Christopher Priest

Was Dresden a war crime?

Sinclair McKay has written a definitive study of a ruthless bombing campaign that killed thousands

The literature of second world war bombing campaigns is surprisingly extensive. The books written in Britain largely focus on the night sorties by RAF Bomber Command, but the equally destructive second world war campaigns by the US 8th Air Force (daylight raids on Germany) and the Luftwaffe (the Netherlands, the Blitz on the UK) are covered too. There is little or no equivalent literature from Germany, although in recent years there have been several deeply researched books by German authors about the destruction of their cities.

The RAF books take all forms. There are authoritative personal histories (pilots, air chiefs, politicians), as well as vernacular accounts (WAAFs, ground crew, rear gunners). There are squadron histories. Bio-graphies of notables like Gibson, Cheshire, Bennett. There are several magisterial histories by, for example Max Hastings, Richard Overy, Denis Richards, Frankland/Webster. The story of the Dambusters’ raid in 1943 has a small library of its own.

Dropping bombs on civilians clearly provokes deep and complicated emotions, and a felt need to explain or justify. The sheer number of books bears witness to this.

One of the most interesting series is by Martin Middlebrook, who writes about Allied air attacks on individual cities, including Nuremberg, Hamburg, Berlin and the German rocket base on Peenemünde Island. Middlebrook draws on personal accounts by participants, witnesses and survivors from both sides and from as many different kinds of involvement as possible: flight and ground crew, anti-aircraft gunners, radar operators, controllers, air raid wardens, night fighter pilots, civilians. The result is a feeling of wholeness, a deep perspective on everything surviving participants did and suffered and endured, as well as what the aircrew went through and what the raids might or might not have achieved.

Now in the spirit of the Middlebrook accounts comes this most comprehensive, revealing and moving book of them all, Sinclair McKay’s Dresden: The Fire and the Darkness.

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