‘Operation Thunderclap’ had been under discussion within the Allied Command for some time, the proposal was to bomb the eastern-most cities of Germany to disrupt the transport infrastructure behind what was becoming the Eastern front. Also to demonstrate to the German population, in even more devastating fashion, that the air defences of Germany were now of little substance and that the Nazi regime had failed them. At Yalta Churchill had promised to do more to support the Soviet forces moving west into Germany, and the priority for Thunderclap moved up the timetable of bombing.
Dresden, lying so far in the east of Germany that it had been out of range from RAF attention for much of the war, had received very little bombing so far. There were rumours circulating in the city that it had been deliberately spared from the bombing for some reason, perhaps because the Allies wanted to keep one undamaged city as a new administrative centre when they occupied Germany. Compared to most other German cities the air raid precautions and the range of air raid shelters available were relatively poor.
This was the part of the briefing given to the RAF crews taking part in the attack:
Dresden, the seventh largest city in Germany and not much smaller than Manchester, is also far the largest un-bombed built-up area the enemy has got. In the midst of winter with refugees pouring westwards 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 and like any large city with its multiplicity of telephone and rail facilities, is of major value for controlling the defence of that part of the front now threatened by Marshal Koniev’s breakthrough.
The intentions of the attack are to hit the enemy where he will feel it most, behind an already partially collapsed front, to prevent the use of the city in the way of further advance and incidentally to show the Russians when they arrive what Bomber Command can do.
A similar briefing had been given to USAAF 8th Air Forces crews who had ben intended to attack Dresden during the day, but bad weather forced cancellation of this raid.
There were many factors influencing a ‘successful’ bombing raid, the weather, the fighters, the air defences, the target marking, whether the fires ‘took’, how quickly the fire services got into action on the ground. On this occasion almost all of these factors went in the RAF’s favour, the Luftwaffe only put up 27 fighters and most of them were in the wrong part of Germany. Dresden’s unpracticed anti-aircraft defences were negligible compared with those for Berlin. And by this stage in the war the RAF had really mastered the art of managing a bombing raid, getting the bombers quickly in over the target in a way that would overwhelm the ground defences.
R. W. Olsen was a Mosquito pilot with 627 Squadron, on his second Pathfinder Operation:
On the night of 13/14 February 1945 we were briefed to mark for 5 Group Lancasters as the opening salvo in the attack, other Groups in Bomber Command following in later waves. I was Marker 8, flying Mosquito MkXXV KB409 “Y” Yankee with Chipps as my Navigator. At the time there was nothing special about the raid except that it was a long way to go and the navigation needed to be spot on so as to arrive in the target area at the right time, neither late nor early. Dresden, we were told, had not been bombed before and the aiming point was the corner of a sports stadium. There were six such stadiums in the area so particular care had to be exercised.
I was last to mark, being in my bombing dive when the Master Bomber called “Markers to clear the target area”, followed by “Main Force come in and bomb”. Having released my markers and pulling out of my dive, two things caused consternation – first there, right in front of me were the spires and turrets of Dresden Cathedral, secondly, some of the Lancasters were a bit quick to drop their Cookies, much to my discomfort. The aircraft was rocked and buffeted just like a row boat in a heavy sea. It was on this occasion that I learned why the safety height to fly when 4000lb bombs were exploding was a minimum of 4000 feet. This was the only occasion when I pushed the throttles through the gate to get extra power from the engines to get out of the area as quickly as possible.
The return joumey was uneventful after we had been given “Markers go home” by the Marker Leader. On landing Chipps and I were tired. De-briefing, followed by a meal and back to the billet to get some much needed sleep. Later we realised that this operation was the longest time we had been airborne in a Mosquito – five hours forty minutes, close to the maximum fuel endurance.
See R. W. Olsen’s full account at 626 Squadron where he describes the ‘dive bomber’ training undertaken by Mosquito crews.
The first wave of 244 Lancasters bombed between 22.13 and 22.31. The target had been very accurately marked for them by the Mosquito Pathfinders who came down to 2,500 feet to get below the cloud base for a clear view. The Master Bomber, code name ‘King Cole’, circled the skies at 3,000-4,000 feet monitoring the bombing and giving directions to ensure the bombing stayed close to the target marking flares.
The second wave bombed between 1.21 and 1.45am, Bomb Aimer Miles Tripp:
Although we were forty miles from Dresden, fires were reddening the sky ahead. The meteorological forecast had been correct. There was no cloud over the city. Six miles from the target, other Lancasters were clearly visible; their silhouettes black in the rosy glow.
The streets of the city were a fantastic latticework of fire. It was as though one was looking down at the fiery outlines of a crossword puzzle; blazing streets stretched from east to east, from north to south, in a gigantic saturation of flame. I was completely awed by the spectacle.
This account appears in Frederick Taylor: Dresden: Tuesday, February 13, 1945.
Eric Thale was also in the second wave:
Soon we noticed a faint glow appearing in the sky ahead of us. We still had twenty minutes to run. Was that glow ahead coming from Dresden?
We switched on the radio and heard the Master Bomber and his deputy. From their discussion we gathered that visibility was excellent. The Master Bomber said that illumination flares were not needed and he ordered the Path Finders carrying them to go home.
We were fifteen miles from the target and the whole area was just one sea of flames. Strangely there was no smoke. The fires were burning with such intensity that they were generating their own winds, which carried the smoke away and kept the target almost clear. Those fires also quickly swallowed up the marker flares. Realizing this, the Master Bomber issued an order to the Main Force — ‘King Cole to Strongman: no markers, bomb visually, bomb visually.’
Ahead of us the first wave of aircraft were dropping their loads and we saw aircraft below us silhouetted against the fires. As the cookies exploded, a shock—wave ring momentarily appeared in the fire, to be swallowed up again in an instant.
We commenced our own bombing run at 01.33 hours, exactly on time. It was very turbulent now, either from the tremendous heat generated below us or from the slipstreams of aircraft ahead. There was a cold draught as our bomb doors opened and the noise level increased. There were odd puffs of ack—ack but few and far between. Bombs away!
This account appears in Martin Bowman: Reflections of War: Armageddon (27th September 1944-May 1945) (Bomber Command)
One of the last pilots to leave the scene at 2.15am recorded:
There was a sea of fire covering . . . some 40 square miles. The heat striking up from the furnace below could be felt in my cockpit. The sky was vivid in hues of scarlet and white and the light inside the aircraft was that of an eerie autumn sunset. . . . We could still see the glare of the holocaust thirty minutes after leaving.
This account appears in Norman Longmate: The Bombers: The RAF Offensive Against Germany 1939-1945
In total 796 Lancasters took part in the two raids on the night of the 13th/14th, only 6 aircraft were lost, one of the lowest rates of loss for any major RAF bombing raid.