On the night of February 13-14, 1945, the almost 800 Royal Air Force Lancasters dropped 2,700 tons of bombs on the centre of the ancient city known as the “Florence of the Elbe.” Over the following two days, U.S. Air Force bombers carried out daytime raids on what was left of the community.
The bombing was so intense, that a firestorm started. The raid caused so many fires in a concentrated area that the air above them became superheated.
The very hot air rose rapidly and drew huge volumes of air into the fires at ground level. The roaring rush of heated air upwards had the power of a tornado, strong enough to pick up people and suck them into the flames.
Dresden, a triumph of European baroque architecture, a city of no military importance, shared Hamburg's fate on Feb. 13-14, 1945, in the most controversial raid of the war. The city, widely known as Florence on the Elbe, had survived the war largely unscathed, and many residents felt it would never be bombed because of its cultural significance.
Indeed, there were no anti-aircraft defences. All the flak guns had been removed a month earlier to counter the Soviet offensive rolling in from the east, and fighters at nearby airfields were grounded because fuel was in short supply as a result of Allied attacks on oil refineries.
Civil-defence precautions adopted in other German cities to mitigate the effects of firestorms were never implemented in Dresden. Now, on Fasching or Carnival Night, crowded with refugees from the east, wounded soldiers, and prisoners of war, it would be attacked by waves of bombers supposedly in support of the renewed Russian offensive. Over the course of 14 hours and 15 minutes, three separate attacks resulted in the deaths of anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 men, women and children.
The first assault occurred at 10:15 p.m., when 144 RAF Lancasters dropped high explosive bombs and incendiaries. In the resulting firestorms, temperatures within an eight-square mile area reached more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, creating tornado-like ground winds.
The second attack came in the early morning hours of Feb. 14 -- ironically, Ash Wednesday -- and involved 529 Lancasters, fully loaded with incendiaries. They had no difficultly locating the target. Canadian James Letros recalled: "It was terrible. You could see fires 200 miles away. The whole sky was lit up ... The streets of the city were a fantastic lattice-work of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets etched from east to west, from north to south in a gigantic saturation of fire."
The third wave consisted of 1,350 American B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators.
When the sirens sounded, 24-year-old Margaret Fryer, like so many others in Dresden, assumed it was a false alarm. Nevertheless, she grabbed a ready-packed suitcase she kept on hand for emergencies and made for the shelter in the basement of her apartment building as the night sky lit up with the dreaded Christmas Trees -- target markers dropped by the Pathfinders.
She was joined by 43 other women, terrified, weeping and praying as the walls and ceiling shook and the lights failed. When the All Clear sounded, she made her way upstairs, dragging her suitcase.
"I saw people right in front of me," she later wrote. They scream and gesticulate with their hands, and then -- to my utter horror and amazement -- I see how one after the other they simply seem to let themselves drop to the ground. I had a feeling they were being shot, but my mind could not understand what was happening. Today I know that these unfortunate people were the victims of lack of oxygen. They fainted and then burnt to cinders."
For more than 60 years Britain's Bomber Command led by Arthur 'Bomber' Harris has been vilified for causing up to 500,000 deaths in the carpet bombing of Dresden during World War II.
But now, after a four-year investigation, a panel of German historians has said that the true number of dead from the Allied air raids in January 1945 was between 18,000 and 25,000.