Dresden: In the Face of History & Memory

In the final months of World War II, British and US bombers raided the city of Dresden. Once called the Florence of the Elbe, in two days, time, the city was reduced to ash. On February 13/14, 1945 American and British forces began a massive bombing in the German city of Dresden that continues being a subject of dispute to this day.

The attack was done entirely by air and annihilated the city–leaving large swaths utterly unrecognizable and parts of its history in ruin.  

Early History & Early Modern Age

Dresden’s long history was inseparable from its astonishing city centre where primarily baroque and rococo style buildings accented the city’s cultural and artistic spirit. Its beginnings are traced back to Neolithic and Slavic tribes who settled along the clay-rich banks of the Elbe River where pottery was being produced since 7500 B.C.

Dresden: In the Face of History & Memory

The name of the city is derived from Old Sorbian Drežďany or people of the forest. By 1270, the city was recognized as a capital of the region then referred to as margraviate. It exchanged hands through the next centuries and from 1485 became the seat of the dukes of Saxony.   

Over time, the city grew to be one of the most favoured to capture due partly to its recognizable outline. By 1871, under the German Empire, it was the capital of the Kingdom of Saxony. Albertstadt was built during that time, it was a large military centre that by WWI, had over 20,000 staffers working throughout its bustling corridors. Even during the Napoleonic Wars, Dresden served a strategic purpose as a base for operations.

By the 1900’s Dresden was Germany’s seventh-largest city. When it was attacked by British forces on February 13, 1945, inclement weather prevented the United States Air Force(USAAF) from taking part in the first scheduled strikes. Instead, the Royal Air Force (RAF) were sent in where they carried out double strike raids.


Eventually acting together, the RAF and USAAF covered the night sky with a constellation of aircraft. Over 1,249 heavy bombers were flown over Dresden. They dropped nearly two tons of bombs on the city – leaving only a small portion of the city centre intact.

Dresden: In the Face of History & Memory

Lancasters were used in the attack. Their task was double fold: locate the city of Dresden and unload magnesium parachute flares (commonly the Germans called these Christmas Trees because they lit up the sky so that the bombers could better spot their targets).   

The next wave of aircraft sent out were the Mosquito marker planes which were used to identify the areas being targeted for bombing and they release half a ton of flares that were used as target indicators (TIs). The massive collection of flares would fall together in a group allowing targeted areas to be zeroed in on by the bomber force that usually took off after the Pathfinders.

The Mosquito aircraft was a British-made multi-purpose plane that could carry out diverse tasks in combat scenarios. It was nicknamed “The Wooden Wonder” because it rather remarkably was almost entirely made out of wood. It was developed in the early 1930’s, the use of wood as its primary material was engineered to make it light. But, this eventually made the production of the Mosquito simple and less time consuming than building traditional aircraft.

Role: Light Bomber, Night Fighter, Marine strike aircraft, Fighter-Bomber: Mosquito B Mk IV serial DK338 before delivery to 105 Squadron – this aircraft was used on several of 105 Squadron’s low-altitude daylight bombing operations during 1943.

The way attacks were carried out and the sheer number of the bombings resulted in large-scale destruction. A massive number of raids were scheduled every three hours. They were timed to interrupt emergency services, just as fire trucks and ambulances were deeply entrenched in their efforts to save the city and its people, more air strikes would arrive.

Why Dresden?

Reasons behind the intensive strike are hard to hammer down with certainty. Thus far over the course of the war, the city had escaped any major bomb attacks despite being located strategically at the intersection of important cities, such as Prague, Vienna, and Berlin. Given this, the British realized targeting Dresden would cause confusion that would hopefully offset German confidence.

A classified report released decades after the war’s end cited the targets consisted of 110 factories. They were thought to be supporting the war effort: building aircraft parts, poison gas, guns, and other supplies that may have been used to support the war though not exclusively. It was estimated that 50,000 workers were stationed at the factories.

The overzealous nature of the attack was not overlooked. A bombing mission would normally include a list of priorities, such as a railway station, a weapons factory, or a military base. Indiscriminately, the entire city of Dresden was on the radar. Churchill gave orders to carry out the attack, but soon after distanced himself — as much the only person at the helm overseeing and administering the plan possibly could.

Dresden: In the Face of History & Memory

With very little energy left, their follow-up attack on January 1, 1945, proved to be such enormous mess. It was clear the Germans had little to no fight left. Their armies were still fighting hard, but they were also retreating on every war front being fought. By early February, Berlin was surrounded to the east and west. To the east, the Red Army was less than 60 miles away.

Churchill was informed two scenarios were likely to unfold. If the Soviets were able to successfully continue their push against the Germans, Berlin would fall. In the case, the Second World War would end by mid-April. If the Germans held their position, they might gain an advantage. In this case, it was estimated, the war would continue until as late as October. Given that the German troops were surrounded, retreating on all fronts, and that Soviet troops were less than 70 kilometres from Berlin, a German collapse was likely imminent.


Germans questioned whether or not the bombing was necessary. By February 1945, the Second World War was very nearly over with only small details to be worked out. German forces were in tatters after the Battle of the Bulge.

The Frauenkirche in Dresden (originally the Church of Our Lady – the name refers to the Holy Mary) is a Lutheran church Baroque and formative monumental structure of Dresdner Neumarkt. In the air war of World War II it was heavily damaged during the air raids on Dresden on the night of 13 and 14 February 1945 the angry in Dresden firestorm and crashed on the morning of February it burned down. Dresden: Info CZ

Widespread destruction resulted in around 25,000 deaths – the exact number of causalities is the subject of dispute. So much of Dresden was destroyed, it has been argued the number of those killed is much higher. Over the years, the bombing of Dresden has been compared to the Holocaust as a crime against humanity.


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