Nashville (6): The Myth of Dresden and “Revenge Firebombing”

Nashville (6): The Myth of Dresden and “Revenge Firebombing”

The largest sec­tion of Win­ston Churchill, Myth and Real­i­ty exam­ines World War II: the lead­ing source of Churchill myths. Did an actor deliv­er his broad­casts? Was Coven­try 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 World War II 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 fifty-eight 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.

Churchill arriv­ing at the Yal­ta Con­fer­ence, Feb­ru­ary 1945. (Packard Club)

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 that. 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-World War II

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 post here­in. Click here. 

4 thoughts on “Nashville (6): The Myth of Dresden and “Revenge Firebombing”

  1. My uncle was a marine on Iwo Jima, slat­ed to be part of the inva­sion of the home islands. He agreed with your mil­i­tary padres about Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki—as did Churchill.

    Was bomb­ing Dres­den a war crime? Inso­far as all war is a crime, which Churchill feared and tried to avoid all his life, cer­tain­ly. In the scheme of things in World War II, it was not so big a one; as Sir Mar­tin said, the fire­bomb­ing of Tokyo was far more dev­as­tat­ing, yet is rarely men­tioned. Even the Sovi­ets, who request­ed the bomb­ing, cit­ed mil­i­tary objec­tives, which did exist. Tough call. War is hell.

  2. Dur­ing our annu­al con­fer­ence, Britain’s mil­i­tary padres would often debate the moral­i­ty of past actions and one of the most inter­est­ing I recall involved the com­par­i­son of the bomb­ing of Hiroshi­ma and Dresden.Our con­clu­sion was that Hiroshi­ma was jus­ti­fied in terms of sav­ing both Japan­ese and US lives and empow­er­ing the Mika­do to force his min­is­ters to sur­ren­der. Dres­den, by any sane def­i­n­i­tion, was a war crime.

  3. That was inter­est­ing. For /some/ rea­son we were nev­er taught that back in East Germany…
    Thank you for that information.

  4. Set­ting the record straight: Churchill was not a blood­thirsty hater of Germans.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RML Books

Richard Langworth’s Most Popular Books & eBooks

Links on this page may earn commissions.