On the morning of the 13th February the city of Dresden remained the jewel of the German east, the Elbflorenz or Florence on the Elbe. It had weathered the privations of the second world war well, considered immune from bombing by the lack of heavy industry, the distance from the UK and even theories about Churchill's wish to protect a favoured aunt. The culture-loving, proud citizens did not fear the dawning of the 13th, but the number would be catastrophically unlucky for the city. By the 14th the city's impressive buildings, countless artistic treasures and a significant proportion of its populations would lie broken and charred under the ruined wreck of the town centre.
Frederick Taylor has taken the story of that dreadful night, and woven a complex and erudite history around the event. The story of the actual raid has to wait until the middle of the book, as the historian darts around various strands of history to build a thorough base for understanding the context of the raids. He considers the earlier history of the city, debates how it acquired its uniquely cultural and architectural heritage, looks at the history of fire in warfare, the previous destructions of the city, its role in war,the development of bombing as a weapon of civilian terror and the fate of the city's small Jewish population.
This ensures that the ensuing story retains as much balance as is possible for a British historian to deliver. The context is essentially the crimes of the German Reich, set against the undoubted brutality of the attack. Taylor considers whether the raid was necessary, or simply a barbaric example of revenge attacks. The contrast is set by the description of the annihilation of Coventry, and the pummelling of London and other British cities.
Despite the debate over the rights and wrongs of Bomber Harris's campaign, the tragedy of the night for the ordinary citizens of Dresden is clearly and compassionately illustrated. As with any conflict on such scale there are the ironies of the most impassioned opponents of Hitler being indiscriminately sucked into the fiery vortex.
Taylor has matched Beevor's performance in demonstrating the horrors of war on the localised level. Berlin and Stalingrad are now augmented by this detailed study of Dresden. It makes a welcome addition to understanding how the detached nature of modern warfare makes the resulting annihilation, the Gotterdammerung of this Wagnerian city, all the more difficult to comprehend.
The only criticism that reduced the overall score to 4.5/5 (although not allowed on the Amazon point scoring system) is that it takes a while to warm to the author's style. In dealing with such a horrific night it seems somewhat jarring that there is almost a jocular element to the early pages. It is perhaps an understanding of the repeating ironies of history, but still sits ill on first reading.
on 15 February 2004
This book is a detailed account of the bombing of Dresden by the RAF and the USAAF on February 13-14th 1945. The attack, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians, has been regarded by many people as the most shameful episode in the Allied prosecution of the war. Others argue that the bombing was justified by the city's critical position close to the eastern front and because of the many Dresden based arms manufacturers. Interviews with survivors of the bombing and the bomber crews themselves are used to create a vivid picture of the events before, during and after the bombing. This book has the same quality as Antony Bevor's brilliant histories "Stalingrad" and "Berlin" and is a valuable re-assessment of one of the most controversial events of World War 2.
This is a quote from the concluding chapter of Frederick Taylor's excellent, well researched and highly readable account of the events leading upto, the execution of, and the aftermath of the allied bombing raid on Dresden of 13 and 14 February 1945.
Like Taylor, much of my knowledge of the Dresden raid stemmed from Kurt Vonnegut's semi-autobiographical novel "Slaughter House 5", based on his experience of the Dresden raid as an American prisoner of war there. In the introduction to Vonnegut's novel he recounts how for many years he would tell people that he was working on a big book, perhaps multiple volumes, on what happened in Dresden in those twentyfour hours, but nothing ever came. For Vonnegut, he ultimately found that there was "nothing intelligent to say about a massacre" and that the only things left alive were the birds, and all they would say was "po-to-weet".
Vonnegut had experienced the horror of the raid first hand, and his account remains a powerful, intelligent, if subjective testimony to the horror of Dresden, but Vonnegut was not a historian, and it was left to historians to create a more whole picture of the raid from razor fragments such as Vonneguts, and the cutting and blunt papers of the archives, of course.
Considering the events cultural importance on the European consciousness, as the icon of airborne slaughter in the European war, it is surprising that so little has been published on it. David Irving's 'The Destruction of Dresden' was an important book but was undermined by the authors alleged neo-nazi connections and the subsequet absence of a mass market reprint.
Taylor's book fills this void admirably, bringing together a narrative of the European bomber war with archive and eye-wittness accounts of the Dresden raid itself, and the place that the raid assumed in post-war consciousness. If there is one dissapoitment I would say it is the sparcity of interviews with surviving bomber crews, though this is perhaps inevitable since the passage of time and a half century of implicit blame have hardened the attitudes of airmen who dropped their bombs from an inevitably impersonal altitude.
This book is not a polemic, that is it does not attempt to exonerate the allies, bomber command or key figures like Arthur Harris or Winston Churchill, but neither does it narrate Dresden as the senseless victim of excess in an otherwise just war. Instead Taylor allows a balanced re-telling of the facts to speak for themselves. Myths are debunked in this process, particularly regarding the astronomical casuality figures circulated as propoganda against the allies, but despite this a strong Clauswitzian message booms through the memoirs and data - that war, once unleashed, spirals out of control and will ultimately serve itself, it moves toward an all consuming totality. "Total war".
When Taylor refers to "the sleep of reason" he is referring to the failure of Europe, and by extension humanity, to remain rational, to think through the consequences of its emotions and ambitions, rather than applying such irrational prejudice into policy.
As another war spins into a vortex of self serving violence, it would appear that we have learned very little in the intervening sixty years.
on 7 July 2013
An excellent book. Had to read this after visiting such an important cultural city. Whilst there had to make some sense of the "allied atrocity" that was made on such a city. Not that this was thrust upon me by the delightful people of Dresden. But after living in Coventry, this was a city that deserved at least a few days of my touristic wanderings. This book puts things into context. I feel the author has done extensive research, listened to worthy accounts from witnesses, and has assessed this from an historian's perspective. Within the European Union, Britain and Germany are strong allies; as a result understanding each others' history and culture is so important. This book goes a long way in dissecting facts from propaganda and go someway into explaining the whys, hows and most of all the reasons that such destruction of a cultural icon has given rise to so much misunderstanding. In the words of the author:
"None of this is to minimize the appalling reality of such a vast number of dead, so horribly snatched from this life within the space of a few hours, or to forget that most of them were women, children, and the elderly. Wild guesstimates-especially those explained for political gain-neither dignify nor do justice to what must count, by any standards, as one of the most terrible single actions of the Second World War."
on 5 March 2011
Taylor does a fantastic job in this book. He not only lays out a crystal-clear narrative, but also skillfully navigates a path through the historical, moral and polemical maze that surrounds the events he describes. While acknowledging the horror of these events he does emminent justice to the historical context and complexities, What emerges for me is how Dresden became a symbol, whose image is refracted through the distorting glass of both Goebbels and Soviet cold war propaganda (Taylor shows how sometimes even the terminology is identical). Harris and the RAF aircrews became scapegoats for the "moral ambiguity" that always lay at the heart of Allied bombing strategy. Yet Churchill, one the key architects of this ambiguity, was only too anxious to distance himself from it by the end of the war. This book is a corrective to that "moral hindsight" which, from the calm and security of the moral philosopher's study, too easily condemns decisions made and actions taken in the midst of crisis and existential danger. Harris may have been wrong, but the aircrews deserved better treatment than they have often received. Taylor is an honest and scholarly guide through this minefield. Thoroughly recommended.
on 10 February 2005
The destruction of Dresden has come to symbolise the horror of war. A beautiful city laid to waste, with tens of thousands dead, in less than 24 hours. Frederick Taylor's book recreates life in Dresden in the months and years leading up to February 1945. His approach is admirably even-handed: most readers will finish the book mourning the loss of the city and its people rather than taking sides in a pointless debate about whether the raids could be justified. Many will want to visit Dresden to see how the city has risen from the ashes while reflecting on the horror of war.
Just one small criticism: the American spellings used in the book are very distracting. It comes as a surprise to read in a British book that the 'Labor' party won the 1945 British general election, and to learn of people 'immigrating' to the USA.
on 2 June 2014
This haunting but great book traces the grim history of aerial bombing of civilians before and during WWII and the rapid descent towards acts of revenge intended to boost morale at home, as well as the accidental discovery of firebombing. Up to fairly late in the war Dresden had escaped attack. There is a description of the importance of its precision manufacturing base to the war effort, the city’s growing significance as a command and transport centre (including for increasing numbers of refugees) as the Russians advanced to close to 100 miles away, and the Allied decision to help the limited Russian air capability by bombing key strategic centres just ahead of their lines. Stories of local slave labour and the persecution of the Jews in Dresden add to providing a picture that the city sooner or later would have to pay a price. ‘Bomber’ Harris has historically been held responsible for the attack, but the book makes it clear that decision was made higher up, and made worse by on-the-spot decisions during the second wave. Tragically, Dresden’s air defences had largely been moved to other tasks shortly before the raid, and a combination of uniquely favourable circumstances on the night meant that the three massive raids were exceptionally effective in their terrible purpose. In columns of aircraft stretching over 100 miles, the finely-tuned killing machine that was bomber command delivered just the right cocktail of explosive and incendiary devices in a carefully orchestrated flight pattern dispersion designed to provoke a firestorm, the heat from which would even be felt by the aircrews. Accounts from dozens of survivors, including half-Jewish citizens having not yet been sent to the camps, describe the carnage, tornados and water troughs used for refuge boiled dry. There is discussion not only about the moral aspect of bombing cities but also the almost negligible effectiveness of pin-pointing targets that inevitably led to carpet bombing. Even the German hierarchy itself admitted that the Allied campaign accounted for the loss of a third of industrial capacity in 1944.
on 13 April 2012
When a visitor to a museum I was at made a remark to me about how 'we were right to bomb the **** out of Dresden', I bit back my surprise and decided to find out more.
Taylor's book is full of detail, and could almost be compared to a journey (almost like the flight that the bomber force made) that ends - as we know it will - in the destruction of Dresden.
We start with a brief clip of what is to come and then the journey begins; a brief history of Dresden until the 1930s, its relationship with Nazism, personalities and the growth of the city and its industries with emphasis on buildings and places that you know will be significant as the story unfolds.
The focus switches to a brief history of aerial bombing, the `failure' of confining bombing to military targets, the to-ing and fro-ing of Britain and Germany as each vies to bring more destruction. Technical aspects such as the development of Pathfinder tactics, 'X -' and 'Y - Gerat', 'Gee', 'H2S' and 'Window', 'Cookies', aerial mines and incendary target markers, together with how they were used on Guernica, London, Coventry, Kasel, Cologne, the Baedeker raids and Leipzig are all described in succinct detail - enough to tell the story but also give starting points for further reading, should you wish.
We arrive next at the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 (OPERATION GOMORRAH), the perfect firestorm as Air Marshal Arthur Harris Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command saw it. He had already overseen the first 1,000 bomber raid against Cologne in May 1942 and what follows can be seen as a logical progression. I found reference to the mix of incendiary and high explosive bombs - there to damage buildings and create channels that air could rush through and feed the resulting fires - truly horrific.
And then on to Dresden. By now we have learnt why Dresden was targeted and the tactics to be used. We also learn that Dresden was seen as a safe haven for many people fleeing from bombing elsewhere in Germany and its inadequate public air-raid shelters, the large number of children in the city, the militarisation of its industries... The story circles over the inevitable, Dresden 1945, Dresden 1940, 'Vengengence weapon'attacks on London and Antwerp.
And then the final leg of the journey... And we are only halfway through the book...
The second part of the book reads like Len Deighton's 'Bomber', detailling as it does the attack from different viewpoints.
Taylor mixes personal memories of the time those on the ground and in the air and intersperses these with facts and figures about the destruction of targets to chronicle in a compassionate manner, the destruction of yet another city.
As other reviewers have highlighted, the book is well balanced, setting out the facts as Taylor has found them.
And I too initially found the American spellings in a book by a British author, published by a British publisher in the UK distracting but in the end the accessible language (which still retains it `British voice') won through.
Thoroughly recommended and I look forward to Taylor's forthcoming companion book (according to his website) on the bombing of Coventry.
on 27 September 2006
I was very impressed by this book and the author's detailed study of a controversial event. I think he makes good case for bombing while pointing out just as clearly the horrific suffering of the people underneath the barrage. For those people who would have preferred a campaign of "precision bombing", the example of the American aircraft who lost their way on the day after the British raids and bombed Prague by mistake, shows just how difficult precision bombing was. I rate this book highly.
on 23 September 2015
Much has been written about the bombing of Drseden and much of it has not been factual , certainly what you will find on the internet is tainted with the views and opinions of the far right and those who would use and exploit the our come of the raid - enblishing it with lies and extremist views for their own ends.
If you are looking for an accurate evidence based description of the raid this is the book you should be reading.the author describes the industry the nature of the cities defences which the local "party" had simply ignored and neglected, the shortage of air raid shelters and the background for the raid itself.
No one would pretend to say that there was not a massive and tragic loss of life and those who are critical do so with the gift of hindsight - in Feb. 1945 no one knew when or how this awful ar would be ended.
For me the best and most accurate acount of the raid one which fairly looks at the bombing from all points of view.