the Eastern Front. They specifically mentioned Berlin and Leipzig, but Allied planners also identified Dresden and Chemnitz as appropriate objectives to meet Soviet needs. On 8 February, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) instructed RAF Bomber Command and the U.S. Strategic Air Forces to prepare an attack on Dresden because of its importance in relation to movements of military forces to the Eastern Front. Contrary to later reports, Dresden did contain many important industrial and transportation targets, and it was defended, although many of its guns had been sent east to fight the Soviets. The allocation of effort was also shaped by the prodding of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, although he later tried to distance himself from the operation and the atmosphere engendered by the pursuit of Operation THUNDERCLAP. The latter was a British plan to break German morale with a massive Allied assault on the German capital, Berlin, and refugee centers. The attack on Berlin was conducted on 3 February over the protests of U.S. Eighth Air Force Commander James Doolittle. Other Americans in the U.S. Strategic Air Forces headquarters and in Washington were also uneasy over concentrating on cities such as Dresden, but that did not stop the operation.

The operation opened on the night of 13 February with two separate British raids. The first blow was delivered by 244 Lancasters dropping more than 800 tons of bombs. This attack was moderately successful. The inhabitants of the city were surprised with a second attack three hours later, this time by 529 Lancasters delivering a further 1,800 tons of bombs. The concentrated accuracy of the bombing against so many wooden structures and during ideal weather conditions produced a terrible conflagration. The smoke and flames made aiming very difficult the next day for the more than 300 American B-17s attempting to drop another 700 tons of bombs on the city's marshaling yards. Obscuration of the target area was even worse for a similar attack on 15 February.

When news of the destruction of Dresden reached Britain, there was considerable public outcry over the destruction of such a beautiful city when the war seemed to be virtually won. American air leaders were worried by similar reactions in the United States, especially after careless remarks by a SHAEF briefing officer inspired such nationwide newspaper headlines as "Terror Bombing Gets Allied Approval as Step to Speed Victory." Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered an investigation of the "unnecessary" destruction but was satisfied by the resulting report explaining the background of the operation. Public reaction in the United States was muted. The controversy contributed to the Allied decision to suspend strategic bombing in April.

The casualty figures reported by German fire and police services ranged between 25,000 and 35,000 dead. However, thousands more were missing, and there were many unidentified refugees in the city. It is probable that the death total approached the 45,000 killed in the bombing of Hamburg in July-August 1943. Some careless historians, encouraged by Soviet and East German propaganda, promulgated figures as high as 250,000. Although David Irving later recanted his claim of 135,000 dead, one can still find that number cited in many history books.

Public impressions of the excesses of Dresden were reinforced by Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slaughterhouse Five and the movie it inspired. More than 50 years later, when critics of U.S. air operations against Iraq or Yugoslavia needed a metaphor to condemn conventional bombing attacks on cities, almost invariably they cited Dresden in 1945.

Conrad C. Crane

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Citations:
Bergander, Gotz. Dresden im Luftkrieg. Cologne: Bohlan Verlag, 1977.

Crane, Conrad C. Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Airpower Strategy in World War II. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993.

Irving, David. The Destruction of Dresden. New York: Ballantine, 1965.

Smith, Melden E., Jr. "The Bombing of Dresden Reconsidered: A Study in Wartime Decision Making." Ph.D. dissertation, Boston University, 1971.

Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

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Toyko, Air Attack on (9-10 March 1945)

The B-29 incendiary raid on Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March 1945 was the deadliest air attack of World War II. Conducted as a test of new tactics after disappointing results with precision methods, the raid set the pattern for a new firebombing campaign that devastated Japanese cities over the next five months.

By February 1945, the U.S. Twentieth Air Force's strategic bombing campaign against Japan was in trouble. The new commander of its combat operations from the Marianas, Major General Curtis LeMay, knew he had been given the assignment in January to get results. He had reorganized the staff, instituted new training, and designed new maintenance programs, but the achievements of his high-altitude precision-bombing attacks remained disappointing. Besides technological problems with the hastily fielded B-29 Superfortress, the biggest difficulty he faced was the weather. Overcast skies and jet stream winds at normal bombing altitudes obscured targets and negated flight patterns.

Other theater commanders were trying to gain control of the expensive B-29s, and LeMay knew he could be relieved just as his predecessor had been if he did not produce significant success. He had had some experience with fire raids in China and had conducted some experiments over Japan. Although unsure how higher headquarters would react to a departure from precision bombing, he and his staff decided to destroy key targets by burning down the cities around them. This result would be achieved with low-level, mass night raids. These tactics would avoid high winds, reduce the strain on the B-29s' problematic engines, allow aircraft to carry more bombs, and exploit weaknesses in the Japanese air defenses.

The first raid employing these new tactics, Operation MEETINGHOUSE, was conducted against Tokyo beginning on the night of 9 March. The selected zone of attack covered six important industrial targets and numerous smaller factories, railroad yards, home industries, and cable plants, but it also included one of the most densely populated areas of the world, Asakusa Ku, with a population of more than 135,000 people per square mile. For the first time, XXI Bomber Command had more than 300 bombers on a mission - 325 to be exact - and they put more than 1,600 tons of incendiary bombs on the target.

Before the firestorm ignited by Operation MEETINGHOUSE had burned itself out, between 90,000 and 100,000 people had been killed. Another million were rendered homeless. Sixteen square miles were incinerated, and the glow of the flames was visible 150 miles away. Victims died horribly as intense fires consumed the oxygen, boiled water in canals, and sent liquid glass rolling down streets. The B-29 crews fought superheated updrafts that destroyed at least 10 aircraft. They also wore oxygen masks to avoid vomiting from the stench of burning flesh. A total of 14 Superfortresses were lost on the mission.

The attack on Tokyo was judged a great success. It resuscitated the flagging strategic bombing campaign against Japan and restored the hopes of Army Air Forces leaders that the B-29s could prove the worth of independent airpower by defeating an enemy nation without the need for an invasion. MEETINGHOUSE set the standard for the incendiary raids that dominated Twentieth Air Force operations for the remainder of the war.

Conrad C. Crane

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Citations:

Cortesi, Lawrence. Target: Tokyo. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1983.

Edoin, Hoito. The Night Tokyo Burned. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

LeMay, Curtis, with MacKinley Kantor. Mission with LeMay. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1965.

Werrell, Kenneth P. Blankets of Fire: U.S. Bombers over Japan during World War II. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996.

ABC Clio School

Tucker, Dr. Spencer C.; Roberts, Dr. Priscilla Mary. Encyclopedia of World War II: A Political, Social, and Military History (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. 2005).