19.7.07

WAR IS CRUELTY. Frederick Taylor's Dresden: Tuesday 12 February 1945 is intended as a contribution to the efforts to refine war by arguing that the city was sufficiently a military target to merit inclusion in Bomber Command's targeting list. This Book Review No. 23 scorns such efforts. Had Genl Sherman had the ability to "burn and destroy an enemy industrial center" (the mission order) without first having to march there and invest it and then consider supplying the garrison, he no doubt would have used it. That the author might have felt obligated to enter into what is of interest primarily to fellow-traveling elements of the chattering classes (the Communist governors of Dresden adopted with little amendment the Nazi line that a cultural artifact had been laid waste by barbarians, with Josef Goebbels's failure to include the destruction of a converted chocolate factory in wartime propaganda later corrected by the maker of the baby milk plant shirts, with a little help from the Communists of Saxony) does not surprise: one has to write for the book review crowd in order to receive reviews. The value in the book, apart from the evidence of Dresden's use as a military center, is in some new perspectives on two topics.

First, yes, the first British wave of bombing was quite effective. Within fifteen minutes, the damage sufficient to set the old city on fire was done. Follow-on forces noticed that the target area was pretty well on fire and chose targets of opportunity in undamaged parts of the city. Mr Taylor suggests that the fire did not have to spread as virulently as it did. In other German cities that received a similarly effective first strike, residents left their cellars (against orders) to put out the incendiary bombs and limit the spread of the fire. In Dresden, residents did not do so. Mr Taylor does not offer an explanation, although failure to hear the all-clear, fatally loyal adherence to orders, or fear of the motion-sensor explosives the British were adding to some incendiaries as a counter-countermeasure are possibilities. Once again, emergent order shows an advantage over waiting for Someone in Authority to take charge. (Did the British government or that of London discourage the Friends of St. Paul's from their firewatch?)

Second, the book offers a more favorable interpretation of "impress the Soviets" than many of the chattering classes, projecting their own fears give it. The Red Army didn't begin fighting outside Soviet soil until 1944, and some in the Soviet command took a dim view of a Western Front that gave the impression of a few air attacks and only in favorable weather while there was heavy fighting not far from Moscow and all around Leningrad. (A novel titled KG 200 suggests there might have been similar rivalries between the RAF and the USAAF, with a sardonic version of "Flying Fortress at Forty Thousand Feet" implying ineffective dropping of light ordnance from great altitudes.) The objective of the February bomber offensive was to impede the German ability to reinforce the eastern front with troops withdrawn from the west in the hopes of inviting a separate peace. At this, it succeeded to some extent and briefly (railroaders have a lot of practice dealing with derailments and washouts, and a bomb crater is manageable) although the main effect might have been to show German soldiers on the Oder River a pillar of fire where Dresden used to be. Genl Sherman would have understood ... imagine a rebel from Georgia or South Carolina besieged at Petersburg when news reaches the trenches that the Army of the Tennessee is at large somewhere east of Atlanta.

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