What is a war crime? Reflections on the anniversary of the bombings of Dresden in 1945 by RAF and US bombers

A couple of years ago at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) North in Manchester an exhibition showcased the British bomber pilots of World War II. The 2006 exhibition, entitled Against the Odds: the Story of Bomber – Command in the Second World War was basically a celebration of those ‘heroic’ bomber pilots who made piles of rubble out of major German cities. Visitors got an intimate sense of how these aircraft crews felt, how they missed their families, how they wanted to serve their country in the name of freedom. The main ‘critical’ reflection was on the future well-being of the pilots, asking questions like whether any nation has the right to make its young men the instruments of such a policy of devastation on a grand scale.

Such concerns were then brushed aside with perhaps naïve but none-the-less touching letters back home, like the one by Flying Officer Stephen Roxburgh to his new-born nephew in which he writes: ‘I am doing all I can…to bring about a condition which will cause tyranny and oppression to leave this world, so that you and your future friends and playmates may never know what those words mean.’ All in the clear then, the bombers were on the right side not only of history but also of morality. Did the bombing of cities like Dresden not shorten the war (historically contested but who cares), as did the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

When I saw this exhibition at the time I was shocked by the lack of any consideration for those who were being bombed, very often civilians, the women and children so often invoked these days when wanting to demonstrate the barbarity of unsavoury governments, like the Assad-regime in Syria. What I found even more disturbing was the fact that this one-sided celebration of barbaric acts of destruction was mirrored in the comments space at IWM North, were hundreds of post-it notes alluded to the braveness of these pilots who committed heroic deeds with often not-state-of-the-art planes. Not a single note spared a thought for the victims of those bombs.

These days we have seen the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, a prime symbol for the indiscriminate bombing of civilian cities with little strategic relevance to the wider war effort or where those strategic sites were in fact spared by the bombings (but many other less high-profile cities saw a similar fate). Between 13 and 15 February 1945, more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and other incendiary devices were dropped on Dresden, the majority by British RAF Lancaster bombers, others by the US Army Air Force. The resulting firestorm destroyed large junks of the city centre and an estimated 25.000 people, the majority civilians, were killed. In the light of this anniversary the discussion of whether these bombings actually constituted a war-crime has come to the fore again, not least because Dresden was also known to be home to thousands of refugees who had fled the advance of Soviet troops from the East.

On one side of this debate are people like Victor Gregg, a soldier from the 10th British Parachute Regiment who had been captured in Arnhem in 1944 and as a prisoner of war had been sent to work in Dresden. He had been caught repeatedly trying to escape and was lined up for execution. The bombing, which he survived with a lot of luck, thus saved his life. Nevertheless, he is strongly convinced the bombing was a war crime. On the other side are those who subscribe(d) to the narrative that the aim to end the war sooner rather than later justified any means, some of whom gave the orders for the bombings and are celebrated for doing so to this day by too many (we now know that even people in the military command had doubts about those orders).

Whatever one’s own views are in this respect, this anniversary stands as a symbol for how democracies built on the respect of human rights did not shield away from deliberately using civilians as targets and unleashing devastation in order to achieve a seemingly just cause. This should make as pause for a moment when we look at today’s manning-fold conflicts and wars, as what a just cause may be might not be as clear-cut as we think. And celebrating those who bring destruction unqualified as heroes is bound to lay the seed for further devastation, and for an understanding of history that too easily falls into the trap of good versus evil.

Background Sources:

One of the most fitting ways to remember Dresden is perhaps the photographic series by Jean Gallup who digitally merged pictures of Dresden after the bombing with contemporary photographs, see:


Victor Gregg published an account of his experiences: Dresden. A Survivor’s Story, Bloomsbury Publishing, http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/dresden-9781448211456/

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