Dresden: 13 February 2023
Myth and Reality
The largest section of Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality examines the Second World War, the leading source of Churchill myths. Did an actor deliver his broadcasts? Did he let Coventry be bombed to protect his sources of intelligence? Was Churchill against the Second Front in France? Did he exacerbate the Bengal famine, destroy Monte Cassino abbey, refuse to bomb Auschwitz or feed the oppressed in occupied Europe? No. But no canard is more persistent than the story that Churchill firebombed Dresden in hatred and revenge for Germany’s bombing of Coventry. That one has been around for over fifty years. Continued from Part 5.
Here is the truth. Churchill looked with horror on what he called “the hideous process of bombing open cities from the air.” He sanctioned it at times for four reasons: 1) The Germans started it, over Warsaw and Rotterdam. 2) The British people demanded it after they were bombed. 3) Britain’s military chiefs considered it the best way to attack Germany. 4) For a long time it was the only substitute for the “Second Front” the Russians demanded. Nevertheless, Churchill challenged the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Of the three allied leaders, he was the only one who did.
The horror of Dresden
Between February 13th and 15th, 1945, 800 Allied bombers destroyed 1600 acres in Dresden and killed 25,000 people. It was bloodthirsty and unnecessary. And at least as far back as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Churchill has been excoriated for this murderous act.
There is a vast subtext, too lengthy to recite here. The main points are twofold: Dresden was on the list of 58 cities which Air Marshal “Bomber” Harris was grinding his way through. Far more important, bombing Dresden was requested by the Soviet high command.
A Soviet intelligence report (later proven erroneous) indicated that one or two German armored divisions were in Dresden on their way to reinforce the Eastern Front. Accordingly the Russians—who would later denounce the attack as an Anglo-American war crime—made the request that led to Dresden’s destruction.
Ironically, Churchill had left London for the Yalta Conference when the Soviet request came in. He wasn’t even there to give the order. The task fell to Deputy Prime Minister Clement Attlee. Churchill did not learn of the Russian request until he arrived in Yalta on February 4th. Stalin’s first question to him was, “Why haven’t you bombed Dresden?” Hugh Lunghi, Churchill’s interpreter, remembered that he had personally delivered the message to the Russians that the attack had been ordered.
Martin Gilbert’s revelation
Forty years later, Churchill’s biographer Sir Martin Gilbert revealed these facts in a Moscow lecture before high-ranking, disbelieving Red Army officers. Martin said: “Then to my rescue arose an old general, bedizened with medals. During the war he had been deputy to General Aleksei Antonov, the Soviet chief of staff….
Shuffling to the microphone, he said in a thick Russian accent: “Everything the Professor says…is true!” You could have heard a pin drop.
Sir Martin revealed this at a Washington Churchill lecture in 2004. Our moderator, Juan Williams of Fox News, was incredulous. “Why then has the controversy over Dresden never ceased?” Juan asked. “It is a horrible fact. We cannot erase it from the record.” Sir Martin replied:
Who can say why one out of thousands of historical events creates interest while the others do not? The firebombing of Tokyo was far more devastating, and yet we never hear Tokyo discussed. To bomb Dresden, at request of the Soviets, was but one small part in a broad campaign. Churchill didn’t even order it. Yet there is no reason to suppose he would have reacted any differently than Attlee.
Part 7: Post-Second World War
Finally, Winston Churchill, Myth and Reality covers the postwar years. We consider his supposed proposal to nuke Moscow. his alleged desire for spheres of influence, the nonsense story about his supposed unhappy marriage. Appendices cover minor myths, and quotes ascribed to Churchill which he never said. Since the book is now in its second life as a paperback, I will be glad to summarize any chapter here at the request of any reader.
The rest of my Nashville paper covers my final chapter, “The Common Touch,” which showed how deeply, contrary to his critics, Churchill cared for ordinary people. This topic is already covered by a five-part series herein. Click here.