A view from the town hall over the Altstadt
(old town), 1910
Early in 1945, the German offensive known as the Battle of the Bulge had been exhausted, as was the disastrous attack by the Luftwaffe on New Year's Day involving elements of eleven combat wings of the Luftwaffe's day fighter force. The Red Army had launched their Silesian Offensives into pre-war German territory. The German army was retreating on all fronts, but still resisting strongly. On 8 February 1945, the Red Army crossed the Oder River, with positions just 70 km from Berlin. A special British Joint Intelligence Subcommittee report titled German Strategy and Capacity to Resist, prepared for Winston Churchill's eyes only, predicted that Germany might collapse as early as mid-April if the Soviets overran its eastern defences. Alternatively, the report warned that the Germans might hold out until November if they could prevent the Soviets from taking Silesia. Hence, any assistance provided to the Soviets on the Eastern Front could shorten the war.
Plans for a large and intense aerial bombing of Berlin and the other eastern cities had been discussed under the code name Operation Thunderclap in mid-1944, but had been shelved on 16 August. These were now re-examined, and the decision was made to draw up a more limited operation.
On 22 January 1945, the RAF director of bomber operations, Air Commodore Sydney Bufton, sent a memo to the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Norman Bottomley, suggesting that what appeared to be a coordinated air attack by the RAF to aid the current Soviet offensive would have a detrimental effect on German morale. On 25 January, the Joint Intelligence Committee supported the idea, as it tied in with the ULTRA-based intelligence that dozens of German divisions deployed in the west were moving to reinforce the Eastern Front, and that interdiction of these troop movements should be a "high priority." Arthur Harris, AOC Bomber Command, nicknamed "Bomber" Harris in the British press, and known as an ardent supporter of area bombing, was asked for his view, and he proposed a simultaneous attack on Chemnitz, Leipzig and Dresden. That evening Churchill asked the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, what plans had been drawn up to carry out these proposals. He passed on the request to Sir Charles Portal, the Chief of the Air Staff, who answered that "We should use available effort in one big attack on Berlin and attacks on Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, or any other cities where a severe blitz will not only cause confusion in the evacuation from the East, but will also hamper the movement of troops from the West." He mentioned that aircraft diverted to such raids should not be taken away from the current primary tasks of destroying oil production facilities, jet aircraft factories, and submarine yards.
Churchill was not satisfied with this answer and on 26 January pressed Sinclair for a plan of operations: "I asked [last night] whether Berlin, and no doubt other large cities in east Germany, should not now be considered especially attractive targets.... Pray report to me tomorrow what is going to be done".
In response to Churchill's inquiry, Sinclair approached Bottomley who asked Harris to undertake attacks on Berlin, Dresden, Leipzig, and Chemnitz, as soon as moonlight and weather allowed, "...with the particular object of exploiting the confused conditions which are likely to exist in the above mentioned cities during the successful Russian advance." This activity allowed Sinclair to inform Churchill on 27 January of the Air Staff's agreement that, "subject to the overriding claims" on other targets under the Pointblank Directive, strikes against communications in these cities to disrupt civilian evacuation from the east and troop movement from the west would be made.
On 31 January, Bottomley sent a message to Portal saying a heavy attack on Dresden and other cities "will cause great confusion in civilian evacuation from the east and hamper movement of reinforcements from other fronts". British historian Frederick Taylor mentions a further memo sent to the Chiefs of Staff Committee by Sir Douglas Evill on 1 February, in which Evill states interfering with mass civilian movements was a major, even key, factor in the decision to bomb the city centre. Attacks there, where main railway junctions, telephone systems, city administration and utilities were located, would result in "chaos." Ostensibly, Britain had learned this after the Coventry Blitz, when loss of this crucial infrastructure had supposedly longer-lasting effects than attacks on war plants.
During the Yalta Conference on 4 February, the Deputy Chief of the Soviet General Staff, General Aleksei Antonov, raised the issue of hampering the reinforcement of German troops from the western front by paralysing the junctions of Berlin and Leipzig with aerial bombardment. In response, Chief of the British Air Staff Portal, who was in Yalta, asked Bottomley to send him a list of objectives to discuss with the Soviets. Bottomley's list included oil plants, tank and aircraft factories and the cities of Berlin and Dresden. A British interpreter later claimed that Antonov and Joseph Stalin asked for the bombing of Dresden, but there is no mention of these requests in the official record of the conference and the claim was assessed as possible Cold War propaganda.
Military and industrial profile
Situation of battlefronts in Europe by the time of Dresden bombings. The white areas were held by Germany, the rose ones by the Allies, and the bright-red colour denotes the Allied advances in the fronts
Dresden was Germany's seventh-largest city and, according to the RAF at the time, the largest remaining unbombed built-up area. Taylor writes that an official 1942 guide to the city described it as "one of the foremost industrial locations of the Reich" and in 1944 the German Army High Command's Weapons Office listed 127 medium-to-large factories and workshops that were supplying the army with materiel. Nonetheless, according to some historians, the contribution of Dresden to the German war effort may not have been as significant as the planners thought.
The US Air Force Historical Division wrote a report in response to the international concern about the bombing – the report remained classified until December 1978. This said that there were 110 factories and 50,000 workers in the city supporting the German war effort at the time of the raid. According to the report, there were aircraft components factories; a poison gas factory (Chemische Fabrik Goye and Company); an anti-aircraft and field gun factory (Lehman); an optical goods factory (Zeiss Ikon AG); as well as factories producing electrical and X-ray apparatus (Koch & Sterzel AG); gears and differentials (Saxoniswerke); and electric gauges (Gebrüder Bassler). It also said there were barracks, hutted camps, and a munitions storage depot.
The USAF report also states that two of Dresden's traffic routes were of military importance: north-south from Germany to Czechoslovakia, and east-west along the central European uplands. The city was at the junction of the Berlin-Prague-Vienna railway line, as well as the Munich-Breslau, and Hamburg-Leipzig lines. Colonel Harold E. Cook, a US POW held in the Friedrichstadt marshaling yard the night before the attacks, later said that "I saw with my own eyes that Dresden was an armed camp: thousands of German troops, tanks and artillery and miles of freight cars loaded with supplies supporting and transporting German logistics towards the east to meet the Russians".
An RAF memo issued to airmen on the night of the attack indicated that a secondary purpose of the raid was to "show the Russians when they arrive [at Dresden] what [the British] Bomber Command can do." The memo stated:
Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester is also the largest unbombed builtup area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westward and troops to be rested, roofs are at a premium, not only to give shelter to workers, refugees, and troops alike, but to house the administrative services displaced from other areas. At one time well known for its china, Dresden has developed into an industrial city of first-class importance.... The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front... and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
In the raid, major industrial areas in the suburbs, which stretched for miles, were not targeted. According to historian Donald Miller, "the economic disruption would have been far greater had Bomber Command targeted the suburban areas where most of Dresden's manufacturing might was concentrated".