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Did Britain commit a war crime in Dresden? A conversation

Sinclair McKay and A.N. Wilson on the 75th anniversary of the bombing raid

8 February 2020

9:00 AM

8 February 2020

9:00 AM


In February 1945, the Allies, led by Sir Arthur Harris and Bomber Command, destroyed the historic city of Dresden, killing 25,000, most of them civilians. For the 75th anniversary, Sinclair McKay, author of a recent book on the bombing raid, and A.N. Wilson discuss whether it should be regarded as a ‘war crime’.

SINCLAIR MCKAY It was an atrocity. But I hesitate about war crime because war crime is a legal term and not a moral one. It is a legally defined concept.
A.N. WILSON Certainly at one stage of 20th-century history it was a crime to deliberately kill non-combatants and civilians who weren’t in the line of fire for warfare.
MCKAY Indeed, but there are then a number of follow-on questions that come with the label war crime. Who would you accuse of having committed this crime? Who would be held most responsible? Who would stand trial at that tribunal?
WILSON One of the greatest columnists that The Spectator ever had was Auberon Waugh, who would say what a pity it was in 1945 when they had the Nuremberg Trials not to have put Churchill on trial and to have hanged him for this and the bombing of the other German cities.
MCKAY Well the other point that I was going to bring up about the term ‘war crime’ is that the people in Dresden feel uncomfortable that there was so much focus on their city and not other German cities that were bombarded horrifically as well. Every-where from Hamburg to Lübeck, from Essen to Hanover to Cologne, Magdeburg…
WILSON In Hamburg there were pregnant women running along on fire, getting into the canal which was on fire. The whole place was an inferno. Harris started with Lübeck and he chose that…
MCKAY He chose it in 1942 as a sort of laboratory for bombing. Lübeck had no military significance whatsoever. Harris wanted to know if it was possible to create a firestorm. He had very little time, rather like the Luftwaffe actually, for normal bombs and explosives. They wanted to create fire, that oldest, most terrible impulse of all…

WILSON There is this conversation that W.G. Sebald quotes at the end of his book in which he says the Germans are right to look at what the RAF and the US Air Force did in Germany but they must always remember what the ambitions of their leader were during the second world war. He quotes this conversation that took place in 1940 over the supper table in which Hitler says precisely what you’ve just said Harris said: ‘We don’t want ordinary bombardment, we must drop incendiary bombs.’ Goering had looked at a map of London and realised that 200 years ago, as he inaccurately said, there was the Great Fire of London, and London is so narrowly built that you could actually destroy the great capital of the British Empire in a couple of days with incendiary bombs. So that was their ambition. That doesn’t make our ambition better or worse.
MCKAY No, it doesn’t. Yet at the same time, for the Allies, the concern is to make the global crisis stop. What is the most effective way to make the enemy stop? We’re putting the focus on Harris and -Bomber Command but it’s not just him, it’s Archibald Sinclair, it’s Charles Portal…
WILSON Charles Portal is among those who would have been on trial — if it was a trial of justice at Nuremberg then those people would all have been on trial.
MCKAY But would they though?
WILSON I don’t know if they would all have been hanged, but they would definitely have been on trial. Harris came up with the classic Nuremberg defence for himself when this accusation was made against him, he was only obeying orders. He was obeying the will of Churchill and Portal.
MCKAY It has been argued by another historian that if we are looking for the people responsible specifically for the bombing of Dresden, you might as well put Clement Attlee in the dock as well, because he sat on the committee that approved Dresden as one of the targets.
WILSON And also, while we’re at it, one has to remember the habits of mind. If you talked to anybody who was old enough to have lived through the last year of the second world war, most people were honest enough to say that when the bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, they felt simple relief that the whole thing was now going to be over. Perfectly humane decent people in the West thought that. Likewise, the Harris argument that if you just reduced the German cities to ash and destroyed the German spirit this would hasten the end of the whole war, that was very widely believed in Britain.

MCKAY It was called ‘morale bombing’ for exactly that reason. You see some kind of switch flipping in 1941. Bomber Command has been carrying out raids, they have all been wildly ineffective and inaccurate. But there comes a point where Churchill’s very singular scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, came up with the phrase ‘de-housing’. That is so chillingly and starkly cynical, the idea that all we have to do is simply de-house the populace and then their morale will go and then they will collapse like ninepins. Harris comes in on a wave of that. It’s not that he creates this new psychopathic belligerence. And then we had the bombing of Lübeck in 1942 and then we have the day’s long bombing of Hamburg in 1943 in which some 37,000 people died.
WILSON All civilians, nearly all.
MCKAY It’s a figure that’s just too great to comprehend in any meaningful way. In that we see again this terrifying firestorm rising up into the sky, the very elements themselves being bent and twisted, the air turning inside out, lungs being scorched, organs being scrambled. It was altogether too terrible to contemplate.
WILSON You might say nobody should fly a Lancaster bomber over Germany and drop these terrible things without knowing what they were doing, but one of the things you bring out in the book is how the young boys, some of them little more than teenagers, who were doing these things — four out of five of whom were going to die — didn’t actually know what they were doing to any large extent. There had been a tremendous dislocation of awareness because the bombers flew so high up.
MCKAY Those who were dropping the bombs were 10,000 or 13,000 feet high.
WILSON They were consistently lied to. They were told that there had been intelligence coming from the Soviets that the Germans were getting military supplies passed from the centre of Dresden and that was why it was right even to bomb the Altstadt, the beautiful historical centre of Dresden, and that was just a complete lie.
MCKAY No, actually that wasn’t. Dresden did have military significance, it may not have been very much military significance, but it did have it. There was German troop movement going through Dresden and it was a very busy railway hub as well. On top of that, all the factories in the city which ringed the Altstadt, they were quite close in, they weren’t out in the suburbs. All these factories were devoted to war work, they were producing technical components, they were producing ammunition.
WILSON Was that known?
MCKAY Yes, it had been known since about 1942/3. There had been intelligence, there were maps of Dresden before 1945 showing the city as ringed zones and it shows where they think the main factories were.
WILSON But it’s not justification for fire-bombing tens of thousands of citizens.
MCKAY No, but here’s the other point I was going to make: obviously that is not a justification, but in terms again of military value, February 1945 was not the last time that Dresden was bombed. The Americans returned in March and in April. Now if anyone is saying this is a war crime because the town had no military significance, they have to then ask why did the Americans return to bomb it again? It wasn’t out of bloodlust or revenge or retribution, it was simply because they were targeting those railway marshalling yards and those factories. They were doing what they could to help the Red Army smash through. Also, I doubt it would have occurred to Harris, even in his most bloodlust-filled states, that they would have killed 25,000 -people in one night. Dresden came number four on a list of targets that he preferred because they were industrial military targets as far as he saw them — Magdeburg, Kemnitz, Leipzig came before Dresden as potential targets. So again, bringing it back to the label of war crime and intentionality, because a lot of people assume that Dresden had been targeted specifically as retribution because…
WILSON …because Canterbury had been bombed, Exeter had been bombed, we’d lost these beautiful medieval buildings and so forth. Thinking of your question ‘What is a crime?’, you include in your book very properly that the Dresden bombing was only months away from the moment when the bewildered Red Army discovered -Auschwitz.
MCKAY Yes, I find it extraordinary that the news of the discovery of Auschwitz somehow whispered its way back to the surviving Jewish population in Dresden. Even in war there was no secret. They knew.
WILSON Before then, when Auschwitz was still up and running, with the German military running it, there were people begging the US Air Force to use bombardment as a way of liberating it. But we are in a time of the awful atmosphere of the last 12 months of the second world war, in which there are people in a prison camp literally begging to be bombed because they think that will be a way of either ending the misery or liberating. I am not saying this is justification for the bombing of Dresden, but that’s the kind of atmosphere one’s in. It’s crazy.
MCKAY There comes a point I think around late 1944 where the shadow line of rationality is crossed. You always expect great organisations to make rational decisions, and I just think that kind of stops. There’s exhaustion and then on top of that there is the desperate impulse — how do you make them stop? How do you make your enemy stop? You can sort of see the psychology, can’t you? You just have to stamp harder and harder and harder.
WILSON You yourself have become so embroiled in it all that you yourself are doing crazy and — by ordinary human standards — utterly immoral things.
MCKAY Yes. I was very interested in the bomber crews. When you read their diaries you see that they weren’t cruel, they weren’t sadistic, they were intelligent, sensitive young men. You wouldn’t begin to say that any of those crews were war criminals: the bomb aimers, the flight navigators, the engineers.

WILSON No, I wouldn’t say that, of course. But I have known one or two people who flew in Bomber Command. They were kept isolated, even from other members of the RAF, and they didn’t have these conversations such as we’re having. One of them described an incident after the war. They’d landed in Germany and were -having a fag by the side of the road. A public school-educated army officer aged about 25 drove up in a Jeep and looked over and said, ‘Are you in Bomber Command? Are you responsible for all that?’, pointing to some smouldering ruin, and they said ‘Yes, sir’, terribly proud. He said, ‘You bastards!’ and drove off. It was the first inkling they’d ever had that anyone had a different view of bombing the German cities. He said the propaganda talks from Harris were wonderfully inspiring. They believed they were doing the work that we have both been talking about. There is the whole business, which is a very fascinating one in your book — and indeed in our lives up to this moment — of what do you do with a figure like Harris? There was a lot of questioning over whether he should be honoured at all, for example. I remember the Queen Mother, no less, going to St Clement Danes Church [in 1992] and unveiling a statue of Harris. For many people that was a step too far, knowing what we do know now.
MCKAY Is it just my imagination or is it perpetually covered in paint?
WILSON I’m sorry it’s not. In fact, I wish I could constantly pour slurry and paint over his head every single day of my life!
MCKAY I am fascinated by the psychology of Harris. Going through his private papers, what I found slightly unexpected is that he was so articulate and witty. Part of the enduring fascination of the horror of the story is duality, isn’t it? You see this duality in Arthur Harris, a man who is nicknamed ‘Butcher’ and yet at the same time is -capable of finer feeling. Then there is the duality that runs all the way through the city of Dresden too. The horrible fascination of how it was the most cosmopolitan, the most richly beautiful and exquisite in art, and open to all people. How did this fantastically civilised place so swiftly embrace Nazism?
WILSON There is a further deeper thing in your book even than that: namely that there is another person with a divided self, and that’s the reader. We all do have a mixture of feelings, precisely for the reason you said. The archive research you’ve done for the book is absolutely prodigious. You do get a sense of all these actual people, some of them people of prodigious brilliance and talent, and some of them what one could call ordinary people. There they all are and then there’s what’s going to happen to them: the inferno. One thing about the book too, it is a metaphor book. The world had gone mad by 1944/5. That’s what happens if you declare war, the fire gets out of control. We know now, we can’t have any doubts. After the first world war you might have had some doubts, but after the second world war you can’t have any doubts that if you start a war, it gets out of control, like a fire. Look at what Tony Blair did in Iraq, and that was just a small scale. By the end, you’re having schoolboy thoughts: ‘Shouldn’t we really all be pacifists?’ Discuss, answering on one side of the paper only! And your answer might well be: because there is a figure like Hitler and the Nazis, the answer must be no. So the awful question goes on and on.
MCKAY The awful question goes on because you then have to sit down and ask yourself, right, you’re faced with Hitler and the Nazis, what is your approach? It has been suggested that Harris had it in his mind to stamp on German civilisation because he saw German civilisation as the root of Nazism and if he didn’t stamp on it, it would simply start all over again. There is nothing in any record anywhere that suggests that that was remotely the case.
WILSON But gather ten or 20 British people in a room and start talking about this subject and you will find that eight out of ten will feel that there is something about the German soul which is inevitably going to end up with Hitler. In my view this is obvious twaddle.
MCKAY And very much in my view too. Freeman Dyson, the physicist, told this fascinating story about a post-war cocktail party he went to where the ethics of the bombing war were being discussed, and there was one rather smart lady there who said, ‘Obviously we had to bomb the babies, it was important to bomb the babies’, and he looked at her with incredulity and she said:  ‘Well, in 20 years those babies would have grown up to be Nazis.’
WILSON That is a very good example of what we’re talking about.
MCKAY But there is no evidence that Harris had enough idea of the culture to stamp on, I think. He associated Dresden with china and shepherdesses — he wouldn’t have known about the beautiful Baroque architecture. The hope was to wipe out morale and it very clearly did not do any such thing.
WILSON All the evidence is that it hardens morale.
MCKAY I can’t think of a single instance in history where the bombing of civilians has ever, ever worked. Again, Churchill could have understood this. One of the reasons given for the bombing of Dresden was that the regime would dissolve instantly once they’d seen the horror that had been inflicted. But it was Churchill himself who said, a couple of years previously: don’t begin to think you can anticipate what the reactions of the civilian population are going to be under this kind of bombing. He was absolutely right, and obviously he was drawing on British experience of the Blitz.
WILSON You see a kind of Mainwaring double-think: we are the plucky little people who can take it on the chin, we take our medicine like men, so if we’re bombed it makes us stronger, whereas the Germans are cowardly automatons.
MCKAY But again, we come back to rationality. I suppose you do find all sorts of different ways of rationalising it, but it just comes down to some awful ancient instinct. -Dresden was a vision of hell. If you go there now, it’s understood that Dresden is an emblem of the horrors of total war, like Hiroshima, like Nagasaki. But the people of Dresden are also very much focused on the idea of reconciliation, that this simply must never happen again. I was there last year on 13 February and the bell of the Kreuzkirche rings out at six o’clock and there is absolute silence in the old market square. Then there is a performance of Rudolf Mauersberger’s Dresden Requiem which was composed after the war to honour the 25,000 victims. When I listened to it, I had tears in my eyes. There was an old lady sitting next to me and somehow she divined that I was English. She turned to me and she said: ‘This is for Coventry too.’ Hear the full discussion between Sinclair McKay and A.N. Wilson on Spectator Radio.

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