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Friday 12 February 2010

"A Day that Will Live in Infamy"

Top: some of the destruction, below, a portion of the human cost

The quotation that I have used for the title of this post comes from President Franklin Roosevelt - it was part of his response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 8th December 1941.

There have been many "days that will live in infamy" if one pauses for a few minutes' thought, but one day that should in my view "live in infamy" is 13th February 1945 - today being of course the 65th anniversary.

The event was the saturation/area/carpet-bombing of the beautiful city of Dresden in Germany.

There were in fact several attacks made from 13th to 15th February; principally, two were made by Britain's Bomber Command and two more by the USAAF VIII Bomber Command.

The attacks were planned to create a "firestorm" (as was the appalling attack on Hamburg in 1943) and in consequence, of the enormous death toll - estimates range from 25,000 to over 70,000 - many of the victims were suffocated since the fires starved them of oxygen.

When discussing these matters, it has been traditional to blame Air Chief Marshal (later Marshal of the RAF) Sir Arthur Harris who was the C-in-C of bomber command. However whilst I have little doubt that he was an enthusiastic participant, such operations were authorised at a rather higher level - Chief of the Air Staff, Marshal of the RAF, Sir Charles Portal and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were amongst the prime movers behind the operation. To these I should add Professor Lindemann, the Prime Minister's scientific advisor. Lindemann's contribution was his "Dehousing Paper" which quite clearly contains the origins of the British policy of attacking civilians, which arguably reached its apotheosis at Dresden. (Pictures: Harris top, Portal below)

Since the Red Army was approaching rapidly from the east, one justification given was that Dresden was an important railway centre and damage to communications would help the Russian advance. More unpleasantly it was well known that the city was crammed with refugees fleeing the Russian advance (for good reason it must be said) and it was expected that bombing the overcrowded city would cause chaos and confusion. In the crews' briefings, the airmen were told that Dresden was an important communications centre (which it was) and the location of important military industries which was at best a half-truth - especially three months from the end of the war.

Dresden was effectively undefended - it seems that the Germans thought that Dresden - "The Florence of the North" would not be attacked; all the anti-aircraft artillery had been removed to be used for the defence of more strategically important locations. There were a few fighter aircraft available, though the ten that were "scrambled" would not have been able to do much against hundreds of bombers, even if they had arrived in time, which they didn't.

Now please read the following extracts from the 1907 Hague Convention:

Art. 25

The attack or bombardment, by whatever means, of towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended is prohibited

Art. 27

In sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals, and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not being used at the time for military purposes[...]

I stress that these come from the 1907 Hague convention - the Geneva Conventions arose after the war.

Art. 27 concludes with the following paragraph:

It is the duty of the besieged to indicate the presence of such buildings or places by distinctive and visible signs which shall be notified to the enemy beforehand.

How about this famous munitions works in the centre of the city; is this distinctive enough? (the picture shows the rebuilt building)

I hardly think that the Allies could reasonably claim that the presence of this wonderful building - just one of many in Dresden - had "not been notified " to them beforehand; the buildings and art treasures of Dresden were world-renowned.

At Dresden virtually everything was flattened and burned - almost razed to the ground - but with a couple of interesting exceptions: the railways, which sustained relatively light damage and indeed were soon running again and the war industries, all of which were located in the outskirts of the city and which were, apart from one or two bombs, untouched.

Certain writers (notably David Irving) have stated that American aircraft strafed civilians. However here is a very convincing refutation of this charge, which is most famously made in Irving's book 'The Destruction of Dresden'. Many years have passed since its original publication and Irving is now generally discredited as an historian.

My suspicion is that the Allies carried out this mission - a long way east from Allied territory - to show the Soviets just how powerful the Allies were: similar suggestions have been made about the detonation of the atomic bombs on Japan. It was claimed that Stalin had requested the bombing of Dresden; this is not true; Stalin was an appalling man but Dresden was a "western" operation.

There is a vast amount of material available on the atrocity of the bombing of Dresden should any reader wish to pursue the subject. This site is a good start, but much of it is distressing reading. And here's another link this time from Germany. Finally here is a site with many direct and relevant links.

And on the subject of area bombing at the time, the Allies continued; in particular I should like to mention the small town of Pforzheim, a centre of watchmaking and jewellery. This was flattened ten days after Dresden, resulting in the deaths of 17,000 people - 20% of the population. It was yet another "firestorm" operation.

My mother and father lived in London during the war; my father was actually struck by an incendiary (magnesium) bomb whilst serving in the Auxiliary Fire Service, but survived after a miserable year in hospital. My mother and grandmother were in their house when it collapsed following the detonation of a parachute mine. Fortunately they were rescued. My parents told me that when they heard the Allied bombers departing for Germany that they felt sorry for the people there whom they knew were receiving far worse than had been the case for Great Britain, which in itself was bad enough.

When in 1946, the sentences were announced at Nüremberg, it is said that Churchill said to his former chief military assistant General Sir Hastings Ismay: "By God Ismay, we'd better make sure that we win the next one."

And in my view, he was damned right - just re-read Article 27 of the 1907 Hague Convention above.

Until the next time


Tanya said...

Wandered over from the farcical "Wimsey in the Windy City" thread to find this.

I researched eye-witness accounts of the events of 12-13 February 1945 for a film - never completed. I find it hard to pass through the anniversary to this day.

A distant (but still fondly remembered) relative was one of the founders of the RAF, and resigned over Harris' bombing of civilian villages in Iraq in the 1920s. He was hoping to provoke an official enquiry, to the challenge the legitimacy of the Area Bombing Policy.

Trenchard buried his protest - and I know the raids of 1945 caused him great distress.

Many years ago (1984 or 5, I think) I read Harris' letter to The Times, complaining of the nuisance caused by stubble burning near his country cottage.

I have an urge to spit everytime I pass that wretched statue in the Strand. The dead of Bomber Command deserve a better memorial than a piss-poor sculpture of a War Criminal.

(Mary Whittaker)

Paul said...

Thank you Tanya for your comment. Yes "Wimsey in the Windy City" is indeed painfully farcical, although I suppose I must confess that I have not seen the production - though having seen the snaps I doubt I could bear to visit.

As for the subject (Dresden and area bombing in general) had 'victors' justice' been applied by the other side as it was by the Allies, I imagine that Harris would have claimed (rightly in fact) that he was merely "obeying orders" which of course he was. Orders from Churchill and Portal...

Tanya said...

> I imagine that Harris would have claimed (rightly in fact) that he was merely "obeying orders" which of course he was. Orders from Churchill and Portal...

Of course, we know that is no defense - but Harris would have faced the additional difficult that he had designed and published the tactics and strategy of area bombing in the 1930s, and vigourously lobbied for permission to use them prior to 1945.

(It's very hard to comment on the 'Merican version of Busman's Honeymoon without coming across as a frightful snob - but it's terrifying to think that this team has adapted all 4 of the Harriet Vane novels without understanding the extraordinary relationship between the two protagonists

No shabby tigers!

Paul said...

Yes, well the purpose of my articel was to highlight what now consider to be a "war crime"; and as I said, I feel sure that Harris was an enthusiastic participant in the policy of area bombing. This judgment was based on my knowledge and researches of his previous career. Nevertheless I see no reason why other "Guilty Men" should not be included in the indictment - men who directed the strategy at a higher level than Harris.

Meanwhile, confronted by the beastliness of THAT production, it is difficult not to be a snob don't you think? How they could have worked on the four stories and missed the point I cannot imagine. And after all, Miss Sayers was happy to cater for us wasn't she? And I at least appreciated the subtleties she expressed. Do you recall the short story "The fantastical horror of the cat in the bag"? A superb period piece. There she displayed expert knowledge of leading motorcycles of the period - "The Scott's feline shriek" It is this kind of attention to detail and perfectionism that leads to snobbery I'm afraid!

Tanya said...

I didn't mean to absolve Churchill (et al) by highlighting Harris's guilt.

But I do think a criminal with enough imagination to suffer a guilty conscience is more, hmm, interesting as a subject, than one who lacks either.

Churchill interests me as much as his actions horrify me - Harris only appalls.

I think it's hard for (some) Americans to understand Sayers, because the battleground in which she places Wimsey and Vane to play is that of class, which foxes most of 'em.

Paul said...

Hello again.

Quite so I must say; there is no doubt that all in all, Churchill was the "man of the hour" and it is perhaps unrealistic or even naïve to expect perfection - war as we both know is a horrible business. However I think that we are largely in agreement; Harris's policies in the '20s and '30s were in a way "ahead of their time" weren't they - in terms of modern brutality - your mention of your relative in your first comment shows the difference I believe.

There was no doubt that the war had to be prosecuted vigorously, but these people (e.g. Portal, Harris, Lindemann, Churchill) lost all semblance of humanity I think in the context of their area bombing policy. And of course Churchill was unesy after the Dresden raids and sought in a way to distance himself from the policy - to no avail - hence my mention of Pforzheim as another disgusting example.

Incidentally, although the American Army Air Force was involved in the Dresden Raids, it seems from what I have read, that there were many internal protests about their participation. Most of the USAAF leaders it seems were strongly opposed to raids on civilian targets and indeed suffered great loss attacking strategic targets - synthetic oil plants for example.

Turning to Lord Peter et al, well whilst you probably have a point about the class thing, there is no excuse for omitting proper research! And unless they were attempting some sort of satire - which I doubt - they really are obviously too young or simply badly informed.

I should like to continue this correspondence; tell me, since you are obviously a reader, are you at all interested in the work of Evelyn Waugh? I won't pretend to enjoy all his work, but I have read most of them many times - especially "Put out more Flags" and Decline and Fall which still make me roar with laughter.

Tanya said...

"Scoop" was one of the first "Grown Up" novels I ever read. Laugh out loud funny.

And a prophetic choice, as I am now wading chest deep through research on the Italo-Ethiopian war for a film script.

Paul said...

"Scoop" excellent. What a bunch of characters!

Corker: "Mauvais poisson, parfum formidable..."

And "The hopeless pasty face of Pigge." How I laughed at the description of the desperate mess they were in - Pigge's typewriter fell into the mud...

I once had a girlfriend with whom we constantly exchanged "up to a point Lord Copper" etc.

I have never read any of Waugh's travel books; I would think that they would be helpful for your project - as would "Black Mischief" of course.

I have read William Deedes' book "At War with Waugh" which would also be useful.

Good luck with the project.