Among revisionist historians, few events have received more attention than the Allied bombing of Dresden in February 1945.
Today, missions flown against the German city by the U.S. Eighth Air Force and RAF Bomber Command are widely described as unnecessary; some historians even refer to them as “war crimes.” From the revisionist perspective, raids on Dresden accomplished nothing of military value, but inflicted horrific casualties on civilians. By most estimates, the air raids killed thousands in a city choked with refugees, and some writers claim that the death toll reached 200,000.
As we noted two years ago, the revisionist version of what happened at Dresden now dominates historical writing on the subject. Of the four books on that subject that have been published in recent years, only one finds justification for the raid. The rest describe the raids as an abomination, and the three authors concur with the “war crime” assessment.
Now, you can add another name to that list. In a new article for Canada’s National Post, Randall Hansen, a professor at the University of Toronto arrives at the same conclusion. Writing on the 64th anniversary of the Dresden raids, Hansen describes them as war crimes and takes the claim a step further, indicting the entire strategic bombing campaign against Germany during World War II:
All across Germany from 1942, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force tried to win the war by destroying cities and killing civilians. Let there be no mistake: The aim was to obliterate as many cities and kill as many people as possible, and to do so until the Germans capitulated. Today, we would unequivocally describe such a strategy as a war crime. At the Nuremburg Trials, we insisted — rightly — that a war crime is such regardless of whether it was formally legal when it was committed, and regardless of whether it was committed before or after the Second World War. By these standards — standards that we the Allies created — the very area bombing of Germany was a war crime.
As you might have guessed, Professor Hansen has his own book on the subject, Fire and Fury: The Allied Bombing of Germany 1942–1945, which was published last fall. In his work, Hansen argues that RAF Bomber Command (which led the great night time raids against Dresden, Hamburg and scores of other German cities) was wedded to an outdated strategy of “area bombing,” which did little damage to the Third Reich’s war machine and may have prolonged the war. By comparison, Hansen claims that daylight raids by U.S. Army Air Forces B-17s and B-24s, played a more important role in securing Allied victory.
Despite the revisionist tilt in recent accounts of Bomber Command and its campaigns against Nazi Germany, those conclusions remain controversial, particularly among Canadians who fought in World War II. Their county–and countrymen–were disproportionately represented among British bomber crews who took the fight to the Third Reich.
By one estimate, at least one-sixth of Bomber Command’s aircrew members were Canadian, and they suffered a significant share of the 55,000 fatalities recorded by RAF bomber crews during the war. With their participation in the bomber offensive, Hansen suggests that Canadians were partly responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. We’re guessing that Professor Hansen won’t be getting any invitations to speak at reunions of Canadian bomber squadons that served with the RAF.
But his critique is also something of a cheap shot; with the hindsight of history, it’s easy to criticize the Allied bomber offensive of World War II. Given the available technology, area bombing was notoriously inaccurate, with only a small fraction of bombs landing within five miles of their intended target. Besides, the leader of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, made no secret of his intent to weaken German morale by hitting population centers and disrupting essential services. Advisers to Prime Minister Winston Churchill first suggested the strategy in 1942, and it became marching orders for Bomber Command an its leaders.
To some degree, Air Marshal Harris and his staff had no other choice. While a British leader once observed (famously) that “the bomber will always get through,” his nation did little to prepare the RAF for sustained, strategic bombing during World War II. Bomber Command entered the war both under-strength and poorly-equipped for daylight missions.
After disastrous losses during the Battle of France and the Norwegian campaign, the RAF concluded–correctly–that future bombing raids would be conducted at night. The change improved crew survivability, but resulted in degraded accuracy. Without the switch, the bomber offensive against Germany might have been an “All American” show.
Harris was not particularly concerned about criticisms leveled at his command over civilian casualties. He once observed that he did not “regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.” Harris also suggested that the Third Reich should “reap the whirlwind” for its indiscriminate bombing of Warsaw, Rotterdam, London and other Allied cities, earlier in the war.
Revenge isn’t the best justification for a bomber offensive, and it wasn’t the only reason for round-the-clock strikes against Germany. Despite the relative inaccuracy of World War II bombers, the raids still inflicted damage on key Nazi facilities and production centers.
Additionally, Marshal Harris, his American counterparts and their political leaders were keenly aware that bomber attacks forced the Germans to defend their airspace with hundreds of aircraft, thousands of anti-aircraft guns and an even greater number of personnel. Without the bomber campaign, those assets–and the money that paid for them–could have diverted to German military offensives and other weapons systems.
In a 2007 essay on the bombing controversy for Commentary magazine, Algis Valiunas suggested that the debate is focused on the wrong elements. Instead of asking why the U.S. and Britain unleashed the full weight of their bombers on Hitler’s Germany, we should focus on how they arrived at that position. And the answer is quite simple; rather than stopping Hitler in the 1930s, when the Nazi regime was relatively weak, the Allies tried to negotiate with Germany. When Hitler’s real intentions became apparent, it was too late for anything, except overwhelming military force.
We should also remember that marshaling that force was no easy matter. The American B-17 bomber program was approved by Congress by a single vote; when Arthur Harris assumed the reigns at Bomber Command in early 1942, he inherited an organization that lacked a capable four-engine aircraft, capable of dropping significant bomb loads on German targets. Within a year, the command was mounting 1,000-plane raids on Nazi cities, applying the massive firepower that (eventually) helped win the war.
That’s not revisionism, but rather, a simple statement of facts.