The revisionist narrative on Dresden goes something like this: the city had little, if any, value as a military target; it was choked with civilians fleeing the advancing Red Army, and along with its human toll, the raid also destroyed countless architectural and cultural treasures in a city described as "Florence on the Elbe."
Military planners first considered a raid on Dresden--and other cities in eastern Germany--in the summer of 1944. While those plans were subsequently abandoned, the British officials began re-examining the proposal in early 1945. With Russian forces advancing toward Berlin, the western allies believed that a bomber campaign against selected cities might aid the ground offensive, sowing confusion among German defenders and limiting their reinforcement from the west.
Historical records indicate that Dresden emerged on the target list in January 1945, and remained there as planning and coordination moved forward. At the time, the city was the seventh-largest in Germany, and according to RAF records, the largest "unbombed," built-up area left in the Third Reich. Allied intelligence tallied at least 127 military factories and complexes in Dresden, and the city was home to an important rail junction and rail yards.
Dresden's status as a railway center underscored its potential military value. The city sat astride at least three major rail lines; an American pilot, being held as a POW in Dresden, reported "miles of rail cars," being used to move German military equipment and reinforcements to the eastern front. Dresden's sprawling rail yards became one of two primary targets for the raid.
The other aim point was the city center. Not only did that area contain rail junctions, it was also the hub of communications and administrative functions. Borrowing a page from the German Blitz of 1940, the British believed that destruction of the city center would not only create havoc within Dresden, but in surrounding areas as well, impacting the movement of refugees, and reducing the enemy's will to resist. Similar conditions existed in areas around Coventry after the infamous German bombing raid in 1940; almost five years later, RAF bomber crews hoped to replicate the feat by leveling the heart of Dresden.
More than 700 RAF bombers attacked the city on the night of 13-14 February 1945, and the U.S. Eighth Air Force hit Dresden the following day. While the tonnage of bombs dropped was lower than in other raids, ideal weather conditions--and the wooden construction of many buildings--helped create a firestorm that killed thousands. A lack of bomb shelters also contributed to the casualty totals.
But how many people actually died in the bombing of Dresden? A team of experts has now concluded that the allied raids killed no more than 25,000--a stunning total to be sure, but far less than the 135-200,000 who supposedly perished. That latter figure was accepted as accurate for years, but it has now been debunked by the research team, and by the work of British historian Fredrick Taylor.
Conducting his own, exhaustive review of German and Allied records, Mr. Taylor placed the death toll at between 25,000 and 40,000. Again, a tragedy, but not of the scope originally reported. For his efforts, Taylor received death threats from German Neo-Nazis, who liken the Dresden raid to an "aerial holocaust."
So where did that exaggerated total come from? According to historians Paul Addison and Jeremy Crang, official German reports on the bombing, issued in March 1945, put the number of recovered bodies at 20,204. Nazi propaganda officials, hoping to exploit the tragedy, simply added another "0" to the total, claiming the number of dead was 202,040.
While that number was demonstrably false, it proved to be highly persuasive as a propaganda tool. Press reports suggested that Dresden was a "terror raid," based (in part) on an off-hand comment by an RAF official. Within a few weeks, even Winston Churchill tried to distance himself from the bombing.
More than 60 years later, the best available information affirms that the bombing of Dresden was a tragedy--one of many inflicted amid the carnage of World War II. But Dresden suffered no more than other German cities that were bombed during the war. Additionally, there was sufficient military justification for the attack, as there was for raids on other German metropolises.
The emergence of more accurate casualty totals doesn't diminish the horror of Dresden, but it does place it in a correct historical context. It also reminds us that truth is often the first casualty of history, as it is in war.