The Bombing of Dresden: Morality and Air Power in World War Two

The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular on the industrial workers.

Air Staff Directive No. 22, February 14, 1942

We are bombing Germany city by city, and ever more terribly, in order to make it impossible to go on with the war. That is our object. We shall pursue it remorselessly. City by city; Lubeck, Rostock, Cologne, Emden, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Duisberg, Hamburg – and the list will grow longer and longer.

Pamphlet dropped on Germany during influence operations, Summer 1942

How many died? Who knows the number?
Your wounds betray the torment of the nameless ones,
Burnt here in a hell fire, lit by human hands.

Memorial, Heidefriedhof Cemetery, Dresden

Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination?

Jeremiah 6:15

At 21:51 on the night of 13 February, 1945, the wailing of the air raid sirens in Dresden informed the population that an air attack was imminent. Shortly after, 244 Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers began to drop their mixed payload of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the city. In the space of eight minutes 500 tons of high explosive and 375 tons of incendiaries were released. Three hours later a second wave of 524 Lancasters dropped more than 1,800 tons of bombs on the shattered and burning city. The last bomber left Dresden at 01:57 on the morning of the 14 February. In the space of a little under four hours the RAF had dropped 1,471 tons of high explosives and 1,175 tons of incendiaries including 404,000 4lb magnesium incendiary bombs on the city. The RAF were followed on 14-15 February by two raids by United States Army Air Force B-17 bombers who dropped a further 1235 tons of bombs on Dresden, the second raid bombing Dresden because it had been unable to find its intended target at Ruhland.[1]

Aided by inadequate German air defences, relatively good visibility, and highly accurate marker bombs dropped by the Visual Marker Mosquitoes the bombers were able to operate at lower altitudes than normal, increasing the accuracy of the bomb placement which was concentrated on the city centre. The high explosive smashed and shattered buildings creating ample fuel for the incendiaries to work on. Fanned by Westerly winds the fires that broke out in the narrow streets of Dresden swiftly took hold and the second attack poured its bombs into the conflagration, stoking and expanding the fires and in the process destroying what was left of the city’s fire fighting service.[2] The result, exacerbated by the weather conditions, was an uncontrolled firestorm that, according to the Allied Central Interpretation Unit, destroyed eighty-five per cent of the fully built-up area.[3] 75,000 of 220,000 homes were consumed by the flames, thirteen square miles were destroyed, major cultural landmarks like the Frauenkirche and Semperoper were in ruins as were hospitals and schools, the water system was out of action, and public transport and the railways were paralysed.[4]

The death toll was high. Initial German propaganda inflated the figures to as high as 250,000 but a modern consensus agrees on a total of 25,000 to 35,000, with a figure of 40,000 proposed by some historians.[5] A report by the Höhere SS und Polizeiführer of March 15, 1945, concluded that there had been 18,375 confirmed deaths. A second report dated March 22 put the figure at 20,204, and official records from the municipal cemetery office confirm that 21,271 victims of the raids had been buried. A further 1,858 bodies were recovered from the ruins during the rebuilding of the city after 1945.[6] While accurate figures are unlikely to ever be established, and the presence of tens of thousands of refugees in Dresden, together with the possibility that the ferocity of the firestorm could have completely incinerated many bodies may mean that many deaths went unrecorded, the figure of 25,000 to 35,000 appears to be representative of the actual civilian death toll based on the available evidence. A significant factor in the high death toll was the lack of adequate air raid shelters. No bunkers had been built under the Führer-Sofortprogramm and the construction of openings and corridors between existing cellars simply served to channel smoke and fumes and suck oxygen from the cellars leaving victims to asphyxiate.[7]

The bombing of Dresden remains a contentious issue. Was it, as many have argued, a legitimate attack on a military target that followed standard procedures and techniques, albeit with particularly devastating consequences, and that expedited victory as part of the wider strategic bombing campaign? Or, was it, as others have argued, an unjustified and disproportionate attack on a city with little military significance that achieved no material gain for the Allied cause and that called the moral probity of the Allies into question? Several questions are important here. Namely, why was Dresden selected as a target by Bomber Command? Was the raid in any way different to those that had gone before it? Was the raid military justifiable? And, does Dresden, and by extension, the wider strategic bombing campaign of Germany by the Allies, count as a moral failure?

The raid on Dresden was carried out against a sense of anti-climax among the western Allies. After the initial success of Overlord the Allies had lost or failed to exploit opportunities while the diversion of Bomber Command activities in support of the ground offensive had delayed the general area offensive and relieved the pressure on German oil and other industrial production.[8] The German counter-offensive in the Ardennes, technical developments in the shape of the V2 rocket, the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet aircraft, and the Schnorkel equipped submarine, and concerns over German capabilities to prolong the war created a sense of pessimism and crisis.[9] The renewed Soviet offensive of January 1945 led to a consideration by the Joint Intelligence Committee that, “The degree of success achieved by the present Russian offensive is likely to have a decisive effect on the length of the war.”[10] Initial suggestions were for an attack against Berlin but this was quickly expanded to include operations against Chemnitz, Leipzig, and Dresden following the suggestion of Commander-in-Chief Bomber Command, Arthur Harris.[11]

On January 27, 1945, Air Marshal Norman Bottomley wrote to Harris, to confirm that attacks against Berlin, Chemnitz, Leipzig, and Dresden should take place, “with the particular object of exploiting the confused conditions which are likely to exist in the above mentioned cities during the successful advance.”[12] On the same day the Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair, wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill advising him that, “subject to the overriding claims of attacks on enemy oil production and other approved target systems within the current directive, available effort should be directed against Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig or against other cities where severe bombing would not only destroy communications vital to the evacuation from the East but would also hamper the movement of troops from the West.”[13] Attacks against these cities would have the effect of creating, “great confusion, interfere with the orderly movement of troops to the front, and hamper the German military and administrative machine.”[14]

As the capital, Berlin was an obvious target. Chemnitz was a major industrial city and a centre  of oil production. Leipzig contained three factories producing the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter plane. But why was Dresden chosen? Prior to February 1945 Dresden had escaped largely unscathed from the attentions of Bomber Command and the United States Strategic and Tactical Air Forces (USSTAF) with two American raids occurring in October 1944 and January 1945.[15] In part this may be due to its distant location. Bomber Command had learnt from bitter experience the cost of sending raids deep into German territory and prior to Overlord and the achievement of air superiority over the Luftwaffe it is arguable that the assessment of operational risk for major raids on Dresden was deemed too high for much of the war. By 1945 the Luftwaffe threat had been effectively nullified, as evidenced by the unmolested passage of the bombers on their way to Dresden and the low numbers of fighters scrambled by the Luftwaffe to defend the city.[16] Dresden had routinely figured in Bomber Command and USSTAF target lists, ranking number twenty-two on the Ministry of Economic Warfare list of target cities,[17] and the condition of air superiority for Allied forces by February 1945 meant that not only was it operationally feasible to target the city, but that the level of risk was acceptable.

Much of the argument against the Dresden raid rests on claims that the city was of little military significance. This, together with the presence of large numbers of German refugees from the east and evacuees from German cities that were being bombed, not to mention Dresden’s own substantial civilian population, lies at the heart of any assessment of Dresden. In terms of the city’s military significance two issues are important; the extent and nature of its military related industry, and its importance as a communications hub, both being legitimate military objectives. Dresden was an important centre for east-west and north-south traffic and the junction for three major railway main lines,[18] not only a key location for supporting the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front but also a possible transfer route for the feared, yet phantom, last stand of the German armies in the south.[19] Its harbour was an important link in freight traffic on the Elbe, and its railway facilities included large marshalling and freight yards, repair shops, and extensive storage facilities.[20] One of the principal aims of Bomber Command was the disruption of communications and the attack on Dresden was envisaged in this light.[21] The presence of refugees in the city highlights its importance as a communications centre and it was with this in mind that Bottomley wrote to the chiefs of staff In January 1945.

Evacuation Areas:

Evacuees from German and German-occupied Provinces to the East of Berlin are streaming westward through Berlin itself and through Leipzig, Dresden and other cities in the East of Germany. The administrative problems involved in receiving the refugees and re-distributing them are likely to be immense. The strain on the administration and upon the communications must be considerably increased by the need for handling military reinforcements on their way to the Eastern Front. A series of heavy attacks by day and night upon these administrative and control centres is likely to create considerable delays in the deployment of troops at the Front and may well result in establishing a state of chaos … It is for these reasons that instructions have been issued for heavy scale attacks to be delivered on these centres at the earliest possible moment.[22]

By attacking Dresden and other eastern German cities it was hoped that a serious blow would be dealt against the German capacity for manoeuvre warfare, which would support the Soviet advance. On these grounds Dresden may be viewed as a legitimate military objective, yet serious questions are raised by the Allies readiness to use the presence of refugees as a lever against the Wehrmacht.[23]

The primary objective of Bomber Command raids in order of importance was attack on German industry in a deliberate effort to restrict German ability to support their war effort. Critics of the raid have argued that Dresden was not an important military-industrial target.[24] As pointed out above Dresden had avoided Bomber Command’s attention before February, 1945. In part this was due to the lack of a suitable heavy bomber in the early years of the war and the high level of risk inherent in attacking such a remote target, but it should also be remembered that though Dresden regularly appeared on target lists it was not marked as a target for the key strategic bombing objectives of oil, armaments, and communications.[25]

Recent analysis of Dresden’s wartime economy suggests a different picture to the one painted of Dresden’s marginal war industries. In terms of its contribution to the German war effort Dresden was ranked twenty-second in the list of one hundred German towns regarded by the British as of leading economic importance in a 1943 report  by the Ministry of Economic Warfare,[26] though interestingly Dresden was not included in an earlier list of fifty-eight towns identified by the Ministry of Economic Warfare because it was one of several cities that either did not meet the economic criteria or its industrial sectors could be found in targets that were more accessible at that time.[27] Even if we accept the relative paucity of accurate intelligence on Dresden’s industrial output that was available to the Allies during the war,[28]Dresden clearly was an important industrial city and part of the integrated German war economy.[29] The city’s pre-war industry had been heavily dominated by consumer-related manufacturing and production and while it is true that, unlike Leipzig and Chemnitz, oil production or heavy armaments manufacturing did not exist in Dresden, the nature of its industrial output had undergone a radical change to meet Germany’s wartime demands.

Its biggest manufacturer, Zeiss-Ikon, manufactured optics including Luftwaffe bomb sights.[30] Seidel and Naumann, erstwhile manufacturers of typewriters, sewing machines, and bicycles, produced parts for armaments. Richard Gäbel and Company reported to the regional Rüstungskomanndo that 96% of their output was for the Wehrmacht High Command, including parts for torpedoes.[31] Previously the company’s factories had manufactured machines for making waffles and marzipan. Radio-Mende made field telephones and radio equipment. Chemical works included Chemische Fabrik von Heyden AG and Chemische Fabrik Gehe AG, the latter suspected of manufacturing poison gas. The Sächsische Gusstahlwerke AG provided steel.  Sachsenwerk Licht u. Kraft AG produced submarine engines.[32] J. C. Müller Universelle-Werke switched from making cigarettes and packaging machines to an output that was fully dedicated to the war effort and that included searchlights, machine guns, torpedo tails, and aircraft parts.[33] AG für Cartonnagenindustrie was listed as the primary manufacturer for paper for munitions and shell linings.[34] Parts for torpedoes, aircraft and U-boats were made at the Infesto-Works. Messerschmitt parts were manufactured at Gläserkarosserie GmbH Works III, while Brückner, Kanis and Company contained a Kreigsmarine testing station for turbines, which the company also produced.[35] The Wehrmacht High Command’s own handbook listed 127 Dresden factories that were sufficiently important to the war economy to merit their own three-letter manufacture’s code.[36] Though much of Dresden’s manufacturing output was part of a supply chain, rather than fully finished armaments, it is clear that the city played an important industrial role in Germany’s war effort and its output, like Germany’s as a whole, tripled between 1940 and 1944.[37]

In terms of Bomber Commands core objectives, attacks on industry and communications, Dresden can be justified as a legitimate military target. Though its industries did not produce fully finished tanks or planes they were an important part in the supply chain and were producing numerous other components and equipment that was needed for the war effort, while its importance as a major communications hub means that attacks intended to disrupt and hamper movement of men and material can be considered to be of strategic benefit to the Allied campaign. The legitimacy of the third, and highly problematic, strand of Bomber Commands offensive, the attack on civilian morale, is less clear.

A key criticism levelled against the Allies in their bombing of Dresden is the argument that the attack was in some way materially different to those that had gone before. The sheer level of destruction and the high death toll make Dresden unusual. The upper limit of 35,000 civilian deaths is equal to those suffered in Berlin which was bombed on 363 occasions during the war. In terms of civilian deaths from a single action Pforzheim, [38]  where 17,600 were killed in the destruction of the city centre on February 23, 1945, and Hamburg,[39] the largest single loss of civilian life in one city during the European war where 42,000 were killed in the firestorm created by Bomber Commands incendiaries on the night of July 27, 1943, are the closest comparisons to Dresden.  The Anglo-American bomber offensive killed an estimated 393,000 civilians in Germany.[40] These figures, grim as they are to contemplate, point to the fact that the raid on Dresden conformed with Allied policy on raids in support of the strategic objectives of the ground war.[41] As the Casablanca Directive of January 1943 stated, the objectives of strategic bombing were, “the progressive destruction and dislocation of the German military, industrial and economic system, and the undermining of the morale of the German people.”[42] Though not iterated in public by the Allied Commands, attacks against civilian targets were key ingredients of strategic bombing. As the official RAF historians explained:

The area attack of this period was deliberately aimed at the destruction of the principal cities of Germany. The object was, as has been seen, to destroy in the centre of the cities, the housing, public utilities and communications to such an extent that their inhabitants would not be able to go on working. Though, on occasion, individual factories or groups of factories were designated as the centre of the target and it was also hoped that many would be destroyed or seriously damaged by the overspill of the area attack, it was the destruction of the living quarters of the towns which was the main object of the attack.[43]

Leaving aside the serious moral implications of such actions, to which we will return later, Dresden and the bombing of other eastern German cities was business as usual; a continuation of the aims of strategic bombing with the minor difference that in this case it was in direct support of the Soviet, rather than the Anglo-American, ground campaign. Like the thousands of raids that had preceded it the attack on Dresden followed standard techniques and routines developed and finessed by Bomber Command.[44]  They had plenty of practice. Between 1939 and 1945 Bomber Command dropped a total of 657,674 tons of bombs on Germany and flew 259,558 night raids and 76,479 day raids against targets in Europe.[45]

In terms of total tonnage dropped by Bomber Command on German targets during single raids in January and February of 1945 Dresden received the highest amount at 2,659.3 tons. Six other cities (Hannover, Dortmund, Munich, Nuremberg, Chemnitz, and Wiesbaden) were bombed by Bomber Command with tonnages in excess of 2,000 tons in that period. Eleven cities received tonnages between 1,028.3 (Mainz) and 1,677.2 (Ludwigshafen) tons (Mainz was bombed a second time in February being hit with another 1,548 tons). Five cities were bombed with tonnages between 633 (Hohenbudberg) and 942.8 (Worms) tons. Three were attacked with between 112.4 (Berlin, attacked with 135.6 tons on a second occasion) and 474.5 (Goch) tons. A further eighty-four raids dropped tonnages between 2.5 (Darmstadt) and 99.8 (Erfurt) tons. Of these latter raids twenty were against Berlin. In addition to these raids thousands more tons of bombs were dropped on targets identified as oil facilities, railway centres, shipping, and canals. [46]

Clearly Dresden, as just one of the towns and cities bombed by Bomber Command in the sample above, was part of a wider campaign. The question remains whether the Dresden attack was proportionate or whether, though a legitimate target, it was “bizarrely out of proportion”[47] to any expected gains, and, whether it was in some way unusual. The extent of the destruction invites speculation and a mainstay of the argument against the bombing of Dresden are claims that the firestorm and the devastation that ensued was an intentional act. The basis for this argument rests on claims that the tonnage of incendiaries carried was in the region of 75 per cent of the total.[48] These claims are wildly exaggerated. The percentage of incendiaries carried was much lower at 44.4 per cent of the total and of fourteen town area targets in February 1945 the percentage of incendiaries carried at Dresden ranks just 10th. Of these fourteen targets eight were hit with tonnages in which incendiaries exceeded 50 per cent. At Chemnitz and Bonn incendiaries constituted 61.8 per cent of the total tonnage. [49]

On the face of it Dresden seems to fit within the normal pattern for the mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs carried during raids. Yet percentages hide nuances that closer examination may reveal. Total tonnages at Dresden, Chemnitz, and Bonn were 2,659.3, 2,079.4, and 851.7 tons respectively,[50] which at 44.4 per cent for Dresden and 61.8 per cent for Chemnitz and Bonn gives incendiary tonnage figures of 1180.7 (Dresden), 1285.1 (Chemnitz), and 526.4 (Bonn). Despite the much higher percentage of incendiaries in the latter two raids the total tonnage of incendiaries used at Chemnitz was not significantly higher than at Dresden, while less than half the tonnage of incendiaries were dropped at Bonn by comparison. The annotated Bomber Command diaries offer additional insight. Where Dresden was noted for the degree of accuracy in bombing[51] the raid on Bonn was described as, “a poor attack, with most of the bombing falling to the south of the target.”[52] While at Chemnitz, “Post-raid reconnaissance showed that many parts of the city were hit but that most of the bombing was in open country.”[53] By comparison Pforzheim, which was bombed on the night of February 23/24, suffered “particularly accurate” marking and bombing and the resulting firestorm killed 17,600 people and destroyed 83 per cent of the town’s built-up area.[54] Likewise, at Hamburg, in July 1943, accurate and concentrated bombing set the conditions for the firestorm that killed 42,000 people and destroyed 16,000 multi-storeyed residential apartment buildings.[55] One aspect of Dresden that is unusual and that contributed in no uncertain terms to the devastation was the double wave attack separated by a few hours. Though not unique this was far from standard practice for Bomber Command as the diaries reveal. In January and February just six attacks followed this pattern out of the seventy-seven raids by fleets of one hundred or more bombers on German targets in January and February 1945.[56]

Though the massive death toll and devastation at Dresden was the result of a set of specific circumstances resulting from the lack of adequate air and civil defences and the accuracy of the bombing combined with the weather conditions that created the firestorm, the intent of the raid was clearly to cause as much death and destruction as possible. Harris was, and remained, unequivocal about the purpose of the bombing offensive, stating that he wanted to, “bring the masonry crashing down on top of the Boche, to kill Boche, and to terrify Boche.”[57] He made his position and the aim of Bomber Command terrifyingly clear when he wrote to Air Marshal Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, in 1943:

The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive…should be unambiguously and publicly stated. That aim is the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany.

It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives, the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale, and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.[58]

Prior to Hamburg much effort had been devoted by the RE8 department of the Air Ministry into the use of incendiaries.[59] Tests on models of German roofing and building construction, assisted by émigré German architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus, were carried out to determine the effectiveness of the standard 4lb and other incendiary bombs. The conclusion was that, “a German house will burn well.”[60] Additional research investigated the proportion of high-explosive and incendiary bombs necessary to destroy the target and the development of delayed action explosive incendiaries that would further feed the flames and maim or kill civil defence workers fighting the fires.[61] At Hamburg, as later at Dresden, the proportion of incendiaries was deliberately chosen in order to create an uncontrolled conflagration. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey outlined how this was achieved:

In determining the aiming point for city attacks, Bomber Command prepared a zone map of the city based on aerial photographs. Administrative and residential areas between 70 and 100 per cent built-up were outlined in red … Area attacks on a previously unbombed city were aimed at the center of the red areas, while subsequent attacks on the same city were usually directed against the center of the most heavily built-up areas which remained undestroyed.[62]

Dresden, Pforzheim, and Hamburg were exceptions that proved the rule, rather than being the unintentional devastation of civilian populations as a consequence of unique conditions that existed on the day. The intent, often not realized due to the factors of inaccurate bombing, weather conditions, and German air defence, was wholesale and indiscriminate destruction masked by an emphasis at official levels and for public consumption of the military and industrial nature of Bomber Command’s targets.

By certain criteria Dresden was a success. As Harris bluntly stated to Bottomley in an acerbic response to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s critical memo of March 28, 1945, “Dresden was a mass of munitions works, an intact government centre, and a key transportation centre. It is now none of these things.”[63] This was largely true, yet Dresden had been bombed under the special circumstance of providing strategic support to the Soviet offensive led by Marshal Konev in order to shorten the war. Little evidence exists in German records that Dresden had any significant consequences in terms of either hindering the Wehrmacht or assisting the Soviets. Konev’s assault in Silesia ended on February 24, 1945, and Dresden’s railway lines were back in operation within days of the bombing.[64] Of course the effect of one among many thousands of area-bombing raids on the German war effort is incalculable, even given the extent of the destruction at Dresden. What does seem clear is the ineffectiveness of the area bombing in the broad, though this is, of course, open to interpretation. Harris was convinced that strategic bombing alone could win the war.[65] More nuanced interpretations of the campaign avoid this conclusion but stress the importance to the Allied war effort of the destruction of German oil production, the cumulative disruption of industry, and the commitment of Luftwaffe resources to home defence rather than towards direct support of the ground war on all fronts.[66]

In contrast to the argument that the bombing offensive was a decisive factor are the findings of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey and the British Bombing Survey Unit. Both concluded that the area bombing of cities was ineffective having only a small effect on German industrial output. The British survey further concluded that in all twenty-one cities examined war production expanded faster than in fourteen control cities that had not been subject to attack,[67] and, as mentioned above, German industrial output increased three-fold between 1940 and 1944. That German industrial output was affected is evident but the effect of area bombing on this is both difficult to measure and open to question. Though highly mobilized to meet wartime demands there was considerable slack in the German economy that allowed it to mitigate against the effects of the area bombing campaign.[68] Greater effect was achieved by ‘precision’ bombing of oil production and communications networks and the achievement of air superiority in western Europe in 1944, both largely American successes rather than Bomber Commands.[69] The attack on the enemy’s morale proved ineffective. Despite the convictions of Harris and others that bombing would break the enemy’s will to win, civilian morale was not broken. The link between Hitler and the people remained strong, while the armed forces remained loyal.[70] The British Bombing Survey was explicit when it stated, “In so far as the offensive against German towns was designed to break the morale of the German civilian population, it clearly failed.”[71] Ultimately “strategic bombing proved in the end to be inadequate in its own terms for carrying out its principal assignments and was morally compromised by deliberate escalation against civilian populations.”[72]

On March 28, 1945, Churchill wrote a minute to General Ismay and Portal in which he raised concerns over the strategic bombing campaign:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed. Otherwise we will come into control of an utterly ruined land. We shall not, for instance, be able to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves. The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing. I am of the opinion that military objectives must henceforward be more strictly studied in our own interests rather than that of the enemy.

The Foreign Secretary has spoken to me on this subject, and I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives, such as oil and communications behind the immediate battle-zone, rather than on mere acts of terror and wanton destruction.[73]

The official history glosses over the subsequent reaction of Portal and Harris in which Harris, as bullish as ever, repeated his claims that Bomber Command’s area attacks on cities had weakened the German war effort and to stop at that point would neither shorten the war, or save the lives of Allied soldiers.  “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier,” he wrote to Bottomley.[74] Portal called for the minute to be withdrawn and Churchill issued a reworded version on April 1:

It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of so called “area bombing” of German cities should be reviewed from the point of view of our own interests. If we come into control of an entirely weakened land, there will be a great shortage of accommodation for ourselves and our Allies: and we shall be unable to get housing materials out of Germany for our own needs because some temporary provision would have to be made for the Germans themselves. We must see to it that our attacks do not do more harm to ourselves in the long run than they do the enemy’s immediate war effort. Pray let me have your views.[75]

Aside from the insight the episode offers into managing egos’ and the tensions within the British High Command the first minute of March 28 reveals reservations at the highest level about the nature and morality of the strategic bombing campaign.

Technically international agreement to protect civilians from aerial attack did not exist in 1945. An attempt to clarify the rules of air warfare had been made by the Commission which met at The Hague in 1922 to draw up definite rules of air warfare. Three articles dealt with the legitimacy of targets and the bombing of civilians:

Aerial bombardment for the purpose of terrorizing the civilian population, of destroying or damaging private property not of a military character, or of injuring non-combatants is prohibited.

1 ) Aerial bombardment is legitimate only when directed at a military objective, that is to say, an object of which the destruction or injury would constitute a distinct military advantage to the belligerent.

2) Such bombardment is legitimate only when directed exclusively at the following objectives: military forces; military works; military establishments or depots; factories constituting important and well-known centres engaged in the manufacture of arms, ammunition, or distinctively military supplies; lines of communication or transportation used for military purposes.

3) The bombardment of cities, towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings not in the immediate neighbourhood of the operations of land forces is prohibited. In cases where the objectives specified in paragraph 2 are so situated, that they cannot be bombarded without the indiscriminate bombardment of the civilian population, the aircraft must abstain from bombardment.

4) In the immediate neighbourhood of the operations of land forces, the bombardment of cities, towns, villages, dwellings, or buildings is legitimate provided that there exists a reasonable presumption that the military concentration is sufficiently important to justify such bombardment, having regard to the danger thus caused to the civilian population.

5) A belligerent State is liable to pay compensation for injuries to person or to property caused by the violation by any of its officers or forces of the provisions of this article.

In bombardment by aircraft all necessary steps must be taken by the commander to spare as far as possible buildings dedicated to public worship, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospital ships, hospitals, and other places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided such buildings, objects or places are not at the time used for military purposes. Such buildings, objects and places must by day be indicated by marks visible to aircraft. The use of marks to indicate other buildings, objects or places than those specified above is to be deemed an act of perfidy. The marks used as aforesaid shall be in the case of buildings protected under the Geneva Convention the red cross on a white ground, and in the case of other protected buildings a large rectangular panel divided diagonally into two pointed triangular portions, one black and the other white.

A belligerent who desires to secure by night the protection for the hospitals and other privileged buildings above mentioned must take the necessary measures to render the special signs referred to sufficiently visible.[76]

Though never fully ratified the articles formed the basis for subsequent discussion on the legality of civilian bombing and in 1938 were echoed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he issued the following instructions to Bomber Command:

1.  It is against international law to bomb civilians as such and to make deliberate attacks on civilian populations.

2. Targets which are aimed at from the air must be legitimate military objectives and must be capable of identification.

3. Reasonable care must be taken in attacking those military objectives so that by carelessness a civilian population in the neighbourhood is not bombed.[77]

On September 14, 1939, when war had already broken out, Chamberlain responded in Parliament to a question from Hugh Dalton, Member of Parliament for Bishop Auckland, stating:

 … that whatever be the lengths to which others may go, His Majesty’s Government will never resort to the deliberate attack on women, children and other civilians for purposes of mere terrorism. In the meantime it must be remembered that our strategy and tactics must at all stages be governed by one consideration and one only, namely, the most effective prosecution of the war.[78]

During the interwar years attention had been paid by Bomber Command and others to the question of strategic bombing. Underpinning many arguments was an erroneous belief in the fragility of civilian morale, especially among the working classes: An attitude that reflects the prejudices of the ruling class and the elite within society rather than any informed understanding of human psychology. Chief of the Air Staff, Hugh Trenchard, calculated the moral effect of bombing as greater than the physical by a factor of 20:1, without any apparent evidence or reason, when he presented his proposals for the role of the RAF to the other chiefs of staff in 1928.[79] Rather than acting as a tactical force, Trenchard argued that the RAF should strike directly at the enemy to destroy both their capacity to continue the war, and their will to do so.  In his response Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Milne wrote that Trenchard’s proposal, “put in to plain English, amounts to one which, advocates unrestricted warfare against the civilian population of one’s enemy.”[80] Further:

It is ridiculous to contend that the dropping of bombs would hit only the so-called military targets. In spite, therefore, of the attempt made in the Memorandum to justify the selection of the targets indicated as being legitimate military objectives, the impression produced by the acceptance and publication of such a doctrine will indubitably be that we are advocating what might be termed the indiscriminate bombing of undefended towns and of their unarmed inhabitants.[81]

If Chamberlain and the CIGS had rejected the bombing of civilians on moral grounds, Churchill himself had rejected the validity of the argument for breaking civilian morale when he wrote in 1917 that:

It is improbable that any terrorization of the civil population which could be achieved by air attack would compel the Government of a great nation to surrender. Familiarity with bombardment, a good system of dug-outs or shelters, a strong control by police and military authorities, should be sufficient to preserve the national fighting spirit unimpaired. In our own case we have seen the combatative spirit of the people roused, and not quelled, by the German air raids. Nothing that we have learned of the capacity of the German population to endure suffering justifies us in assuming that they could be cowed into submission by such methods, or indeed, that they would not be rendered more deliberately resolved by them.”[82]

A view echoed by The First Sea Lord, Admiral Madden, in 1928 when he argued that there was little evidence to support the idea that aerial attacks would break civilian morale.[83] The consensus of opinion among those who would make the decision was that committing air resources to strategic bombing would lessen the overall effectiveness of any war effort. The Army and Navy, in response to Trenchard, concluded that his policy was against national interest.[84]

When war broke out in 1939 Britain replied positively to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s appeal:

… to every government which may be engaged in hostilities publicly to affirm its determination that its armed forces shall in no event, and under no circumstances, undertake the bombardment from the air of civilian populations or of unfortified cities, upon the understanding that these same rules of warfare will be scrupulously observed by all of their opponents.[85]

Despite British reservations the first strategic bombing raid was carried out against Germany before the Luftwaffe began raids on Britain in August, 1940. Following the German bombing of Rotterdam on May 15 the RAF were authorised to carry out bombing attacks against targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland.[86] Over the next two years Bomber Command carried out an ever widening series of attacks against German military and industrial targets. Technical limitations on navigation and bomb aiming reduced the effectiveness of these attacks as the 1941 report of Churchill’s chief scientific advisor, Professor F. A Lindemann, made clear.[87] Just one in five planes got within five miles of their intended target. The practical effect was damage and loss of life in civilian non-military and non-industrial areas that were not the intended target as bomb loads were released haphazardly over cities, towns, villages, and countryside. The move to night raids following heavy losses suffered by the RAF during daylight raids further reduced effectiveness as it was quickly discovered that large towns and cities were practically the only targets that could be identified under night conditions. Even then targeting was imprecise, and, though the stated aim was to bomb military objectives, night bombing was rendered indiscriminate by virtue of the inability to identify and target specific targets among an urban mass.[88] By February 1942 when the Air Ministry issued Directive No. 22 Britain had been reliant on the RAF and the strategic bombing campaign as the only means available to it to press an attack against German territory for the entire course of the war up to that point. Neither the British nor the Americans were in a position to conduct an invasion of the continent, nor could they offer direct military support to the Soviets. In the absence of other options Churchill grasped at the straw offered by strategic bombing, sealing the direction of Bomber Command’s offensive for the next three years. In August 1942 when he met Stalin in Moscow, Churchill spoke of shattering twenty more German cities. “We,” he said, “sought no mercy and we would show no mercy … That was the only way.”[89]

Directive No. 22 had stated that, “The primary object of your operations should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civil population, and in particular on the industrial workers.”[90]  Portal wrote to Bottomley for clarification, “I suppose it is clear the aiming points will be the built up areas, and not, for instance, the dockyards or aircraft factories where these are mentioned in Appendix A. This must be made quite clear if it is not already understood.” By degrees Britain had slipped from a clear moral position on the bombing of civilian populations to one that tacitly accepted not only incidental loss of civilian life, but the deliberate targeting of civilian populations.

It is beyond doubt that the decision to go to war made by Britain was a proper one according to all six criteria of the jus ad bellum strand of Just War tradition. Just Cause existed because Britain came to the defence of allies who were under attack. Expectation of further German aggression and the likely outcome of German occupation gave sufficient grounds for Proportionate Cause. Right Intention exists in the belief that ending German belligerence would create a better subsequent peace than there would have been had Germany been left unopposed. The extensive debates in Parliament about the prospect of war and preparations for it, and the constitutionally correct declaration of war met the criteria of Right Authority. It can also be argued in 1939 that, despite the clearly great challenge of war with Germany, there was a Reasonable Prospect of Success. Finally, diplomatic and other efforts had been effectively exhausted by 1939, justifying the ‘least to be preferred’ criteria of Last Resort. However, “that a war is just does not automatically make right every act committed during the fighting of it.”[91]

The second strand of the Just War tradition is jus in bello, the just conduct of war as opposed to the justness of going to war, which contains two main criteria. The first, Discrimination, relies on the concept of ‘innocence’ defined as those not involved in contributing to harm, regardless of their attitude towards or support for the enemy. Related to innocence is the concept of ‘deliberate attack’ which requires that the death of ‘innocents’ must not be part of the real purpose of an attack, that any ‘innocents’ deaths must be truly incidental, rather than a necessary condition for the achievement of the legitimate military aim, and that any likely harm caused to ‘innocents’ must not be out of proportion to the military benefit gained. The second criteria is Proportionality, the notion that even legitimate action must not be taken if the harm caused is likely to outweigh the good, while action that is taken must be proportionate to the original offence and the harm that it caused.

Arguments exist both for and against the justness of strategic bombing and it must be recognised that Just War is not a set of tick-box tests that can be applied without careful judgement.[92] Nor is it always correct to pass moral judgement with the advantage of hindsight. In 1939 though many feared another widespread and prolonged conflict, few would, or could, have foreseen the bloody conflagration that claimed an estimated 50,000,000 to 70,000,000 lives worldwide. Given the scale of military and civilian deaths during the war and the abominable crimes committed during the Shoah, the loss of life that resulted from area bombing might be regarded as neither excessive nor unacceptable. 6,000,000 European Jews died at the hands of the Germans. By comparison the civilian death toll in Germany from strategic bombing is estimated at 393,000, with an upper suggested limit of 625,000.[93] In total somewhere in the region of 1,000,000 German civilians died either directly or indirectly as a result of Allied military action during the war. There is no moral equivalence between the German regime’s calculated and brutal extermination of European Jewry, Slavs, Roma, and others deemed undesirable or enemies of the state, and the strategic bombing campaign, but neither do German crimes militate against Allied responsibility for strategic bombing, or for Dresden. Neither possesses a positive moral quantum.[94]

Supporters of the strategic area bombing campaign argue that ‘supreme emergency’ made normally unethical actions morally defensible. In effect the determinate crime of killing civilians was vastly outweighed by the immeasurable crime of taking no action and allowing Germany to triumph.[95] Vested with responsibility to protect the community of Britain the British government and its military leaders could not put the life of the community at risk so long as there were options available to it, even immoral ones.[96] The deliberate bombing of civilian populations was therefore a ‘lesser evil’ than the ‘greater evil’ of communal death at the hands of Germany, thereby justifying the strategic area bombing campaign against German cities.

It is possible to make the argument that Britain faced a supreme emergency for the early years of the war from 1939 to 1942. From May to September 1940 Britain faced the imminent prospect of defeat until Hitler indefinitely postponed Unternehmen Seelöwe, the German plan of invasion, on September 17, 1940. For the next seventeen months Bomber Command carried out precision raids against German military and industry targets at a time when Germany was capable of winning the war on the continent and returning to the delayed invasion of the British mainland. But by February 1942 the German offensive in Russia had stalled, and with America entering the war in the previous December, Allied success seemed inevitable.[97]  By the time of the Casablanca Directive in 1943 the balance had clearly tipped in favour of the Allies. The ‘supreme emergency’ had receded yet the area bombing campaign intensified precisely at this point. From 1939 to 1943 the RAF dropped 44,000 tons of bombs on German towns and cities. From January 1943 to May 1945 the tonnage dropped on German towns in the campaign against “the morale of the enemy civil population” totalled 438,000.[98] The morale of the German population, though affected, did not deteriorate as a result of area bombing to the point where German industrial output was materially affected, as evidenced by the British Bombing Survey Unit when it concluded that “potential war production,” was depressed by, “about 7 per cent,”[99] and, “had little effect upon the trend of German war industry.”[100] With the defeat of Germany no longer in question and the removal of the condition of ‘supreme emergency’, the deliberate and indiscriminate attack on the German civilian population can be considered an absolute breach of the jus in bello principles of both Discrimination, in that area bombing did not, and could not, make any account for innocents, and Proportionality, in that the death and devastation visited on the German people  exceeded both civilian losses suffered by Britain during the Blitz, while the majority of German losses occurred after the condition of ‘supreme emergency’ had passed.

According to one view, “Area bombing cannot be examined as a separate, unique phenomenon judged only by numbers of missions flown and bombs dropped versus people killed. A more valid yardstick would be the extent to which the action contributed to ending the war as quickly as possible with minimum loss of life.”[101] Harris certainly believed that the bombing campaign both shortened the war and saved lives, saying as much in his letter to Bottomley of March 29, 1945, following Churchill’s volte face on strategic bombing in his memo of the previous day.[102] In his account of the bombing offensive published shortly after the war Harris described area bombing as, “a comparatively humane method,” again arguing that lives were saved as a result.”[103] The question is, “whose lives?” Harris, like other military commanders in the field, was interested in protecting the lives of the Allied fighting forces rather than having consideration for the lives of innocents, especially those of the enemy.[104] This unilateral view on human costs fails to meet the criteria of proportionality in jus in bello. Those responsible for the conduct of warfare are obligated to consider the welfare of all who are affected by war, not just the combatants who expedite it. If we take the lower estimate of 393,000 as the total death toll among German civilians as a result of bombing, does this compare on any meaningful moral grounds to the estimated 264,443 British Armed Forces killed in all theatres, or the estimated 60,595 British civilians killed by air and rocket attacks?[105] Or put another way, does the scale of the British death toll, and the expectation that greater loss of Allied service personnel would result if area bombing was not carried out, morally justify British actions?

Our first response must be the simple consideration that the deliberate and indiscriminate targeting of civilians contravenes the principles of Just War tradition. It demonstrates neither Discrimination, nor Proportionality in either intent or effect. Both Germany and Britain were guilty of moral failure when they set out to deliberately break the morale of civilian populations through their respective bombing campaigns.  The second is that though commanders are morally obligated to consider the welfare of the men under their command and to take all reasonable steps to prevent loss of life among them, they are equally bound by the requirement to apply the principle of Discrimination to the enemy, and particularly so towards civilian populations. The implication of the lives were saved by area bombing strand of argument is that saving military lives by substituting civilian deaths is an acceptable moral decision. Clearly it is not, as the consideration of whether it would be morally acceptable for a soldier on the battlefield to use a civilian as a shield tells us.[106]

Not only did area bombing not discriminate between civilians who might be regarded as taking part in activities that caused harm to the Allies – armaments workers for example – and those who meet the jus in bello criteria of innocents – children, the elderly, and women not employed in war work – it arguably did little to reduce the loss of Allied life during the course of the war. Supporters of the bombing campaign were adamant that it would shorten the war, though few were quite as messianic about the ability of unaided strategic bombing alone to win the war as was Harris. Yet, as we have seen, both main objectives of area bombing, the breaking of morale and the disruption of industry, were not achieved. Until mid to late 1944 German production of tanks, weapons, ammunition, aircraft, motor vehicles, and powder actually saw a steady increase in output.[107] Even with the decline in production in the latter six months of 1944 Germany was able to produce more aircraft, tanks, heavy guns, and ammunition in that year than it had in 1943, often by a significant margin.[108] What did dramatically and decisively affect German industry was precision bombing aimed at important chokepoints in the manufacturing and supply chain, particularly oil and communications.[109] Harris, who regularly cavilled at what he saw as ‘panacea’ targets,[110] concluded in his Despatch on War Operations that the campaign against oil targets was both a success and a powerful factor in depriving, “the enemy of effective use of his most powerful means of defence against the Allied Armies, his Air Force and his Panzer Divisions.”[111] The near total disruption of oil supply and the attack on communications were significantly more important as a contributing factor in the German defeat than the area bombing of cities. These were precisely the types of target that Britain, and Bomber Command, had eschewed in 1942 when it chose to make the destruction of German civilian morale the primary objective of its effort. Advocates of area bombing saw it as a decisive factor that would shorten the war and save lives. The evidence would suggest that it did neither. By contrast precision bombing of vital industries and communications did have a decisive effect. Had Britain devoted its energy to overcoming the problems of bombing by day and achieving air superiority to focus its attention more exclusively on oil and communications the war may have ended sooner, more lives may have been saved, and the Allies would not have been as susceptible to charges of moral failure in deliberately violating the principles of jus in bello.

The Blitz claimed an estimated 40,000 British civilian lives in a bombing campaign that was as indiscriminate as that of Bomber Command. When the first thousand bomber raid was launched against Köln, the Daily Express headline screamed, “The Vengeance Begins!”[112] Britain, it seemed, had begun, in the words of Churchill, “to mete out to the Germans the measure, and more than the measure that they have meted out to us.”[113] This notion of retribution, retaliation, vengeance even, was a common strand in the British media, and in public and private utterances at all levels of society during the war. Germany, it was felt, had it coming. They had started it, and strategic bombing was a belligerent reprisal for injustices inflicted on the British people. Churchill, in his speech to the British people of September 11, 1940, was in no doubt that the Luftwaffe was engaged in, “cruel, wanton, indiscriminate, bombings,” with the intention of, “killing large numbers of civilians, and women, and children …to terrorize and cow the people.”[114] The sentiment of the public, he declared to the House of Commons, was, “’We can take it,’ … but ‘Give it ‘em back.’”[115] There would be a, “remorseless discharge of high explosives on Germany. Every month will see the tonnage increase.”[116] To some extent this was rhetoric designed to appeal to the public mood for retribution, but it also reflected that mood. In specific circumstances retribution is morally appropriate. After all, what else are the penalties handed out by courts of law other than societal retribution for acts committed against the normative values that a society holds?

Yet retribution must also be proportionate to the act committed and it must punish the wrongdoer.[117] We have seen that in the early years of the war Britain faced a situation of supreme emergency and the German bombing campaign against British towns was a contravention of jus in bello. In this regard it is possible to accept that the decision to strike back at Germany through the only means available to Britain at the time was a morally acceptable act, despite the implications. What is at question is the proportionality of the strategic bombing. By a narrow accounting of numbers the 44,000 tons of bombs dropped on German towns between 1939 and 1943 could be seen as proportionate to that dropped by the Germans between September 1940 and May 1941. This ignores the reality of events. Between September 1939 and February 13, 1942, the British dropped 15,007 tons of bombs on German towns, 28.24 per cent of the total effort directed against Germany. From the issuing of Directive No. 22 on February 14, 1942, to March 7, 1944, and the shift in its activity to support Operation Overlord, Bomber Command dropped 217,947 tons on German towns, equivalent to 84.26 per cent of the total tonnage dropped in that period.[118] Any consideration of these figures and the indiscriminate nature of area bombing must conclude that the British response was in no way proportionate as an act of retribution.

If the moral grounds for area bombing, and the premises it was based upon, are flawed, those for Dresden are more so. By 1945 Germany was incapable of inflicting sustained aerial damage upon Allied countries. Britain was not in any danger of invasion by Germany, and the United States never had been. Unlike the early years of the war there was no need for desperate measures at a desperate time. That hard fighting remained to be fought was true, but Germany could not win the war. Regardless of the publicly stated aims for area bombing as an attack on industry and war capacity the reality was that it was a pre-meditated and indiscriminate assault on the civilian population predicated on what proved to be fallacious grounds.

True, Dresden was a justifiable target on military grounds, but its industrial outputs, though important to the German war economy, were not those whose disruption in the end proved decisive in bringing Germany to its knees. True, it was a major communications hub, and disrupting communications did prove decisive in ending the war, but it was USAAF B-17’s in their daylight raids of February 14 and 15 that targeted the marshalling yards, not the RAF: their target was a football stadium near the main railway bridge across the Elbe. True, the German administration was at fault for not providing proper civil defence, but this does not mitigate Allied responsibility: their intent was to destroy Dresden, as they had Hamburg, as they would Pforzheim, regardless of the level of protection afforded to the civilian population by their authorities.  True, the strong Westerly wind was a major contributing factor to the firestorm, but this is an extrinsic factor to the intent of creating terror and devastation. What was not true is the fundamental premise on which area bombing was carried out, the breaking of civilian morale. The evidence of The Blitz should have told the Allies this. As Churchill concluded, “The murderous raids upon our ports, cities and factories have been powerless to quench the spirit of the British nation, to stop our national life, or check the immense expansion of our war industry.[119] It was a confirmation of his original view on the limitations of, “the terrorization of the civil population which could be achieved by air attack.”[120]

Britain, through the RAF, was responsible for the majority of the area bombing campaign against Germany but we must remember that they were not alone. The United States both supported area bombing and carried out area bombing attacks against Germany, though with reservations and not to anywhere near the extent that the British did. And it was the Americans that carried out mass firebombing against Japanese cities and the two most devastating area raids in history at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What seems evident is that, no doubt frustrated by the grim realities of total war and aided by the impersonal and euphemistic language employed by the architects of strategic bombing, the Allies drifted by gradual increments towards an ever widening gap between the legal and ethical norms they claimed to represent and the deliberate pursuit of campaigns in which civilian deaths were anticipated and endorsed.[121] Constraints on aerial targeting gradually fell away in response to the conditions of the moment and the difficulties of locating and hitting targets accurately.[122] The lack of accurate targeting systems were a factor in the decision to turn to area bombing while technical developments during the war did not resolve the all too frequent problem of aiming at specific targets through cloud. Many raids, both precision and area, were foiled as a result of the weather,[123] and the argument is often made that critics perhaps make too much of the phrase ‘precision bombing’.[124] The implication is that the Allies had little choice; either they dropped bombs on cities or they didn’t drop them at all, the latter considered as an option that the Allies could not afford to take.[125]

Two counter arguments may be made here. The first is a question of legality. Article 23(e) of The Hague Convention of 1907, to which the Allies and Germany were parties, states, “that it is especially forbidden … To employ arms, projectiles, or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering,” and Article 27 states that:

In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes.”[126]

Arguably the intention of area bombing was to cause unnecessary suffering as a necessary adjunct to breaking civilian morale, while area bombing by virtue of the techniques developed by Bomber Command and its indiscriminate nature could not, by definition, take any ‘necessary steps to spare’, even ‘as far as possible’, the categories of building listed in the Article, whether or not they were ‘being used at the time for military purposes’. At Dresden the target area included the Lutheran Frauenkirche, the Catholic Hofkirche, the Semperoper opera house and the Zwinger palace.[127] These were included in eleven churches and five cultural-historical buildings mentioned in the Höhere SS und Polizeiführer report which further listed, six chapels, nineteen hospitals, and thirty-nine schools among the buildings that were destroyed.[128] Critics may argue that the Hague Conventions addressed land warfare, and on this point, narrowly defined, they would be correct. Britain and America had not ratified the 1923 Hague Rules of Air Warfare and under international law its articles were not legally binding, leaving a considerable degree of latitude in which to operate. The wording of Article 25 of the 1923 proposals stated:

In bombardment by aircraft all necessary steps must be taken by the commander to spare as far as possible buildings dedicated to public worship, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospital ships, hospitals, and other places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided such buildings, objects or places are not at the time used for military purposes.[129]

Other than minor additions and variations in the wording of the list of buildings to be protected the sole important difference between this and Article 27 of Hague (IV) is the distinction between ‘bombardment by aircraft’ and ‘bombardment’. Expert jurists may well maintain that this distinction is enough to relieve the Allies of culpability on the grounds that Article 27 related to bombardment by land forces and could not be applied to subsequent developments in the means by which war could be waged. This was something the architects of Convention had considered when they included the Martens clause, which states:

Until a more complete code of the laws of war is issued, the High Contracting Parties think it right to declare that in cases not included in the Regulations adopted by them, populations and belligerents remain under the protection and empire of the principles of international law, as they result from the usages established between civilized nations, from the laws of humanity and the requirements of the public conscience.[130]

This is open to interpretation, but it is eminently possible to draw the conclusion that ‘bombardment by aircraft’, distinct in means but similar in intent and effect to ‘bombardment’, falls under the principles of Hague (IV), particularly when we consider the obvious equivalency of the separate articles in question. This weakens the case for area bombing in general and calls into serious question the legality of the Dresden raid. By dropping 2,659.3 tons of high explosives and incendiaries into a concentrated area Bomber Command arguably made no effort to take necessary steps to protect buildings prescribed by Hague (IV). Indeed, they could not. The Allies could, however, have taken the decision not to use arms or materials that cause unnecessary suffering.

The second counter argument rests on the principles of jus in bello. It is a fact that targeting capabilities in the Allied Forces were limited during the war and this did have implications for what was achievable in practice. The intent of Bomber Command from 1939 to February 13, 1942, was to attack oil and railways as a top priority.[131] Both are legitimate military targets and the deaths of civilian workers in these industries caused by attack may be justified in that they were involved in contributing to do harm to Britain. Though to be regretted such deaths meet the Principle of Discrimination as the victims do not meet the criteria of innocence as they are contributing to harm through their efforts to supply the war economy. No doubt, given the inaccuracy of targeting methods, there would also have been deaths among civilians that met the criteria of innocence, as bombs fell outside the intended area of attack. This is problematic on moral grounds as the attacker is obliged to take all possible steps to minimize the deaths of innocents. An assessment must therefore be made as to the balance of the good that results from the intention, for example the destruction of an oil facility, against the bad which results from any unintended consequences, for example the death of innocents in houses nearby. This is the Principle of Double Effect. Destroying the oil facility may reduce the capacity of the enemy to wage war and save lives in the long run, but it comes at the cost of the death of innocents. The question of the balance between intended and unintended effect is a difficult one which depends on an assessment of the Proportionality of the expected harm to innocents, the Discrimination exercised in selecting the target, and the good that is reasonably expected to accrue from the intended consequences. The key considerations are the intent of the attacker and the requirement to minimize harm to innocents.

If precision bombing was somewhat of a misnomer between 1939 and 1945, the intent behind targeting military and industrial facilities is justifiable under international law and according to Just War tradition, and this was the intent of Bomber Command during the first phases of the air war when the priority targets were oil and railways. As a response it meets both the requirements of Discrimination and Proportionality. It also, though not fully, meets the requirement to minimize harm to innocents, precisely because it targeted military and industrial infrastructure and it could be reasonably expected that unintended civilian deaths would be acceptably low. The decision by the British to adopt an area bombing strategy after February, 1942, was a landmark shift in both strategy and moral direction. Driven by an apparent relative failure of the attack on oil and railways, and the high toll suffered by the RAF in prosecuting day raids, Britain, by issuing Directive No. 22, moved from a strategy that, though not entirely free from moral ambiguity, did meet the requirements of international law and Just War tradition, to one that clearly failed to meet both. By targeting civilian morale through an indiscriminate assault on German towns the Allies engaged in an un-calibrated and disproportionate offensive designed to cause the maximum level of harm to the civilian population. The effect of dropping thousands of tons of bombs into a confined space could not be expected to minimize civilian casualties.[132] In terms of intent and the minimizing of the loss of life, area bombing fails all the tests of Proportionality, Discrimination, and the Principle of Double Effect.

The central premise is that Bomber Command had no choice but to switch to area bombing because it was constrained by technical limitations and the requirement to protect its own aircrews and planes on both practical and moral grounds, hence the switch. But a lack of means to achieve the desired effect is not in itself a justification to engage in area bombing.  Few problems have a single answer and there were other potential solutions to the problems of targeting, of the minimizing of casualties, and of the requirement to protect the lives of Allied aircrews. The Lancaster, the work-horse of Bomber Command, was equipped with eight .303 calibre Browning Mark II machine guns which were an inadequate defence against Luftwaffe fighters, a fact recognised by Harris.[133] The American B-17 carried thirteen .50 Browning M2’s, a far more effective weapon against attacking aircraft. Events proved the self-defending bomber to be inadequate and the Americans responded by introducing the P-51 Mustang as a long-range escort fighter in 1943. Britain, despite the recognised need, did not put significant investment into the development of a long-range fighter. Instead Bomber Command opted for the less risky approach of night raids and its main effort was directed at the development of bombing capabilities. This included targeting, for example OBOE, which, crucially, was developed as an aerial blind bombing system to facilitate unsighted night bombing.[134] Developments in bombing technique included those of 5 Group which involved placing a marker at a well defined landmark to act as an indicator of the starting point of a timed bombing run[135]. It was this technique that was used to devastating effect at Dresden.[136] Had the British chosen to devote their energy to developing effective long-range escort fighters, better defensive armaments for their bombers, and better precision targeting methods for daylight raids, the option of prosecuting an air campaign that aimed at achieving control of the air and the targeted destruction of chokepoints in German industry and communications would have been available to the Allies at a much earlier point than it actually was. In strictly military terms it would also have achieved the same effect as the area bombing by drawing Luftwaffe resources into the defence of the homeland and away from the Eastern and Western fronts. They would have also avoided the moral failure that resulted from the decision to switch to area bombing.

Dresden was the culmination of a campaign waged against the civilian population of Germany which lasted for just over three years. In that time hundreds of thousands of civilians died, many hundreds of thousands more were made homeless. In just three attacks during that campaign an estimated 94,600 civilians died, at Hamburg, at Dresden, and at Pforzheim, in a bombing campaign that went far beyond any understanding of the principles of Discrimination and Proportionality. To compound this moral failure, these deaths and the widespread destruction of property was a mostly futile effort that did not materially alter the course of the war. By targeting German towns Allied air forces fought the wrong war. Resources devoted to area bombing could have been used in the ultimately decisive effort against oil and communications. Instead, 478,266 tons, 45.66 per cent of the total effort of Bomber Command, was used in the war against German civilian morale. Just 9.84 per cent was used against all oil targets and 13.89 per cent against all transportation targets. Between 1939 and 1945 Bomber Command dropped a total of 119,674 tons on German military installations, 11.43 per cent of their total effort. Think about that last statistic. What it means is that the British, in pursuit of a flawed military doctrine, dropped four times as many tons of bombs in their effort to crush civilian morale than they directed at the legitimate target of the German military.[137]

Technology has moved air capability far beyond the era of area bombing. Precision guided munitions (PGM) can now accurately hit targets with levels of precision undreamed of in 1939, and the introduction of drones allows air forces to operate against the enemy from a position of safety far from the battlefield. This may reduce the risk to the attacker, an important consideration for the commander who must seek to protect those under him but it does not reduce the absolute requirement to address the moral implications of the use of air power. The principles of jus in bello still apply and air forces must consider this when exercising lethal force, regardless of whether the weapons used are precise or not. Because the level of accuracy in targeting is so precise in some modern weapon systems the responsibility to exercise Discrimination and Proportionality is perhaps even greater than for non-precision weapons.

The latest capstone document for air power, JDP0-30 UK Air and Space Power Doctrine,[138] the United Kingdom appears more concerned that, “our adversaries encourage the misperception that air power is a disproportionately violent, detached and indiscriminate form of force,” than in the moral implications of the application of that force. While it recognises the, “legal obligation to minimise collateral damage and comply with the principles of distinction, proportionality, military necessity and humanity,” the main emphasis in the three paragraphs of its discussion of legality and legitimacy is on the necessity to protect United Kingdom air power from legal challenges over the use of aerial force. The document as a whole, and in its specific discussion of the moral and ethical issues of, “Unmanned and remotely-piloted air systems,” avoids any meaningful discussion of the moral implications of aerial attack. This is not to say that United Kingdom military doctrine does not address the moral implications of warfare. The issues are addressed in JDP 0-01 British Defence Doctrine, which, “provides the broad philosophy and principles,” from which all subordinate doctrine is derived.[139] Yet the omission of any statement in JDP 0-30 on the need to exercise moral judgement in regard to minimizing damage to civilians and property is disappointing. In its claim that, “any UK operations (manned or unmanned) using armed force in an international context require political authorisation,” it is also disingenuous.  It is true that the decision to go to war is the preserve of the Queen and her Government, but the task of prosecuting duly authorised military action is devolved to the Armed Forces. It does not necessarily follow that simply because military action may meet the demands of jus ad bellum it automatically meets those of jus in bello. Though properly subject to political oversight the degree of independence available to the force commander means that they are responsible for the moral implications of the ways and means they employ to achieve their aims, however morally and legally justifiable those aims may be. The United Nations are due to publish the final report of their Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson on the use of remotely-piloted aircraft in counter-terrorism later this year. His third annual report highlights that the Pakistani government have confirmed that 400 civilian deaths, of a total of 2,200, occurred as a result of remotely-piloted air strikes carried out by Coalition forces.[140] Are the deaths of 400 innocents justifiable as a side effect of killing 1,800 people who are viewed as contributing towards causing harm? Or should the number be lower? Should it be none at all? Would it be acceptable if it was higher, and if so, how much higher could the death toll among innocents rise before it became unacceptable? These are questions that our governments, our Armed Forces, and we as individuals must all answer.

The Just War tradition gives us a framework by which we may begin to answer these questions. Yet, as the bombing of Dresden demonstrates, reaching an answer is not as simple as it may at first appear. The question posed earlier was whether Dresden represented a legitimate, if exceptionally devastating attack on a legitimate target, or, whether it was an unjustified and disproportionate attack on a target of little significance and which achieved no material gain. A series of further questions will provide us with an answer.

Was Dresden a legitimate military target? Yes. It was a key communication centre and its industry was, by 1945, directed to the German war effort.

Was the raid a deviation from the standard procedures developed by Bomber Command? No. Though not typical in its use of a double wave attack the raid followed the standard approach devised by No. 5 Group, albeit to unusually devastating effect.

Was there a legitimate aim of creating strategic effect to aid the Soviet offensive? Yes. The Allies considered the raid as one that would assist the Soviets by creating confusion in the lines of communication behind the German front line.

Was this achieved? No.  Communications were restored within a short period of time, while the Soviets halted their offensive within days of the attack of Dresden.

Was the destruction of Dresden’s industry a decisive factor in defeating the Germans? No. By February 1945 Germany’s defeat was assured, and it was the offensive against oil that was the decisive blow against Germany’s industrial output.

Was the raid by Bomber Command directed against industrial and communications targets in Dresden? No. The raid was concentrated on the predominantly civil, cultural, and residential centre of the town.

Was the raid carried out with the knowledge that civilian refugees and evacuees were in Dresden? Yes. The Allies were well aware of this and aimed to exploit the existing strain on communication and administration in Dresden to cause chaos.

Was the aim of breaking German civilian morale by the attack on towns achieved? No. It was based on a false premise and failed to meet its objective of breaking civilian morale.

Was area bombing successful? No. It was the targeting of oil and railways that was the decisive factor in the strategic bombing campaign?

Was area bombing against the principles of the laws and customs of war recognized by the Allies? Yes. In its deliberate targeting of civilians it breached the principles and spirit of international law accepted at the time in the Hague Conventions, which the Allies were later to appeal to when bringing German war criminals to justice at Nuremberg.

Was area bombing the only option to prosecute the war against Germany that was available to Britain? No. Britain could have chosen to develop long-range fighters that would have helped protect bombers during day raids and have given Britain an opportunity to fight for air superiority over German territory. Instead Britain chose to devote its energies to the night time strategic bombing campaign.

Was Allied responsibility for the death toll at Dresden mitigated by the German failure to provide adequate civil defence measures? No. The timing of the second wave of the attack and the use of timed incendiary bombs was intended to both increase the damage caused by the first wave of bombers and to destroy the fire fighting services dealing with existing fires. Even if adequate shelters had been in place this would not have altered the intent of Bomber Command to destroy Dresden.

Was discrimination exercised by the Allies at Dresden? No. Area bombing cannot discriminate between innocent civilians and legitimately targeted individuals, or between residential and industrial or military property.

Was proportionality exercised by the Allies at Dresden? No. A three year campaign aimed at causing indiscriminate devastation and that resulted in the deaths of 393,000 to 625,000 civilians is not a proportionate response to the bombing of British towns by the Luftwaffe and the 44,000 British deaths that resulted from it.

Was Dresden, and by extension area bombing, a moral failure? Yes. The Allies departed from the moral principles they held in regard to attacking civilians in an absolute breach of the principles of jus in bello.

We must conclude that at Dresden the principle of ‘lesser evil’ had not just been breached, but entirely ignored. In 1940 Churchill described The Blitz as, “an act of mass terror against the British nation.”[141] If this was the case, how else can area bombing in general, and Dresden in particular, be judged but as an un-calibrated and disproportionate act of ‘mass terror’ waged against a civilian population?

Further Reading:

Addison, Paul, and Jeremy A. Crang, eds. Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden 1945. London: Pimlico, 2006.

United Kingdom. Air Ministry. Air Historical Branch (1). “The R.A.F. in the Bombing Offensive Against Germany: Volume VI: The Final Phase March 1944 – May 1945.” London, Air Ministry, n.d.

Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex; Regulations Concerning the Laws of Customs of War on Land, The Hague, October 18, 1907

G. Bergander. Dresden im Luftkreig: Vorgeschicte – Zerstörung – Folgen. 2nd ed. Munich, 1985.

Biddle, Tami Davis. “Dresden 1945: Reality, History and Memory.” The Journal of Military History 72, no. 2 (2008): 413-449.

Coates, A. J. The Ethics of War. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997.

Coppetiers, Bruno, and Nick Fotion, eds. Moral Constraints on War: Principles and Cases. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002

Davis, Richard G. Bombing the European Axis Powers: A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive 1939-1945. Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2006.

Friedrich Jörg. The Fire: The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945. Translated by Alison Brown. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Grayling, A. C. Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? London: Bloomsbury, 2006.

Guthrie, Charles, and Michael Quinlan. Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.

Arthur Harris. The Bomber Offensive. London: Collins, 1947.

Harris, Arthur T. Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945. London: Frank Cass, 1995.

Hohn, Uta. “The Bomber’s Baedeker – Target Book for Strategic Bombing in the Economic Warfare Against German Towns 1943-45.” GeoJournal 34, no. 2 (1994): 213-230.

Middlebrook, Martin, and Chris Everitt. The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945. London: Viking, 1985.

Moyes, Philip J. R. Bomber Squadrons of the R.A.F. and their Aircraft. London: MacDonald and Janes, 1964.

Overy, Richard. The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. London: Allen Lane, 2013.

Primoratz, Igor, ed. Terror from the Sky: The Bombing of German Cities in World War II. New York: Berghahn Books, 2010.

Taylor, Frederick. Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945. London: Bloomsbury, 2004.

The Hague Rules of Air Warfare, The Hague, December 1922 – February 1923

The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill. Volume 1, comp. by Charles Eade. London: Cassel & Co,, 1952.

The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill. Volume 2, comp. by Charles Eade. London: Cassel & Co, 1952.

Tustin, Joseph P. “Why Dresden Was Bombed: A Review of the Reasons and Reactions.” Historical Division, Office of Information Services, Headquarters, United States Air Forces in Europe, December 11, 1954.

Michael Walzer. Arguing About War. New York: Yale University Press, 2001.

United Kingdom. Parliament. Strength and Casualties of the Armed Forces and Auxiliary Services of the United Kingdom 1939-1945. Cmnd. 6832, 1946.

United Kingdom, Doctrine, Concepts, and Development Centre. British Defence Doctrine. JDP 0-01, 4th ed. Shrivenham: DCDC, 2013.

United Kingdom. Doctrine, Concepts, and Development Centre. UK Air and Space Power Doctrine. JDP 0-30. Shrivenham: DCDC, 2013.

United Nations General Assembley. “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terroris.,” A/68/389, September 18, 2013.

Webster, Charles, and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume II: Endeavour. London: HMSO, 1961.

Webster, Charles, and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume III: Victory Part 5. London: HMSO, 1961.

Webster, Charles, and Noble Frankland. The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV. London: HMSO, 1961.

[1] See Sebastian Cox, “The Dresden Raids: Why and How,” in Firestorm: The Bombing of Dresden, 1945, edited by Paul Addison and Jeremy A. Crang, 18-61 (London: Pimlico, 2006), for a detailed narrative of the raid on Dresden. The figures for aircraft numbers and bomb tonnage are from Cox. Accurate statistics for warfare are notoriously difficult to come by. Middlebrook and Everitt state figures of 796 Lancasters, 1,478 tons of HE and 1,182 tons of incendiary bombs. The Air Historical Branch in their draft narrative claimed 772 attacking aircraft and a total tonnage of 2659.3 tons.
[2] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 54-55; Tami Davis Biddle, “Dresden 1945: Reality, History, and Memory,” Journal of Military History 72, no. 2 (2008): 432.
[3] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 57.
[4] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 57; Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Allen Lane, 2013), 395; Sönke Neitzel, “The City Under Attack,” in Addison and Crang, Firestorm, 74.
[5] Overy, The Bombing war, 395, states 25,000 killed; Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 424, states 25,000-35,000; Neitzel, “The City Under Attack, 75, states 24,000-40,000; and Jörg Friedrich, The Fire The Bombing of Germany, 1940-1945, translated by Alison Brown (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 310, states 40,000.
[6] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 424; Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 51; Overy, The Bombing war, 395; Neitzel, “The City Under Attack,” 75.
[7] Neitzel, “The City Under Attack,” 68-69.
[8] Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume III: Victory Part 5 (London: HMSO, 1961), 95.
[9] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 426; Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 20-25; Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 95-96.
[10] Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, “Strategic Bombing in Relation to the Present Russian Offensive,” January 25, 1945, CAB 81/127 TNA, quoted in Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 426. See also Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 20-25; Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 95-96.
[11] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 100-104.
[12] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 103.
[13] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 104.
[14] Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, “Strategic Bombing in Relation to the Present Russian Offensive,” January 25, 1945, CAB 81/127 TNA, quoted in Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 426
[15] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 424.
[16] Frederick Taylor, Dresden: Tuesday 13 February 1945 (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 223, 243, 280-81.
[17] Overy, The Bombing war, 391.
[18] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 425
[19] Overy, The Bombing war, 391.
[20] Joseph P. Tustin, “Why Dresden Was Bombed: A Review of the Reasons and Reactions,” Historical Division, Office of Information Services, Headquarters, United States Air Forces in Europe, December 11, 1954.
[21] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 57.
[22] CCAC, BUFT 3/51, “Strategic Bombing in Reaction to the Present Russian Offensive,” note by the Air Staff for CoS Meeting, 31 Jan 1945, 1, quoted in Overy, The Bombing war, 393.
[23] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 431; Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 20-25
[24] Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil’s Tinderbox (London: Souvenir Press, 1982), 69; Michael S. Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power: The Creation of Armageddon (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987), 260; John Terraine, The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 (London: 1985), 677.
[25] Overy, The Bombing war, 391.
[26] Overy, The Bombing war, 391; Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” states Dresden was 20th in the list. I have been unable to view the original which may be viewed at The National Archives, Kew, London – FO 837/1315. Uta Hohn, “The Bomber’s Baedeker – Target Book for Strategic Bombing in the Economic Warfare Against German Towns 1943-45,” GeoJournal 34, no. 2 (1994): 225, contains a copy of the relevant page and Dresden appears in 22nd place of the first 23 towns listed. Mannheim and Ludwigshafen appear on the same line, presumably ranked equal 5th in the list of major target cities.
[27] Uta Hohn, “The Bomber’s Baedeker – Target Book for Strategic Bombing in the Economic Warfare Against German Towns 1943-45,” GeoJournal 34, no. 2 (1994): 221.
[28] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 54-55.
[29] Taylor, Dresden, 149.
[30] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 424.
[31] Taylor, Dresden, 149.
[32] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,“ 54.
[33] Taylor, Dresden, 150.
[34] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 54.
[35] Taylor, Dresden, 153.
[36] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 55.
[37] Taylor, Dresden, 161.
[38] Overy, The Bombing war, 397.
[39] Overy, The Bombing war, 327.
[40] Overy, The Bombing war, 477.
[41] Overy, The Bombing war, 394.
[42] Richard Overy, Bomber Command 1939-45 (London: Harper Collins, 1961), 114.
[43] Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume II Endeavour, Part 4 (London: HMSO, 1961), 235.
[44] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 414.
[45] Philip J. R. Moyes, Bomber Squadrons of the R.A.F. and their Aircraft (London: MacDonald and Janes, 1964), 326.
[46] For consistency all figures here are taken from the Air Historical Branch Draft Narrative. As mentioned in note 1 accurate statistics are hard to come by and other totals will be found in other sources.
[47] G. Bergander, Dresden im Luftkreig: Vorgeschicte – Zerstörung – Folgen, 2nd ed., (Munich, 1985), 412.
[48] For example David Irving, The Destruction of Dresden (London: 1963), 138. A figure recently repeated by Stephen A. Garrett, “The Bombing Campaign: The RAF,” in From the Sky: The Bombing of German Cities in World War II, ed. by Igor Primoratz (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), 19.
[49] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 414; Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 30, and note 36.
[50] Air Historical Branch Draft Narrative
[51] Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book, 1939-1945 (London: Viking, 1985), 663.
[52] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 659.
[53] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 664.
[54] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 669.
[55] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 413-414.
[56] Middlebrook and Everitt, The Bomber Command War Diaries, 644-672.
[57] Arthur Harris quoted in A. C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities: Was the Allied Bombing of Civilians in WWII a Necessity or a Crime? (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 119.
[58] Arthur T. Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1995), 7.
[59] Overy, The Bombing war, 328.
[60] Overy, The Bombing war, 328.
[61] Overy, The Bombing war, 329.
[62] United States, “Area Studies Division Report No. 31,” Strategic Bombing Survey (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1945), 4.
[63] Taylor, Dresden, 378.
[64] Neitzel, “The City Under Attack,” 76-77.
[65] Arthur Harris, Bomber Offensive (London: Collins, 1947), 74-75.
[66] Richard G Davis, Bombing the European Axis Powers: A Historical Digest of the Combined Bomber Offensive 1939-1945 (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2006), 593-595; Hew Strachan, “Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945,” in Addison and Crang, Firestorm, 17.
[67] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 95.
[68] Stephen A. Garrett, “The Bombing Campaign: The RAF,” 36.
[69] Overy, The Bombing war, 404.
[70] Strachan, “Strategic Bombing and the Question of Civilian Casualties up to 1945,” 15; Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume III, 288.
[71] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 79.
[72] Overy, The Bombing war, 633.
[73] Winston Churchill, “Minute to General Ismay and Air Marshal Portal,” March 28, 1945, quoted in Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 112.
[74] Taylor, Dresden, 377-379.
[75] Winston Churchill, “Minute to General Ismay and Air Marshal Portal,” April 1, 1945, quoted in Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945, 117.
[76] The Hague Rules of Air Warfare, The Hague, December 1922 – February 1923.
[77] John Slessor, The Central Blue (London: Cassell & Co., 1956), 213.
[78] HC Deb 14 September 1939 vol 351 cc750-1
[79] Charles Webster and Noble Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV (London: HMSO, 1961), 71-76
[80] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV, 81.
[81] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV, 77.
[82] Calvocoressi and Wint, Total War (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), 514.
[83] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV, 83
[84] Webster and Frankland, The Strategic Air Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945: Volume IV, 81, 83.
[85] The President of the United States to the Governments of France, Germany, Italy, Poland, and His Britannic Majesty, September 1, 1939.
[86] Garrett, “The Bombing Campaign: The RAF,” 26.
[87] Webster and Frankland Volume IV, 205
[88] Garrett, “The Bombing Campaign: The RAF,” 27-28; Christopher C. Harmon “Are We Beasts?”: Churchill and the Moral Question of World War II Area Bombing, Newport Paper No. 1 (Newport, RI: Center for Naval Warfare Studies, 1991), 17.
[89] Harmon “Are We Beasts? 15.
[90] Webster and Frankland, SAOG, Volume II, 144.
[91] Grayling, Among the Dead Cities
[92] Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan, Just War: The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare (London: Bloomsbury), 15.
[93] Overy, The Bombing war, 477.
[94] Donald Bloxham, “Dresden as a War Crime,” in Addison and Crang, Firestorm, 199-200.
[95] Harmon “Are We Beasts? Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (
[96] Michael Walzer, Arguing About War (New York: Yale University Press, 2001),
[97] Primoratz, “Can the Bombing be Morally Justified?” in From the Sky, 124.
[98] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 68.
[99] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 95.
[100] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 166.
[101] Davis, Bombing the European Axis Powers, 575-576
[102] “Letter to Sir Norman Bottomley, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, from Sir Arthur Harris.” AIR 20/2013, March 29, 1945, reproduced in Max Hastings, Bomber Command (London: Michael Joseph, 1979), 368-370.
[103] Arthur Harris, The Bomber Offensive (London: Collins, 1947), 176.
[104] Bloxham, “Dresden as a War Crime,” 203; Guy Van Damme and Nick Fotion, “Proportionality,” in Moral Constraints on War: Principles and Cases, ed. By Bruno Coppetiers and Nick Fotion (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002), 133.
[105] United Kingdom, Parliament, Strength and Casualties of the Armed Forces and Auxiliary Services of the United Kingdom 1939-1945, Cmnd. 6832, 1946 , 8, 10.
[106] Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, 249.
[107] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, figures 20-30, facing pages 90 and 91.
[108] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, Table 16: Comparison of Actual Output of Particular Classes of Armaments in Germany and the United Kingdom, 1940-44, 72.
[109] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 133 and passim;
[110] Sebastian Cox, “Introduction,” in ACM Arthur T. Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 (October, 1945), xxi.
[111] ACM Arthur T. Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 (October, 1945), 37.
[112] Daily Express, June 1, 1942, quoted in Mark Connelly, “The British Debate,” in Primoratz, Terror from the Sky, 191.
[113] Winston Churchill, speech, July 14, 1941, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 2, comp. By Charles Eade (London: Cassel & Co,, 1952), 25.
[114] Winston Churchill, Speech, broadcast September 11, 1940, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1, comp. By Charles Eade (London: Cassel & Co,, 1952), 256.
[115] Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, October 8, 1940, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1, 268.
[116] Winston Churchill, Speech, July 14, 1941, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 2, 26.
[117] Primoratz, “Can the Bombing be Morally Justified?” 119.
[118] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 56.
[119] Winston Churchill, Speech to a Conference of Dominion High Commissioners and Allied Countries’ Ministers, St James’s Palace, London, June 12, 1941, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1, 446.
[120] Calvocoressi and Wint, Total War, 514.
[121] Overy, The Bombing War, 633.
[122] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 429.
[123] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 59.
[124] Biddle, “Dresden 1945,” 449.
[125] Cox, ‘The Dresden Raids,” 60.
[126] Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex; Regulations Concerning the Laws of Customs of War on Land, The Hague, October 18, 1907.
[127] Neitzel, “The City Under Attack,” 74.
[128] Taylor, Dresden, 356-357.
[129] The Hague Rules of Air Warfare, The Hague, December 1922 – February 1923, Article XXV.
[130] Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and its Annex; Regulations Concerning the Laws of Customs of War on Land, The Hague, October 18, 1907.
[131] Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 1-6.
[132] See Table VI.-Density at the Aiming Point-German Cities, in Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945, 89-90, for estimates of the tonnage dropped per square mile in 1943, and 1944-45.
[133] Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945, 107-108.
[134] Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945, 75-83.
[135] Harris, Despatch on War Operations: 23rd February 1942 to 8th May 1945, 82-83.
[136] Cox, “The Dresden Raids,” 30-31.
[137] All figures from the Report of the British Bombing Survey Unit, The Strategic Air War Against Germany, 1939-1945, 56.
[138] United Kingdom, Doctrine, Concepts, and Development Centre. UK Air and Space Power Doctrine, JDP 0-30 (Shrivenham: DCDC, 2013), paras 213-215.
[139] United Kingdom, Doctrine, Concepts, and Development Centre. British Defence Doctrine, JDP 0-01, 4th ed (Shrivenham: DCDC, 2013), iv.
[140] United Nations General Assembley, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotio and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism,” A/68/389, September 18, 2013, 8/24.
[141] Winston Churchill, Speech to the House of Commons, October 8, 1940, The War Speeches of the Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill, Volume 1, 271.

8 comments on “The Bombing of Dresden: Morality and Air Power in World War Two

  1. Pingback: Feuersturm: Hamburg under the bombs, 1943 | Europeenses

  2. Mark Petersen
    March 12, 2015

    It is hard to imagine the thought process that went into the targeting of Dresden for firebombing so late in the war. Harris clearly thought that it was a success however Germany by this stage was on its knees and apart from the rail connection appeared to be of limited strategic value to the final push to Berlin.

    If the target was the rail junction and munitions factories as stated by Arthur Harris then the incendiary ordinance dropped by the allies appeared out of place.

    4 Group of bomber command targeted the Bohlen oil refinery, some 60 km from Dresden, on the same night as the start of the Dresden bombing with 360 Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers seemingly being used to divert defensive air cover from Dresden. My father was a Halifax pilot with 102 Squadron on the group that attacked the Bohlen oil refinery. His recollection of Dresden from the Birds eye view they had was that is was lit up like daylight by the fire storm, and that they encountered very little air cover resistance at Bohlen.


    • aaroncripps
      March 14, 2015

      Mark, thank you for sharing a part of your family history here. While we can empathise with the experience of men like your father we can never truly understand what it must have been like to participate in the horrors of the Second World War. My opinion is that Dresden was the culmination of a process in which those responsible for planning strategy and operations experienced a gradual shift in perception over time. War weariness, the desire to bring the conflict to an end, frustration over slow progress, and a perhaps inevitable hardening of attitudes all played their part in allowing people to justify a series of step changes in which moral considerations were slowly eroded. To me Dresden is a reminder that whenever we are forced to go to war we must ensure that we meet and maintain the highest ethical standards.


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  4. Gerald
    August 28, 2015

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


    • aaroncripps
      September 2, 2015

      Thanks Gerald, glad you enjoyed it.


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  6. Pingback: OPINIONISTA: Conflict in Palestine: Injustice, disproportionality and illegal conduct – My Blog

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