HITLER'S WAR: Fire Storm
As waves of British bombers released their deadly cargo over Dresden on the night of February 14, 1945, the streets of the Baroque city on the Elbe River turned into a veritable inferno. Hurricane-like firestorms ripped through the streets, flames several metres high leapt from houses, and people sheltering in basements suffocated or were burnt to death. Even from a height of 22,000 feet, it was possible to make out detail in the eerie glow illuminating the dying city. "For the first time" admits a British pilot, "I felt sorry for the people down there."
Dresden's destruction was the largest single blow dealt by the devastating bombing war - and at a time when the war had in fact already been decided. In the last four months of the war alone, more than 100,000 German civilians were killed by the air raids - about one-fourth of the horrifying total. Thirty-nine large cities were in the sights of the bombers - including many that had been spared before then, such as Dresden and Würzburg. Bomber squadrons targeted Hitler's capital with particularly great frequency. On February 3, 1945 the U.S. Air Force flew an unprecedented attack that laid Berlin's centre in ruins within an hour, costing over 25,000 people their lives.
The final chapter of the war resembled an apocalypse. The reality of the progressive devastation made those affected acutely aware of the horrible consequences that the regime's insane tenacity in fighting on had caused. The firestorm ultimately returned to where it had originally been ignited. But viewed in retrospect more than half a century later, it is clear that the destruction had virtually no effect on the course of the war - just as little as the devastating "retribution strikes" by German rockets against cities such as Antwerpen and London.
Destruction and panic characterized the everyday lives of people in the ruined cities. Increasingly, bombers and fighter planes also zeroed in on masses of refugees who were virtually defenceless against the attacks. Consequently, the end of the war also finally liberated millions of people from a nightmare of fear. But in view of the ruined cities, innumerable casualties, and lost possessions, for many the day of liberation also cast dark shadows.