August 29, 2008

It is oft repeated that Churchill “ordered” the firebombing of Dresden as a “vicious payback” for the German bombing of Coventry (which Churchill is often accused of allowing to burn rather than reveal his access to the German codes -see FH 35). Who’s right about Dresden? Before we get into that, let us remember that there was a war on, and who the enemy was. Had he the means, Hitler would cheerfully have flattened London and everyone in it.

Apropos Dresden, we referred to Dr. Chris Harmon, a CC academic adviser and professor at the Marine Corps University, Quantico, Virginia, author of the 1991 monograph “Are We Beasts?” Churchill on the Moral Question of World War II “Area Bombing.” The Naval War College Press in Newport, Rhode Island, offers free copies. 

Call Pelham Boyer at (401) 841-4552, or email [email protected].  You can also download and print a PDF version by clicking here.

Dr. Harmon writes: “Since writing Are We Beasts? I’ve had a chance to read a few new things on the bombing, and much more on the war. And for what it’s worth, I’ve never been told there’s anything wrong with what I’ve published. So I’ll summarize what I know.

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“Churchill did not think well of area bombing but began to believe it could be a grim necessity after (1) he watched devastating German air attacks on Warsaw, Rotterdam, and other places full of noncombatants; and (2) he could see precious few ideas for hitting back. In the ever lengthening build-up to Normandy, the bomber offensive was about the best he had to hurt the Germans and their industrial war effort. Later, when he saw France liberated, Germany’s defensive lines being pierced, and the war being won, he quickly lost taste for it.

“Churchill’s head of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Harris, seemed to think German morale might still be broken by bombing, but Churchill rebuked him after Dresden, and again, just as strongly for bombing Potsdam shortly thereafter. His mind had already turned to how the Allies would govern and occupy Germany; the time for destroying it was passing.

“Harris had none of Churchill’s moral qualms about the strategic bombing campaign, or if he did, he hid them well. He created a list of some fifty major target cities, usually selected for their size, war production, or critical location on transportation routes. Harris was grimly working through the list, complaining when the Combined Chiefs ‘distracted’ him with special targets related to ground campaigns or special interests like oil or U-boat pens.

“Dresden was on another list at Bomber Command – a short list of early 1945 targets that should be flattened to aid the Russian offensive. Churchill had frequently pressed Harris to use his bombers to aid the Russians, but they never talked about Dresden particularly, to my knowledge. It was one of several towns at the right time and place whose bombing would help the Red Army’s advance in that sector. Also, John Colville’s memoirs record, there had been a report that Axis armor was moving through the town. In short, Dresden was not a vengeance target, but a military one, and one more ‘built up area’ that was to be destroyed like the others in Germany.”

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