The Dresden Bombing Raids

Posted on Wednesday 13th February 2013


The most infamous of Bomber Command raids in the eyes of some post-war commentators was the attack on Dresden as part of Operation Thunderclap. On the night of 13/14 February the Command sent two waves of bombers, three hours apart, to attack Dresden. The first wave consisted of 244 Lancasters from No 5 Group and although the accuracy of the attack was hampered by cloud the city was hit. The second wave comprised over 500 bombers and a further 1,800 tons of bombs were dropped in clear weather. Six Lancasters failed to return but Dresden was devastated and as the city's population had been boosted by refugees there was a heavy loss of life.
With fewer aircrew needed as loss rates reduced and the end of the war in sight, there was a gradual reduction in Bomber Command’s training organisation from late 1944. After January 1945 this run-down affected other various elements and so this month can be considered the peak of Bomber Command in terms of its wartime size. The New Year opened with oil and transportation still the main priorities but a new offensive against certain German cities, especially when combined with the Russian advance into Germany, might prove decisive in causing a final collapse of Nazi control.
The final months of the war saw the bombers ranging over Germany, flying an increasing number of daylight raids as the German defences finally began to collapse. The four cities considered suitable were Berlin, Chemnitz, Dresden and Leipzig. Berlin, however, was removed from the list following a Joint Intelligence Committee assessment of 25 January: ‘The devastation of Berlin, even if it were to coincide with the Russian advance, would be unlikely to break down the German will to continue the war.’ The remaining three cities were to be attacked under Operation Thunderclap.
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Bombing-up. Under the great bomb-doors is a four-thousand pound bomb with other heavy bombs and incendiaries on the train. Philip Jarrett.

The attack on Dresden, which took place on 13/14 February, has been the subject of much debate and more than any other event in six years of war has been cited in some quarters as proof of the barbaric nature of the bomber war. The Thunderclap attacks were intended as joint missions, the USAAF was due to attack Dresden on 13 February but because of weather the attack was delayed until the following day. A force of 800 RAF bombers delivered a devastating attack that wrecked Dresden, along with its industry and communications (and it was a key transport node for the Eastern Front) – and caused at least 50,000 civilian casualties.
Frank Musgrove entered the war in 1941 and flew as a Lancaster Navigator on the bombing raid on Dresden in February 1945.
By the end of 1944 I had almost completed my tour. For me this was a time of particular tension. During the first twenty or so missions you live in the present, you don’t look far ahead. Completing a tour seems a long way away, and you may not actually get there. But, somewhat surprised, you find that you have completed twenty-four or twenty-five missions. You take stock: ‘I’ve got this far and might after all make it.’ But stories of crews who failed to return from their twenty-eighth, twenty-ninth or thirtieth mission abounded in Bomber Command. They were told with some relish. Experience was no protection. It seemed somehow to add to the risk.
The year 1945 did not begin auspiciously for the Allied war effort in Europe. For the bomber squadrons there was no sense of imminent victory, only of crisis. The mood had soured after the defeat of our airborne army at Arnhem in the previous September; and the German Ardennes offensive in December, when the Allies were all but pushed back into the sea, showed how precariously our forward positions were held. The British Army was making slow progress and had not yet crossed the Rhine – and in fact would not do so until 25 March. The attacks on London and southern England by V1 rockets and pilotless flying bombs were causing grave concern: 9,000 Londoners were killed in a campaign of cowardice involving no risk whatsoever to German lives. Winston Churchill was desperate and even considered the use of poison gas (‘mainly mustard’) as the only effective retaliation; or the systematic destruction of twelve named German cities by Bomber Command. Victory in the west seemed to be receding. At a meeting of the War Cabinet on 12 January it was estimated that the war in Europe could not be concluded until at least December 1945.

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With a wing span of 102 feet, the Lancaster could carry a cargo of bombs weighing 22,000 pounds – a payload that was far heavier than that carried by any other Allied aircraft in the European theatre during World War II.

The New Year began ominously for Bomber Command. On 5 January an attack was made on Hanover with thirty-one heavy bombers lost, some five per cent of the total force. On 14 January a long-range attack on oil refineries near Leipzig saw the loss of ten more aircraft. In the first three months of 1945, 521 heavy bombers were lost, more than in the first three months of 1943 (376 lost), although fewer than in 1944 (766), which saw the climax of the Berlin raids. My crew did not appear on the Battle Order until 13 February. The target that night was Dresden.
A steadily rising proportion of bombing missions was being flown against distant targets in eastern Germany, involving a flying time of around nine or ten hours. Oil refineries in particular were coming under attack, often with grievous aircrew losses. This was four years after an Air Ministry directive had been sent to Sir Richard Peirse, the then Chief of Bomber Command, highlighting the overriding importance of oil plants in his bombing campaign. More than a dozen sites were listed including Magdeburg and Gelsenkirchen, but some were near the far-eastern frontier of Germany, including Leuna, Pölitz, Böhlen and Lutzkendorf. Peirse’s campaign against the oil targets achieved nothing and was abandoned after a month. Four years later the eastern oil plants had assumed a still greater significance: they were vital to Germany’s defence against the Russian advance. Bomber Command turned to these targets again but now with telling effect, although the bomber losses were high. An attack on refineries near Stettin in February (when twelve Lancasters were lost) was counted as a particularly notable success.
Leuna was attacked on 14 January with ten Lancasters lost; Pölitz was attacked on 8 February with twelve lost; Rositz near Leipzig was attacked on 14 February when four were lost; Böhlen near Dresden was the target on 20 March for the loss of nine; but eighteen Lancasters were lost (7.4 per cent of the force) in an attack on Lutzkendorf on 4 April. Regensburg, attacked on 20 April, was the most distant of these targets. Sixty Lancasters were lost attacking these six ‘far-eastern’ oil targets in the early months of 1945.
The eastern front was claiming the lives of a steeply rising number of England’s finest young men. Operation Thunderclap had been launched by the RAF in January specifically to help the Russian advance into eastern Germany. On 4 February, at the Yalta Conference of the Allied leaders, Stalin asked for attacks of this kind to be intensified. As a direct consequence, the Air Ministry, with Churchill’s knowledge and encouragement, asked Bomber Command to carry out heavy raids on Leipzig, Chemnitz and Dresden. The attack on Dresden was part of a wider plan instigated by the very highest authority.
On the morning of 13 February my crew was on the Battle Order. This would be my last operational flight. I was greatly relieved: now, one way or another, I would finish my tour. The usual speculation about the possible target was rife throughout the day. Clearly it was a ‘far-eastern’ target: there was a heavy fuel load and a light bomb load with a large component of incendiaries. Perhaps it would be Nuremburg, Leipzig or even Berlin. No one even suggested Dresden.

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Above and below: The awful consequences of the bombing campaign. Scorched and charred human remains of German citizens, once loyal supporters of the Nazi war machine, are gathered for burial.

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However, at 6 o’clock when the crews assembled for the main briefing, no one was particularly surprised. Certainly no one was shocked when the target was at last revealed. I had flown bombing missions to Essen, Dortmund, Cologne and Nuremburg: Dresden was just another major industrial city scheduled for attack, with the added urgency that it was now, apparently, impeding the Red Army’s advance. The briefing officer made it crystal clear that this attack was one that the Russians particularly wanted; we understood that Dresden was an important communication centre and assembly point for German troops destined for a crucial sector of the eastern front. No one walked out and refused to go. I am quite sure that it never occurred to anyone among these hundred well educated men to do so. There was no muttering among crews about the impropriety of the target as we collected our escape kits and parachutes and climbed into the bus that took us out to the Lancasters. The ground crews knew where we were going: they didn’t refuse to prepare the Lancasters for their mission. In any event they’d be back in the NAAFI; they wouldn’t be carrying the bombs.
I knew that Dresden was famous for china, just as I knew that my home town, Nottingham, was famous for lace. But I did not connect these facts. I did not think: ‘This will repay the bombing of the lace market.’ That was utterly irrelevant. The Germans were the enemy, still a formidable and quite ruthless foe; we were in the business of defeating Hitler’s Reich.
My principal concern on 13 February was the distance. I knew it would be a clear night. A great air armada would rise out of eastern England and fly to the distant extremities of Germany: a great feat of arms; a ten-hour battle in the skies; no less remarkable for being almost routine. I was proud to be part of it. I thought: ‘We shall lose twenty Lancasters tonight.’ I felt I had been dealt a rather poor hand for the last flight of my tour. (In the event we lost only nine Lancasters.)
We took off from Norfolk at ten minutes to ten. It was nearly ten hours later that we got back, exhausted, but relieved, to a breakfast of ham and eggs.
The flight to Dresden through a cloudless night went surprisingly well. While we were in Gee range I obtained fixes every twenty minutes and calculated the wind. It was reassuringly constant: 50 mph from 300 degrees at 20,000 feet. The meteorological forecast had not indicated any frontal system through which we would fly, with consequent major changes in wind speed and direction. I had changed course on my ETA at turning points with confidence in the calculations I had made. Some four hours later, exactly on cue, we saw a blazing target ahead, marked with the Path Finders’ flares, now clearly under heavy attack alongside the silver ribbon of the Elbe.
The defences were light. Searchlights were few, groping and uncertain; flak appeared to be erratic. There was no indication of fighter activity. The Master Bomber directed the Lancasters to attack new clusters of flares. The ground 20,000 feet below was spectacular, vivid with explosions – a tremendous and terrible pyrotechnic display. We made our bombing run steadily, uneventfully, and turned thankfully for home. The rear-gunner sat facing the firestorm and could see it clearly for the next two hours.
We landed safely in Norfolk. My feelings were of immense relief. Nearly four years after my interview with a young RAF officer at my Nottingham grammar school my personal mission was now complete. I had finished my tour. It had been an arduous and dangerous four years, full of excitement and fear. I had not performed particularly well, but I had done it. I had survived. With hindsight and in the full glare of history Dresden was hardly the Holy Grail, but for me, a pilgrimage, indeed a crusade, was complete.
What do I think now, nearly sixty years on? I have not the slightest regret for having flown to Dresden on that clear night in February 1945, hardly daring to hope that I would return. But I am filled with bitterness at the loss of more than 700 of England’s finest young men in the ‘far-eastern’ bombing campaign of which Dresden was merely a part. It extended for three months from mid-January to mid-April 1945. This was Churchillian gesture-politics at its worst: a futile attempt to rebut Stalin’s constant contemptuous charge that the English people were cowards, leaving the brunt of the fighting and the greatest sacrifice to the Soviet Union. More than 700 men were sacrificed to make a point. Apart from the six oil targets that Bomber Command attacked for the loss of sixty aircraft and 420 men, four non-oil targets were attacked for the loss of fifty-one aircraft and 357 men. Chemnitz was attacked twice, with thirty-four aircraft lost; an attack on Leipzig on 10 April by seventy bombers resulted in a loss of ten per cent. In the three months of the air battle of eastern Europe we lost 780 men and facilitated the Red Army’s savage advance to Berlin.
This is my regret about Dresden: that it helped the Russians establish themselves deep inside Europe with appalling ferocity, and prevented the very balance of power that we had fought to restore.
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Frank Musgrove muses with his pipe. It took him over half a century to rationalise the memories of his wartime service that you read between these pages.

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Frank Musgrove in flying kit during early 1944.

"My crew did not appear on the Battle Order until 13 February. The target that night was Dresden."

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Dresden 13/14 February 1945.

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Explosions light the night sky over Germany in 1944. Philip Jarrett

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Germans scouring bomb damaged streets in search of dead loved ones, many of which would never be identified.

"The flight to Dresden through a cloudless night went surprisingly well... The defences were light. Searchlights were few, groping and uncertain; flak appeared to be erratic. There was no indication of fighter activity. The Master Bomber directed the Lancasters to attack new clusters of flares. The ground 20,000 feet below was spectacular, vivid with explosions – a tremendous and terrible pyrotechnic display."

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A bomb-torn Dresden street, the aftermath of the raid.

"What do I think now, nearly 60 years on? I have not the slightest regret for having flown to Dresden on that clear night in February 1945, hardly daring to hope that I would return. But I am filled with bitterness at the loss of more than 700 of England's finest young men in the 'far-eastern' bombing campaign of which Dresden was merely a part... This is my regret about Dresden: that it helped the Russians establish themselves deep inside Europe with appalling ferocity, and prevented the very balance of power that we had fought to restore."

Further Reading


Dresden and the Heavy Bombers
(Hardback - 128 pages)
ISBN: 9781844151943

by Frank Musgrove
Only £16.99

This is the story of a young man's entry into the war in 1941 and culminates in his flying on the bombing raid to Dresden in February 1945. This is not a gung-ho account of flying with Bomber Command but neither is it a breast-beating avowal of guilt. These memoirs take the form of a basic narrative of the author's RAF career and pay particular attention to fear, morale and, as the author explains, the myth of leadership. Several raids are described in detail and illustrate the variety of experience,…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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