Paul Strickland

Paul Strickland

Reading about Dresden

Whilst I was still recovering at my parents house, I picked a copy of Frederick Taylor’s Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 off the shelf. I didn’t know a great deal about the bombing of that city, except that it caused a firestorm. Coming from a world of precision-guided weaponry and wars fought in the spotlight of the media, however, I found it difficult to comprehend how the area bombing of a city could ever be justified.

Reading the book, I was fascinated by how much controversy surrounded the bombing of this particular city. For some reason, it seems to have been treated entirely differently to bombings of other cities such as Hamburg, where similar levels of devastation were wreaked. There has also been much speculation of the true number of casualties over past decades.

Taylor’s work appears to be objective to a large degree and extremely thorough. It attempts to dispell myths that Dresden was an “innocent” city in the war, that its bombing was unnecessary due to the state of the war, and that hundreds of thousands of people were killed. In doing so, I think he makes a strong case that the city was treated as a legitimate target (like so many other cities), that an element of chance led to ideal weather conditions for the attack to start a firestorm, and that a more realistic figure of between 25,000 and 40,000 people were killed.

We live in a world now where targets can be attacked with a high degree of accuracy and precision. For example, in this footage a Brimstone missile successfully attacks a building, leaving the surrounding area unscathed. The idea now, of bombing an entire area of a city is almost absurd. “Area bombing”, as it was known came about for several reasons, but one of those was that it was simply not possible to accurately attack a factory or piece of infrastructure. Early in the war only a third of aircraft reported as hitting the target were within three miles of that target. In modern warfare, figures are closer to three metres. Technology did improve immensely during the war, but even by its end it was a long way from allowing attacks to be made with the accuracy we expect today.

At that time though, high-tech warfare was what happened at Dresden: airborne radar was used to aid navigation to the target, pathfinder aircraft lay down target markers to illuminate the aiming point, and a “master bomber” loitered over the target providing instructions to the main force. To ensure the main force arrived with sufficient strength in numbers, numerous diversionary raid were launched on the same night, radio and radar countermeasures were used to baffle the enemy air defences and the flight path of the force suggested numerous possible targets right up to the last few minutes. The bomb loads themselves were a carefully selected mix of high explosive and incendiary in order to cause the right sort of damage. This was the state of the art for the mid-1940s. Had supremely accurate bombs and equipment been available, then they would no doubt have been put to effective use.

Another consideration I think is important is that a state of “total war” existed. War wasn’t just restricted to a remote country that would appear on the news every so often — it encompassed everything that the nation did. With hundreds of soldiers and civilians dying every day, perhaps the idea of bombing an area known to be inhabited by civilians was less unpalatable than it is today, especially if bombing that area might have resulted in reducing production of armament, and may even have shortened the war by several weeks.

It is difficult to think of the bombing of cities such as Dresden without the knowledge of what is possible in today’s conflicts. Although “only” 40,000 people may have been killed rather than the hundreds of thousands quoted elsewhere, it is still a huge number of lives. However, the situation was very different in those dark days, and I can understand that the decision-makers did what they believed was necessary to pursue a victory in the war, and finally peace.

I saw a photograph taken during the recent conflict between Israel and Palestine that caught my interest. It shows the crater following an Israeli air strike on a suspected rocket-launching site. Now, an entire building has been destroyed, in contrast to the Brimstone attack in the video linked above, where something more akin to a room was destroyed. However, the surrounding buildings, whilst damaged, are still standing, and appear to remain inhabited. Compared to the bombing campaign during the Second World War, this is far superior in terms of accuracy and unnecessary damage.

What interests me in particular about the image is that the building destroyed could well have been one identical to those surrounding it. If this attack was successful in destroying the intended target, it is an example of guided weapons being used to good effect. If civilians were killed or wounded in or around the destroyed builing, it would be termed collateral damage. An acceptable amount of such damage might have been determined by the importance of the target, and the attack authorised based on those considerations.

What if the weapon had missed the target? Or if the building attacked — one of several buildings identical in appearance, especially from several thousand feet in the air — turned out to be the wrong one? Now there is a case of civilian casualties, but no successful attack to offset that unfortunate by-product of war.

Thinking about these “what-if” questions is something that interests me a great deal. In my mind they all lead to asking whether it is possible to quantify the risk to a particular population, and it was one of the main reasons for starting to write a third party risk model simulation tool. Sometimes I wonder whether those questions are irrelevant and that the work I have been doing is nugatory. After all, the weapons employed today might be 95% reliable, so why worry about the 5% chance of one failing and missing the target? Indeed, the risk of that happening is small and ever-decreasing. But the new aspect I have in my thinking is that Dresden was attacked using tactics and technology that were, at the time, the state of the art. One of the reasons that the attack was so devastating was that it occurred at the peak of the development of area bombing. Trying to improve on it may well have seemed futile to some.

If what was state of the art 60 years ago now seems, to many, to be abhorrent, might the same be said in half a century of the state of the art today?

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