Operation Thunderclap Continues—Dresden

It was the largest bonfire that I ever saw in my life,” Addison Bartush said, shaking his head slowly from side to side at the memory.

Addison had been an eyewitness to a very controversial event in World War II: an occurrence that continues to be examined and argued by scholars and intellectuals today. Not only that, he had special status when he witnessed this event: he had been relieved—for this combat mission of all missions—from flying duty.

The USAAF sent Addison out as an official observer; as such he stood in the waist of the aircraft and looked out of the large gun ports and focused on anything within his view. Addison could look directly down, or towards the front or rear. Addison recollected flying the mission in a newer model B-17 where the rectangular shaped ports were staggered in the plane’s fuselage, one forward and one aft on opposite sides so the gunners could operate without bumping into each other. Addison stood between these two men as a third set of eyes.

But unlike the gunners, who only looked for fast moving specs in the sky that might spell trouble, Addison took in more. He assessed the spread of his squadron’s formation, the approaching flak patterns and moreover, viewed what might be happening on the ground. He transmitted his observations, as needed, on the intercom to stations on the B-17. He was expected to exercise the judgment of an experienced combat officer and exercise sound discretion in regard to the information he might choose to convey.

For this eventful and controversial mission, Addison took in the “big picture” in a way that he never could from inside a cockpit. Pilots must constantly monitor positions and tend to the unending business of staying aloft, which included instrument reading, and in so doing they missed some of the action. Observers, on the other hand, stood to take in much more. Addison served as an observer on three occasions but his other experiences were unlike this one.

Perhaps the most notorious raid of the Allied air campaign in Europe, the bombing of Dresden was significant in many ways. It showcased the ruthless efficiency that had been developed by near war’s end for deep-penetration “carpet bombing”; the technique used was to intersperse high explosive bombs that made kindling out of old buildings, with incendiaries to produce a devastating firestorm result. The bombing foreshadowed the Cold War and witnessed the last propaganda coup for the Nazi misinformation machine. Lastly, Dresden left little doubt that the Americans had fully partnered with the British on a new air war strategy to shorten the conflict— a strategy that is widely acknowledged today as not having been militarily successful.

It was just twelve weeks before the Nazi surrender, and some 3,900 tons of bombs would be dropped in four raids over a two-day period on Dresden, the beautiful baroque capital of the German state of Saxony. The conflagration that ensued would consume the city center and 13 square miles of surrounding area.1 The number of civilians killed is not accurately known, but was staggering.

Addison recalled being scheduled, briefed and readied for a daylight raid on Dresden on February 13 but the American mission was scrubbed because of weather. He remembered this event particularly because he was, for the first time, to be a first pilot.

Two hundred and fifty British heavy bombers struck in the first wave that night, followed by twice that number two hours later.2

A British intelligence officer spoke at a pre-mission briefing:

No. 5 Group will open the attack with 250 aircraft to get the fires going with a time on target of 2215 hours. Their marking point will be the sports stadium. There will be diversionary attacks on Bohlen, Magdeburg, Bonn, and Nuremberg to confuse the German fighter controllers as to the main target. One hour and forty-five minutes later, 1 Group will attack with 500 aircraft. The delay will ensure that all emergency services will probably have been called in from outside Dresden, so our attack will knock those out as well. Pathfinders will provide our master bomber, whose call sign will be “King Cole.” The Main Force call sign will be “Strongman.” The main threat from the enemy tonight will be flak. His fighter aircraft should be chasing the “window” feint force, which we hope will be indicating to the enemy that Frankfurt, Mainz, Darmstadt or Mannheim are the main targets. By the time we get into the picture they will be running out of fuel and therefore landing. But just in case, our night-striking Mosquitoes will be patrolling the enemy’s rendezvous beacons and airfields. Now, any questions?3

Three hundred and eleven Flying Fortresses, including Addison’s, arrived over the burning city at noon the next day, Wednesday, February 14, 1945. “It was flames shooting through smoke,” Addison recalled, remembering what the aftermath of the two British raids looked like. The British pre-briefing foreshadowed what turned out to be a flawless mission—the Germans had been fooled as to the target, an extremely deep penetration raid had been accomplished with minimal air casualties, the weather had cooperated, and an entire city had been destroyed. Returning, the British airmen were ecstatic.

At this late stage in the war, the British and Americans were so competent and dominant in the art of air warfare that they could do practically anything they wanted against the Germans, and they did. In 1945 no target was safe in Nazi Germany.

The 91st Bomb Group flew over the city of Dresden on the 14th and 15th of February. As stated, Addison flew as an observer on the February 14 mission, and it turned out that on this mission the 91st did not drop its bombs on Dresden but rather proceeded to a secondary target. Other U.S. bomb groups did hit Dresden heavily on February 14, however, and again the following day.

On the 14th Addison witnessed firsthand the carnage inflicted on this city. He saved a Stars and Stripes newspaper that reported the attack as a joint Anglo-American raid. The accuracy of this newspaper article would be publicly challenged by the Soviet Union. The Stars and Stripesheadline read: Eighth Hits Dresden to Help Reds.

The heart of Germany rocked with tremendous explosions yesterday as more than 1,300 Eighth Air Force heavy bombers dropped tons of high explosives and incendiaries on transportation and industrial targets in three important cities—including Dresden, still blazing from the effects of a double RAF blow the night before, and threatened by the advance, less than 70 miles away, of Red Army troops. Both the Eighth Air Force and RAF attacks on Dresden were in support of one offensive of Marshal Koniev’s forces, smashing toward the city in a bid to cut the Reich in two . . .

A mission history of the 91st explained what happened that day:

A very long mission was flown on February 14th when the 91st went all the way to Dresden. However, there was so much smoke rising from the city as a result of the Royal Air Force raid the night before the 91st had to seek out targets of opportunity in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Bombing was done visually with good results. 4

Following the Dresden raids, Nazi propaganda minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels pounced upon a published report of an American journalist in the Associated Press to the effect the attacks were designed to kill as many German civilians as possible, i.e., that the raids were out and out terror bombings. Goebbels issued his own press release falsely inflating the number of dead to hundreds of thousands. He also stated (without specific knowledge) that a million refuges were in the city at the time of the bombing. The press in neutral Sweden combined the two stories into one and ran with it. In a very short period the news of an atrocity had international legs.5

After the word spread about the very high number of civilian deaths, the Soviets backed away from ever requesting the air raid in the first instance, or even needing it to help their advancing army. Their disownment served the Soviet interest of painting their British and American allies in the worst light possible in the eyes of the people that they were about to conquer and whose territories they would occupy. The Soviets portrayed themselves as concerned about civilian casualties.6

Addison had no recollection of this Soviet reaction, “but I find it interesting,” he said. There was one thing he was certain about, however: at the early morning briefing on February 14, no mention of the Red Army or the Soviet Union was made. “We were not told that,” Addison noted emphatically, responding to the question whether he ever heard that the Soviets had requested Dresden be attacked or that the attack would be made to assist the Red Army. Without being prompted, Addison then volunteered this: “It would have been better if we had stuck to bombing oil refineries.”

Asked how the Dresden raid differed from the raid over Berlin eleven days earlier, Addison responded: “At Berlin I saw buildings. At Dresden I saw no buildings, only fire and smoke everywhere.” This difference is likely explained by being first, as opposed to last, over a target area.

Wearing goggles to protect his eyes and dressed in an electric suit and boots and the fleece-lined gloves and helmet of a waist gunner, and donning an oxygen mask, earphones and speakerphone, Addison described his job: “I stood practically all of the time. And I’d be going from one side to the other side continually,” he said, meaning from starboard to port. The wind chill from the open gun ports was ferocious, he noted.

Addison also noted there was no idle talk on the intercom. “Not when you are deep in enemy territory,” he related. “You kept your mouth shut unless there was something important to report.” As for what he might say when he did speak, Addison indicated: “Enemy fighter sightings of course. Also other squadrons like the 323rd or the 401st being out of position. Or that they might be flying tighter than we were, that sort of thing.” On February 14, 1945, however, he remembered saying something unique over the intercom: “I told them this was the largest bonfire that I ever had seen,” he said for a second time.

As for enemy fighter activity over Dresden, after reflecting a moment, Addison answered that he did not recollect the ship’s gunners engaging. “I do not . . . think so,” he replied. Addison’s answer is consistent with the USAAF Chronology that reported only one Luftwaffe plane being downed that day in the whole of the ETO.

The Luftwaffe absence over Dresden notwithstanding, this extra-long mission was no milk run. Of the 311 B-17s dispatched to Dresden on February 14, five were lost, three damaged beyond repair and fifty-four damaged. Four U.S. airmen were killed, fifteen wounded and forty-nine were missing in action.7 The overall casualty rate was slightly over 2%. While not as bad as the casualty rates the Eighth Air Force often experienced in 1943 and 1944 (5% to 15%), 2% was still significant. “There was always some flak coming up,” Addison observed.

“We were to hit a marshalling yard there,” Addison indicated, “one that we never saw because of the smoke.” Strangely, or perhaps not, Addison had no recollection whatsoever of his bomb group diverting to Prague and hitting targets there. One thing for sure, however, was the fact that what he saw at Dresden shocked him. “There was a city down there,” Addison said, “but there was no city, just a big fire. It was gigantic.”

It was mentioned to Addison that historians had reviewed the contemporaneous writings of British and American aircrews who participated in the Dresden raid; that is, letters and journals written immediately after the event, and that these records suggested that those who flew the Dresden missions had not been, in any special sense, emotionally troubled by it. The writings suggest Dresden was initially viewed pretty much as any other combat mission.

Addison was asked: “Did you not have a sense, when you returned that afternoon, that is, February 14, 1945, that what you witnessed was morally wrong?”

“I suppose I didn’t realize that,” Addison responded. He added: “We were in a war.” Addison was not defensive in his response, nor should he have been. He had been a young man doing what his country told him to do and in the middle of a desperate struggle for victory. Asked if the Dresden raid had no military strategy attached to it, Addison appropriately responded: “That is easy to say now. We did not know it at the time, however.” He added, stoically: “When it came to bombing cities, they were all bad.”

Dresden had been a man-made hell. Many of the people there had died not by burning or concussion, but rather suffocation. The conflagrations sucked the oxygen out of the air even in the bomb-proofs.

The initial news reports of the bombing of Dresden were received by the American and British public as pretty much war business as usual— simply that another German city had been hit. The Associated Press story of a terror bombing created a stir that passed rather quickly.

It took the Nazis a month to compile an official count of the fatalities caused by the raids. Horrific as these numbers were, they were a fraction of what had been released in their propaganda effort, and the official numbers were not made public until after the war. They estimated that 18,350 residents of Dresden died in the attack; their bodies had been identified, tagged and later cremated on pyres set up throughout the city by SS veterans of the Treblinka death camp who were brought in for their expertise in the disposal of human remains. They estimated that another 10,000 non-residents had also perished, as Dresden was packed with transients who were attempting to flee the advancing Soviet army.8 The non-resident figure may be low; the true number of humans consumed by the super hot fires will never be known. A number of sources—some done objectively and credibly—give varying figures for casualties.

Addison had been especially shocked over what he saw at Dresden, there is no doubt about that. Dresden had been his 14th mission; he had seen enough by then to be battle-hardened. He may have thought he had seen it all, but Dresden changed that perception.

A commentator had this to say about America’s participation in the Dresden raids: “By this time the Americans, in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge, seemed to have lost their earlier squeamishness about bombing whole cities.”9 Time-Life Books noted the British and American ground forces were stalled at the time of the Dresden bombing and that, “Blasting Dresden and other cities in eastern Germany from the air would give Stalin tangible proof of the effort of the British and the Americans on Russia’s behalf. . . . Not incidentally, the raids would also remind Stalin of the awesome air power possessed by Britain and the United States.”10

Asked how he felt about the Dresden bombings today, Addison responded: “I don’t think Adolf was of a mind to quit,” he noted, “but I cannot justify in a moral sense what I observed that day.”

Addison and his wife, Marion, took a boat trip on the Elbe River sometime in the 1990s and ended up visiting Dresden. “You could see that it had been rebuilt,” he remarked. “And rather drably so,” he added, referring to the years of Communist occupation. Asked if he told anyone about his personal history involving Dresden, he responded in the negative. “They were still anti-American,” he said.

The bombing of Dresden was not a one-time event but rather the continuation of Operation Thunderclap implemented earlier over Berlin. An encyclopedic reference states the Thunderclap plan called for “attacks against cities in the communication zone of the Eastern Front, through which key routes to the east converged. . . . The cities designated as chokepoints where the bombing would be most effective were Berlin, Dresden, Chemnitz and Leipzig.”11 The intent behind Thunderclap was to compel Nazi capitulation by inflicting horrendous casualties on the German civilian population12 and hindering Nazi troop movements at the Red Army front. The casualties were inflicted, but the German soldiers fought on and capitulation was not achieved.

Addison was fortunate that his first mission as pilot had been scrubbed. He never bombed Dresden, but he was a witness to the horror. What he could not appreciate at the time this happened was the debate that the bombings would spark at the highest level of the Nazi government about what might be done in the way of a wartime response.

At the time Dresden was bombed, Paul Lynch was deep inside and travelling through the enemy country.

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